Review From the Track: BMW i3 Gets Driven to the Limit by Pro Driver – I Ride Shotgun (w/video)

8 months ago by Chris Neff 18

Taking the BMW i3 on a track…a real race track, riding with a professional driver at the absolute limit for a full day at Monticello Raceway in New York and having it all caught on video; all this is what was spinning around in my head days before the shoot was set to take place.

Finally...The BMW i3 is on a Race Track

Finally…The BMW i3 is on a Race Track – Image Copyright Chris Neff

I’ve been driving EVs since 2009, a MiniE and now the BMW ActiveE.  I’ve always been the kind of EV fan where performance was first for me, the eco was the bonus.  You can find me touting the benefits of EVs at many “green,” events but you will find me more often happily showing off my EV at exotic car meets and, in the past year, joined by other EV drivers who make it to the meets.  I’ve always felt the best way for people to embrace EVs is to show them off where you would never expect to see one…parked next to a Ferrari or Lamborghini or Mclaren…we all love cars and mine is a fun daily driver.

Now, along comes the i3, with its funky look and skinny tires.  I have to admit I was wondering if the i3 would be as fun as my ActiveE, I mean how could it be, just look at those tires.  Still, I liked the styling, it started to grow on me….but would it be fun to drive?  I know that is the question on the minds of many.

…and now here we are, I’m ready to learn if the i3 is a real ‘drivers’ EV and on a race track.

Monticello Raceway - I3 Handles Those Curves With Ease

Monticello Raceway – I3 Handles Those Curves With Ease

It’s track day and now I get to meet the professional driver who is going to take us around the track.  Let me add that she is a professional race car driver.  Erin Crocker, who has been racing competitively since 7 (Nascar racer, sprint car racer, stunt car driver and EV newbie, nope never driven an EV) and she’s just an all around cool person.  She is laid back and, like the rest of us, loves automobiles.  So, this is going to be a real blast then right? I’ve never ridden in an i3 or been on a race track and Erin has never driven an EV.  I begin thinking we will just hit some decent speeds and test the handling…what could possibly go wrong.?

While filling out the final paperwork in preparation for the day I was asked if I kissed my family goodbye….umm….yes.   A few others came up and asked if I would be “ok” today…umm….why?

I'm Explaining to Erin What a "Frunk" Is

I’m Explaining to Erin What a “Frunk” Is

Any concerns I had quickly turned back to pure excitement when we headed over to the garage and there was the i3.  Photos do not do the i3 justice, you really need to see it in person.  No, it does not scream BMW, but it doesn’t have to.  It is a beautiful car in its own right, the eye catching details are plenty.  Erin and I did a quick walk around and I pointed out some of the unique attributes to an EV as well as the i3.  Especially those tires.  You are immediately drawn to them as they are so skinny and you have to wonder how this car can ever handle a road much less a track.

It’s close to 8 am and we head out.  Erin is scanning the dash and soaking up the new controls she will need to get used to.  That took maybe 30 seconds and then we are off.  I don’t mean gradually.  Nope, she really went for it right away.  I calmly looked over and asked if she wanted to get familiar with the i3.  She replied “no it’s ok.”   I then asked has she ever driven this track.  Never, she replied.  Right…ok….now this is getting interesting.

So we do about 3 laps and the speed is increasing.  Erin is feeling more comfortable, I’m not and it is not because of her driving, this is a first for me and all I’m seeing is how fast we are heading for a hairpin and no regen or braking is going on at all, at least not until the last second and when we go into that turn we are right back on the accelerator to pull out of it…..the i3 never flinched…I can’t say that for me.  I had such little time to process what was going on, but one thought was clear…the i3 is impressive.

i3 track

This Was a Closed Course – That Means Nobody Could Hear Me Scream

We did a few more laps then pulled back into the pits.  Wow!!! I was full of adrenaline, a combo of fear and excitement.  I never expected the i3 to do that.  But wait, there is more, another 10 hours of this was left to go.  You see, this was to be a video shoot which means take after take…..we had two i3s to play with, one was the full electric and the other was the REx (extended range).  How would they both hold up through repeated on-track abuse?  We were going to find out and that was exactly why we were there.  Yes, I said 10 hours.  Now I understand why they were asking if I was “ok” with this.  Going flat out was pretty scary, but how long could that last?  Apparently close to 10 hours.  Okay then, let’s do this!!!

