Like many, I've always imagined blasting an expensive sports car through a twisty, high-speed thrill ride. Maybe it's the TV commercials. The ones that require a legal disclaimer: "Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt." Alas, most of us can only fantasize about what it feels like to control the power of a true performance car. Either we can't afford one, or we never get the chance — or the nerve — to push a car that hard.
So we're left wondering about the mystique of BMWs, the standard-setter for performance among premium-brand sedans. What is it about these so-called "ultimate driving machines" that seduces thousands of otherwise practical people into making monthly payments that rival the mortgage?
BMW is attempting to answer this question with a nationwide consumer event, the "Ultimate Driving Experience". Designed to teach drivers of all levels to feel more confident and in control on the roads, the no-fee program offers consumers a chance to drive the redesigned 2006 BMW 330i through an autocross at breakneck speeds. Even better, participants also do an Audi/BMW/Infiniti comparison, testing the 2006 Audi A4 3.2 and the 2005 Infiniti G35 back-to-back against the redesigned 3 Series.
The half-day program I attended took place in a large parking lot outside the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California, temporarily converted into a test track. The "UDE," as it's called, began with a class on driving dynamics, hard braking and safety, led by professional racing instructors. Attendees then broke into groups of three. Each group was taken for a reconnaissance lap, in which the instructor drives the track, pointing out its features and illustrating driving techniques.
Each participant, in turn, then drove the 3 Series as fast as he or she could through the twists and turns to see how it handled: full-throttle acceleration through straightaways, aggressive cornering into tight turns. Then we did the same with the Audi A4 and the Infiniti G35. All three cars came equipped with the sport package, performance tires and automatic transmissions. We lapped the course plenty of times as either drivers or passengers.
Everyone figured themselves for a great driver, of course, and tried to push their personal limits as well as the cars'. But while I had complete confidence in the instructor's ability not to get me killed, I bit my lip more than a few times when my fellow participants took the wheel. It seemed entirely possible (as we rounded the hairpin turns) that the car could careen out of control. But I didn't dare express any anxiety. After all, you can't be a scaredy-cat if you're going to drive a performance vehicle.
Clearly, the competitive test was designed to show off the superiority of the 3 Series, so we approached the test with a skeptical eye. By the time we finished, though, we were blown away by the contrast among the vehicles. There really was no competition: In the tight, high-speed turns, the BMW held the road with a death grip. The Audi and the Infiniti lost traction; the tires squealing and skipping as we fishtailed, trying to keep the cars on course. (Also check out Edmunds' 3 Series vs. A4 comparison test.) While all of the cars were good cars, the BMW inspired confidence: This was a car you could push and feel safe doing so.
Even for experienced drivers, there was a lot to learn during the UDE. Having one professional driver for every three people meant everyone picked up at least a few tips. While some of the tips had to do with when to brake and accelerate into and out of a turn, they all related back to keeping the driver safe. (My instructor caught me cavalierly driving with my hand at the top of the steering wheel instead of the defensive, "10 and 2" position. If the driver's airbag — now standard on all cars -- happened to deploy at that moment, he said, I would know what time it happened for the rest of my life as the face of my wristwatch would be permanently imprinted on my forehead.)
While I could go on about how the 3 Series' cool dynamic traction and stability control and optional active steering make for a better and safer ride, it would be best to experience it yourself. Check their Web site for remaining cities and dates, and call ASAP to reserve, as classes fill up quickly: 1-888-344-4BMW (4269).
Also included in the UDE are two very worthwhile companion programs. One is a student driving program: a free morning course targeted at teens, featuring a two-hour class and autocross driving course. The class focuses on target fixation (where you look, the car will go, for better or worse), car control (oversteer and understeer), situational awareness (including peripheral vision and road scanning), and autocross (hand and seat position, load transfer). Students drive the autocross and perform skid pad and braking exercises. It's fantastic training for new drivers, an opportunity to learn safety skills during their most dangerous driving years.
The other is the "BMW Ultimate Drive" for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. In this program, consumers test-drive a special fleet of various BMW models. For every mile driven on a predetermined public route, BMW donates $1 to the Komen Foundation for breast cancer research. BMW's goal each year is to raise 1 million dollars with 1 million test-drive miles. The program has raised more than $8 million since 1997 and should break the $9 million mark by year's end. It's a great setup: You get to drive different BMW models back-to-back, without a salesperson riding shotgun. I tested the X5 SUV and the Z4 convertible — two cars I likely would never have driven without this event.
If you can't secure reservations, you can still show up at the event and register on the "stand-by" lists; you'll be accommodated as space allows. If you miss your chance at the Ultimate Driving Experience altogether, don't worry: BMW runs the UDE annually in different cities, highlighting a different model.
The Ultimate Driving Experience is a blast, and it benefits a good cause. Everyone wins. After learning more about driving dynamics and safety, and experiencing a couple of thrilling laps around the track, it's easy to understand why people lust after BMWs.
Now about those payments .