We drop the top on BMW's hybrid sports car and head for France's best twisties
There are various ways you can guarantee a proper drive. Firstly, get up early. That one’s never really held much appeal for me, to be honest, no matter how much horsepower is waiting.
Secondly, having found myself out and about during the England vs Panama World Cup game, I can confirm that the road-clearing abilities of Harry Kane and co are second-to-none. I passed a solitary car in 45 minutes, which was bloody marvellous, although I appreciate that a quadrennial football tournament is a long time to wait for a decent blat.
Thirdly, check out the Cevennes region in south-east France. Again, not ideal if you live in, say, Sleaford, but good to know if you’re planning a trip to France this summer, and fancy getting off the beaten track. A lot of guff is talked about great driver’s roads, and many of the places cited – I’m looking at you, Stelvio Pass – are frustratingly slow. Or frustratingly full of cyclists. And sometimes frustratingly full of frustratingly slow cyclists, legs bursting like condoms full of walnuts (as Clive James once noted of Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Words: Jason Barlow / Photography: Rowan Horncastle
So, Cevennes it is, a mountain range that sprawls across the Ardèche, Lozère, and Haute-Loire regions. The recommendation came via Top Gear’s esteemed motoring editor, Ollie Marriage. He knows a thing or two about matching speed with vision, good sight lines, and how to exploit them. Cevennes, he told me, is full of great roads framed by gorges and vertiginous rock faces, but sparsely populated by humans.
The opportunity arose when BMW invited us to pick up the new i8 Roadster, fresh from a starring role in a fashion shoot in Monte Carlo, and drive it back to the company’s Farnborough base. No surprise that the Roadster was being pressed into lifestyle duty; folding roof = increased fluffiness/greater likelihood of being photographed with a Weimaraner.
Yet this new derivative, along with the i8’s 2018 updates, means it’s also a good time to focus anew on BMW’s hybrid trailblazer. On top of which, we have a theory that the i8, with its relatively skinny tyres and bespoke hybrid configuration, really is the template for Future Driving Fun™.
Has the i8 become overlooked? After all, nothing dates faster than a shiny vision of the future. Apart, perhaps, from week-old sun-blasted sushi. The i8 has its roots in a 2009 concept car, and in earthly production form has been with us since 2014. It still looks as good if not better than anything else that’s appeared since then, although McLaren’s 570S Spider is cut from similar, jaw-dropping cloth.
But the i8 now finds itself doubling down on its mission. Led by Jaguar’s excellent I-Pace, the big OEMs are preparing to unleash saintly new pure EV product, risking eclipse for the multi-billion pound BMW flagship i-car experiment. So the i8 Roadster (in parallel with an updated Coupe) gets a timely power and range boost courtesy of revisions to BMW’s eDrive tech.
The lithium-ion battery pack now has a 11.6kWh energy capacity, increasing the electric motor’s output by 12bhp to 141bhp, a fully integrated boost for the i8’s synthetic but still characterful 1.5-litre, three-pot turbo petrol engine. We’re talking healthy rather than seismic 369bhp overall output, an increase slightly offset by the Roadster’s 60kg extra bulk, mostly in windscreen reinforcement, from which the doors are now hinged. Hot air at the front is also re-routed out the sides to protect the occupants with the roof down, and the engine bay is reworked for cooling purposes. This is a typically thorough overhaul.
BMW claims almost 134.5mpg combined for the Roadster (fantasy land if my right foot has anything to do with it), just 49g/km of CO2, and an (equally unrealistic) range of 33 miles on e-power alone on the NEDC. Updated 360° charging software works in tandem with a beautifully designed 7.2kW i station, promising an 80 per cent charge in under three hours. Sounds good, huh.
While the Roadster looks similar in profile to the Coupe, the fabulous origami of the i8’s rear deck is even more impressive in open form. There are shades of Seventies motor show concept car, especially in the floating buttresses, which are more pronounced thanks to the deletion of the coupe’s rear windows. The fabric roof folds away in 16 seconds in a complex Z shape, and BMW claims 3D printing was used to realise areas of the mechanism. Trés au courant. The i8’s CFRP tub is unaffected; the source of its structural rigidity, it’s still an impediment to graceful entry and egress, though it’s less of an issue with the roof stashed. Inside, you now get a central touchscreen.
