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07/4 THE ULTIMATE TEST DRIVE

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, May 3, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

THE ULTIMATE TEST DRIVE

By Contributing Editor WILLIAM WANDNER

BMW said, "Drive them like they're not your cars." We obliged. After it was all over, six cars went into the shop, and two cars crashed into the same tree. It was an expensive venture for the manufacturer, but we came away believers.

In 1995, one of the LA CAR staff members participated in a Road & Track-sponsored half-day drive of a new car. Members of the Skip Barber Racing School were invited to demonstrate to some Southern California R&T subscribers the virtues of this new car. In the process, the subscribers learned some autocross and emergency handling techniques. The event ended with the Skip Barber drivers showing the participants how to put the car into a controlled, four-wheel drift around a corner at 105 miles per hour. The car manufacturer sank a lot of money into the program, with the hope that the enthusiast participants would either buy the car or recommend it to the various acquaintances that typically seek them out for car advice. The LA CAR staff member never bought that car, but the event left an indelible impression on him. Two years later, he purchased a virtually identical-under-the-skin car from the same manufacturer. Three years after that, he did it again. Thus, in the end, the manufacturer got its return for the investment.

Since then, a number of car manufacturers have conducted similar programs with car enthusiasts. Just this year, there have been several ride-and-drive events taking place throughout the Southland. BMW held their "Ultimate Drive" at Dodger Stadium and Tustin Marine Base. Lexus held its "Taste of Lexus" event - also at the Tustin facility. Road & Track and Car and Driver magazine sponsored a ride and drive of the Cadillac STS at California Speedway in Fontana. And the same magazines used Los Alamitos Race Track to show off the virtues of the totally new Mitsubishi Eclipse. Even General Motors got into the act with their roving "Auto Show in Motion."

The manufacturer or one of the car magazines (or a combination of the two) sponsors the event. They usually provide professional drivers to teach high performance driving and safety techniques (and keep us from sending the cars airborne). They then allow drivers to test their skills in a hot car on an open course. It is a pure adrenaline boost; everyone has a blast. For car enthusiasts, it's almost a dream come true. There just aren't too many places in the Southland where you can test the limits of your (or other people's) cars. Certainly, the dealer test drive is very limited in this regard. These events give you that opportunity. Several La Car staff members had an opportunity to attend all of the aforementioned events. This article focuses on BMW's Ultimate Drive and A Taste of Lexus.

My first event was BMW's Ultimate Drive at the Tustin Marine Air Base. I went to the event with less than ultimate enthusiasm, since I thought BMW stood for Break My Wallet. The image I had of BMW was that of the ultimate Yuppymobile. After completing the course, I had to eat my words. For now, let's just say my image of BMW changed.

The event was introduced by the statement, "This is not your car". The participants thought the instructor was telling them to take it easy on the vehicles. The opposite turned out to be the case. He went on to say, "Have fun. How often do you get to abuse someone else's high performance automobile?" Since the participants didn't have to worry about repairing the vehicles, he encouraged them to drive them like they belonged to BMW. The participant took him at his word. By the end of the Dodger Stadium event, six BMWs had to come in for repair. At the Tustin event, at least two vehicles were crashed into the same tree. I did my share of taking him at his word. I can still smell the burning rubber from the event.

Attendees received about one-half hour of performance driving instruction from a Professional driver from Skip Barber Racing who taught about oversteer, understeer, braking and angling. The bottom line is that anyone can hit the accelerator, but the skill is in the braking and turning.

The tracks - four of them - were located on the Tustin Airbase runways. They consisted of red cones set out in a series of challenging turns. Assigned to each track was a BMW 323i and a 328i. A professional driver took us around the track. The ability to find just the right angle to take a curve and to know just when to break and how fast to go is sheer artistry. In contrast, what we do on Highway 5, 10, 405, 710... is not driving.

Seatbelt on, racing tires warmed, transmission in D2, takeoff! Then, full depression of the brakes into a curve to test the ABS. They were amazing. We stopped in time - even while turning a corner. My Grumman sure couldn't do that. Next was a race around the track, twice, with instructors providing advice. What a thrill. The cars seemed to enjoy speeding around the track as much as we did. All the while just barely within the limits of control. And you should have seen the smiles. It was Disneyland for adults.

Next was a rally. There were two teams for each course. The object was to get around the track as fast as possible, without hitting any cones and tag the next team member, who was to do the same. The team with the shortest time wins. The pressure of your teammates and your ego was on. Everyone thinks they are Mario Andretti, and the idea of being proved a mere mortal was unthinkable. And Mario we were.

But the best was yet to come. And I'm not even talking about the chocolate covered strawberries and gourmet coffee.

The BMW folk are a trusting people. They were eager to give anyone with proper event credentials the keys to one of their cars for a little test drive. They provided a course map to follow once we left the base. It was about a 4-mile course. For your driving enjoyment there was a 740i, a 540i, a 528i, a Z3 M Roadster, and the rest.

I started out as a passenger in the Z3 M Roadster. Driving was my good friend and colleague Zoran Segina, a former Croatian racecar driver (well, he is still Croatian, sort of). I held on for dear life. Webster's simply does not contain sufficient adjectives. And Hurley Haywood better look in his rear-view mirror.

