Sunday Times

BELLE OF THE BALL

The BMW i8 Road­ster still leaves the im­pres­sion of a cos­set­ing tourer as op­posed to a thrill-a-minute speed­ster. But that’s fine.

- By Bren­win Naidu Pic­tures: Waldo Swiegers

Chop­ping the roof off a car that started life with a fixed ceil­ing means com­pro­mis­ing struc­tural rigid­ity. But what it may lose in stiff­ness it gains in cool fac­tor.

There are ex­cep­tions. Nis­san once made a con­vert­ible ver­sion of its Mi­cra, which was never sold here. We did get the Chrysler PT Cruiser cabri­o­let, how­ever.

And Peu­geot took the tinopener to their B-seg­ment 206 and sub­se­quent 207 models. Lest we for­get, the larger 307 and 308 were also re­cip­i­ents of a hair­cut.

You can­not say with con­vic­tion that any of these hum­drum hatch­backs be­came any more de­sir­able sans cover.

On the other scale of the spec­trum, dyed-inthe-wool per­for­mance cars that were first bred as coupés are des­tined for an im­me­di­ate bump in al­lure, in drop-top guise. Ig­nore what ar­dent prop­a­ga­tors of pu­rity in driv­ing dy­nam­ics say.

The in­evitable body flex — or scut­tle-shake would go un­no­ticed, or would not mat­ter, dur­ing that ripe hour in which one gets the op­por­tu­nity to soak up the rays and feel uni­fied with na­ture.

As the foun­da­tion for a sparkling al fresco ma­chine, the BMW i8 is noth­ing short of ex­cel­lent. Tongues were wag­ging when the model was launched in 2014. The man­u­fac­turer billed its cre­ation as the most pro­gres­sive sports car ever. And that tagline still holds wa­ter.

Shrewd choice of word there, opt­ing to po­si­tion their i8 as a “sports” car rather than one you would dub “su­per.”

Be­cause once the bat­tery pow­er­ing its elec­tric mo­tor is de­pleted, the three-cylin­der en­gine in the mid­dle would find it­self sec­ondbest in a ro­bot-to-ro­bot duel against cer­tain hot hatch­backs. The out­put of the elec­tric mo­tor is quoted at 105kW and 250Nm; while the boosted 1499cc en­gine is good for 170kW and 320Nm. Ideally, you could drive for 53km with­out the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion part of the mix kick­ing in.

In fair­ness, its in­tel­li­gent tech­ni­cal make-up means that the i8 does not need oodles of power for re­spectable pace. Re­ly­ing heav­ily on the use of car­bon fi­bre and other light­weight com­pos­ites, the i8 boasts a mod­est kerb weight of 1,595kg.

Alas, any won­der­ment sur­round­ing the minu­tiae of its oily bits takes a back­seat, when you see the cloth of the i8 Road­ster peel back and fold away neatly. The process it­self is an awe­some party trick that leaves mouths agape, since oper­a­tion can be ex­e­cuted while out­side the ve­hi­cle.

Own­ers will surely master the art. Hold the un­lock but­ton with the key fob furtively tucked into your pocket. As you ap­proach the un­dress­ing car, keep your nose pointed sky­wards in a non­cha­lant way, like a haughty French poo­dle strolling through James & Ethel Grey park in Rose­bank. Maybe In­sta­gram the the­atri­cal display once or twice for good mea­sure. Rinse, re­peat.

But se­ri­ously, the at­ten­tion this i8 seizes borders on prob­lem­atic. Throngs of ob­servers wield­ing their smart­phones will con­gre­gate when you park it. In­de­cent pro­pos­als will be made. Re­la­tion­ships are likely to be ru­ined.

Sage ad­vice: just leave the shindig early, by your lone­some and en­joy the open-air charms of the i8 Road­ster in peace.

Al­low me to as­sert that this vari­ant of the model fur­ther en­hances the virtues of the orig­i­nal coupé. It weighs neg­li­gi­bly more

(60kg) than its coun­ter­part, a re­sult of the ad­di­tional tough­en­ing-up of the body struc­ture that had to en­sue.

BMW de­scribes the whole pack­ing as “in­tox­i­cat­ing” but that will de­pend on your def­i­ni­tion of the word. Be­cause like its sib­ling; the Road­ster still leaves the im­pres­sion of a cos­set­ing tourer as op­posed to a thrill-a-minute speed­ster — à la BMW M2 coupé.

Which is just fine.