I won’t talk about the details of the shoot in this writing, I’m going to focus on what I think you all want to hear, how did it do on the track.   There are lots of reviews to be had on the i3, but none of them are about a track experience so here we go.

…before I head into my thoughts let me quickly chat about Erin, this was a fun experience for her.  It was clear she was eager to see what this funky little car could do.  While we zipped around the track I filled her in on EV terminology which she got a kick out of…’frunk’ was probably her favorite word.   She is truly a pro, she has been racing since 7 and does the sprint car circuit now, those are those tiny little 700hp race cars that go round and round a dirt track, very aggressive because you have to be.  Her driving style is all on or all off with quick turns of the wheel.  In many ways, an EV suits her style since they deliver power immediately or don’t and the i3s steering is instant quick…it was an observation of mine and she absolutely brought out all the i3 could do….I definitely got more grey hair that day.

Bet You Never Imagined You Could Fit All This on the I3's Dash

Bet You Never Imagined You Could Fit All This on the I3′s Dash

Handling

First and foremost, the i3 is an extremely nimble critter.  How in the world can a car handle that well with such skinny tires and on one of the i3s was all seasons?  I’m no engineer, but a low center of gravity and low weight play an important roll.  The i3 looks tall, but the weight is down low and that chassis is as stiff as can be.  The i3 leans, but not enough to unsettle it.  Erin commented a few times how she was impressed at how easy it was to take a turn, very predictable and the front tires just kept grabbing.  Granted, the electronic stability brains were keeping us from sliding out, but not so much to ruin the fun.  The real issue that kept us from creating a slide was the computer cutting the power, there is no way to fully disable the anti-skid brains unfortunately.   Is this a problem?  Not in the least.  We were taking hairpins and long sweeping turns extremely fast, there is a sharp uphill hairpin, turn #18, and during the shoot we must have taken that 12 or more times both ways.  Not once did the i3 flinch…I sure did.   Especially going the other way where it banks to the outside, I could swear we were headed for the grass, nope, it was like the i3 was on rails….maybe it is.

The steering is incredibly quick, Erin had a real chance to test it in the slalom.  You will notice at around 20 seconds in the video is an abrupt turn to the right, the i3 can do that all day, left then right and vice versa.  It is hard to tell in the video but those cones were pretty close together and Erin got through them all a few times, that is her skill and the i3 was keeping up with her with lightening quick steering and a chassis that likes to dance.  The i3 was definitely in its element here.  Erin and I both said…wow.

That's the Chase Vehicle

That’s the chase vehicle – a Mercedes-Benz AMG ML63….the i3 had no trouble staying ahead of it

Turning radius

The i3 basically turns in on itself.  This is one sharp turning radius, take a look at 24 seconds into the video.  We were actually trying to get the i3 to do doughnuts, but the computer would not let the rear brake loose, still, you can see how it held and how sharp we were turning….about 27 times in a row.

Braking

In a word….wow!  We did a number of hard braking  shoots where we would be rolling along at 30 or so MPH and Erin would slam on the brakes…my eyeballs popped out with my brain following.  This car really does stop on a dime, we did this a few times and the brakes never faded.   In fact, the first time Erin slammed on the brakes it caught her by surprise, we did not expect it to stop that quickly, this car can stop!  This just might be the best braking street legal BMW out there.  We noticed no difference with the REx.

Ride quality

BMW has nailed it, of course this was a track and it was smooth but we hit those rumble strips regularly and fast.  The i3 never shuddered, it just soaked them up while still holding the track with composure.   It is one thing I noticed right away, the i3 ride is not punishing but it is extremely composed.   I’ve been driving my ActiveE for nearly 2 years and I do find the ride firm and a bit tiring after awhile but not the i3.  We even had an opportunity to have a full car, 4 adults, with gear inside, the i3 managed it well, never bottomed out or felt floatie.  This truly is an everyday comfortable driver that is athletic.

Chassis

Another wow, we had 2 cars to play with and we were on the track for nearly 10hrs.  The cars never complained, they came and left with the same tires, not a single creek or rattle and believe me when I say both cars were pushed to the edge time after time.  The i3 has no B pillar on either side….it does not need them.

Acceleration

The i3 is quick, probably the quickest street EV other than Tesla that is available.  It has basically the same power as the ActiveE, 170hp and 184 ft lbs torque but it is pushing over 1,000 pounds less.  The i3 is quicker at everything and very refined, power delivery is amazingly smooth and that’s saying a lot since EVs are inherently smooth.   The i3 also keeps up its acceleration all the way to top speed, around 90.  There is also a cool ‘Sail’ feature where basically there is a neutral spot between acceleration and regen where you can coast.  Erin did it at around 80mph a few times.

