New Z4, M5 Competition, and X3 M, All in a Day: Sampling a 90-BMW Smorgasbord at The Thermal Club

From the new X7 to its M Division stars, BMW brings several showrooms’ worth of cars to the Palm Desert for journalists to take for a spin.

byLawrence Ulrich| UPDATED May 2, 2019 3:01 PM
New Z4, M5 Competition, and X3 M, All in a Day: Sampling a 90-BMW Smorgasbord at The Thermal Club

I’m aiming the new BMW Z4 roadster toward the snow-stubbled peaks of California’s Santa Rosa and San Jacinto range with the top down, gunning its frisky, 2.0-liter turbo four. Cigar-smoke clouds gather above the piñon trees, then exhale a sudden shower onto Highway 74— and into the BMW’s red-leather interior—as I ride this Tilt-a-Whirl of switchbacks above Palm Springs and its desert. It’s been a hell of a drive, but it’s time to head back to The Thermal Club. After all, this is the second annual BMW Group Test Fest, and there are roughly 90 BMW Group vehicles lined up for my driving pleasure. 

It’s the most groaning smorgasbord of cars I’ve ever seen on an automaker media drive—so many that it’s hard to decide which Bavarian creampuff I should sample next. Perhaps the M5 Competition, laden with carbon fiber and packing a 617-horsepower, 4.4-liter V8. Or the new, 523-hp M850i coupe and convertible, the reborn version of the old cult-favorite 8 Series, which BMW graciously offered to The Drive for a full-day run before Test Fest itself.  

Z4 convertible struts its stuff on Palms-to-Pines Scenic Byway, Lawrence Ulrich

Other BMW Group brands are fully represented as well, from Rolls-Royce and its $325,000 Cullinan SUV to Mini, whose amuse bouches include some vintage, genuinely “mini” Minis from the brand’s historic collection. Oh, and there's also a two-wheel crew from BMW Motorrad, including the latest, S 1000 RR liter-class bike, with its 205-hp four, dynamic traction control, and 14,600-rpm redline. 

Bodacious Alpina B7 can hit a no-fooling 205-mph top speed, BMW

BMW, which runs its west-coast Performance Center out of Thermal, has reserved the track for its most-capable models. And for all the guff that BMW has taken over the state of its Ultimate Driving Machines—some deserved, some not—the brand has clearly been restocking its larder. At one point, I peruse a single-page spec sheet that randomly lists just 16 of the 90-some cars here—everything from an i8 electric roadster and 2019 3 Series to the three-row 2019 X7 and the 2020 M760i flagship sedan. A quick calculation shows those 16 BMWs together amass 6,945 horsepower and 7,080 pound-feet of torque. That’s an average of 434 horsepower and 442 pound-feet for each of these BMWs, a testament to the revolutionary force of turbocharging. 

All-new, American-built BMW X7 is en route to showrooms, BMW

I’d ask anyone to name another luxury brand that could fill a pit lane with such a dizzying overabundance of track-capable showroom models—meaning, in part, cars that can run from morning-to-dusk on track, unlike, says, Teslas that piss themselves and limp back to the pits within 15 minutes. Over hours of lapping, my Bimmer buffet includes various M2s, M3s, M4s, and M5s; the M850i; the Z4; and the comeback kid, the all-new 3 Series whose 2020 M340i version is sure to help restore the fabled franchise in the eyes of fans, skeptics, and skeptical fans. Oh, and some nuclear-powered crossovers that, tradition be damned, can circle a track faster than many conventional performance cars. 

Striking new 8 Series is the rare GT that's also at home on track, BMW

The day’s surprise-slash-tease comes when BMW rolls its dramatic 2020 X3 M and X4 M onto the track: In 503-horsepower Competition trim, these are the most powerful six-cylinder BMWs in history. That performance heritage is underlined by a track encore for four showroom-based, race-winning BMW GT race cars. BMW doesn’t let us drive their precious racers, naturally, but we get ride-alongs from the likes of Bill Auberlen, who has started more than 400 races for BMW and won an astonishing 38 percent of those contests. And when Auberlen isn’t blowing minds (and eardrums) in the 2016 M6 GTLM car, he’s pacing me around the track in showroom BMWs at his usual remorseless, catch-me-if-you-can pace. Short answer: I can’t. But it’s fun to try.   