Serv­ing as a show­case of in­no­va­tion for the brand, the four-year-old i8 still stands promi­nently as a fu­ture-for­ward pack­age amid a field of more tra­di­tional play­ers. Road­ster for­mat un­doubt­edly makes it even more cov­etable. All yours for R2,329,300.

which elec­tric ve­hi­cles fea­ture promi­nently.

And the fact that the e-tron event took place in the state of Cal­i­for­nia — or more pre­cisely 56km north of Elon Musk’s Tesla assem­bly plant in Fre­mont — was no co­in­ci­dence. The mo­tor in­dus­try doesn’t be­lieve in co­in­ci­dences — they be­lieve in mar­ket­ing strate­gies and the five-seater etron will be a direct com­peti­tor for Musk’s brand while also aimed at the tech-savvy hub of Sil­i­con Val­ley.

An in­vest­ment of €600m at Audi’s plant in Brus­sels has re­sulted in the first e-tron rolling off the pro­duc­tion line two weeks ago and is avail­able im­me­di­ately in Amer­ica with a price tag start­ing at $74,800.

BE­FIT­TING AN ELEC­TRIC VE­HI­CLE

While the de­sign of the ve­hi­cle in­cludes many styling cues typ­i­cal of Audi, there are a few nice el­e­ments be­fit­ting an elec­tric ve­hi­cle. Speak­ing at a work­shop just hours be­fore its un­veil­ing, ex­te­rior de­signer Juan-Car­los Huerta Martinez gave a glimpse into his think­ing.

“We wanted the ve­hi­cle to be an SUV with­out com­pro­mise. The wheels are big like those of the Q7 while the front is up­right with a low shoul­der.

“Our aim was to main­tain the same lan­guage for all the el­e­ments on the ve­hi­cle to give the ex­te­rior a co­he­sive look and feel.”

One par­tic­u­lar fea­ture of the ve­hi­cle that is a first in the world of motoring is the in­tro­duc­tion of vir­tual side mir­rors. Fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing most def­i­nitely, but they also ap­pear to work ex­tremely well. Im­ages from rear-fac­ing cam­eras are dis­played on seven-inch screens re­sult­ing in the driver re­main­ing more fo­cused on what is in front of him rather than be­ing dis­tracted by side­ways eye move­ment.

At the heart of an elec­tric ve­hi­cle is ob­vi­ously the bat­tery and a par­tic­u­lar con­cern has al­ways been the charge range. Think back to the Nis­san Leaf when it was first in­tro­duced in 2010. Revo­lu­tion­ary at the time, it had a lim­ited range of ap­prox­i­mately 100km — hardly prac­ti­cal in a coun­try like SA where dis­tances trav­elled are of­ten vast.

The e-tron of to­day has a claimed range of 450km — de­pend­ing on how the ve­hi­cle is driven — but the tech­nol­ogy is con­stantly im­prov­ing.

Crit­ics might say that is fine, but what about charg­ing points?

In Europe there are roughly 72,000 charg­ing points avail­able which are part­nered through 220 op­er­a­tors, while in Amer­ica the num­ber is grow­ing fast.

The e-tron comes with two elec­tric mo­tors — one at the front (125kW) and one at the rear (140kW) and are housed in a fully-en­closed cas­ing ly­ing in the un­der­belly of the ve­hi­cle. Torque is rated at an im­pres­sive 561Nm while qu­at­tro all-wheel drive is stan­dard.

Per­for­mance-wise these com­bine for a 0100km/h time of 6.6 sec­onds. Both mo­tors also have an eight-sec­ond boost func­tion.

Though a quick test drive was ob­vi­ously out of the ques­tion, I did man­age to check out the in­te­rior and the Audi stamp of qual­ity is quite ev­i­dent. The ma­te­ri­als used are of su­pe­rior tex­tures while build qual­ity is what we have come to ex­pect from the Ger­man mar­que.

While the e-tron may be the first ful­ly­elec­tric ve­hi­cle Audi has brought to mar­ket, it def­i­nitely won’t be the last as there are plans to have 12 fully-elec­tric models in their port­fo­lio by 2025 and have roughly one-third of its sales com­ing from elec­tri­fied models.

I must ad­mit that in the past I’ve been a scep­tic when it comes to the vi­a­bil­ity of elec­tric mo­bil­ity and SA re­mains way be­hind the likes of Amer­ica and Europe when it comes to pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary in­cen­tives and in­fra­struc­ture.

But there is no deny­ing the era of elec­tric ve­hi­cles is here and now and will con­tinue to grow for gen­er­a­tions to come. It is, as Red­ding al­luded to in his 1967 hit, about change and how you adapt.

The e-tron is due for re­lease in South Africa mid-2019.

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