In other to become a fully-fledged automotive enthusiast, you must drive a [fill in the blank].
I am certain there will be many responses as to complete the sentence above. It will probably take an entire post to parse out every possible answer. There will most likely be a good chunk of people that will say that I need to drive a BMW once in my life to fulfill my destiny as an automotive guru of some sort.
They would probably be right. As I mentioned before a few times on this site, I have never driven a BMW. Not in my 32 years of driving. Just never had the chance, really.
You would probably press me for more of a sharpened response as to my reasons for never piloting a vehicle adorned with the Roundel badge. Or, rather to question some form of bias against the products of Bayeriche Motoren Werke of Munich. Seriously, I never had a chance to drive one – honest.
Yes, I like BMWs. I consider the 2002 as the purest form of the breed. The E24 6-Series marked a new era for BMW, as it became one of the most popular luxury coupes ever. Subsequent 3- and 5-Series models formed the basis of brand engagement for enthusiasts and upwardly mobile consumers alike. Of course, it would be an honor to drive one of these wonderful vehicles – again, if the opportunity presented itself.
What if I told you that I finally had a chance to drive a BMW? I am sure there will be much rejoicing in the land of Roundel. My BMW lovin' friends will probably pop open some bubbly and party until dawn. Other BMW owners would probably thank my editors, publishers and everyone else associated with this piece for finally bringing their beloved brand to these pages.
So, what was the big deal? Is a BMW like any other vehicle on the road? That was my thinking for quite a long time. There is no special ignition switch location or weird starting format to turn over the car. Nor am I welcomed with a special scent from the leather seats and a few calming chimes assuring me of its pulse.
Yet, the price of admission is higher than most of vehicles for sale in this country – or most places. Plus, their owners are fiercely loyal to the brand. You can conclude by quantifying the special status BMW has amongst its automotive peers.
The opportunity came as BMW was doing a special program for raise money for he United States Olympic Team, as they will soon compete in the summer games in London. It is a good cause, indeed. After all, the brand is the key automotive sponsor for both the games and our national participation in the Olympic Movement.
To fulfill my obligation to our nation's athletes, I fulfilled the void in my automotive history with my participation in this drive program. It was quite simple: You reserve a spot at a local BMW dealer through the brand’s web page, show up at your appointed day and time and drive in your choice of BMW vehicles.
One thing will be made clear: it is all about the F30 3-Series. You may end up reserved for a X3 or a 7-Series, but to increase the pot for our athletes heading to the London games, an obligatory drive in the new 3-Series is in order. You can also drive one of its competitors while you have the chance.
Like most consumer events, this is how you tout your best product – back-to-back drives between its main product and its challengers. Never mind the food spread at another part of the showroom or the temptation to buy a new BMW on the spot – I came to fulfill my goal. I came to finally drive the Roundel.
BMW of Minnetonka, a huge retailer west of Minneapolis, hosted the last stop in the Twin Cities for the drive event, before this particular leg of the tour loops around South Dakota and Iowa towards Chicago. My luck had it that they had plenty of BMWs on site to drive. My reservation had me in the big 7-Series. Not my first choice to lose my Bavarian virginity, but, as they say, "any port in the storm."
This was no ordinary 7-Series that I took onto U.S. Highway 12, Interstate 494 and a beautiful back road connecting Minnetonka and Wayzata. The 750Li had a 4.4litre V8 with dual turbochargers spewing 400 horsepower under that massive nose. That force of nature was channeled through a six-speed automatic gearbox sending it onward through its xDrive system to all four corners. It made taking this route a very relaxing experience.
I found the 7er simply too big, however. Not in terms of weight, but rather a mixture of bulk, girth and the fact that you can cart more than just three humans behind you – not all sitting. The rear passenger compartment is extraordinary – an apt compliment for the model itself.
From there, the complaints begin. I found the gear selector on the console odd to work with. It is not the fact that you have to press a button, and then flip a pseudo gear shifter that is further from the driver than most. Then, there was the huge screen in the middle of the cabin, combined with the iDrive knob on the console. I was unsure whether to attempt to understand it or take it for what it is. It was bad enough that I was unable to find the door locks.
