Winnipeg Free Press

Checking out BMW's latest fleet

by Kelly Taylor . Jul 19 2019
Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free PressVancouver Island Motorsports Park crams 19 corners into a 50-acre plot, requiring uninterrupted concentration on the part of drivers.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

Vancouver Island Motorsports Park crams 19 corners into a 50-acre plot, requiring uninterrupted concentration on the part of drivers.

DUNCAN, B.C. — The sound is intoxicating. If the exhaust note under acceleration from each of the six BMWs we’re driving wasn’t good enough, there’s this delightful bbbraaappp every time you lift the throttle. I find myself lifting a little, often, just to hear it one more time.

It’s there on the M850i, with its 4.4-litre V-8. It’s there on the M340i and the 330i. But it’s especially wonderful on the Z4 sDrive 30i and Z4 M40i: with the convertible top retracted, the exhaust note plays like a symphony in the trunk.

Of course, the engines aren’t just there to play pretty noises, and each delivers an impressive amount of power for its design. Considering that some are turbo four-cylinder engines, some are turbo inline sixes and some are V-8s, that each is a symphony for the ears suggests BMW was listening when reviewers complained about some previous 3-Series models sounding like egg beaters. No yolks were harmed this time around.

Even the largest BMW, the X7, delivered a spirited drive that belies its weight and girth.

Vancouver Island Motorsports Park (VIMP) is not a racetrack. It’s a teaching facility, and as such, the designers managed to cram 19 corners into a 50-acre plot. It’s very technical and requires uninterrupted concentration. There is something here to teach almost every situation a driver can face in a performance-driving environment.

The most challenging is the sequence of turns nine, 10 and 11: nine is at the bottom of a hill and is a left turn uphill that quickly approaches 10, a right turn with the apex at the peak of another swale that feeds directly into a sharp drop into the left-hand 11. You carry a lot of speed into nine and if you’re not on the brakes for the split second before you reach 10, you’re going to seriously unload the suspension as you round 10 and then you just aren’t going to make 11.

Because VIMP isn’t a horsepower track, in some ways, the Z4 30i was more fun than the Z4 M40. The lighter engine up front did make the car more nimble, but its softer suspension was evident as you entered turn three, a fast right-hander. There was a definite feel of the suspension bottoming out on the left side of the car, and it was just a tad unsettling. The stiffer suspension of the M40 eliminated this entirely. (You can upgrade the 30’s suspension, however.)

Perhaps the most surprising car to toss around this track was the M850i xDrive Coupe. A big, grand touring car such as this shouldn’t feel this nimble, but the M850 does. Much of that comes from the four-wheel steering, which adds a noticeable amount of rear steering, particularly in a slalom. It was very noticeable, but you also get accustomed to it after the first gate and adjust your steering input accordingly. At lower speeds, the rears turn counter to the front; at higher speeds, they turn in the same direction. Just a bit, but enough.

The Z4, in both versions, is gorgeous. Low and sleek, with a hunkered stance that looks ready to pounce, this is easily, by far, the best design for this model. Ever. Which is something the model needs, since sales and production have fallen steadily since a peak in 2003, which was the first full sales year for the E85 version. Since then, there’s been a steady decline in sales in North America despite surges in Europe coinciding with the launch of new versions.

My favourite, the one I’d most like to add to the fleet, is the M340i, likely because it combines pure sports-car joy with sedan practicality. Yet the 330i is enough fun as it is, I might have trouble justifying the added $15,000. If money was no object... I’d await the new M3.

Let’s talk steering: in all the BMWs, the steering feels a bit over-boosted, almost as if it won’t provide any feedback from what’s happening at the wheels at all. I think part of the problem is you have to get much closer to the limits than most drivers before that feedback becomes apparent. Part of the problem may also be the limits are that much farther out than for a lot of vehicles. A big improvement over previous generations is the lack of a dead spot at centre, which would often result in an unpredictable jump in steering response. That’s no more.

I pushed the cars hard around one sequence (4-5-6-7), and while I had to use all of the track — which you’re supposed to do anyway — in most circumstances, the car simply went where you turned. When it did reach the limit, it certainly felt as though there was feedback from the wheels.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about BMWs up to the last generation or so was the use of classic, white-on-black analog speedometer and tach, with other information displayed digitally. The current crop of instrument panels uses entirely digital displays, with lots of colour, and a tach that runs backwards (0 r.p.m. is at the lower right and it runs counter-clockwise as revs increase). Not sure I’m a fan, but it might be minor considering the other attributes of the cars.

BMW designers previously also tended to minimize the amount of bling inside, helping drivers focus on the tasks at hand. These new models have more shiny metal bits than BMW purists might appreciate, but they are attractive interiors all the same.

A sad note: if there were any car company on Earth that should be behind #savethemanuals, it should be BMW. Unfortunately, none of the models tested is available with a stick. If you want a stirrable Bimmer, you have to choose a 2-Series or one of the M models, such as the M4 or coming M3. (The M3, for instance, is distinct from the M340i.)

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free PressThe BMW Z4 is available in two varieties, the Z4 30i and a more powerful Z4 M40i.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

The BMW Z4 is available in two varieties, the Z4 30i and a more powerful Z4 M40i.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free PressVancouver Island Motorsports Park shows camera views of every turn, allowing operators to activate caution lights or stop the course entirely in the event of a spin or crash.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

Vancouver Island Motorsports Park shows camera views of every turn, allowing operators to activate caution lights or stop the course entirely in the event of a spin or crash.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free PressThe newest Z4 offers arguably the model's best design to date, with a hunkered stance that looks ready to pounce.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press

The newest Z4 offers arguably the model's best design to date, with a hunkered stance that looks ready to pounce.