How often are there several fast BMWs lined up for your pleasure on a racetrack? Not often I must say, so how could I say no? There are far worse problems in the world.
Last month I was sent to the smoldering La Quinta, a small resort city near Palm Springs, in the midst of July. For those that are unfamiliar with the region, I can sum it up in two words: it’s hot. And I mean hot; Everyday was upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This was all part of a training program to be a BMW Genius. A Genius is a new(ish) role in the BMW retail world with goals to bring the cars and BMW experience closer to the customer. While most of the week was spent in a ice-cold conference room of a hotel (who thought I would have been cold this week?), one afternoon we were shepherded to the Thermal Club. For those unfamiliar, the Thermal Club is a private racetrack nearby that also plays home to the BMW Performance Center. Here, BMW enthusiasts and owners sample cars in a fast, controlled environment, whilst perfecting their driving skills. We would be given the chance to see just how well modern BMWs excel on the track and to provide us with some fun.
The victims? M235i’s, M6, M4, X5M, and a 340i.
My first rendezvous was with a soaked, concrete skidpad and an M235i. And it was downright marvelous. I had never driven on a skidpad, let alone one with sprinklers, but the natural balance of the small Bimmer turned it into an arcade. In the halfway-traction control setting ‘sport +,’ the M235i couldn’t stop spinning the rear tires even up to 3rd gear at 30 MPH (8 speed ZF auto), such was the slickness of the surface. But use the throttle to steer and it became just epic fun, holding long slides circle after circle. Sure, it required lots of steering input, not in terms of angle, but constantly changing from turn-in and countersteering. The 320 horses made by the Gillette-smooth 6 were more than plenty, and anything more would’ve surely resulted in some serious spins. The strangled steering feel also didn’t make for any issues here. Great seats too help prevent you from flailing around the cabin when sideways as well.
Next was a permanent autocross circuit, not even a half mile in length to sample a few of the M’s (and half-M’s). The M6 Compeition was first and starting off slowly to get a feel for the car and circuit, I can’t go on enough about how nice of the car the big 6 is. The cabin is such a lovely place to be, though the buttons and controls that are shared with lesser BMWs slightly cheapen the feel, the overall aroma of it all put the thought into the back of your mind. The demonic sounding V8 also is a nice touch. But soon it becomes clear that, even with the competition package, the M6 is not at home here. The power is incredible and the brakes do a remarkable job hauling the yacht back down, but the weight shows itself in corner transitions through the quick couple esses for us to play with. I’m sure on the large, real Thermal Club it would be sublime, being able to use the wider tarmac of an actual race track, but the thin confines of the autocross don’t encourage the all-out attack that the next car begs for.
Which brings us to the M4. And no, it’s not even the new-for-2016 Competition, just a standard M4. Immediately it’s such a more focused car here. Blasting down the short straightaway it doesn’t even feel any slower than the M6, which was barely clearing it’s breath by 70 MPH. Everything else, the braking, the turn-in with ferocious front bite, and the rotation the Active M diff provides is sublime. I’m not terribly fond of the M4 as a road car, but here in a closed and controlled environment, it really makes its case known. I found it best to turn in with a trailing throttle to help keep the back end rotating slightly to help hit each apex and propel down to the next braking zone. The standard steel brakes seize forward momentum rapidly, with no fade encountered either. The S55 up front never needed full revs, being more than happy to live right in the midrange at 4-5k. The DCT also gave snappy changes up and down on command. Track driving is what the M4 yearns for. If you have one and are yet to unleash it on a track, please do so before the years out.
And then came the oddball of the group: the X5M. Now, I’m still not quite sure why this ‘thing’ exists. But when talking about defying physics, it’s the first-prize at the science fair. Quite how it’s able to go around corners so quickly is beyond me. Braking points are much earlier too than the M4, with the car leaning on its outside tires as the 4WD system figures out how to help you around the bend. Sure, it’s somewhat satisfying charging down sports cars in a 2.5 ton SUV, but the experience is rather muted, more interesting than fun. If you can afford the price of one, why not buy a diesel X5 and an M4 for this sort of work? Though if you want one to do it all, then it’s perfect for that niche. It is blazingly fast, and impressive, but it’s no sports car.
The last on this section was an M235i again, but now in a totally new environment. Here, compared to the others, it shows it’s lack of real M-credentials. Not to say it wasn’t fun, in fact it was the most playful of the bunch from its lack of focus. Power is mundane after the M’s, but it’s still plenty for this tight track. Under braking and cornering there is much less composure and more body roll, going into understeer when pushed too hard, but still maintains great control and adjustability to play with the chassis. While not as fast in any direction, it becomes more involving as it requires more work, and I rather like that. Conclusions from this section came to be that while the M4 was the best on the autocross, the M235i was a close second for its irreverent brand of fun.
And lastly we moved again to another autocross, being longer and more technical, and with the least dynamically capable car here: the 340i. The new 340i replaces the 335i with a host of small suspension tweaks and a new power plant compared the now defunct 335i. It also makes 20 more BHP. The overall feel of the car is very akin to the M235i but with a chassis that’s prone to even more roll and a differential that can’t quite put all the power down through corners. Having driven the 340i on the road it’s a fantastic piece of kit for daily driving, but it’s less at home here. However, like the M235i, the waywardness of the chassis made for a highly involving experience. Though it showed understeer in the tight hairpin of the circuit, fighting that force and driving the car out using the power made for a satisfying time. In the two higher speed sweepers it was oversteer that had to be fought, and again it was fun despite the lack of balance. If the car were perfect, it wouldn’t be a challenge.
As the engines, tires, and brakes cooled, I reflected on an incredible experience at the BMW Performance Center. Driving a BMW on the road is one thing, but having the time on a track in one is leagues better than one could hope for. It wasn’t my first track day in my life, or my first at Thermal, but the adrenaline never gets old. The three instructors on hand for the day, Dave McMillan, Emile Bouret, and Adam Seaman, were astounding as well, giving great guidance and keeping us in check safety wise. After we were done, they took us out for drift laps in M3s, showing us how capable the cars are in the right hands. Mission accomplished guys. If you’re considering one of the programs at Thermal I highly encourage giving it a go, for the great facilities and instructors, let alone the cars. Now to browse parts catalogs to see about making my old ZHP ready for an autocross…