I was very impressed with how both cars kept taking the punishment being delivered to them.  They never faltered and were consistently comfortable.

Other Than 110 Chargers in the PIts - We Had Some Portable Charger

Other Than 110 Chargers in the Pits – We Had Some Portable Chargers

Regen

The regen of the i3 is much more refined then the ActiveE is, more linear.   When I drove I did not really get a chance to try it myself and to be honest we never slowed down enough to experience it.

Interior

Other than the bits I was grabbing for dear life I did get a close look, mostly because my face or body was plastered on different areas of the car so I can confirm there are lots of soft touches in the i3.  This is a very high quality interior.   The i3 feels much bigger inside that you would expect and outward visibility is excellent all around.  The EV is quiet even at high speed, while cruising along at 90 the wind was not that bad….I never had to raise my voice to speak to Erin….well maybe when I was screaming in fear.

In the wet

Now this was pretty interesting.  The goal was to get the i3 to drift through water, no matter how hard Erin tried the i3 would not keep a sustained slide.  The anti-skid computer electronics kept the car in check even when flying into a puddle at high speed….is this a bad thing…not at all, this is a safety feature.  The i3 maintains control.

Range

Well basically we killed it, none to speak of.  The i3 had its ‘juice’ pedal mashed to the floor most of the time so it was impossible to tell what range we were getting, however with that said, I was able to see how efficient the regen was.  It was amazingly efficient, now I’m comparing to the ActiveE but just a bit of a roll down a hill and the i3 had some juice back, a few more rolls and we had even more.  For those know even a 1% difference is huge when you are trying to get home.  It looks like the i3 will have some very effective regen.

Erin and I After Our Awesome Day...The i3 Truly Impress Us Both

Erin and I After Our Awesome Day…The i3 Truly Impressed Us Both

So what was the REx like?

We had a pre-production REx version so it still needed some software programming but it works.  The little engine kicked on automatically with around 5 miles left of range, once it got us up to a few more miles it turned off, it was pretty quick, it pumps energy into the battery fast.   We had the chance to whip it around the track and it felt just as fast and just as planted.  Erin said she thought it felt a little better balanced…..all I know is it stayed on the track and I was extremely happy about that.

Summing it Up

I finally got my chance to drive the i3, it was a quick run but I got to feel it’s handling and acceleration.  The i3 is worlds ahead of the ActiveE.  I was really impressed, for me driving an EV is about performance and the eco part is the bonus, the i3 nails them both.

This was an absolutely amazing experience, being that this was my first true track experience, that alone was cool enough, but that it was in the i3 and with a professional race car driver that had never driven an EV before made it all the more fantastic.  As EVers, we always want to give EV newbies seat time for that ‘A ha’ moment but the opportunity to get a professional race car driver into one and watch her expressions as she clearly enjoyed the car was icing on the cake.

I’m sure you are wondering how does it compare to other EVs? It does not compare, it’s a whole different type of machine.

Did Erin really push the i3 to the edge…without a doubt…yes.  What you see in the video is not all out, there is more to come.  In the beginning she was holding back a bit, maybe giving me a chance to recover from shock, but eventually she opened it up, game face on, all business, and we were flying…literally…we caught some air.  We once went off the track into the grass but the i3 held the line and just tip toed over the blades of green and back onto the track.  There were a number of times I really thought we were headed for a guard rail or into the woods but Erin and the i3 just took it in stride….oh and the seats were comfy too, even though I was only in them half of the time.

There are some sounds of what appears to be tires squealing in the video….that is probably me.

Stay tuned…there’s more to come of this experience in the future

Soon To Be a Collectible?

Soon To Be a Collectible?

*For more of my daily EV adventures, check out my personal blog myactivee.blogspot.com

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18 responses to "Review From the Track: BMW i3 Gets Driven to the Limit by Pro Driver – I Ride Shotgun (w/video)"

  1. Eric Loveday says:

    Chris is one lucky dog. Sure wish I could of been there.

  2. kdawg says:

    How loud is the range extender?

    1. Chris Neff says:

      Kdawg…I was in a pre-production model (no real sound deadening) so yes I could hear it, I’ve been told it will be nearly unnoticeable in the production unit…..what really tipped me off was the exhaust fumes ;)

  3. Airton says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us Chris! I too was amazed at this car’s turning radius and ride quality at the Woodcliff Lake event. I Can’t wait to have a go in the REx model!