We’ll post full reviews on some of these models after we reel them in for longer tests. For now, here are some highlights from the 2019 BMW Group Test Fest. I’m already looking forward to what BMW has in store for 2020. 

2019 BMW Z4 sDrive 30i

Z4, now a serious sports car, BMW

We already knew the Z4 was a looker. Just as importantly, BMW’s all-new convertible is a driver, a no-foolin’ sports car in place of the former perky boulevardier. That engaging performance bodes well for the Z4’s close mechanical cousin, the Toyota Supra that will share its production line at Magna-Steyr in Austria. The new Z4 ditches its predecessor's overly complex hardtop for a lighter softtop, which folds or erects in just 10 seconds, at speeds of up to 31 mph. That came in handy when rain began to patter on my ascent of perilous Highway 74, the infamous Palms-to-Pines Scenic Byway. 

Z4's optional Magma Red interior, Lawrence Ulrich

Even handier is what the Z4 proceeded to do on this coiled, wet snake of a road, despite short odds of death should one veer off into the valley below; the Z4 negotiated steep climbs and descents like an Alpine goat, including confident, less-filtered steering that recalled the similar electric rack on the all-new 3 Series. Ah, if you could only get a stick. The eight-speed, paddle-shifted transmission faithfully serves the 2.0-liter, 255-hp turbo four, but this roadster cries out for a clutch pedal. 

On track, the Z4 changed direction more nimbly than some of its peers, as you’d expect from a ground-hugging roadster that weighs 3,287 pounds, about 370 fewer than the M2 Competition coupe. Sport mode and limited-slip rear differential are game for all the tail-swinging action you (and your tires) can handle.

Z4, here in lovely "Frozen Gray" paint, starts from a reasonable $50,695, Lawrence Ulrich

My tester's style was boosted by striking low-gloss “Frozen Gray” paint and a “Magma Red” leather interior that's perfect for extroverts. The interior is clean and driver-focused, dominated by a three-spoke, multi-function steering wheel and BMW’s Live Cockpit, with its 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 10.3-inch center touchscreen. 

On sale this month, the Z4 sDrive 30i starts from a reasonable $50,695, and my heavily-optioned test car reached $62,795. It’s a tasty prelude to the M40i version that follows it to dealers this summer, with the rocking 382-hp, twin-turbo 3.0-liter six that powers the upcoming M340i sedan. And that sweet-voiced inline six, with its roughly 4.1-second dash to 60 mph, is something you can’t have in a strictly-four-pot Porsche Boxster. 

2019 BMW M4 CS

M4 CS stood out at as BMW's best overall track performer at TestFest, BMW

My opening morning laps had me wielding one of the sharpest knives in the BMW drawer: The M4 CS coupe, a special edition with a twin-turbo, 454-hp inline six and a slobberingly-evil front splitter, rear diffuser, and Gurney lip spoiler, each formed from carbon fiber. In fact, I’d judge the M4 CS as clearly the best overall track car at Test Fest, with a thrilling purity and edge to its operation that left even a slick cousin like the M2 Competition feeling softer and less-wieldy in comparison.  The M4 CS is pricey, starting from about $104,000, but that’s $46,000 less than the insane $150,000 that BMW was asking for the ultra-rare, M4 GTS. 

Everyday use in pothole hells like New York would be the ultimate test: Even with its selectable Comfort mode, the M4’s locked-down suspension might bust balls and wheels alike. But weld in a rollcage, spec-up the brake pads and fluid, and strap on a set of slicks, and this M4 CS becomes a real race car. Even in standard trim, with its staggered Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, the M4 CS is a car that could drop the kids at school, slay competitors at a local track day, and be home in time for supper. 

