BMW M TOWN: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Tyres
I was expecting M Town to be fun, but not this much fun...
The email was pretty straight forward. Come to Hampton Downs Raceway and drive in anger the entire BMW M range including the new M3 and M4 Competition. This was M Town, and it took this automotive scribe a matter of seconds to respond with a resounding yes. Before I knew it, my bag was packed, a flight from Christchurch to Auckland boarded, and I arrived at M Town.
For those unaware of M Town, it is BMW giving its customers and local motoring media the chance to experience their full M range, from the M Sport variants to the full-on tyre shredding M cars of the family, and all in complete safety, unless you bin it, which I had no intention of doing.
The first time M Town came to New Zealand was in 2019. That event was set in a snow-covered proving ground outside of Queenstown in the South Island. There was no M Town in 2020, for obvious COVID related reasons, but for 2021, the party was on. This year also tied in with the local press launch of the new M3 and M4 Competition, both of which I have been very keen to sample since the reveal.
According to BMW Group NZ Managing Director, Karol Abrasowicz-Madej, M Town 2021 was intended to be the best M Town yet. “Too much is just right at M Town, and this year we took it to new heights. We were delighted to see 260 participants take part in New Zealand’s first-ever tarmac M Town to enjoy a spectacular range of BMW M cars, all this week, the concept of sheer driving pleasure will be truly brought to the fore,” he says.
Upon arrival at Hampton Downs, we were greeted to the site of examples of the new M3 and M4 Competition stationary either side of the main entrance way. Along with the M5, X5 M and blistering M8 Competition Coupe, an incredible collection of M cars from BMW’s past were lined up in front of the pit garage. This included an E30 M3, E36 M3 EVO, E46 M3 CSL, 1 M, E92 M3 and a sweet E28 M5. I would love to say we got to play with these too, but it was sadly not to be.
After lunch, a few words from Karol himself, and a driver briefing, we got into the first of three driving modules for the day. The first of these was track time with the M3 and M4 Competition. Hurrah. First up was the M3 Competition Sedan. We only get the range topping Competition variant in New Zealand, and at $168,990NZ plus ORC, its up there, but the thrills it delivers is pretty special.
Its beating heart is a twin turbo six-cylinder engine with 375kW and 650Nm of torque. This is mated to BMW’s eight-speed Steptronic Sport Transmission and means a sub four second sprint from a stand still to 100km/h, though such an exercise would be frowned upon by those in pitlane.
Climb inside, and the M Carbon Bucket Seats are night on perfect in terms of hip hugging support, however, getting in and out, if unprepared, does leave much to be desired as far as grace is concerned. Right, seatbelt on, check. Engine start, check, drive engaged, and we are moving.
Upon leaving pitlane, I buried the throttle, though due to us not wearing crash helmets, our top speed on track was capped at 160km/h. So while we couldn’t open it up fully on the straights, one could still get the hammer down in the bends.
A brief two laps in the M3 Competition was enough to convince me this was one serious bit of kit. With its howling pipes akin to a wounded animal, and the kind of direct steering and throttle response which could rearrange your fillings, the new M3 is a fast car. In Track mode, up and downshifts on that eight-speed box are epic, but can be quite violent if you don’t dial them down on the shift ferocity settings.
That beautiful rear drive balance and that generous helping of grunt from that twin turbo six all comes to together to create a very exciting time on track. Corner hard and you can feel the back starting to step out. It is totally manageable with the M3 constantly talking to you. Its just so precise and sharp. BMW’s engineering boffins have always had a knack for nailing this, but with the new M3 comp, they may have overdone it.
Before I could get truly comfortable, it was time to swap cars. Into the M4 Competition I went. The M4 is identical to the M3 in many ways, but at 1887mm wide, its 16mm narrower than the M3 at 1903mm. It also weighs 5kg more at 1735kg, but once you get moving on the track, its hard to notice the difference.
What is noticeable is the $172,990NZ M4, while just as blistering and loud in a straight line, somehow didn’t feel quite as sharp as the M3. I know, talk about a plot twist. Despite being lower and sporting the same wheelbase and same powerplant, the M4 felt ever so slightly less precise than its four-door counterpart. Still amazing fun when you push hard, but amazingly, not as sharp as the M3. That new Sao Paulo yellow paint scheme was pretty cool though.
Leaving the new boys behind, it was time for the new M5 Competition. This, as you would imagine, is a completely different kettle of fish. A M Twinpower Turbo V8 producing a whopping 460kW and 750Nm of torque. Same eight speed auto box, but this time M xDrive allows you to alter between all wheel drive and rear wheel drive, if you go for the latter, you don’t the electronic firewall holding you back.
