I'm not new to driving on racetracks. I'm not particularly new to BMWs, either. I've somehow owned six of them and they've all been pretty fun to drive, even while they were leaking/burning/telling me my headlights were out when they were not. And over the weekend, I got to toss two of my friends' BMWs around VIR's Main circuit — two that Hans and Franz likely didn't think would ever touch FIA curbing.
Austin's E46 wagon (Touring, sorry) is a pretty unique car. It started life as a 325xiT/5 — for those who don't speak Bavaria, that's a 325i wagon, with all-wheel-drive and a 5-speed manual. Oh, and it has the sport and cold-weather packages. Unicorn car. The little 2.5L had poor compression, so he swapped an M54 3.0L into it, from a 330i. Now it's really a unicorn, because BMW never sold one of these in the States.
Now, the Touring handled about as you'd expect a heavy AWD wagon on all-seasons and 200k-mile suspension to handle. A bit wallowy, soft to turn in, but predictable. And in typical "old BMW electronics fail" fashion, the drive-by-wire throttle elected to hold on to the revs for roughly half a second longer than your foot was down. This made track driving a bit tricky, but in a predictable way. The whole car was predictable.
Then, I parked the Touring and hopped in Brian's X3. Brian is an instructor with our weekend track-days group, and usually drives an S2000 in anger. But, the Honda was involved in an accident and hasn't been fully fixed yet, so he brought his new-to-him daily driver out. He, too, has a "unicorn BMW" as a daily — a 2007 X3 with a six-speed manual. Or Manuel, if you prefer the Craigslist spelling.
We threw another friend's set of spare wheels on the X3 (thanks, DJ) with sticky track tires on them, and headed out under a green flag.
The X3 has the same motor as my daily driven 128i (the N52, if you're counting). It's a 3-liter inline six that makes two-hundred-hrmph-meh horsepower and likes to rev right up to fuel cut. Which I hit, repeatedly, thanks to the tires messing with the gearing and the stock exhaust making 7,000 rpm sound like I was idling.
As we bombed through the uphill esses at an indicated 95 mph - which was probably about 45 in reality - I felt alright. And then we came down the little chute into The Turn Previously Known As Oak Tree, and I turned in. And turned out. And turned in again. And turned out a little.
All the while, I had my legs splayed out in an attempt to hold myself reasonably upright during the slap-the-bumpstop body roll. I came to the realization that I didn't quite know where the wheels were during any sort of sharp turn at speed. With Brian yelling "more throttle" in my right ear, I kept the hammer down and we squirmed out of Oak Tree and onto the back straightaway, and the same experience reared its head through the Carousel.
Brian asked what I thought of my hot laps as we were pulling in to the pits. And the only adjective I could muster was "weird." It's a willing motor, a good transmission, and it spins all four wheels. We had good tires on it. The chassis felt semi-athletic. But the whole combination, while great on the street, was so odd on the track. The
car truck Sports Activity Vehicle and I both knew we were doing something we shouldn't do, yet we did it anyway. We were passed by the Corvette Pain Train (aka, half of HPDE 3) and I think a Miata or two. And I was giggling the entire time.
And dammit, if Brian ever needs to win the race to Whole Foods or get his daughter to soccer practice rightthehellnow, he picked a pretty fun BMW to do it in. But I think his Honda is probably the better track car.