BMW has hardly been idle of late, with no shortage of new models arriving on dealership lots, and plenty more still in the pipeline. What better way, therefore, than to show off the riches of the latest range – not to mention tease a few tidbits still to come – than heading down to beautiful Palm Springs, California, and the BMW Performance Center West. It promised to be a jam-packed day, with the keys to the all-new X2, M5, M4 CS, and seventeen other vehicles up for grabs.
It seemed only right and proper to commute to the track in one of BMW’s latest urban offerings, the 320e hybrid. That offers around 14 miles of all-electric range, which proved sufficient to get us from the hotel to the track almost entirely on EV power alone. The 320e has an 87 horsepower electric motor positioned between the transmission and its gasoline engine, the latter contributing 180 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. Max eDrive Mode is the 330e’s full electric option, allowing the car to hit a top speed of 75 mph for up to 14 miles, solely on the battery.
Supply a Fast Charger, meanwhile, and BMW says the 320e can be fully replenished in around two hours. The all-electric range certainly makes this a great commuter car, especially if your office has charging stations; you could easily avoid buying gas for many of shorter trips. Though the battery and other electrical systems add about 600 pounds, it’s still no slouch, either. Impressively, it still maintains the signature BMW handling, steering feel, and acceleration when both the engine and electric motor are engaged.
We arrived at the BMW Performance Center and were welcomed into the classroom just as though we were customers. The Performance Center is open to anyone, and you don’t need to own a BMW to participate. Indeed, I’m told, many non-owners who take part, end up buying a BMW within a few months. After some much-needed caffeine, a course overview, and the all-important safety briefing, it was time to choose between street drives, autocross, or track driving.
I decided to start my day on the track. After hitching a ride with BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen in his beautiful, Frozen White M6 Gran Coupe to the South Palm Circuit, the morning was already off to a great start. Unsurprisingly, the 320e wasn’t making a repeat appearance on the course, instead leaving the faster stuff to cars like the new BMW M5, X2, M4 CS Pre-Pro, 340i M-Performance, M3, and M2. Each had been taken for a shopping spree among the pages of the M-Performance accessories catalog, too. MINI, meanwhile, brought along the JCW Hard-Top and JCW Clubman.
When you’re offered the keys to the all-new, 600 horsepower BMW M5, you don’t decline. It’s a car we’ve covered in depth here, and it’s a big deal for BMW M, too, as it’s the first sedan the division has made with all-wheel drive. Rather than let us loose completely, Bill took the lead car and then dealt out useful advice over the radio. Having had minimal track experience myself, being behind a pro like Bill was awesome. We rolled out of the pit-lane with all the stability systems engaged to help learn the track. The M5 may seem like a big car, but it’s a very track-focused big car: as a result, it was best to take the safest possible approach to learn how to touch on the limits of its power and traction.
That power is seldom in short supply. Pedal to the floor, and the M5 felt like a just-lit rocket. The M5 accelerated down the back straight, the first turn approaching far quicker than you expect. Happily the carbon ceramic brakes proved more than capable of bleeding off most of the speed that I just built up. I turned in, got back on the power, and the M5 rocketed off again.
Even with all the assistance systems engaged, the M5 is so much fun to drive. Less than one lap in, the grin was a permanent fixture on my face. Best of all, you really don’t need to be a professional to start enjoying the car’s talents, though it does help if you have Alex from BMW in the passenger seat giving some helpful coaching through the turns and tips on how to improve driving technique.
Four full laps down of the highly technical 1.4-mile circuit, I was curious to see just how much the car would let me get away with. For that, I had to hit the M button on the steering wheel twice, to engage Sport Plus mode. With its fingers in the traction control, xDrive, engine, chassis, steering, and transmission, just about everything in the car changes at that point. Exiting the first turn, I gave it a little of throttle and steering input to see if I could get the back to slide out, even with the AWD active, and it turns out those AWD concerns among the purists were for naught. The M5 will keep you on edge and let you have no shortage of fun sliding around the turns.
The M options are nearly endless, including the ability to disengage the front differential and send all the power to the rear. Engaging RWD is only possible with all the traction systems disabled, mind, and it would take more than a few laps to feel comfortable enough to go that far – especially since it’s not my car. After a dozen laps that felt like they were over far too soon, it was time to head back into the pits and switch cars.
That was the plan, anyway. Not quite ready to give up my new-found love affair with the M5, however, I jumped into the passenger seat with BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen at the wheel. However good a weekend track warrior you might be, there’s really no better way to experience the limits of a car than from the passenger seat with a professional driver at the controls. Bill has been a BMW factory driver for over twenty years, and he’s driven every current M car. So, when a car like the new M5 gets him excited and puts a smile on his face, you can trust it’s something special.
The performance center track may not be long, but it packs in a lot of complexity. Raw power isn’t enough to achieve a fast lap time: you need to balance outright speed with finesse in the numerous tight turns. From Alex and Bill I learned there are three key factors: use all of the track, don’t be afraid of the curbs, and always look where you want to turn. If you only keep your eyes forward, you’re going to miss the apex or potentially go off the course altogether if you misjudge the turn. It’s easy to bury the needle and use up all 600 horsepower, but doing it responsibly takes skill.
