Some of my happiest memories from high school involved naively throwing my mother’s Honda Accord around the streets of our New Hampshire town. One of the scariest moments from that era was when my father unexpectedly pulled to the side of the road and insisted I learn how to drive a stick shift in his new Porsche. Today, both extremes—lead-footed abandon and abject terror—can be trained away and/or honed by the excellent instructors at BMW’s Teen Driving School.
The company recently invited me to bring a teen to Spartanburg, South Carolina, home to both a massive manufacturing plant and BMW’s first U.S. driving school (the second is at the Thermal Club outside of Palm Desert, CA). I chose the most recently licensed teen I know, my stepson-to-be, Gavin.
I warned Gavin, 18, that not only would he be pushed to the limits of learning in powerful cars, but there would be cameras tracking his every skid and squeal. Worse, he was going to be in a group not just of random teens from around the country, but the teenaged, family members of other automotive journalists. Resilient young man that he is, Gavin packed immediately.
The two-day course, which costs $1295, starts off with a classroom session led by chief instructor Derek Leonard. After a quick meet-and-greet, Leonard stated the goals of the next two days: Safety, fun, excitement and education—and likely not in that order. (To be sure, BMW also had some marketing goals, such as tapping that youth market.)
He then jumped right into specifics, such as keep your eyes up and look where you want to go—not at what you want to avoid. Make sure your seating position is upright and closer to the steering wheel than you think you should be. Hands should always be at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. And, adjust your side mirrors. According to Leonard, 80% of drivers adjust their side mirrors incorrectly and cause overlapping fields of vision—or what are commonly called blind spots. But as Leonard told the class, “There’s no such thing as a blind spot any more than there are unicorns and talking dolphins!”
By mid-morning, Gavin and the other 13 teens were put into teams and led outside to a flock of awaiting M235i’s. As one group was taught lessons in oversteer and understeer, the other group practiced lane changes and ABS braking—and with each run, at increasing speeds. By afternoon, they were competing for points on a challenge course.
Day Two turned the heat up even more with double lane-change exercises, high-speed braking, reverse skid pad laps and finally what BMW calls a “performance drive”—teens took turns doing laps on a small road course in several different BMWs, including a Z4 convertible (very popular), a 5 Series sedan, and an X3. By then, there was a clear air of confidence about all the students—but the school’s several instructors were on hand throughout, coaching each driver on what to do better next time via walkie-talkies.
Luckily, BMW runs concurrent adult driving schools so that I didn’t have to observe only. (Why should the teens have all the fun?)
In the end, for the cost of a new computer, 14 new drivers improved their road and car control skills. Some states even offer an insurance discount when presented with the graduation certificate each student received. BMW also is putting an abbreviated version of its Teen Driving School on the road around the U.S. this year—for free.
Of course, all that good, clean tire screeching came at a price for me: Gavin’s next wish is to attend BMW’s high-level, high-speed, high-performance M School. Given that one day costs $1,555, he is a young man of great taste—and now excellent driving skills.