On track, the M5 Comp felt immediately different to the M3 and M4. That turbo V8 bellow was an utter delight, and when you lift off, those blasting twin exhausts crackled and boomed like distance thunder. The M suspension did the business in the bends, but it certainly felt softer when cornering hard. In fact, when getting on the throttle leaving the corner, there was a slight feeling of body roll, not overly so, but noticeable. That said, for a big sleeper saloon, the M5 is still fun.
The segment closed after my laps in the flagship M8 Competition Coupe. The M8 shares a lot with the M5, such as the powerhouse of an engine, but it equals the McLaren F1’s zero to 100km/h time of 3.2 seconds. On track, it is a weapon.
While more akin to a super grand tourer, you can still dance the sports car dance around the sweeper at Hampton Downs. Its less soft in feel to the M5 and you still get that glorious V8 burble when you lift off. Plus, those M Compound Brakes provide face altering stopping power. However, at $342,900NZ, the M8 does require a lot of dosh.
With the adrenaline considerably higher than before we started, we moved over to something more sedate, by way of an off-road course in M spec X Drive SUVs. These consisted of the X3M, X5M, X4M and amazingly the X7. The latter of which I was driving. I will admit, I have never seen an X7 anywhere near what one would describe as “off the beaten track.” No time like the present to change things on that front.
Credit: Fred Alvrez
While climbing every mountain and fording every stream is probably not what many X7 owners get stuck into, no pun intended, it was still nice to see this big levianthan of a luxo SUV can still handle it. While we didn’t go knee deep in muddy bogs and marshes, the 45-degree hill sides and drops were taken all in stride. Also, the X7’s air suspension made the uneven surfaces a doddle. What also impressed me was the down hill descent control in reverse. Ideal when towing your Riva Aquarama.
CREDIT: Fred Alvrez
After roughing it, we returned to the smooth asphalt for our final module, laps of the short slalom circuit. This was done with the M135i, M235i X-Drive, M340i Sedan, and Z4 M40i. I made a beeline straight for the Z4 as the sun was out, and I was eager for the experience. Also, the last time I was at Hampton Downs, it was at the wheel of the Z4’s Toyota sibling but that’s another story.
The short circuit was split in several sections. A fast lap, slalom, and a full-bore standing start. The slalom required a bit of concentration and its always pays to be smooth and not jerky. It is very much a point and shoot exercise, which the Z4 found sort of easy. It is a very well-balanced point and shoot sort of car, as a good sports car should be.
However, my favourite car of this exercise was the M135i. BMW’s hot hatch was a bucket of fun when you really stand on the loud pedal and wring its neck. You can feel the xDrive system pulling the rear of the car into line and while a tiny bit of understeer will build up if you take liberties, it is overall a very compliant car to drive quickly, and if you keep it in the power zone of between 4000 and 6000rpm, its very quick too.
An extra treat toward the end of the day was hot laps in the new M3 with BMW NZ racing drive Mike Eady. I had ridden with Mike back in 2013 at Highlands Motorsport park in a Mini Paceman JCW. Mike would be travelling down a main straight at 140km/h and all of a sudden yank the handbrake and we would be going backwards, seconds later, he enacted the quickest J-turn imaginable and we were off again facing forward.
For M Town 2021, it was Mike showing is natural driving ability once again. Though the only time the handbrake was used was when he was drifting the M3 Comp with so much ease. I was seated in the back seat trying my hardest to get a recording on my phone, but due to Mike’s exuberance with the throttle, steering and brakes, this takes proved to be almost impossible. I instead decided to just enjoy the ride.
CREDIT: BMW NZ
During the day at M Town, Mike and his fellow racing drivers were keeping a watchful eye on us all, for there was a prize up for grabs at the end for the recipient of “Driver of the Day.” This award went to someone who was considered by the experts to be the quickest and smoothest on track, and out of nowhere, they chose me.
I certainly did not see this coming. The prize? An M Town BMW branded OMP racing helmet. We in the specialist motoring press get a few freebies now and again, but this is hands down one of the most special of all. I will treasure this helmet for years to come, and may even use it every so often on my local Ruapuna Speedway in Christchurch.
In summary, while I couldn’t give you a definitive verdict on the new M3 and M4 Comp, what I can tell you as that M Town was nothing short of spectacular. Driving heaven? No, but its pretty close.
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