The warm days of late summer have succumbed to the crisp days of autumn: Winter is coming. On the high peaks, snow has made its first appearance, but only just a dusting so far. Below the treeline, the leaves have turned from green to yellow and are falling to Earth proportionally with the temperature. And with them, the crowds of summer have retreated to the lowlands. It’s my favorite time of year to drive in the mountains; the traffic is light, but even the high passes of some of Colorado’s finest driving roads are still open. The window before they close due to snow is short, but I’ve been taking advantage of it with some marathon drives this October.
The M coupe has been down all year—I was halfway through a track-focused refresh when the pandemic hit—but fortunately, I had another sports car in the quiver, one with a name that begins with P. The driving demands of the 1982 Porsche 911SC are constant, and at speed it will punish you if neglected—even for a moment. The heavily weighted steering, terrible shifting, and interior devoid of even basic amenities (like heat) are beneath the civilized BMW driver in me, but its incessant demands keep my short attention span dutifully occupied. After one 600-mile, fourteen-hour day, I was fatigued, but not ready to stop—the old 911 really is that good!
If only there were a way to cross the streams between a proper mountain drive, my only available sports car, and the local BMW community. Oh, wait: There was!
The most official name I could find was the BMW Event at the Steamboat Grand Hotel, which is supported by BMW North America and all of the Colorado BMW dealers. In attendance was a fleet new of X7 and X5 models, along with several F87 M2Cs and an outgoing F82 M4. It was part appreciation, part marketing, and all pure fun, on your choice of pavement or dirt—or both.
The X cars were lined up and sterilized for exclusive access to the Steamboat Ski Resort Mountain via an access road that went to the upper lodge. There was also a small autocross course set up in the parking lot of the Steamboat Grand Hotel. Friendly smiles from our BMW North America and local dealer hosts, along with food and beverages, were plentiful between events in an appropriately socially distant outdoor environment. People did such a good job of keeping their distance, it was hard to get a picture that showed how well-attended the event was.
I departed at 5:00 a.m. and took the long way via I-70 and Route 131 north of Wolcott. The two lanes of Route 131 were wonderfully devoid of traffic as it meandered through the high country foothills across the Upper Colorado River and east of the Flat Tops Wilderness. I arrived in Steamboat just in time for a second breakfast and caffeine as the morning aged into mid-day.
I met a few Rocky Mountain Chapter regulars and we loaded up into a new 2021 X7 M50i for the drive up the ski hill. I was actually familiar with the road, which is the main access point for the hang-gliding launch at the top of the mountain and doubles as a green run during ski season. The dirt road itself is not for the faint of heart, with steep pitches, tight switchbacks, and lots of exposure to steep drop-offs. The parade of X7s and X5s was a sight to behold going up mountainside!
Despite my pathological hatred of crossovers (large and small), I had to begrudgingly admit that our X7 M50i was a wonderful place to spend an hour’s drive up the ski hill. Its cavernous interior was light and airy, thanks to a panoramic sunroof, and it seated our payload of five adults comfortably, with middle captain’s chairs featuring individual infotainment displays and stowable third-row rear seats. The third-row seats even featured their own small sunroof so as not leave the coach passengers out of the open air experience. The sunroof also had small LED lights embedded in the glass for mood lighting at night, one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen on any car.
Power from the 523-horsepower twin-turbo N63B44T3 engine was comically plentiful, although we were never able to test its 4.5-second 0-60 time on the steep dirt road (that was proper M-car territory just a few short years ago). The centerpiece of the interior was a crystal (technically diamond-cut glass) shift knob similar to the one found in the 8 Series, with an illuminated X encapsulated within the glass. My first impression was that it could have been pulled from the secret layer of Castle Greyskull and used to thwart the evil plots of Skeletor, but that was the 1980s child in me thinking.
Elsewhere, the X7 was festooned with features, all labeled with euphemistic descriptors like Professional, Dynamic, Adaptive, or Intelligent or some combination thereof. They could be applied to anything: “Dynamic Intelligent Adaptive Seat Recline,” which is unnecessary given the assumed prominence of a BMW Seven. Sometimes less is more, but unfortunately, the modern consumer has been trained conversely. The Adaptive Suspension featured variable right height and adjustable dampening, which proved to be a smooth ride even in my Individual Sport Mode setting.