2019 BMW M5 Competition

M5 Competition attacks the Thermal Club circuit, BMW

With a hushed interior that’s like a rich dude’s panic room, standard all-wheel-drive, and a curb weight of about 4,300 pounds, the M5 Competition sedan might have seemed better-suited to chauffeur journos to the track. In reality, you could stuff this M5 with overstuffed journalists and it would still beat the Z4 or M2 Competition around many road courses, as I realized when I kept catching other BMWs while lapping the M5. How long this autobahn mauler could keep that up is a fair question, though its carbon-ceramic brakes were still going strong after a day of medieval abuse. The 617-hp, 4.4-liter V8 is the definition of “unfair advantage,” along with an AWD system that virtually eliminates wheelspin or drama, to the tune of an estimated 2.8-second(!) sprint from 0-60 mph. That early acceleration is on par with a McLaren 720S or Ferrari 488 Pista, and faster than any other M Division model. 

Lawrence Ulrich

For $110,995, a $7,300 upcharge over a standard M5, the Competition gets 17 extra horses and a subtle-yet-thorough suspension overhaul, including stiffer springs, beefier engine mounts and rear anti-roll bar, and ball joints instead of bushings for the rear axle. Like the standard M5, you can summon a strictly rear-drive mode, but there’s just no point: The car is best and fastest in AWD modes, including a 4WD Sport setting with a decided rear-wheel bias. Where AWD was once a recipe for understeer, the M5 Competition kept clawing the asphalt by instantly diverting power to the front tires, even as its rear end broke loose. Was this river-croc-sized sedan as fun to drive as some smaller M cars? Not quite. But there was something to be said for power-sliding this M5 all over the track, and still gulping up that smaller prey. 

2019 M2 Competition

M2 Competition adopts 405-hp six from M3 and M4, BMW

I recently spent a week in the M2 Competition in New York—one wearing Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires, just in time for slick roads and single-digit temperatures. But this was my first track run in the upgraded M2, shod with grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sports. And what a charming bundle-of-joy it is, despite being equipped with the optional seven-speed DCT automatic gearbox. The addition of the twin-turbo inline six from the M3 and M4 (here making 405 horsepower) makes the M2 that much better, as does the bawdy exhaust note, a robust track-cooling package, and brakes that tempt late actuation in every corner. (Fun fact: the brake rotors front and rear alike are larger than a Corvette Grand Sport’s). 

M2 Competition in pit lane, ready to entertain, BMW

All's not perfect here; the M2 could transmit more information about what its front tires are doing under duress, an issue spotlighted by the more-communicative M4 CS. And I’m not thrilled about the Competition model’s big price jump to $59,895, $4,400 above the standard M2 that it replaces. Still, a larger M4 coupe costs $10,250 more. Ergo, the the M2 Competition remains the best bang-for-buck model in the M Division universe.

2020 X3 M and X4 M

I was granted only a few laps in the shotgun seat in BMW’s latest superhero SUVs. I spent a good part of those laps sideways and chuckling, as a pro pilot drifted the slant-roofed X4 M like a teenager, albeit without the crashing into garbage cans part. With the M Division’s much-hyped, twin-turbo S58 engine—a  radical reworking of the B58 that powers X3 and X4 M40i models—these SUVs generate 473 horsepower from six cylinders and 3.0 liters of displacement. Competition versions bump that to 503 horsepower, with 442 pound-feet of torque in every version. It bears repeating: 503 horsepower, in a BMW X3? 

The standard rear-biased AWD system (hmm, sounds like the M5’s, eh?) and Active M Differential keep that torrent flowing, for an estimated 4.0-second assault on 60 mph for Competition models, 0.1 seconds quicker than standard versions. Top speed reaches as high as 177 mph. And the engine sounds incredible, an inline-six by way of Satan’s workshop. On the basis of my hang-on-tight laps alone, these will be stiff competition for any performance SUV, from the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio to the Porsche Macan Turbo and Mercedes-AMG GLC 63. These SUVs will flout family values beginning this summer, at a respective $70,895 and $74,395 for the X3 M and X4 M. Toss in another $7,000 for Competition models...perhaps by pilfering the kids’ college fund.