Speed Dating with BMW
Usually when we evaluate a car we have days behind the wheel, or at least several hours, to come to terms with our opinions. After all, it's hard to get a fully rounded view of a car after only a few minutes.
But there are also times where we're called to "speed date" a variety of vehicles over a brief period of time. This was the case at the BMW Group Test Fest, a day-long event at the Thermal Raceway near Palm Springs, California. Why there? Because it's also the West Coast home to the BMW Performance Driving School, the place to go for BMW enthusiasts looking to expand their track-driving skills, or enhance their on-road car control skills.
I didn't do the school, but I did get some seat time in a plethora of BMW and Mini cars on the street and the track. There wasn't enough time for everything, but here are our speed dating cards for five different BMWs, and one Mini.
2018 BMW X3
Pros: Excellent to drive, powerful 4-cylinder makes you question the need for the 6-cylinder; luxurious and capable
Cons: Options add up surprisingly fast
This isn't our first experience with the new 2018 BMW X3, but those impressions were in Europe, and only in the 6-cylinder powered M40i model. This was the X3 xDrive30i, powered by BMW's excellent 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and with a decidedly less enthusiast-oriented ride and handling package. Still, the drive to Palm Springs was exceptionally pleasant. Quiet, comfortable, and with no lack of power detected on the uphill sections of the route, the new X3 was a delightful companion for the drive. I even had the chance to test its all-weather capability while driving through a storm. At one point, it was simultaneously raining, hailing, sleeting and snowing, and the X3 simply shrugged the foul weather off, wiped the weird precipitation combination from its windshield, and continued without complaint. Wirelessly connecting Apple CarPlay through Bluetooth is notably preferable to using a cord, especially if you have a newer iPhone and can take advantage of the Qi-compatible wireless charging pad. The biggest downside: Options inflated the $43,500 base price to more than $57,600.
Dating Advice: Seems steadfast at first, but expensive tastes mean you should watch your wallet.
2018 BMW i3s
Pros: Good handling, great torque, tons of front-seat room, excellent visibility
Cons: Odd looking, interior layout different for difference's sake, peculiar ergonomics, short range
While there were other 2018 BMW i3s models around for us to drive, my wheel time came during the autocross competition that was set up in the parking lot at Thermal. The course was short, and it seems unusual to whip a skinny-tired, odd-looking EV around a track. But the i3s acquitted itself admirably around the 28-second course. The battery is under the floor, meaning that the center of gravity is exceptionally low. This means that despite its tall proportions the i3s doesn't lean so much in corners, letting it make the most of its bicycle-looking tires, and proving to be quite fun. The electric engine doesn't provide the aural thrills of the M3 or M5--or anything else for that matter--but that low-end torque is something to love.
Dating Advice: Goofy without a doubt, but with an intriguing wild side.
2018 BMW 640ix GT
Pros: Comfortable, luxurious, high-tech, useful thanks to the liftback cargo area
Cons: Some tech is more useful than others, still not the prettiest BMW you can buy, pricey
The 2018 BMW 640ix Gran Turismo is a quasi-SUV version of the BMW 640ix Gran Coupe, which itself is a 4-door version of a 2-door that's no longer sold in the U.S. Peculiar genetics aside, the 640ix GT makes a good case for itself, despite its $70,000 entry price. There's enough cargo space for the GT to be genuinely useful as a utility vehicle, but it manages to avoid the ungainly styling of the bulkier BMW X6. It's no surprise that the GT is exceptionally comfortable on the streets, with the kind of ride and handling one expects from a luxury-branded car. That holds true even over the poorly maintained farm roads near the track. Switch it to one of its sporty settings and you get better throttle response and a choppier ride, with the expectation of better handling that was hard to determine on the straight and flat roads of our test drive. Best of all, the interior is exceptionally luxurious, with all the high-tech features one expects from BMW these days. That includes the company's gesture controls which, for us at least, remain interesting but useless. Better is the company's futuristic 3D parking view, which simulates an external side view of the car using cameras, sensors, and possibly magic.
Dating Advice: Not cheap, but a graceful combination of luxury and practicality means mom might approve.
2018 Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4
Pros: Nicely efficient, quick, fun, unique styling, Mini cachet
Cons: Pricey, interior has too many cheap touches, EV range is only so-so
The latest from the increasingly misnamed Mini brand, the 2018 Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4's biggest story is under the hood. There, you'll find a turbocharged 134-hp gasoline engine from the standard Mini Cooper, augmented by an 87-hp electric motor. The result is a subcompact premium SUV that cleverly masks its hybrid nature with a 0-60 mph time of about 6.8 seconds. Good things it's quick, because the 12-mile EV range and combined 27 mpg is behind the PHEV standard set by the Prius Prime, Chevy Volt, and many other more modern plug-ins. Its non-mini size means that it's perfectly livable, with a decently sized rear seat and good cargo space, too. On the road the electric motor's torque wholly masks the 3-cylinder's lack of oomph, and the E Countryman feels downright peppy as a result. The base price is about $38,000, and options add up quickly, which puts it on the higher end of plug-in hybrids, and it makes the hard plastics inside a bit harder to ignore. Still, there's nothing quite like it on the road, and the S E Countryman All4 surely fits in the Venn diagram between uniqueness, efficiency, fun, and (relative) affordability.
Dating Advice: Cute and quirky, but maybe making promises it can't keep.
2018 BMW M3 Sedan with M Performance Parts
Pros: Looks great, outstanding performance, M Performance parts can be wrapped into financing
Cons: M Performance parts aren't cheap, visual modifications are less than subtle
Everyone already knows the BMW M3 is amazing to drive. What isn't quite as well known is BMW's M Performance Parts division, which is the company's in-house aftermarket parts program. The difference between M Performance and many third-party aftermarket companies is that the parts are developed specifically from the company making the car, and they can be wrapped into your financing if you so choose. The M3 at the track had many additions, including an M Performance suspension, exhaust system with carbon fiber tailpipes, and a ton of carbon fiber exterior parts, including a rear diffuser and wing-type spoiler. The additional parts added nearly $20,000 to the price of the M3, which already has a base price of around $65,000. But the sound and the looks of the M3 with the extra parts was extraordinary, and the car's performance on the track was exceptional.
Dating Advice: Hard to live with a 24/7 party animal, but tons of fun while the party's raging.
2018 BMW M5
Pros: So fast, so luxurious, so extraordinarily capable under all conditions
Cons: So expensive
We drove the all-new 2018 BMW M5 in Portugal late last year, and to summarize: It's awesome. So awesome in fact that I saved it for last here, at its U.S. debut, to ensure that I'd end the day on a high note. The 2018 M5 did not disappoint. It boasts a twin-turbo 600 horsepower 4.4-liter V8 engine, all-wheel drive, an excellent 8-speed automatic transmission, programmable driver modes, and more features that make life with a $103,000 high-performance sedan worth living. Out on the street though, the M5 was surprisingly docile. This is no musclebound one-trick pony, instead, it's perfectly capable in your day-to-day drive over all types of pavement. On the track, I got an inadvertent demonstration of the different driving modes. At first, the M5 felt surprisingly soft, but a couple laps in I realized I had left the different modes in "Comfort." A few quick button presses to "Sport+" and the M5 felt like the sport sedan it really is; with the tap of the M button on the steering wheel, it felt doubly so.
Dating Advice: We're in love, mom, and you're just going to have to accept it!