Sitting in the driver's seat of the 2018 BMW i3s, facing down a sea of pylons in the parking lot of what was once one of Europe's premier motorsports facilities, is as close to driving a Formula E car as I am likely to get. If you listen closely at Portugal's Autodromo do Estoril you can still hear the echoes of Jacques Villeneuve's Williams passing Michael Schumacher's Ferrari in the last-ever F1 race here held during the former's 1996 championship season—but today's exploits will take place under a cone of silence, with only the squealing rubber and whoosh of air being displaced by the hatchback's upright shape disturbing the chilly fall scene.
I've never attempted to beat the clock behind the wheel of an electric vehicle, and in fact, this marks the first time I've piloted a high-performance EV of any kind for the simple reason that there really aren't many of them out there. Start with the Tesla Model S, and skip the is-it-in-production-or-not Tesla Model, and you'll land directly on the BMW i3s. This new take on the brand's premium all-electric four-seater is pretty much the last stop for fun-seekers before delving into good, but blander fare like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, because while hi-po hybrids abound, battery-only fun-fare is still thin on the ground.
For those unfamiliar with the standard i3, a recap: 2018's model gains a standard 33 kWh battery (removing last year's less-capacious power pack from the list), adds a number of cosmetic updates (lighting, colors, chrome), and upgrades the vehicle's iDrive display. Output remains the same, with 170 horses and 184 lb-ft of torque sent to the rear wheels via a single-speed direct drive transmission, and battery range is advertised as 'approaching' 125 miles under ideal conditions. The entire package weighs in at a chuckable 2,900 lbs, with most of that mass taking the form of the vehicles power cells.
The i3s I'm piloting, however, takes things a step further in both the suspension and drivetrain departments. Starting with the chassis, the vehicle blows out its fenders with a track that's been stretched by 40 mm and features 20-inch rims that are wider than what you'd find on the base i3 (and which are wrapped in more aggressive rubber that trades hypermile-slick for stick in the pursuit of more grip). The car also rests on springs that provide a 10 mm drop, placing its already-low center of gravity that much closer to the ground.
In terms of power, the i3s' gains are modest, checking in at a 14 horsepower / 15 lb-ft of torque increase over stock. It's the method of delivery that makes them worth mentioning, as BMW has altered the electric motor in the car to increase its ability to sustain forward thrust at higher speeds (a common weak spot among EVs), while also introducing a Sport drive mode over and above what the regular i3's programming provides. Sport significantly sharpens the electric engine's attack and slices nearly a half second off of the car's run to 60-mph (which takes 6.8 seconds).
Combined with its narrow wheelbase and instant-on torque delivery, the BMW i3s would seem to be an ideal autocross option, and I heave the car onto the course with vigor. The initial straight-line run takes place through a long, water-slicked slab of asphalt, leading me into a 180-degree sweeper that feeds a slalom and ends in a pair of sharp S-curves that double as a hard braking zone. My first run is surprisingly understeer-free, the nose of the i3s happy to turn in and nip the slalom's pylons at the heels, but my second, over-confident attempt has me pushing like a telemarketer through the outside edge of the first corner until I lay off the accelerator and resign myself to a slow time. I run through again, this time in Sport mode with stability control backed down, and easily feel the tail progressively sliding out under reduced scrutiny from the electronic nannies. The end result is one of the most natural EV drives I've ever experienced.
After a few more passes, it was time to check my driving ego and take the right-hand seat for a trio of passes at the hands of former German Touring Car champion Bruno Spengler. The incredibly talented pilot threw anything resembling caution to the wind as the hit the wet start at full gallop, adding opposite lock to drift nimbly through the upcoming corner and then clip each pylon's base as the he vaporized the slalom. Even the tight confines of the course's end—for me a minefield of squared-off switchbacks—is parsed with incredible speed and skill. I can't decide whether I'm more flummoxed with Spengler's supernatural skills, the supreme confidence with which the i3s responded to his flogging, or the near-silent adrenaline rush of the entire experience.
Estoril's parking lot setup is intended to highlight the BMW i3s' excellent body control when aimed through abrupt transitions in both speed and direction. The one thing it doesn't reveal is the substantial booming bumpiness of the stiffer suspension system when run over rough roads like the narrow lanes crisscrossing Portugal's capital of Lisbon, where I started my day in the EV. It's not sports car rough, but it's substantially less compliant than the regular i3, which will likely narrow the buyer base for the s model to those who don't mind occasionally scrambling their eggs on the way to work in the morning.
There's also the matter of asking the electric car crowd to pay more for a model that doesn't bring them any additional driving range—and in fact will most likely offer fewer miles per charge if driven in the spirited manner in which it was intended to be enjoyed. The 2018 BMW i3s starts at $47,650, about a $3,000 premium over the base i3, and while you also get the flared fenders and muscular front and rear bumper treatments to let everyone else know you opted for performance over prudence, it feels like the market for somewhat-quicker, autocross-oriented special model electrics is the very definition of niche. At least until we get the i3M.
2018 BMW M5
How do you follow up a version of your flagship performance sedan that was perceived as enormously fast but not quite as fun as it could have been, especially in comparison to the expectations engendered by its excellent ancestors? If you're BMW, you do your best to push the next-generation M5 into the best-in-class four-door sports car conversation by embracing the same technologies that have put rivals like the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S and the Audi RS7 there, but in a way that doesn't completely let go of the past.
So it goes with the 2018 BMW M5, a car that updates its 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 engine to churn out 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque and which introduces both a standard eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive into the equation for the very first time. The gearbox avoids the complication of clutches in favor of a torque converter, while the AWD (or 4WD setup, as BMW as has labeled it) prioritizes sending torque to the rear wheels to such a degree that there's even a nanny-free 2WD mode baked into its firmware.
On the street it's difficult to find fault with the new M5, as it devoured Portugal's highways with an alarming degree of sophistication and speed while remaining completely docile in urban traffic. On the Estoril circuit BMW's big sedan alternated between unflappable and unhinged, its all-wheel drive system inviting a bit of sideways slip when set to 4WD Sport mode with the M Dynamic stability program selected and practically requiring it when drifting along in 2WD mode.
One could argue that the civilizing effects of computer-controlled all-wheel drive and the lack of a third pedal on the options sheet have pushed the 2018 BMW M5 even closer to its German rivals in terms of overall experience and capability, and it would be difficult to refute that assertion. Still, if the worst thing to be said about the M5 is that it's a little too much like the RS7 or E63 S, well, that's a bit like complaining that the beaches in California remind you a little too much of Hawaii's sun-kissed sand. Suck it up and enjoy it, buttercup.