BMWs sampled – the Ultimate Driving Experience ?

Yes Indeed:
Last year I was invited by BMW to the US launch of the double clutch M3. The day opened with a briefing on the car, all about how it used lightweight materials inspired by Formula 1 to achieve its performance. Recently Top Gear had compared it with the AMG C63 and whatever the relevant Audi offering was, ( they always have dead steering; not sure why you’d have one instead of the BMW/Merc) and found the BMW much faster on the track despite not having the power of the others, so I was ready for this, and happily geeked out during the “science bit”, drinking lots of coffee and admiring the tall German marketing chicks.

In short order they had us sign the waivers “…you will be insured if you stay on the prescribed route and within the speed limit…” they said, and then I was installed in a black cabrio, still not quite able to believe that they were fool enough to trust me. I drove out of the car park still half expecting someone to try to come with me, cramp my style, but it wasn’t to be.

I stopped at the side of the road, just to make sure I had it right: me, highly caffeinated; a 414hp supercar with 300 miles on it’s odo; a route designed by BMW to “better appreciate the capabilities of the new M3 DCT….” this, then, was not a moment for timidity, but rather to remember your two ( UK and US 😉 ) driving licenses, take courage, find the horn and main beam, hope other road users could use their mirrors, and mash the right pedal.

There were a couple of Mexican gardeners at work alongside where I had parked up, looking curiously at me. I left them two thirty foot streaks of rubber and about $100 in tyre smoke. The motor zinged to the redline like a sportsbike engine, all the power right there, right now. The DCT was sublime, the shifts were so seamless the car accelerated with a continual pin-you-in-your-seat-I-dare-you-to-hold-the-throttle-flat-for-another-few-seconds stream of absolute viscerality. At the stoplights, other road users goggled, while I awaited the next green and the cataclysmic performance – “Warp Speed, Mr Sulu…”

There was a twisty section, and it was stellar there, and when I felt out the brakes, they too were sublime, although I hardly tested them properly. I couldn’t believe that BMW – or more specifically the M division – had created an event which truly enabled you to experience the car, a car which accelerates like a sportsbike, and has turning and stopping power orders of magnitude better than any I had experienced in a road car.

Quite simply one of the best brand experiences I have ever had – I left wanting to work for BMWs M division, or at least get the logo tattooed into my forehead.

Not so much:
So thus it was when BMW mailed me offering me the chance of comparing the newish 7 series with the Mercedes S550, I seized the chance to do it, excited to be able to compare two of what are supposed to be “the best cars money can buy”.

After some hanging around in the rain outside the dealer, we were treated to a woeful presentation from some marketing teenagers, leaving me pretty much as uninformed as I had been before. Next, I was that I was rather surprised to find that despite my specifying in advance that I wanted to drive a 7, since that was the car featured in the invite they had sent me, they didn’t have one available. The theme of the event was BMWs sponsorship of the US Olympic team, and they suggested perhaps I wanted to speak to some Olympian chick instead ?

I indicated that I had come to a BMW dealer to drive a BMW, not talk to a rather ugly freakishly tall and thin pasty blonde about a sporting event I couldn’t care less about; a black 7 series was taken off the showroom floor for me, and the driving activities commenced.

I first spotted the current 7 series at Christmas 2008 – I spent the holiday period around Lake Como, and in the car park at the Villa d’Este I noticed what could only be a new 7–series, wearing some of the camouflage you see in car magazine’s “spy shots”of pre-production cars, Munich numberplates and a healthy covering of road grime. I liked the styling then, and the car I drove looked fabulous, but for one thing: it was a long wheel base version. Am I alone in feeling that the lines of big sedans are completely spoiled with the LWB body ? The proportions are all wrong. Stateside, the LWB cars are huge sellers, speaking to American’s need for acres of space, even in the back of a car; to me if you want space buy a minivan, don’t spend $lots, and then pick an option which has it’s human equivalent in a cleft lip.

The 7 was exactly as you might have expected – infact there was nothing about the driving experience which couldn’t have been surmised by looking at the car. I was faintly disappointed to be left that cold – I had been expecting to feel that I needed to earn about ten times more than I do so that I too could own one. I quickly got into the Mercedes – which incidentally they did have on hand, an S550. I drove exactly the same test route, and have to say that the main difference between the two was the shiny wood on the Merc’s wheel and console. There was a piece of road on the test route with a terrible washboard surface, which since it was raining had some standing water; giving each of these behemoths full gas down there had dashboards lit up like Christmas trees as the electronic jiggery pokery did its work. Both also absorbed the bumps and refused to do anything unpredictable – or interesting – even above 100mph. I found myself imagining how my Mustang would behave – keeping it straight would be an effort even on part throttle….

Soon I was tootling home in my wife’s 2004 325i automatic, borrowed especially for the day. It is underpowered, but I never let that worry me since the engine is sooo sweet, and it revs so freely right up to the redline; floor it, and it always seems to be in the right gear. It was owned new by BMW North America, and is loaded with options – the sportspack it has makes it corner indecently well, and the Boss likes the Harmon-Kardon stereo. Musing on this I realized that based purely upon my experiences that day, this car was no worse, infact barely any different from the two $100k monsters I had driven, while discerning any difference between them, other than their appearance, was splitting hairs.

So instead of choosing between the two I found myself doubting the value of these type of cars at all; with their pedestrian detection / lane change warning / cruise control linked to the car in front they are working to de-invent driving, just as Benz and Daimler invented it 125 years ago.

This is sad – it is a well known truism that what is on today’s Mercedes S-class will be on your Ford Focus in a decade, so we can expect this sort of insulation from the realities of motoring to be available to all very soon. Praise the Lord then for the M division, where the engineering brilliance is used to intensify the motoring experience rather than suffocate it in the name of – yawn – safety.