This past weekend, BMW’s traveling automotive event, the Ultimate Driving Experience (UDE), visited the parking lots of Washington D.C.’s soon-to-be-demolished RFK Stadium. If you’ve never heard of the UDE, BMW describes it as an “immersive driving experience led by BMW professional driving instructors,” hitting 26 coast-to-coast stops in the U.S.
This was my second time attending BMW’s UDE, with my first in June of 2015. Eight years has seemingly gone by in the blink of an eye, and I recall the 2015 event including street drives in BMW demonstration vehicles, a steep ascent and descent course in an X5, and a timed autocross, where yours truly took FTD while driving a stock 4 Series Gran Coupe. It was a hoot! When factoring in the low cost of $0 for UDE tickets (it’s a free event), you better believe I was looking forward to attending again.
This year’s UDE focuses on BMW’s electric vehicles. There’s an “iX Experience”, an untimed autocross, and a fleet of demonstration vehicles that can be taken out for a spin, including i4s, Z4s, M850is, X5Ms, and more!
Since automotive experiences are always more fun shared with a friend, I saddled up with fellow BMW nut and CCA member Douglas Lerner for this UDE. Lerner says, “I’ve heard about the Ultimate Driving Experience over the years through communication from BMW, but I never attended.” What was different this time? “What interested me this year was that I’ve never driven an electric car—and it feels like the whole fleet is going electric—so I wanted to experience [BMW’s latest electric offerings] for myself,” Lerner reflects.
Despite late-morning Friday D.C. traffic, Lerner and I arrived right on time, 30 minutes before our 11:30 a.m. autocross reservation. This gave us ample opportunity to check out BMW’s display vehicles, many of which I hadn’t seen in person prior to this event.
Of the vehicles being showcased, the new M2 sat at the front of the pack (which I think looks great in person, by the way). I can’t get enough of the M2’s profile silhouette and beefy factory fenders. The new 7 Series with narrowed headlights and large grille made an appearance. I’ve only seen a few iXs in the wild, and maybe only a handful of M4 Competition convertibles, but it’s always a pleasure seeing these machines up close and personal. At the end of the lineup, the new XM stood out amongst the others with its BMW wheel caps aligned perfectly for the display. I’m not sure whether the center caps are self-leveling or if someone adjusted those after parking it, but it was a nice touch.
When our group was called for autocross, Lerner and I made our way to the designated waiting area, which was also a prime viewing location for the iX Experience. Here, a course is set up for attendees to drive the 516-horsepower iX, testing the vehicle’s acceleration, braking, and maneuverability through a course of cones. We saw a black iX launch and launch HARD. The front of the vehicle pointed to the sky as the rear squatted low. You’d expect to hear a motor screaming based on how quickly it shot out of the gate, but there were only sounds of rubber barely clinging to pavement as the iX is fully electric.
After being dazzled by this display of acceleration, we continued forward to the autocross course where W.G. Giles, a veteran UDE organizer, addressed the group. Giles does everything from running the tent where attendees wait to drive to driving instruction, and even designing the tracks. He says, “I’ve been involved with the Ultimate Driving Experience for almost 24 years now. I came in on the ground floor in Chicago, where we started in 1998. It’s been a great program, and we really enjoy what we do.”
Giles told our party of performance seekers that we would receive three instructed runs on the autocross course, switching between i4 M50s and 330es. He also laid down some basics for those just dipping their toes into performance driving: keep your eyes up, look where you want to go, and keep your inputs smooth. After watching an instructor drive the course at speed, it was showtime.
For my first stint, I hopped into a Portimao Blue Metallic 330e with instructor John Takehara. We lined up at the starting box marked with two tall yellow cones. Once the car in front of us was half way down the track, it was time to shred some tires on RFK’s rough pavement. The 330e was well balanced and with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with integrated electric motor that produces 288 horsepower and 258 pound-feet, it’s quick—sub six second 0-60 quick. Takehara pointed out areas where I could improve my line, where to lay into the throttle, and where to brake. After two laps around the course, I pulled back into the staging lane, grinning ear to ear.
The i4 M50 was next. I had driven one a few weeks prior when meeting a friend, Barry Bocaner, for lunch. Bocaner tossed me the keys after we ate, asking, “Have you ever driven an i4 M50?” While I didn’t thrash his car around any fun corners, I did tap into the power band, which is immense. Now that I was in a UDE demo car, it was time to party. Though I may have partied a little too hard because after complimenting my driving on the first lap, my instructor was eagerly pulling the electronic parking brake on the second lap. With great power comes responsibility—to the tune of 536 horsepower and 586 pound-feet in the i4 M50—and I suppose I wasn’t as responsible as I could have been. With a 3.3-second 0-60 time, it’s certainly the quickest vehicle I’ve ever driven.
For my third and final run, I was hoping to snag the same i4 M50 from my second run, to show the instructor that I had reflected and learned the error of my ways. While I did get into an i4 M50, it wasn’t the same one. I reigned in my high-voltage heroics, kept my eyes up, applied smooth inputs in steering, throttle, and brakes, which resulted in my best driving of the morning. And—wow!—those cars can scoot.
After our three runs, I reconnected with W.G. Giles about BMW’s Ultimate Driving Event. He works all but two of the 26 cities the UDE visits between March and Thanksgiving, so I asked what’s his favorite. Giles laughs, “Well, that’s a tough question. I base my city on what food I like the best. To be honest with you, I have a lot of fun when we go out west. There’s the California loop and also some great barbecue down in Texas. But I’m happy we were able to do the D.C. event this year. Normally we’re out at Fedex Field, but that wasn’t available this year. So, we came [to RFK Stadium], which is really nice because we’re close to town.”
Of his favorite BMWs to drive, Giles says, “Well, being a retired rally car driver and racer, I really enjoy the true M models, like the M3s, M2s—all that good stuff. But when it comes to what we’re doing out here today, I really love the 330e because it’s very nimble. It’s a great car with good balance. Though, I’m addicted to the 536 horsepower and 586 pound-feet in that i4 M50.”
After a couple of hours driving and spectating, Lerner and I headed back home to Virginia. As it was 2:00 p.m. and neither of us had eaten, we decided to stop for wings and chat more about our time at RFK Stadium. Over lunch, Lerner shared Giles’ sentiments. “I like the i4 M50 for its power—which was pretty amazing. The 330e was a bit more drivable, in that it felt more like what I’m used to driving, so while not wow’d by the power, the dynamics were more familiar, so that was fun,” Lerner says. Would he come back next year to have another go? “Yeah, and I’d be most interested in driving M cars of course–hint hint.” That makes two of us, Lerner!
So if you’re intrigued by an enjoyable experience playing with performance cars on BMW’s dime, head on over to the Ultimate Driving Experience website and see when they’re coming to a city near you. You won’t be disappointed! —Mike Bevels
[Photos by Mike Bevels.]