My favorite option was the massaging front seats, which are part of the Luxury Seating Package. When selected to “Whole body exercise” it kneaded my buttocks like a Swiss Rolfer after a vigorous day of skiing in the Alps, which, looking out the window at the ski run signs, seemed appropriate. I hypothesized that the mysterious vent above my Intelligent Sun Visor may have been a bad-breath detector that offered you a choice of breath-freshening sprays (strawberry, lavender, or mint), but in reality it was just the voice-control microphone.
All tomfoolery aside, the X7 was a wonderful place to spend the remainder of the morning and vastly exceeded my expectations for BMW’s flagship X vehicle.
After the mountain drive, we took turns besting each other in the M4 and a pair of M2Cs on a small and tight autocross. There was a straight-line start and stop box to get the brakes and tires warm, after which the competition was fierce. Despite not being allowed to turn the nannies off, my best time was a 27.9, but it was dirty (one cone) and half a second slower than the fastest of the day. What was impressive was just how capable the M2C was, even on a course that was designed to keep things slow and safe for the potential zero-hour autocrossers who were also having a go.
The M2C changed direction without complaint, even allowing the tail end to hang out when set up in Sport Mode. Power from the 405-horsepower S55 engine was unwavering despite the thin mountain air. The brakes, also borrowed from the M4, were exceptionally good, and aggressive utilization of both was required to make time on the few short power sections of the course. The fastest time of the day went to a mysterious man wearing an Indiana Jones-style leather hat who turned up out of nowhere and handily beat all of the regular Rocky Mountain Chapter autocrossers in attendance. And when he was done, his wife whomped us all again just for good measure! Well done indeed, mysterious sir and ma’am…
I broke off in the early afternoon to continue my drive and allow enough time to head north with hours of daylight remaining. From Steamboat I crested Rabbit Ears Pass to Highway 125 through Walden, Colorado, and drove north into Wyoming. In the next 200 miles I would count fewer than a dozen cars. It was absolutely brilliant! Soulless stretches of two-lane highway were the norm and I reverted to a Zen state in which the hours and miles blended into one continuous fog of concentration: no heat, no stereo (neither works well), and no stopping other than for an occasional picture.
There was a desolate harshness to the landscape and fleeting cell-phone signal, meaning a breakdown could be a cold night alone. What could go wrong in a 38-year-old car being driven vigorously for prolonged periods?
South of Saratoga, Wyoming, I turned east into the Snowy Range on Highway 130. The northern and western boundaries of the Mullen Fire were still smoldering, but the cold, snowy touch of winter had already blanketed the high country with the season’s first layer. As I climbed above 10,000 feet at the foot of Medicine Bow Peak, I neared the base of the clouds, the dark cover of which had squelched out all but a faint candle-like glint of the setting sunlight in the far corner of the horizon. The rock walls towered in the waning light above alpine lakes whose dark surfaces were slowly relenting to the winter’s advancing ice. It felt like I was beyond the Wall and on high alert for White Walkers.
I was completely alone in the world; the silence was only broken by the howl of the wind through the rocky crags and lonesome pine trees. A breakdown here would truly be a survival situation. I relished the moment! These occasions—alone in the elements, on a fine mountain road with a proper sports car patiently idling at my feet—only happen at the end of the season, north of the border, with none of Colorado’s crowds.
It was an equally blissful and desolate drive down the mountain and across the high plains to Laramie, Wyoming. The instinct for survival beckoned me to slow down for the snowy patches that had drifted across the road, but the old 911 is so communicative that the loss of grip was nothing more than a formality.
As I crossed back into Colorado, the distant flames of the Cameron Peak Fire glowed angrily underneath a pre-frontal cloud layer. I opted to take I-25 in order to stay clear of the potential evacuation routes closer to the foothills, but the late-weekend Interstate traffic could do little to sour my mood. It was a thirteen-hour day and over 450 miles, and as I drifted to sleep that night I could still feel the faint caress of those X7 massaging seats.
Many thanks to BMW North America, Winslow BMW of Colorado Springs, BMW of Denver Downtown, Gebhardt BMW, Boulder, and COs BMW Center of Loveland for their hosting and support of another great year in Steamboat.—Alex McCulloch
[Photos courtesy Alex McCulloch.]