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Free BMW Teen Driver Ed!

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/8/2015 Frank Markus

The morning before I was to meet my 16-year-old nephew, Tony, at BMW's Teen Driving School event in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I jolted awake at the sight of a text message from my sister. "OMG Tony just totaled the PT." No injuries, thank heaven, but the PT Cruiser with the Mobileye device I had helped them procure when his brother Nick turned 16 was done for. Well, this school is happening a few days late, but let's go try to prevent the next one…

Research

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed BMW invited a small group of journos to bring their newly minted driver relatives to attend the two-day teen driving course it's been offering since 1999 as a way of promoting the scaled-down traveling road-show version touring the country this summer. One- and two-day courses hosted at the Performance Driving Center in Spartanburg and at BMW's new driving center at the Thermal Club track in Palm Springs, California, cost $775 and $1,295 respectively (less 15 percent for BMW Car Club members). But there's also a free version currently traveling the country with the " Ultimate Driving Experience."

These nine-day UDE events are set up in gigantic parking lots and feature a variety of mostly free driving events for adults, allowing them to sample some of the 90 BMW vehicles on hand in skidpad, lane-change, road course, and autocross-type exercises. During the closing weekend of each nine-day event, a two-hour driving school is offered at no cost to drivers under 21 years of age. It includes classroom instruction and hands-on driving of BMW 228i and X1 vehicles. It is free, but all participants are highly encouraged to reserve time slots, because space is limited and nobody has fun waiting in lines. See below for a list of remaining dates and times.

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed Our school starts bright and early on Saturday morning, but on Friday night the classmates started to get to know each other with some friendly go-karting at Frankie's Fun Park, where the slick track provides some valuable early lessons in understeer and oversteer. It also helps identify those teens who are into cars and driving and those that might not have been quite as geeked about spending a weekend "in school." Tony probably ranks somewhere in the middle of that scale.


Classroom Session

School starts with an hour of classroom instruction that covers the very same topics the free school covers. See how much of this is news to you seasoned pros:

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed

  • Vision: Always look where you want to go, not at what you're trying to avoid.
  • Seat/steering wheel/pedal/mirror positioning:
  • Sit high for visibility—no more than four fingers between your head and the ceiling.
  • Keep your legs bent and ensure they remain bent a little when pressing on the floor beneath the brake pedal to maintain leg leverage (not ankle leverage) throughout the stroke of the pedal.
  • Keep your arms bent for steering leverage -- an outstretched arm palming the top of wheel is a good test.
  • Mirror adjustment: Lean your head against the side window and adjust the driver-side mirror to just show the side of the car. Lean a similar amount toward the middle and adjust the passenger-side mirror the same way.
  • Hands at 9 and 3 o'clock on the wheel. Those bumps at 10 and 2 are for your thumbs to push up against, not to rest atop, providing optimal leverage, range of motion (~200 degrees), and memory of straight ahead.
  • Weight transfer/contact patches: All driving forces channel through four small contact patches, but careful use of the gas and brake can expand or contract those patches as needed.
  • Understeer: When the car delivers less turn than you asked for, simply lift off the gas to increase the load on the front contact patches, thereby increasing their turning ability.
  • Oversteer: When the car delivers more turn than you bargained for. Remember C.P.R.:
  • Correct -- look in the direction you want to go and turn the wheel that way.
  • Pause -- the car's motion is like a pendulum. Then the tail stops swinging out, stop turning the wheel.
  • Recover -- steer back the way you were originally trying to go.

After the preamble, chief instructor Derek Leonard pairs the students up, outlines their first few exercises -- similar exercises to the first four are included in the free two-hour course -- and sends them out to the 2015 335i M Sport school cars. The school maintains a fleet of 130 cars, most of which are bone-stock save for fitment of Continental tires, as that brand sponsors the school to the tune of 3,000 tires per year.


Free BMW Teen Driver Ed!

Slalom

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed The warm-up exercise is to drive through a slalom at moderate speed, focusing on planning two cones ahead, not looking at the cone currently being negotiated. The newest drivers invariably need goading to achieve tire scrubbing/squealing speeds, while the car-guy go-kart champs need calming down slightly. The instructor is mostly telling Tony to look farther ahead, via the two-way radio.


ABS Braking

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed What could be easier? Drive up to a set speed and slam on the brakes. Most folks are too gentle on the brakes, so the kids are promised a free BMW if they can break off the brake pedal. The instructors can totally tell from outside whether the driver nailed the brake or not. Tony's driving partner, Alexa, gets called out for her brake-system kindness. Learning from her experience, Tony goes for the free Bimmer.