    1. Chris Neff says:

      That’s great Airtron…one thing I was really pleased about was that even when the REx was on, it had no reduction in power.

  4. Bennyd says:

    Great article Chris, I think you nailed an excellent phrase to move the adaptation of the EV even faster. Performance first, Eco a bonus.

  5. Sounds like fun. I’ll be anxious to see how these cars do at Laguna Seca where we have several years of timed data from all the various EVs.

    If the BMW folks wanted it to slide of break free, I’m confident that they know the correct breakers / fuses to disable.

    1. Nix says:

      Hopefully it is that simple, and the aftermarket can figure out a way to chip it to disable it with a button push. I was bummed to hear it couldn’t be defeated.

  6. I will add that I do not find the i3 attractive at all, but it’s not “repulsive” either. I’m not alone with that thought.

    I hope we don’t try and sell “performance”, but only if its in a “EV looking” car. That’s where Tesla is miles ahead of everybody, including BMW.

  7. GeorgeS says:

    I have a Volt. ,,,…but I don’t think I’d buy the RE in the BMW.

    1. Bonaire says:

      It is like an inbetweener. In between a Leaf and a Volt. But costs more than both.

      Now, give the volt 80 mile AER and pull out a cylinder and it gets even better (for my driving situations).

      1. kdawg says:

        It all depends on how the RE performs. Chris said he didn’t notice any difference. However BMW has said this car is not for long trips. So someone like me, who only owns 1 car, may not even buy an i3. If I did try to take it a longer trip, it might be annoying stopping every 75 miles to fill up the gas tank again. The 90 mile AER isn’t enough to cover all my driving needs. So it’s an inbetweener on the AER and also on the gas engine. This formula isn’t really on my purchasing radar.

  8. George B says:

    Wow, what an awesome effort and write-up. Kudos! I hope to test drive the REx trim for a bit, the concerns about its performance are my main hangup.

  9. Good job Chris! I concur about the driving experience being much better than the ActiveE, which was pretty good to begin with. The ActiveE would never be able to keep up with an i3 on a track. I haven’t had track time but after driving an i3 four times now I’m ready to hand over the ActiveE keys as soon as an i3 is available.

  10. Paul says:

    I asked some questions to a french journalist who tested the i3 with REx, production version. Here you have a translation of my questions and the answers.

    I have read your detailed test
    (please see http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=it&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.moteurnature.com%2Factu%2F2013%2Fessai-bmw-i3-electrique.php&act=url)
    and you are one of the rare journalists to have tried the REx. I still have some questions.

    1. Can you describe the noise the generator produces?
    The sound is hardly noticable when you drive, but much loader when you stand outside next to the car. I was amazed about that when I got out of the car, REx still turning, to take a photo. But inside, it’s quiet.

    2. Does it function a lot or only at the end of the battery life? (This question doesn’t make sense for the US version, where it always will start functioning only when the battery is nearly empty).
    You can start the REx manually as soon as the battery is 75% depleted, if not it starts very late, when the battery is nearly empty. When I had only 8 km left in the battery, still the REx was silent…

    3. I understand from your review that the speed is limited at 110 km/h when you drive with the REx activated and the battery nearly empty. Can you be more precise?
    The speed limitation seems electronical. The way you arrive at the limit feels exactly like the speed limitation of the Eco Pro+ mode, albeit at a higher speed (it is 90 km/h with Eco Pro+).

    4. While you’re driving with the REx activated and battery nearly empty, does the behavior of the car feels the same as before when you drove while the REx didn’t work? Or does it get less sporty, like in Eco Pro+ mode?
    I did hardly feel any difference, if any. And in city driving none at all. It stays sporty if you’re not in Eco Pro+ mode, with or without REx activated.

  11. cab says:

    Great review. The outright performance/fun factor is the only thing lacking in my Volt for me and this is why the i3 is still on my list as a potential replacement. Also considering Volt 2.0, and the Audi A3 E-tron. I do wish the rex didn’t impact the 0-60 quite so badly (splits the diff between the non rex i3 and the Volt.

    1. Chris Neff says:

      Cab, seat of the pants feel the REx felt no slower, we were not doing any 0-60 times of course but it felt pretty quick and we got it to it’s top speed a number of times without issue

  12. James says:

    Chris,

    I was curious to hear Erin’s impressions – will that be in Part II?