Fast and Furious Just Right At M-Town
After being a passenger in the new sixth-generation M3 and M4 at the North Shore Aero Club recently, BMW NZ promised us a lash behind the wheel at the Hampton Downs facility, and so it came to pass...along with lashings of wet weather. But not too much, just enough to make proceedings a bit interesting.
The event was part of an epic week for M aficionados as Hampton Downs transformed into M Town, following in the footsteps of similar M car extravaganzas around the globe. It’s only the second time that this concept has been held in New Zealand, the original being at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground. Cue plenty of snow drifts.
M Town, the place where ‘too much is just right’, runs along the lines of ‘nothing succeeds like excess’. What better place to get a taste of the M cars unshackled from the bonds of Traction Control and ESP? Not that we were permitted any such liberties, though that didn’t prevent some from trying.
Anyhow, following our amateurish track efforts in a host of much more talented M machinery, we were treated to a back seat display of proper driving by the other ‘Mad Mike’, i.e., chief driving instructor for BMW NZ, Mike Eady. We’re always told that smoother is faster around a track, except when it isn’t. Experienced race drivers are masters of late braking and Mike fair pummelled the brake pedal heading into all the turns at the Hamptons, er, M-Town facility.
Heavy late braking permits more speed heading into them, right? We noted the M3 with four occupants hit precisely 173km/h twice in succession on the run between turns one and two of M-Town’s National Circuit. Up the main straight, terminal speed before turn one was closing on 220km/h. Four up, remember.
But it was the bits in between that were more epic, as you’d imagine with all of the safety shizzle turned to zero, and over 500hp just itching to cut loose. With the track still a touch damp, it made the sideways action a bit easier to initiate. And Mike made it almost look easy to hold the slide through turns two, four and six, a deft balancing act of throttle and steering angle adjustment keeping the drift going.
And the result from the drift analyser? He was hoping for a five-star result, but would have accepted four point five. Cue a big fat zero for he’d forgotten to activate it at the outset. Never mind; the audience was appreciative. I thought I’d been unlucky to find myself in the cheap seat, but if you’re not in the driver’s pew the back ain’t a bad place to experience a few hot sideways laps in an M3. You get a much better feel for exactly how much drift angle the car is holding which, by the by, the analyser will tell you if it’s turned on.
Prior to that we’d had our own somewhat less dramatic M experience on a track that had been dry for the previous couple of hours but received a brief drenching just as we were about to set out. Turned out it wasn’t all bad luck on the day, as we kicked things off in the M5 and M8 Competition cars, both x-Drive machines. Keeping up with the M3/M4 twins was almost too easy in these grip-laden, power-packed monsters. A few decent laps to get your eye in too.
Next we’re into the M3 Comp sedan, press the red M1 mode button that switches everything to Sport and we’re away, the safety aids on or there’s no insurance cover. Fair enough with 375kW and 650Nm trying to haze the rear wheels.
The noise in the Sport mode may not sound like much from outside the car, but inside you just want to keep the engine pinned to hear that mechanical symphony playing in surround sound.
This is the best of the M cars we’ve driven on the day. The brakes are phenomenal when set in their sportiest - yes, they’re adjustable for maximum bite on track - and you can leave slowing for turns until very late and trail brake right up to the apex, such is the level of feel, even in the damp. You’re aware this carries less weight than the bigger M cars, and while they gap you out of the tight turns, holding the gears manually and braking late sees you back on their tail again.
All the M cars accelerate like hell and this M3 Comp is even hastier than the previous generation, hitting 100 in a claimed 3.9sec, 0.3sec faster than before. As the track dries the balance and deft steering of the M3 come into focus and you can start to explore the edges of grip within the boundaries of ESP and TC.
The M4 drive saw us at the back of the pack behind the x-Drive monsters, and on the wet parts of the circuit they got the upper hand. On dry track days though we reckon the rear driver would be right on their case, and more fun in general. Yes, it’s more demanding of the pilot but that’s what makes these cars so special. And having experienced what it’s capable of in the right hands, you can be absolutely sure that this car has more in reserve than most drivers ever will.
If you want something off the showroom floor that’s as good on track as it is a practical day-to-day road car (that can be improved even further with myriad M Performance upgrades) the M3 and M4 continue to be at the pointy end of a short list.
Going bush and slalom
Our day at M town involved a couple of other (somewhat slower) activities, one a refresher on x-Drive with a spot of offroading at the purpose-built complex on the western end of the facility. Here we got to experience the rather handy hill holder device that all x-Drive SUVs have, variable speed hill descent control, front camera guidance, and how x-Drive works to keep you trucking along when any number of wheels are off the ground simultaneously.
The hill descent control was a bit of a surprise. I thought I’d engaged it initially but the X7 took off on the first steep descent with feet off the pedals, as instructed. Fortunately, I realised the error of my ways and hit the brakes before careening off into oblivion. The system worked as designed the second time around, so I guess the green light means HDC on.
The x-Drive system made short work of the articulation exercises too, power to any spinning wheel diverted elsewhere, with progress unchecked. On the incline test we saw 24 degrees but evidently 29 was possible without tipping over.
The other exercise was on the Club Circuit, checking out handling, acceleration, braking and whatnot in a range of BMW’s smaller front- and rear-drive models. Our pick was the Z4. It cut through the coned slalom course like a champ, and sounded the part too. The front driving 1 and 2 series are surprisingly agile as well, none braking loose off the line on full bore acceleration tests on an admittedly sticky surface.
So plenty of fast and furious fun at M-Town. We can’t wait for a bit more wheel time on road with the M3 and M4 Competition twins. It will be interesting to see whether the cars are just as sublime in the real world as they are on track. Don’t bet against it.