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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Can the BMW i8 Roadster take the heat? 

A UAE-worthy heatwave in Spain is used to see how the BMW i8 Roadster stacks up

You might worry that Europe couldn’t possibly replicate the merciless heat generated in the UAE, and that therefore it’s a fruitless exercise testing a convertible car in Spain in 22°C to see how it would run in the Emirates.

Luckily – or unluckily for the road testers on the launch of BMW’s hybrid i8 Roadster – the weather in Spain played ball perfectly, heading rapidly towards 40°C and threatening to touch 50°C by the time I depart Valencia.

I can therefore tell you what you already almost certainly knew: it was roasting driving with the roof down. The i8 Roadster has a fierce air-conditioning system, but none of, say, the fancy air-scarf tech that Mercedes offers to direct air to your head or neck. There is a disappointing lack of protection from the air flow at speed, even with the rear glass screen and windows up – so you get hugely buffeted by the prevailing winds and associated noise. In short: it was hot. But within the next few months, UAE temperatures will hopefully begin to dip enough to make a convertible a tempting proposition. In which case, should the i8 Roadster be on your list?

BMW introduced its i8 electric hybrid sports car in 2014, but it has taken them four years to offer a convertible version, the Roadster. The covertible coincides with a few
revisions that apply to both drop-top and coupe. There are a few small ­styling tweaks, such as a redesigned air vent at the front, U-shaped headlights, a newly contoured double-­bubble rear to frame the folding roof, and some extra paint choices, including the lovely bronze you see here, called “E-copper”.

Inside, the i8 Roadster loses the two small rear seats to make way for the folding fabric roof that drops vertically into a concealed space – you do get an extra stowage shelf to hold overnight-bag-sized items, though. The car has BMW’s latest heads-up display, which includes revs in sport mode, and the infotainment screen can now be operated by touch as well as the “iDrive” controller. But the important changes are to the battery – this is an electric hybrid power train that is now four years old. The electric-vehicle landscape has changed exponentially during that time. The engine is still BMW Group’s 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol job, because there’s no room for anything more, but the electric-only range of the battery has increased from 37 kilometres to a marginally more ­commutable 53km, and the power output to 143hp. That means a combined engine-battery power output of 374hp and a 0-to-100kph sprint time of 4.6 seconds.

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The acceleration is partly compromised by a 60-kilogram weight gain of the Roadster versus the coupe version. Electrically folding top, plus battery beneath your bottom, equals a heavy car, which means this Roadster feels and behaves more like a grand tourer than a thoroughbred sports car.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The i8 has always defied pigeonholing: with its dramatic dihedral doors and heavily sculptured lines, it has the appearance of a ­supercar from the side, while the short punchy wheelbase says “sports car”. Then again, inside, its flowing LED lights and scalloped dashboard are a taste of the future, while its heavy, sure-footed, premium ­performance puts you in mind of the Bentley Continental GT. It’s a smorgasbord of assaults on the senses, which I rather like.

What the i8 steadfastly remains, however, is a BMW through and through. Step across the very wide, low treadplate into the deep seat, heave the heavy door wing down and shut, push the starter button and ease out into traffic in silent electric mode. The steering is pleasantly weighty – BMW has added a little more resistance as you turn, for a more sporting character. And the suspension is marvellous, with more give in it than a lot of BMWs, holding all that low battery weight in place, soaking up bumps and jolts, but with enough resistance and quick reactions at each wheel to maintain an air of sharp performance around hairpin turns.

There are three drive modes: eco-pro, comfort and sport, as well as an electric-only button. Eco-pro is a slightly hairshirt option that I didn’t fancy. Comfort gives plenty of performance from the power-train mixed with a more tranquil character, while sport mode (engaged by flicking the automatic gear-lever to the left, which seems a tad old-fashioned) turns the electronic driver’s display red, beefs up the artificial noise into the cabin of an imaginary roaring V6, and sends charge into the battery, making it a good way to recharge on the go.

Ah yes, the charging. The battery will charge from a domestic source in about four-and-a-half hours, or in just under three hours from a faster public charger. Compare that with the 40-minute charge time for a 100kW Tesla supercharger, and you will be wanting sport mode engaged a lot to send as much energy into the battery as possible.

The i8 Roadster is very much a mixed bag, then. It’s a very handsome car, with fantastic handling, but it’s very windy with the roof down, it’s heavy, and pure electric cars now seem the more exciting proposition. Then again, it’s one of those rare cars that defies comparison and stands bravely alone in its field. For that, I love it.