Then it was my turn for some fun. The sensation of having the top down, with wind blowing through my hair at 55 mph was incredible. The roadster was spectacular. It had excellent acceleration and superior handling. So I decided to take advantage of my newfound driving skills and the opportunity to abuse someone else's BMW.

I found a little more challenging course. I slammed the accelerator, weaved around traffic and navigated corners as fast as the car would go with two tires still on the pavement. I found a secluded cul-de-sac in an industrial area, and did doughnuts for the first time since I was a kid. Which is especially unique, as there was not an inch of snow on the ground. I spun it around a few times, marked a point on the horizon, straightened the wheel and took off again. The sensation was pure excitement.

I drove several other cars, all of which performed admirably. With a big enough ramp I think NASA could use some of these vehicles to send satellites into space. I drove several more cars, and even came back the next day for more fun, and another free lunch.

I concluded that BMWs are made to move.... fast. And turn fast. And stop, well, fast. The event forever changed my image of BMW. I had to admit that it might well be the ultimate driving machine. BMW's Ultimate Drive is offered to anyone with a valid driver's license on a first-come, first-served basis. Hopefully, the program will continue. The best way to keep an eye out for future events is to periodically check their Web site at www.bmw.com. If the event is offered, they will tell you how to sign up.

For the Southern Californian who appreciates food and cars, "A Taste of Lexus" was the place to be. It had the best of all. Arriving late, I was not sure whether to head for the food or the cars. No takeout here. Not when you are talking about cars worth upwards of $75,000 a piece.

The delectable aromas of food prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southland drew me into a huge room with two buffet lines and several desert tables. The buffet featured roast turkey, gourmet pizzas and salads, flavored breads, and deserts. The desert table overflowing with sweats. Pies, cakes, brownies, and cookies - all were exceptional. I returned to the buffet about three times within just a few hours. That is what I call eating for pleasure.

And speaking of pleasures. How about taking a Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes, Range Rover or, ah Lexus on a leisurely drive around the track? There was a driving course set out for each class of Lexus, including an off-road course for sport utility vehicles. A description of each auto in the class and how it compared to the Lexus was displayed. One had to chuckle at some of the descriptions. Lexus took the opportunity to point out that the Cadillac Escalade was really a Chevy Tahoe under the skin, that the Acura TL was finally more than just a warmed-over Honda Accord, and that the new Jaguar S-Type shared its platform with the Lincoln LS. Absent from the descriptions was the kinship between the Lexus ES300 and the Toyota Camry, between the LX470 and the Toyota Land Cruiser, etc.

I drove almost every car. And the ones I was not able to drive, I tested upon my return the next day. Who could turn down a free lunch and the opportunity to drive a BMW 540i or Lexus GS400?

My impression of the Lexus was generally favorable in each class, with the exception of the ES300 (too bland). Generally, the Lexus was a less expensive alternative with comparable comfort, style and performance. I was most impressed by the SC400 and the GS400. I drove each model several times.

Unfortunately the Lexus folk were a bit uptight with the rubber. Attendees who drove aggressively received a red mark. Two marks equal ejection from the event. I discovered this after seeing Mr. Segina with a big smile and a bigger red slash on his badge. We decided this was not the ultimate drive, but that we sure had fun. Early on, I took a spin in the SC400 and was told to slow down. I stated that I wanted to compare the cars based on my usual driving style. I was told that was fine, but I would be responsible for replacing the tires at the end of the day. Of course this warning failed to deter me. But I did save the real driving for the BMW 540i, the Lexus GS400, and Jaguar XK8.

About half way through the day someone flew the Jag off the course, landing right onto one of the runway lights, ripping apart the tranny. A Jag that only goes backwards is no fun at all, so it was pulled off the track.

The event also featured the two Lexus SUVs. Lexus aptly demonstrated the structural integrity of the LX470 by driving it onto elevated ramps, on a severe incline, which were not parallel. The 470 was able to drive up and down the incline without slippage. Then the vehicle was set on two opposite tires, one front one back, and rocked. The doors were opened and closed. It held up admirably, time-after-time. Then there was the off-road course for the SUVs - Lots of bumps, craters, crevices, and a muddy area. We were able to get them rocking back and forth and bumping up and down. It was a fun off-road experience, and all the vehicles handled relatively well (for SUVs). The event was lots of fun and I drove away having compared a variety of exceptional cars. All in all I had the most fun at the Ultimate Drive. The event was pure adrenaline, from the rally to taking the cars out on the street. But the Taste was also an incredible event. The food was great, and I was able to compare numerous cars in several classes.

So, is all the effort the manufacturers put into these events worth their while? Will I ultimately end up with a BMW or Lexus? One thing is certain. The car that Road & Track showcased for their ride-and-drive back in 1995 played a big role in turning the fortunes of that company around. I would like to think that the word-of-mouth of the car enthusiasts who participated in that event played a small but important part in that turn-around. Do the manufacturers get their money's worth out of this? For the sake of us enthusiasts, let's hope they conclude a resounding "yes". In the meantime, keep checking LA CAR for upcoming events. We'll post them when we see them.

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