Sulla Strada per Concorso d’Eleganza in an i8 Roadster. (Part 1)

This year’s Concorso d’Eleganza was deemed to be different: Travel from the future to the past – #SullaStradaperVillad’Este.

Driving through the picturesque alpine environment and slowly approaching Lago di Como has got to be the perfect way of arrival.

The idea: Why not combine the beautiful opportunity to test a modern hybrid in an alpine environment and arrive just in time with the classic car contestants to Villa d’Este for the Concorso d’Eleganza. Pick up the BMW i8 Roadster in Munich, hop on the road and arrive the latest on Friday midday, just in time for lunch.

Arriving in Munich and picking up the i8 was an easy thing, what wasn’t so easy was the challenge we were facing, a predicted one: How much luggage can you fit in the Roadster?! Not a lot, sadly, which makes this car somewhat the perfect “short” getaway, road trip car. We managed to fit two small “weekender” bags, my camera gear and handbag, along a garment sleeve packed with one suit.

We were lucky, as the BMW crew have organized for our suitcases to be transported straight to Villa d’Este, just in time for the entry dinner on Friday. At this point you might raise the valid question “Why would you choose the i8 Roadster to travel to Cernobbio?” – a good one, which we are more than happy to answer! Imagine, it’s a sunny day in the alps, the calm before the storm and open roads (if you forget about the speed limits in Switzerland, of course). There’s no doubt that a plug-in hybrid—a car with a gas engine, a supplemental electric motor, and a moderately-sized battery that allows for a small amount of electric-only range—is an inherently advanced form, even today.

Apart from the even smaller luggage compartment the Roadster clearly wins over the coupe: thanks to the greater visibility afforded by removing the roof, which can be lowered in 16 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph. Taking the top down also brings out some of the magic, especially when you’re cruising in EV-only mode, listening to the environment and letting your hair blow in the wind. Our favourite: The silent, emissions-free electric power mode, which is good for the soul, and also good for scaring witless pedestrians.

You are more familiar with the coupe? Then you might have spotted some differences: First of all, the doors a different. They still open butterfly-style in an astonishing way but now they’re frameless. Secondly, the exterior skin is different, to allow the side glass to sit at a slightly more acute angle. There’s a digital dash, a separate multifunctional screen and head-up display. The cabin and controls feel fresh and modern without being intimidating. It is a much stronger visual statement; its future-forward design and mid-engined profile lend themselves to the convertible form, realized with a surprisingly classy fabric roof.

Climbing those mountain passes…

It is a proper job sharing between the two engines, the electric one above the front axle and the 1.5-l. 3cyl. turbo moving the rear wheels. Though the petrol engine is still the main player. Who would have ever thought that a BMW super sports car will ever be equipped with a three-cylinder engine? But in the hybrid it makes sense and it accelerates the – even after three years – breathtakingly dramatic looking ride in 4.4 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h.

As soon as we hit these curvy mountain roads I only have one thing in mind: Switch to sports mode, it then runs the gas engine at all times, tightening the active suspension, throttle mapping, and transmission behaviour. It also doubles as the most fun way to recharge the battery, its load minimized by the gas engine’s primacy. The more you hammer it, the more juice recovered by the regenerative braking system. The instrument panel redesigns itself from hybrid-info blue into a more regular BMW set-up of reddish gauges for speed and rpm. The driveline awakens into a fresh realm of tension and alertness.

The steering in Sport mode is lovely: smartly geared, progressive and not without feel as the front end weights and unweights over corkscrewing surfaces. The structure and makeup of the i8 is paying its dividends here: it feels immensely stiff, and light too. Almost all the weight is central and very low. The whole affair is working with me, loading up in a bend then flicking across to the next one with barely a hint of roll and no slop. Through the apex, a lift or prod on the accelerator brings a subtle shift of attitude. 

The dampers are adaptive, but feel natural. So do the brakes when you’re pressing on, which is unusual for a hybrid. At first we weren’t too sure about the brake pressure point, but beyond the pass’s crest, the steep downhills into hairpins leave the impression that, like everything else in the car, the discs are so weight-optimised they do exactly the job.

Now, better on open road or those mountain passes? The i8’s pleasures are best experienced on more open, sweeping roads, where you can thoroughly exploit the prodigious torque of the combined electric and petrol power. It sounds interesting, some say brilliant, I am not too sure to be honest – BMW has actually added an exterior-facing speaker for the engine’s artificial sound system, so that passers-by can also appreciate the faux-V8 soundtrack. I think I would prefer the silence of the electric engine, focusing on the environment and driving pleasure, much rather than being disturbed by some fake engine noises – put that is my personal opinion.

Hard Facts:

Price: €171,390

Power: 374hp.

Torque: 320Nm (engine); 250Nm (electric motor).

0-100km/h: 4.6sec.

Top speed: 250km/h.

Claimed economy: 141mpg (2.0 litres/100km).

The BMW i8 Roadster represents an innovative expression of freedom: Emotionally powerful exterior design with an elegantly dynamic, stretched silhouette; visually lower centre of gravity. Open-top motoring in an uncompromisingly sporty two-seater, pressing the eDrive button enables virtually silent and locally emission-free driving at up to 120 km/h.

Part 2: Concorso d’Eleganza – the 90th anniversary spent unexpectedly…

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