by Mark Stevenson
Last year, BMW did something unexpected. As engineers stared at the diminutive i3 electric hatchback, they got the hilarious idea to crank up its power output, add slightly wider tires, tack on some fender flares, and give it some whiz-bang electronic controls. In that moment, the BMW i3s was born, and the Bavarian automaker mustered the cojones to put it into serial production. So, what happens then when you gather a group of hacks to drive that hopped-up electric car with instantaneous torque and skinny tires around an autocross course?
At BMW Performance Center West—located southeast of Palm Springs, California at The Thermal Club circuit—BMW held its first-ever BMW Group Test Fest, an event where journalists could sample all of BMW’s newest wares on road and track at their leisure. In addition to an assortment of M cars (including the M4 Competition Convertible we brought you last week), SUVs, Minis, and even the all-new Rolls-Royce Phantom, BMW brought the newest member of its all-electric i brand—the BMW i3s—for us to huck about an autocross course. As one might suspect, it was cone carnage.
First, I need to let you all in on a deeply held secret within automotive journalism: the vast majority of auto journalists (and those who “write about cars” as a hobby) are truly horrific drivers; they’re proper menaces to the road-going public. On multiple occasions, I’ve thanked whatever higher power exists for my continued earthly permanence after I’ve ridden shotgun with members of the press who’ve shown zero regard for human life—whether that be mine or theirs. This laissez-faire attitude toward road safety afflicts numerous examples of scriptor aurigarius, but mostly the journosaur and the invincible young buck.
The journosaur will each and every week explain how a seven seat, three-row crossover understeers at the limit like it’s some badge of honor to know the adhesive threshold for low-rolling-resistance tires. On the other hand, the invincible young buck finds the elusive eleventh-tenth by binning a $50,000+ car he could never afford during a track test on the first turn of the first lap. Yours truly is regularly humbled by those who’ve truly mastered steering and footwork to push a car seconds per lap beyond what he could ever make possible. My skills (or lack thereof) can’t hold candle to the remarkable talents of those who hustle proper racing cars for a living.
Still, when an opportunity presents itself to let loose on an autocross course—and there’s little to no chance of harming myself or anyone else—all bets are off. Cones are just that after all. And the absolute worst thing that can happen when all precautions are taken is a low-speed rollover, after which I'll be picking safety glass out of my skin for a week. Surprisingly, there’s still some valuable information to be gleaned from making an absolute hash of autocross. Three examples of the 2018 BMW i3s awaited our hamfisted abuse at an expertly designed cone track laid out on one of the circuit’s skidpads. Two other attendees and I were the first to arrive.
The first thing you’ll notice about the i3s is its new-found visual aggression. Its lower and wears rubber that’s a half-inch wider at all four corners versus the normal i3, though those tires are still staggered—175/55R20 at front, 195/50R20 at rear. To put these tire widths in perspective, the Mitsubishi Mirage wears 165 section rubber, but it does so on 14-inch wheels, not 20s. The larger-diameter wheels make the i3s' tires look even narrower than they are, almost like the it's running on rail wheels borrowed from a locomotive. Thankfully, BMW didn’t take any cues from the stance crowd and gave the i3s some beefier fenders to better conceal its increased mechanical grip.
Under the hood (or the trunk floor in this case) sits a synchronous electric motor developing 184 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque (14 hp and 15 lb-ft over the i3), powered by a now-larger 33.2-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that lives in the floor. All that torque is sent to the rear wheels and available from a standing stop, pushing the 3,005-pound i3s to 60 mph sprint in a claimed 6.8 seconds. But be warned: if you buy an i3s with the optional range extender, weight increases to 3,278 pounds and the same sprint will take 7.6 seconds instead. At least you more than double your effective range, but it’s still a trade off.
Back to the task at hand, I climbed into the second i3s in the staging area. “This will be a piece of cake,” I thought to myself. I’d done an autocross in a New Beetle before. This couldn’t be much different, surely: two compact cars with under 200 horsepower hustling their way around some orange dunce caps. “How hard could it be?” I watched as one of my cohorts set off in a flurry of silence. There was no wheel spin, no sound emanating from a pounding combustion engine. All that could be heard was an insignificant whir from the i3s’ electric motor and a crunching sound from the nearly-too-narrow tires rolling over tortured pebbles on their way by.