At close to $96,000, it also set the benchmark as the most expensive vehicle I ever drove. Still, it challenged my soul to fulfill this line item on my Bucket List. If you look at BMW’s heritage, the 7-Series is a "Johnny come lately." The 5-Series lineage goes further back to when they were the largest sedan offered by Munich.
To balance out my experience, I took the wheel of the new 3-Series.
Let us get one thing out of the way: The three new interior atmospheres touted at the launch are not the only models available to 3-Series customers. BMW offers a standard model that is well equipped and provides an honest and pure experience for the enthusiast. Seriously, who needs the Luxury or Modern model? The Sport model night as well be rebadged as an "M Sport." The starter 328i is really all you need.
In fact, I felt more comfortable in the standard sedan's clutches. The seats are big and cuddly – two adjectives you would never associate with a 3er. Having such seats helped in enjoying the entire driving experience – which is very good. I like the fact that I do not need to go to the iDrive knob to switch drive modes – the Sport setting being the most enjoyable. You can also switch the button next to your seat to ECO PRO – the only way you can get near the economy figures touted by BMW.
The 3er is not perfect. That gear lever for the 8-speed automatic transmission is the same as the one I experienced in the 7er. I am certain that clutch pedal drivers would fare better than us who are not competent in two-feet operation. The biggest complaint was with the stop-start system that is connected to the new 2.0litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Having dealt with these systems – I am not a fan. If you can create one that is unobtrusive – meaning one you cannot hear or feel it working – I would be on board. The BMW's system in the new 3er was no different. All I want to know is whether I can turn it off in the 328i.
Do not think I am not on board with the new 3er. I actually loved the experience of driving the biggest target in the entire luxury market. The F30 3-Series was a damn good car. Any more positive statements do you want me to say?
However, the 3er was not the best experience I had that late afternoon. I had to take a competitor out and found myself very, very surprised.
The Audi A4 just went through a model change recently for 2013, so BMW had a 2012 2.0litre front-wheel drive model for us to compare the 3er with. I understand why and felt that is not an exact comparison with the F30 3er. What they did not expect was someone like me who might like it…better.
Compared to the electronic and digitized experience inside the 3er, the A4 felt more "real." The 2012 A4 offered up a real automatic gearshift with a key fob you can slot and use as a starter. It had tauter seats, but they were big and fit me just right. The big TFT screen in the center was more integrated with the rest of the instrument panel – something I prefer over a pop-up screen.
There was no stop-start system or any other surprises that popped up while driving the A4. I felt a dull pulse from the brakes at full stop, but it was not alarming to prompt a question. Maybe I should ask whether it was an issue, despite the fact that the A4 stopped like a champ.
Yet, both the 3er and the A4 drove exceptionally well. They offer up similar experiences despite different approaches to achieve the same result. While the A4 offered more grunt and immediacy under the right foot, the 3er danced on the curves flatter and braked better. On the other hand, the A4 had a slightly better steering action.
I can honestly say that the F30 3er was indeed a handsome devil – especially in standard trim. The outgoing A4 – as well as the new 2013 model – were simply plain and polarizing to look at. It is a tough decision when playing with at least $38,000 and wanting a sporting smallish sedan to announce your upwardly mobile ambitions.
To understand this market is to truly get behind the wheel of these cars. That was my main goal when participating in this BMW event. Sure, I would welcome a 3er and/or an A4 to the V&R Garage for evaluation. Yet, I am not entirely comfortable having one in my daily routine. Maybe because luxury brands have a perception of over-the-top excellence that one has to afford to maintain. Or, maybe I am too plebian to trust myself with a premium vehicle from Germany. At least I felt that I have caught up with my colleagues in terms of the experience of driving a BMW (well, two – plus a modern Audi) to at least understand that market better.
As for the event's intentions – good luck in London next month, athletes!
DISCLAIMER: All vehicles provided by BMW of North America via BMW of Minnetonka, Minnetonka, MN
All photos by Randy Stern