Not that I spend much time critiquing the car when TG’s intrepid duo – myself and automotive renaissance man Rowan Horncastle – land at Nice airport. We’re on the last London flight, and touch down in the midst of a thunderstorm of such ferocity Ridley Scott would have deemed it a little OTT. Then we have to retrieve a hire car before the rendezvous with BMW’s tame delivery driver.
Some housekeeping for you: if you land late into T1 at Nice, all the hire car operators will be shut, so you’ll need walk to the bus stop to catch the shuttle to T2. Interestingly, most of them will be shut there, too, prompting thoughts of the scene in 1987’s still wonderful Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which Steve Martin delivers an expletive-laden tirade at the desk woman (Google it, but only when you’ve finished reading this – and wear some f***ing headphones).
Eventually, we locate our car, but then we have to locate the i8. And Mr Man. After that, we locate the autoroute north to our hotel. Rowan fiddles about with the nav until it shows that our overnight stop is a mere 264 miles away. It’s now almost midnight. The rain bounces in vast, shimmering globules off the BMW’s sculpted front end, pitter-patters off the fabric roof. This is not the Côte d’Azur depicted in the movies.
Our hotel is, though. Assuming the movie is one of those that features the sort of establishment in which bad things happen to naïve young people. The woman who gives us our keys appears in a dressing gown, Gauloise glued to her bottom lip. But at least she’s there, unlike the hire car jokers. It’s now 4am.
After some tentative sleep, we head to the mountains. Turns out we’ve arrived over the Millau Viaduct, the Norman Foster-designed engineering miracle that spans the Tarn valley. It’s a Franco-British achievement, a €394m investment that opened in 2004. We’d still be debating it in Parliament now. We couldn’t appreciate the full drama of it in the depths of night, but the rain has cleared so we are treated to the full widescreen experience. The valley floor is 890ft below us, and while a number of Chinese super-structures have overtaken the Millau viaduct for record-breaking structural epic-ness, its pylons are still vast and testament to mankind’s incredible ingenuity.
We head to the Gorges du Tarn, and drop down into the valley floor. It is both beautiful and quiet. The road is smooth and fast, its apexes dictated by the jutting rock faces. From the drawing board on, the i8 is a true hybrid, and it’s the way it blends its power sources so seamlessly that’s always most impressed. BMW uses sound enhancers in the cabin to amplify the little petrol engine’s intake thrum, and maybe it’s a bit digital and artificial. Or maybe you just stop noticing. Kraftwerk were digital and artificial too, and yet they conjured some of pop’s most beautiful melodies out of their machinery.
Time to test our thesis about the i8 as a paragon of FDF™. To paraphrase Anchorman’s Brian Fantana, 60 per cent of the time it works every time. Actually, it’s more like 90 per cent, Brian, unless you want to go everywhere with your Farah slacks on fire. The i8 is just about fast enough in most scenarios, and alterations to the rebound damping and a stiffer anti-roll bar mean that its ride is more supple. It also understeers less than the original coupe, and steers with a pleasing linearity.
On a slippery corner, I even manage to coax a slide out of it, but the i8 doesn’t seem very comfortable with the process. A Civic Type-R, Focus RS, or Megane RS are more alive and interactive on these sorts of roads, but they’re practically monomaniacal compared to the i8. And it still looks like The Future: ‘Papillon,’ one local says with a perplexed smile.
More than ever, this is a car with a genuinely unique set of talents. It summons up just as much magic out of a virtuous 20mph fully-electric commute as it does when the engine wakes up with a sonorous thrum and you find yourself in a French gorge. None of its various drive modes will melt tarmac, and the suspicion persists that this is the genetically modified work of Munich boffins rather than a red-blooded engineer’s car. Whatevs. If you subscribe to the theory that many modern cars are over-tyred, well here’s one that just maybe could use a bit more mechanical grip. An i8 M is a tantalising if unlikely thought.
Ultimately, though, it matters not, for the i8 is one of those rare cars that delivers an experience unlike anything else out there. More than ever, now that some extra natural sensation is available. We end up out-running a storm as we sweep up out of the valley and across the top, the road unfurling in a long swoop of tarmac, punctuated by some fast corners. The i8 is graceful, clever, and beautiful. Papillon, indeed.