My compatriot's first turn was punctuated by a round of squealing. Then again. And again. Corner after corner, the i3s’ tires howled at the limits of adhesion (yeah, I’m guilty of this trope, too) upon a backdrop of absolute silence. If a bird had chirped 50 feet away during all this, a well-tuned ornithologist would be able to identify the bird, its sex, and probably its age as the i3s transitioned from one direction to another. It was an eerie experience, I assure you. Now I understand why people can’t get behind Formula E. There’s something so wrong, so foreign about visual theatre without an accompanying soundtrack. The other driver came to an abrupt stop in the box; I was released.
The first thing you notice about the i3s as you start off is the instant torque. It’s enough to make a grown man giddy. And it doesn’t give up, either. Instead of gearshifts smacking you in the back, the single-speed automatic transmission lets the electric motor spin faster and faster with little drop off in twist. My first direction change was to navigate a quick left-right kink, which I handled with ease, then I set up the i3s for the slalom. If you’ve never done a slalom before (or if you have and been flummoxed by it), there’s a trick to mastering weaving in and out of a line of cones. For starters, you don’t want to be grazing the side of each cone.
Instead, you want to be almost at 45 degrees with the back of the cone as you cut across. To do this, your line needs to be wider than your brain thinks it should. If you mess up your line, however, you can back out of the throttle and reposition. You lose tons of time in the process, but at least you won’t incur a penalty by hitting one of the cones. There are times, however, when you can correct your line with some rotation, and in a normal car with electronic nannies active, this would be impossible. Those systems typically conspire to generate understeer. The i3s is a different story. Thanks to a newly developed Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) system, the i3s will drift. Not much, mind you, but just enough to repoint the nose a few degrees.
It’s all quite trick. After the slalom, a wide, sweeping right-hander reduced to a near hairpin, after which I needed to keep the car on the inside to setup for a tight left. During my first two runs around the track, I couldn’t get the car to stick to the inside for three reasons. The first: I’m a bit of an idiot and I treat the accelerator like an on-off switch. My mother taught me to always give 100 percent, so I took that advice to heart. The second reason is the i3s’ set of staggered tires. The front will give up grip well before the rear by virtue of using narrower rubber. That’s totally fine for day-to-day driving.
After all, you aren't going to push an i3s as hard through a four-way lighted intersection as you would on an autocross course, right? I hope not. The third and most important reason why I couldn't stick the landing has to do with how the i3s responds to throttle input. In a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle, throttle position doesn’t directly correlate to engine power. Instead, it allows more air into the engine, where it can burn more fuel, thus increasing revs and making more power and torque. The whole process is wholly inefficient—and that’s before you include the amount of loss introduced by a torque converter on traditional automatics. With the i3s, everything is instantaneous. Dabbing the throttle results in a swift kick from the electric motor.
The inverse is also true; rolling off the throttle introduces near instant deceleration. As responsive as it all is, it’s absolutely maddening if you’re used to manipulating the throttle of a gasoline-powered vehicle. The contrasts are stark. As I made my way through the last few corners, I tried my best to not put weight on the wheel, to manage the controls with a delicate touch, and to drive as smoothly as I could. However, it’s difficult to do that when you’re being chucked around in your seat like a tossed salad—which brings me to my last point. There’s a reason why it’s called the i3s and not the i3r or i3M. That ’s’ stands for Sport, and with it comes a more sporting demeanor than you’d experience in the standard i3.
That means you don’t get wings or extra aero bits, a super stiff suspension that neuters body roll, and you most certainly don't get heavily bolstered racing seats. The end result, at least during an autocross, was having one of my kidneys relocate between somewhere in my rib cage. Don’t get me wrong: I had an absolute blast bashing this little hatchback around a skidpad, but I won’t be doing any track days in it anytime soon. That said, thanks to the i3s’ low center of gravity, I could easily see someone fitting one with a racing seat and hitting up some Solo events. A friend of mine auto crosses a Chevrolet Volt and he says it’s a blast. Why not an i3s?
After our three rounds, the judges tabulated the times. Unfortunately, I was second out of the three competitors as I’d taken out an entire cone family on my third run. If it hadn’t have been for that, I would have come out on top in our group, possibly scoring first for the entire day. I felt good about myself, too. It had been a while since I drove a car an anger. I felt like I was in my element—that is until a pro driver jumped in one of the cars. This tarmac surgeon cut smooth, freehand lines with his scalpel as the tires happily hummed their tune. Turn after turn, I watched the graceful display. It was magic. Then the announcement came over the radio. He slaughtered me by a whole two seconds. In an instant, I was humbled.
Maybe the on-site racing pro should have written this article instead.