I’ll be the first to admit that my opinions, tastes and preferences represent a minority of the driving community. As a purist that favors connectedness over comfort and dynamics over, well… efficient dynamics, I find myself sitting among an ever shrinking crowd of enthusiasts. To borrow a line from Jack Johnson: “where’d all the good [drivers] go?”
While it’s true that my tastes have softened somewhat, I’d still delete many luxury features to save weight, and take curbs at offensively slow speeds thanks to a suspension on the stiff side of town. I’ve taught several friends how to drive manual and all of them have come away with a smile and second thoughts of buying another automatic. BMW’s DCT has incrementally improved, but it’s still no where near Porsche’s PDK, so while the 7 speed DCT suits certain cars very well (namely the new M5), I would still ditch it for a raw, hands on manual.
Please don’t be offended by my efficient dynamics comment; I do appreciate efficiency, and protecting the environment as well as our lungs. Further, high efficiency and low emissions are a testiment to engineering competence – it’s no easy feat to extract huge power with low pollution. To that end, I’m willing to compromise on a naturally aspirated engine with a highly responsive turbo.
One thing I will never, ever compromise on however, is steering feel. If driving is your art, and the racetrack or back road is your canvas, then the contact patches are your eyes. Blurring your vision of what the tires are doing with numb steering feel and feedback is like forcing bottle-cap glasses on an artist. The painting will become somewhat “abstract”… and so will your driving. Both art forms may involve strangely shaped trees. It’s no laughing matter.
Not only is it imperative to performance driving that a car offer up precise steering input and feedback, but such connectedness with the road surface is a core element of driving pleasure. To illustrate it another way, driving a new BMW with electric power steering is a bit like having sex wearing a condom. It’s still a great time, but you’re missing that intimacy that makes it spectacular. Sorry to all our underage readers. Ask mom and dad for an explanation.
With the above in mind, I’ve had an exceedingly difficult time determining which BMW I would buy from the current lineup. The current M3 is too heavy. The new F30 3 series is lacking in steering feel. The F10 5 series is also lacking in steering feel. The M5 is a smidgen out of my price range. The Z4 understeers like the Titanic and we all know how that story ended (Jack and Kate floating on a door). Ahh! The new F20 1 series. Strangely it shares electric power steering tech with the other soulless racks, yet it delivers much better road feel through the wheel. The new 1 series is fun, light and dynamic. It’s also mean and muscular to look at in the flesh – don’t let the photos mislead you. Let’s not forget that it’s reasonably priced, fuel efficient and practical. It’s now large enough to eclipse at least the first two generations of the 3 series, so space shouldn’t be an issue, and no matter if you’re tall. If you’re still not sold on its looks, stick around for the new coupe. My bet is that it will be a sharp looking machine.
Of course, while the new F20 1 series features the best steering feel I’ve experienced yet among the new EPS (Electric Power Steering) systems (I’ve yet to drive the new Porsche 911), it’s still a touch numb and muted for my taste. I want it raw, from the road surface to my finger tips. I want to feel every pebble, tar line, crack and crevice, degree of camber and grain of sand. Bring on full-bore steering feel. If you need a benchmark, BMW, try pulling an E36 or E30 out for a spin. Or a 2002 for that matter. Driving one of these machines back to back with any new EPS equipped car will quickly bring you back to ground-zero of steering feel and communication. And I’m sorry, but luxury need not trump steering feel, I site the Alpina B7 as a prime example.
For this reason, I am convinced that hence forth I will forever be an M car driver, and/or vintage BMW driver. I’m quite certain that the only BMWs of the future to provide the same guttural feeling and scalpel-in-hand driving precision of past generations will be M cars. Perhaps someday BMW will sort EPS to the point that it no longer stands as a roadblock to contact patch clarity. But until that day, I feel forced to the M division – hardly a punishment, mind you.
If I’m completely honest, it’s not just the steering feel that has been muted and softened on modern BMWs. The suspension calibration is a touch less sporty across the board. More than ever, driving dynamics are trending toward comfort more than sport. Can somebody take the reigns and enforce some measure of soul control? There is more behind the roundel than a powerful engine. The online pundits will argue that these developments are all for profitability – and there is some truth in that – but at the end of the day, BMW must respect the foundation they were built upon: dynamics and driving pleasure. To remain profitable and attractive to current owners, enthusiasts and conquest buyers, they must offer genuine BMW products in their dealerships. If their cars trend too closely toward Lexus or Mercedes, they will only be giving sales away to both of these brands. Frankly, no one can beat Mercedes at their game anyway, they are awfully good at building comfortable luxury cars. BMW’s nieche is one of performance, passion, and modern design. I pray that the brand will find its way. Even their own designers and engineers (off the record and in a hushed voice) lament the direction the brand is heading. I’ve been privy to these hushed voices.
I recently heard in an exchange of words that BMW corporate told BMW Club Canada (a performance driving club not far off BMW CCA in intention and spirit) that they could not offer full support to the club because they’re now focusing on efficient dynamics instead of motorsport, performance driving and dynamics. How sad. Somebody throw this company a life vest before they drown in a pile of money.
I’m at least a year away from a new vehicle purchase and while my next two-wheeled machine is dead in the cross-hairs – BMW’s K1300S – I’ve yet to nail down my next four-wheeled steed. All signs point towards the next M3. I expect M to put it on a diet, add power, and retain the same brilliant steering feel that has made BMW an icon through time and around the world.