M5 reluctantly handed back, next up was another new car for BMW, the 2018 X2. While a big departure from the sports sedan, the crossover can still hold its own on the track. This new small sport activity vehicle has a great exterior, especially with the M Sport X package added. I particularly like the C-pillar mounted roundel, as it’s a hat-tip to the era that helped cement BMWs reputation for sporty and aggressive vehicles. Unusually boxy fenders help it stand out from the crowd, though step inside and the cabin is immediately familiar if you’ve been in a modern BMW, driver-centric and outfitted with supportive seats.
I hit the Sport button to change the settings for the dynamic damper control and steering, then nudged the shifter over to manual mode. Entering the track behind the M4 pace car made the difference in power between the two immediately apparent. With 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque the 2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo inline 4-cylinder engine reaches 60 mph in a respectable 6.0 seconds. Certainly no slouch for a city vehicle. Still, there are some stark differences between even a sports crossover and an M car.
That includes acceleration, of course, but braking performance too. Indeed, the advice was to start slowing at the earliest marker ahead of the turn, about 5 seconds before the M5’s braking point, so as to not overwork the brakes. Getting back on the power, the X2 pulls nicely, and the steering input feels direct and precise. After a few laps, it was time to exit the track and head out to the street. Honestly, this Is the X2’s natural habitat, and though it proved entertaining in the M5’s arena, the street is where I enjoyed it. The ride is smooth, the cabin is really quiet, and it’s set up perfectly for everyday driving. There’s enough cargo capacity for a trip to IKEA, and the fuel economy is also very good. It’s a vehicle that I would recommend to any young professional looking for something fun and practical to drive.
Back at the track, the MINI JCW Hard-Top was waiting for me. Up until this point, I had only ever driven a MINI Countryman in Lima, Peru during SlashGear’s trip to the Dakar Rally. Palm Springs proved to have a lot less sand, but be no less fun. At just over 2,800 pounds, the JCW Hard-Top is set up for fun. With an upgraded transmission, oversized brakes, sport suspension, and a number of other hardware upgrades, I was particularly looking forward to this track drive.
MINI’s 2.0 Liter, 4-Cylinder TwinPower Turbo Engine offers 228 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, sending the car to 60 in under 6.0 seconds. Flipping the switch and starting her up greets you with a nice low growl and burble. I took to the track trailing the M4 pace-car, a 340i, and an M2. With a significant weight difference between the MINI and the 340i, I was able to keep pace with them, especially through the turns. As always, extra power wins on the straights. Still, I found that the most entertaining aspect was trying to keep pace with the faster cars, and lap after lap the JCS proved more than capable of doing so.
Really, it’s a testament to BMW Group’s engineers that such a relatively affordable car gets so much right. The brakes were strong and predictable, not to mention very fade resistant. The transmission shifts were smooth and responsive. I was also pleasantly surprised by the interior; as a bigger person it’s sometimes hard for me to get comfortable, and yet despite the car’s name I had no issues at all. Even with the M5 still lingering in my member, the MINI turned out to be a highlight for me, not least for its playful charm. Rotate the selector to engage Sport mode and “Maximum go-kart feel” appears on the center screen, along with a picture of a rocket and a go-kart. Frankly, those graphics could not be more appropriate.
After parking the MINI, it was time for something really special. BMW has brought along a pre-production M4 CS, though sadly we weren’t to be entrusted with the keys. Bill Auberlen was, however, and it turned out to be his first time driving the CS. “Very sharp on the front, super sharp,” he told me, courtesy of the wider front tires and some suspension changes versus the standard M4. “It’s got a super direct feeling,” Auberlen explained, “you don’t feel this on street cars very often, the front is super positive.”
In a street car, Auberlen told me, race drivers need to slow their hands down, otherwise they’d find themselves going sideways. In the M4 CS, however, you really don’t: it’s “basically a race car,” he said, admiringly. I asked him how it felt compared to the regular M3 Competition, meanwhile, and if there was a dramatic difference. “On the front and the way the front is turning there’s a dramatic difference,” Auberlen said. “It feels light it, it feels nimble, and it’s got a very dramatic sound, there’s a guttural sound coming from the back. The grip is where they have improved the CS. You can drive this all day long. It’s like doing a continental race, and you feel like this car should be in the GS class.” Most impressive of all is the fact that BMW still isn’t finished fettling the car; we’re looking forward to driving the production model at some point in the future.
You’d think that would be enough to satisfy any track day, but BMW squeezed one more car in: the i8 hybrid. Now, the i8 has been on sale in the US since 2014, but this was the first time that I’ve been able to drive one. With a battery good for about 15 miles paired with a 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft 1.5-liter TwinPower Turbo 3-cylinder gas engine, together the drivetrain offers 369 horsepower and will send the i8 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds.
It’s an unusual car, certainly. Though it only has 1.5-liters of displacement, the engine sounds so much bigger than it is. Accelerating in eDRIVE mode is a unique experience, as there’s only the noise of the electric motor. Switching to Sport mode, however, immediately wakes up the gasoline engine and provides a totally different, motorsport-like experience. The i8 has so much character on both the inside and the outside.
It’s not easy to sum up such a busy day at the BMW Performance Center West. Honestly, I was blown away that this experience is open to just about anyone (though some age restrictions apply). The staff proved to be incredibly knowledgeable, not to mention patient, which is a big factor to consider when dealing with those of who have very little track time under their belt. Thanks to that, it’s more than just about the cars: it’s a learning experience, too. If you’re going to learn, meanwhile, the 320e, M5, X2, MINI JCW Hard-Top, M4 CS, and i8 aren’t bad cars to do so in, even if they’re only a small sample of BMW’s current range.