Last Friday I was fortunate to attend the ///M Driving Experience by BMW Mexico at the Amozoc (Puebla). I have taken several driving courses before (Porsche Driver Training, BMW Driver Training, BMW Performance Driving School, BMW CCA courses at Oktoberfest, etc) and attend the track in my cars about every 2 months or so on average. This was one of the most fun experiences I've had. This was the available lineup and we got to drive all of them: M135i (2x), 335i Sport Line, 335i M Sport, X6M, M3 Competition Package DCT, M5 Competition Package DCT
We had 3 exercises and after that an open track (with an instructor-led pace car) session where we drove each of 6 cars back to back for 3 laps each at pretty much full tilt. It helped that most of the attending students where quite experienced. My GF attended with me and took the lessons too. She is getting to be quite the track driver gradually. I am proud of her.
The first exercise was a hard braking and line perfecting exercise for which we got an M135i hatch, automatic, with non-adjustable dampers. It was a great fun exercise that required skill and concentration. My GF did 6 passes and I did 5. My very early impressions of the M135i was that it was a bit soft, but as I pushed harder I was attended at the chassis balance. The car is definitely softer spring than my 1M but it handles……perfectly. No understeer at all, super easy to point and control. And the drivetrain combination of the turbo 6 + the 8 speed auto is fantastic. I was thinking that this tranny was as good as a DCT (until I later drove the M3 DCT). It's the best automatic I've ever driven. It basically changes instantly and obeys every command in manual mode. The sound of the engine is fantastic, I couldn't care less if it's artificially pumped in through the stereo. That's unnoticeable and it sounds so much better than the 1M. This was the start of what was a day of loving the M135i.
The second exercise was a drifting/oversteer exercise on a wet corner of the track. We got the 335i Sport Line, also with the 8 speed auto. I expected less from the regular 3 series here. It however surprised me. Neutral balance, very easy to drift and control. The interior quality is a step above the M135i. Very nice indeed. It is of course a bit softer than the M135i but still very predictable and easy to place. And the powertrain here is also fantastic if a bit less powerful (not really very noticeable). It doesn't have the engine sound "enhanced" and I wish it had it too.
GF trying to kill me
GF now much better:
After that we had lunch and then continued with learning a different section of the track with a very technical long left hander as part of a sequence of turn. For this one we got THE BEAST. The X6M. The handling of that thing is simply mind-blowing. I just couldn't unsettle it. The 4WD system is nothing short of fantastic. I could place it exactly where I wanted at insane speeds. The engine is amazing. No lag basically and what a sound. However, the tranny here (6 speed auto) is definitely a step behind the newer 8-speed in the smaller cars and 2 steps behind the DCT. Shifting manually there is a very noticeable delay between your command and the execution of it. Subjectively between half a second and a full second. Ultimately I decided to leave it in sport drive and forget about it. In that mode it works very well on the track with the car basically making the tight decision 99% of the time. So it was fine. And you are just enjoying so much the physics - defying nature of this beast that you'll be grinning ear to ear. It can keep up with the much lighter cars. No problem.
And then, the "piece-de-resistance". Driving all cars back to back for 3 complete laps at a very fast pace (very, very close to 10/10ths for me). I'll go ahead and rank them here in order from most track fun to least track fun. This is not a speed ranking, it is a fun ranking, ok?
1. M3 Competition Package DCT, (Suspension Normal, Throttle Sport, DSC Fully Off, M3 Tranny Mode)
This is the benchmark. It was a step above everything else on the track for fun. It did feel down on power compared to all the turbo cars (this track is at more than 5,000ft above sea level). But I didn't care one bit. The alcantara steering wheel and steering system let you place the car within millimiters of where you want it. The engine is a gem that responds instantly. And oh the DCT! My M3 is a manual E90. This was an E92 DCT (frozen black too). What can I say, I've been a manual kind of guy all my life but on the track the DCT is fantastic. Immediate, fantastic shifts and the sounds to go along with it. The car did feel lighter and more agile than my E90. Definitely enough to be noticeable. The combination of CF roof and competition package makes a noticeable difference. Not night and day but enough to be worth it. I liked it so much that I will consider trading my E90 for a lightly used E92 Competition Package in a year or so.
2. M135i 8 Speed Auto RWD, (Sport+, DSC Fully Off)
There were two of these so I drove it extensively. It is softer than the M3 but the chassis balance is as good. No understeer, easy to place. It even oversteers a bit more easily than the M3, and in an incredibly easy to control and fun manner. Brought a huge grin to my face. And the engine sound, artificial or not (again, who cares?) is fantastic. For the price (half of what the M3 costs here and 1/3rd of the price of the M5) it cannot be beat. If I had a budget limited to what this car costs I wouldn't be unhappy at all having one as an only car. Slightly cramped inside (I am 6'4") but very liveable.
3. X6M (Throttle Sport, EDC Sport, Tranny in S Drive, DSC Fully Off)
Astounding beast. It is so good I don't know why it has a DSC system. The 4WD is so good that it tracks exactly with DSC off, couldn't get it to misbehave and believe me - I tried. I loved everything on this car. Purists can go to hell (and I am a very longtime BMW fan). I am glad ///M built this just because they can. The feeling of manhandling such a heavy beast brought a huge grin to my face. I'd love to have one. Fantastic, fantastic car. Only complaint is that the tranny is no good in manual mode. Having said that, it is so good in drive that you wouldn't really care.
4. 335i M Sport (Sport+, DSC fully off - this car had adjustable dampers)
Punches above its weight. It is not a track car of course but still very much fun, good handler, easy to place and possibly the best all-around car (for a reasonable price) car here.
5. M5 Competition Package (EDC Sport, Tranny in manual mode (fastest mode), DSC on MDM mode - had to respect the RWD beast, and Throttle in sport)
I had high expectations for this car. And it was the brand new competition package too. The engine is of course the star of the car and better than anything else here. It feels a lot faster - in a straight line - than anything else I drove that day. It will easily walk the other cars. And the engine sound again - artificial or not - is fantastic. The DCT is without fault changing instantly and immediately with no drama.
But the chassis/steering I am sorry to say was unfortunately a bit of a dissapointment. This was a relatively short, technical track that plays to the strengths of lighter cars. But still, I found myself slipping and sliding around in the M5 more than in anything else. I was fighting the car more than enjoying the car. It's probably the best car for any other situation outside the track, like a mountain road or of course the autobahn. But I really was looking forward to this car being the star of the day and sadly it wasn't. It also went into limp mode at the end of my 3 laps (the X6M did that too). If I was getting a 5 series I'd be happy with a 535i/550i after driving this. If it isn't fantastic on a track, I guess I can get 95% of the fun every day from a "regular" 5 series. Don't flame me M5 fans, it's just my opinion.
Some final takeaways from the experience:
- The hydraulic steering in the M3 was the best by quite a margin.
- The "small" BMWs on the 1/3 series platform are very well sorted and still drivers cars in every way.
- The M135i is the performance bargain of the decade.
- The X6M is a magnificent, mind-blowing beast.
- I couldn't care less if the engine sound is artificially enhanced. I want that on my next car.
- DCT and the newer autos are so good it's pretty much a given that my next BMW purchase won't be a manual.
- Here's hoping that the next-generation 5er gets lighter and more sporty.
- Given how well the M135i and the F30 335i drive, I have high hopes that the next M3/M4 will be great.
- All the cars brakes held up very well with no fade for the entire day. It seems BMW ///M has fixed this long-time problem.
- Kudos to BMW Mexico for organising and hosting a fantastic driving event.