Skidpad

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed The Performance Center's 250-foot diameter wet polished-concrete circle holds the distinction of hosting the world-record longest drift, at 51 miles. Today we're not trying to sustain those angles, but to correct them. Understeer comes first, holding a constant steering angle, adding power until the car pushes, then lifting to correct. Easy-peasy. It's when they start goosing the throttle to kick the rear out that we start getting some dramatic looping. Tony catches on quickly, prompting his instructor to recommend he return for the M Performance School.


Single Lane-Change

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed Here the teen driver hurtles toward a blocked lane and has to jink left to clear it without hitting the apex cone, the obstacle corner cone, or any of the cones defining the outer edge of the second lane. Many drivers need to be reminded it's not their car, so turn it violently! With some coaching from Uncle Frank, Tony lines up along the right edge of the entry cones (not the middle), and clears everything on the early, lower speed pass at 30 mph, but starts hitting cones as the speeds rise in 5 mph increments. But with instructor coaching, his final run at 45 mph is clean.


Handling Course

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed This big, open circuit features a mild slalom and a bunch of corners marked with apex cones designed to show the difference between increasing and decreasing radius turns, and once again, the kids are hectored to look farther into the next turns. In each exercise, Tony's partner Alexa drives first and gets reprimanded, so Tony gets to look like a pro by making fewer of her mistakes.


Water Walls

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed The object here is to drive down the center of a two-lane road at 20 mph, out of which one-lane wide sprays of water can sprout unexpectedly, and these must be avoided. Everyone does well on their first run, then the instructor asks them to pick up the radio and answer questions (like count backwards from 64 by 3s) while they try it a second time, and of course the distraction degrades everyone's performance significantly.


Points Run—Midterm

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed The "midterm exam" of the two-day course (or the final of the one-day) requires students to accelerate briskly to 40 mph, negotiate a lane change without touching the brake, hurtle toward a drastically decreasing-radius U-turn, accelerate back up to 45 mph, clear a narrow gate, negotiate a slalom, and come to an ABS stop within a coned box -- with no dithering the brakes to get the tail in. Tony meets his Waterloo by clipping the apex cone of the decreasing radius turn in EACH of his three runs, plus one slalom cone. He ends up with 8 cone-points.


Double-Lane Change

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed On Day 2 the driving starts immediately and includes some of the same exercises as Day 1. Unique exercises include an over-and-back lane change. I'm astonished by how the instructor manages to stand directly in front of a car hurtling toward her at 30-45 mph while noticing intimate details such as where students are looking, how their bodies move, where their hands are on the wheel, etc. Tony manages improve with each run, catching only the initial apex cone on his last run -- the best one to hit, as it's not the corner of the imaginary semi.


Interstate Braking in a Curve

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed Starting at 55 mph, and increasing by 5 mph increments to 70, the students must ABS the car to a stop while negotiating a turn, braking at a cone. After having done that, they must pass the braking cone at the given speed, then decide where to apply full-ABS braking in order to stop within a coned box. Much trickier, but Tony manages to stick it in the box in all but the 70 mph run.


Points Run—Final Exam

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed Each student runs the same lane change, decreasing U-turn, slalom circuit again. On Tony's first run he clips the lane-change cone. On his second he clips the dreaded "Tony Cone" in the U-turn. Then, Eureka! The third run is clean. With added practice and concentration, the class of 14 students drops its penalty points total from 160 to 74 points, with one of the youngest participants -- Brett Berk's 15-year-old niece Finley -- clearing three 0-point runs.

After the serious instruction is over, the teens are invited to sample the BMW range, driving a Z4, an M235i, a 550i, and an X6 xDrive50i on a different handling circuit.

They end their experience by sampling the center's modest off-road driving circuit in an X3. My nephew -- whose driving experience was largely limited to a first-gen Odyssey with 300K miles, and the late, lamented PT Cruiser -- was favorably impressed with the 50/50 weight distribution and RWD dynamics of the BMW range. He also reported his pleasant surprise that the experience was "less school-y and more fun than expected." And sorry, Tony, your $4,000 PT Cruiser-replacement budget will not support any BMW you can pay to maintain. Go to college, buy a new one, set the seats and mirrors correctly, look into the corners, and drive it safely.


BMW Ultimate Driving Experience/Teen Driving School dates, locations

  • April 11-18/19: East Rutherford, New Jersey at MetLife Stadium
  • May 9-16/17: Miami, Florida at Hialeah Park
  • June 6-13/14: Washington, D.C. at FedExField
  • July 25-August 1/2: Seattle, Washington at Emerald Downs
  • August 15-22/23: Los Angeles, California at Santa Anita Racecourse
  • September 12-19/20: Phoenix, Arizona at Phoenix Raceway
  • October 3-10/11: Dallas, Texas at Lone Star Park
  • October 24-31/November 1: Chicago, Illinois at Arlington Racecourse
  • November 14-21/22: New York, New York at Citi Field

BMW Teen Drivers Ed© Provided by MotorTrend BMW Teen Drivers Ed
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