BMW i8 Concept Roadster makes its North American debut during BMW i Born Electric Tour

by Dan Heyman

All about the carbon.

BMW i8 Roadster Concept

The BMW i8 Roadster concept (photos by Dan Heyman)

New York, NY – The BMW i8 Concept Roadster hybrid sports car made its North American debut alongside the i3 city car in the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities. The event featured over 300 guests, BMW experts from around the globe  and a guest appearance by actress Uma Thurman.

It was all part of stop four of the BMW i Born Electric Tour that will cover seven stops in seven different countries throughout the year. The event featured panels of experts on-hand to discuss the various challenges these busy cities are facing in terms of congestion and mobility.

In that light, the BMW i models stand not only as technological masterpieces but as guiding lights for mobility in the future, a future that BMW is deeply invested in going forward.

The BMW i3 city car

The i3 city car is the quintessential opposite of the i8 and indeed, the i3 and i8 are to frame either side of the BMW i spectrum, with perhaps a few more models in-between

But that’s for another day and article; this is about the cars and they really are something to behold.

The i8 really has to be seen to be believed—not even its presence on Hollywood’s silver screen in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol does it justice; it’s not that big, featuring an overall height and length close to an Audi R8 but the panache, the sheer showmanship of the car made it appear larger than life up on its stand. It is also shorter in both the overall length and wheelbase senses than the Coupe variant.

Styling cues like the glowering and blue-glowing headlights that BMW had left on even when the white sheet was on, providing a glimpse of the goings-on below, the matching blue accents on the wheels, rocker panels (if you can call them that) on the flip-ups scissor doors and around the classic kidney grille (which is pretty much the only design cue other than the BMW roundels that recall current BMWs) and the flying buttress-like rear wing all point to the fact that this is a car firmly rooted in the future. Yes, it’s only a concept model but the designers on-hand suggested that when the production model brakes cover late next year, it won’t be all that different. The importance of the design aspects of the BMW i vehicles were highlighted at the event by various displays featuring coffee-table books on design, designer handbags and other random objects such as airplane propellers (that’s what the BMW logo is supposed to represent, after all) and even headphones and necklaces.

Uma Thurman

Actress Uma Thurman was on-hand to present the vehicles. Only in NYC, I guess…

Since the i8 is a BMW, very little of what you see is there just to look cool; the wheels, for example, feature raised spokes that help channel air through to help cool the brakes (which will most likely do their part to regenerate power and so heat-dissolution becomes all that more important) and work in conjunction with the special Michelin low rolling-resistance tires to aid in aerodynamics.

Those flying buttresses I mentioned? They’re there to force air over the rear wheels, again helping the car more easily cut through air and stay stable in the process. The overlapping wings either side of the front fascia? Same story.  Even the wing mirrors are shaped to be as aerodynamic as possible, but I feel like the insect-like items are going to be one of the first things to change once the car makes production.

Equally important in the construction of both the i8 and i3 is the materials used for the body and chassis, although they aren’t called that in the i cars; no, here they are called “LifeDrive Modules”, and there are two of them—the upper “Life Module” is fabricated completely of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), while the lower “Drive Module”—the chassis, as it were—is made of lightweight aluminum components. That CFRP material, meanwhile, is a crucial part of the building process.

“(These are) visionary vehicles,” said Henrik Wenders, Head of BMW i8 Project Management. “Because they are sustainable over their whole lifecycle, and this is only possible due to the fact that we are building these cars from CFRP.”

BMW i3 interior

Interior of i3 is spacious thanks to lack of door pillars, lots of glass and a flat floor. It’s passenger oriented…

BMW i8 Roadster concept interior

…while the i8′s interior is snug and driver-centric. Great looking, though

The sustainability factors attributed to CFRP are twofold; it’s rigid, so it’s strong and wont wear down over time and it won’t rust, either, giving a longer life to the car overall. It also means that no extra weight had to be added to the i8 Roadster, which is often the case when a coupe loses its top.

In the safety sense, the CFRP is flexible so instead of just absorbing the energy and sending it rearwards (causing more chassis damage), it flexes and snaps back, more or less, to its original state. And finally, in the comfort sense—perhaps a more important aspect of the people-moving i3, it allowed the designers to essentially work with and entire space within the Life Module; “a 360 degree approach”, as BMW i interior designer Daniel Starke said in a discussion after the presentation.

There is no need for a centre console or stack, meaning extra room inside for passengers and storage alike (the rear seats fold completely flat). It also provides a better view out as there is no need for a central door pillar, and since CFRP is so strong, extra holes could be made for more windows, doing away with obstructive door pillars almost completely. It’s all topped off by a pair of doors that open outwards in “suicide” fashion, just like they do in a Roll Royce. Which, as it happens, is another BMW property. BMW also had a set of exhibits (see gallery below) on hand to demonstrate where all the high-quality materials found inside come from, with sources ranging from olive tree tannins (used to treat the leather) and eucalyptus trees (the wood paneling).

Power for the i8 is claimed to be 131 horsepower in all-electric mode, and 356 when combined with the gasoline motor, good for a 0-100 kilometers-per-hour sprint of 4.6 seconds. But then, the Tesla Roadster does it in under four…

BMW i3 bare CFRP frame

Naked i3 frame clearly shows CFRP usage

BMW i8 Roadster concept flying buttress wing

Every cut and groove in the i8 is functional, including the flying buttresses over the rear wheels

Above all else, though, is the fact that BMW firmly believes that many of the caveats associated with electric cars—most notably, range anxiety—will be forgotten once customers see that famous BMW roundel emblem on the hood.

“As soon as it has a BMW log on it,” said Helmut Stadler, BMW i Project Manager. “There’s a promise. A promise that they’ll be getting a vehicle that is very efficient, very dynamic and very sustainable.”

Those with range anxiety will also be happy to know that two types of charging stations will be offered once the cars hit market, a 240-volt version styled by the same folks that worked on the cars, and a 120V option. There will also be an option to and a gas motor to your i3 to compliment the rear-mounted 170 hp electric motor—it’s otherwise a fully electric vehicle.

There’s been no official announcement regarding release dates, but all signs point to there being a reveal in late ’13, possibly at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September.


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