Playing hooky on a Friday to autocross BMW’s brand-new 5 series for free—sounds pretty great, right? Thanks to BMW NA’s Ultimate Driving Experience (UDE), the yearly coast-to-coast tour that showcases the marque’s latest models, that’s exactly what my daughter Avery and I did on June 28th at Bowie Baysox Stadium in Bowie, Maryland. This would be my third time attending the Washington, D.C. stop of the Ultimate Driving Experience and Avery’s first. As always, it did not disappoint.

With a “track time” of 11:30 a.m., we hit the road in our 1998 M3—it’s been a while since we’ve had a Project Concord update, hasn’t it?—for the hour-long drive from Virginia to Baysox Stadium’s large cone-adorned parking lot. Arriving 30 minutes early allowed for a quick check-in at the registration counter where we picked up our lanyards and complimentary BMW M-branded aluminum water bottles. It also afforded us some time for exploring the interiors and exteriors of BMW’s newest offerings. Avery was partial to the Z4, as was I. The new X2 also caught our attention as we had fond memories from a recently taken family road trip in a nicely equipped X2—read all about that automotive adventure in the fall/winter issue of BimmerLife magazine.

This must be the place.

While we waited in line before heading to our autocross staging tent, we watched an iX perform hard launches and threshold braking in a nearby exhibition, which was also a staple of last year’s event held at RFK stadium in Washington D.C. Seeing the rear of the iX squat so low is an indicator of how hard this SUV actually launches.

After a short walk to the staging tent, our autocross coordinator, Jay of Greer, South Carolina, introduced the four professional drivers who would be instructing and coaching the group. He also discussed the two 5 Series we would be driving: the 540i xDrive and i5 eDrive40. Jay has been supporting UDE’s for over a decade, so the 11th stop of the 2024 tour wasn’t his first rodeo so to speak. He pointed out that the exteriors and interior of the gas and electric 5s were nearly identical. Aside from badging and exterior color, I couldn’t point out any immediate differences.

The UDE team set up a wonderful autocross course, complete with a mix of on-and-off camber turns and elevation changes, marked with both chalk and blue-and-white cones. I used to regularly autocross a Subaru STI—gasp!—in this very parking lot in the late 2000s, which seems like a lifetime ago, so it was fun to return to the scene of many shredded tires.

Two cars on the course at the same time!

For this event, participants would get three runs, with at least one run in each of the gas and electric-powered 5s. My first run was in the fossil-fuel burning 540i xDrive. Between driving the course for the first time, and my unsureness of the large sedan chassis, it was a bit of a slow run. My instructor, Lea of Colorado, advised me to be more gradual with on/off brake transitions, so as to not cause such abrupt weight transfer in the 5’s large chassis. The 3.0-liter straight six’s 375 horsepower and 295 pound feet of torque provided more-than-sufficient umph to see the speedometer needle climb effortlessly, with only a little lag between pressing the go pedal and being thrust into the back of the driver’s seat. In a straight line, it’ll hit 60 in just 4.4 seconds.

A 540i xDrive tests the limits of its tires.

After a short wait for round two, I hopped into a rear-wheel-drive single-motor i5 eDrive40 with Corey of Florida sitting in the instructor seat. With fewer ponies (and more weight) than the 540i—335 horsepower, 295 pound feet to be exact—it hides its power deficit quite well with instant acceleration. At low autocross speeds, it exits turns with urgency and handles slaloms better than I expected it to. In a straight line, it takes 5.7 seconds to reach 60 mph and offers a 295-mile range. More familiarity with the course led to a faster time, in part due to the aforementioned instant torque and less abrupt braking transitions. As confidence and experience with the 5 built, my time behind the wheel shrank as I was able to get through the course faster.

The i5 eDrive40 navigates a sea of cones.

The UDE event is efficiently run, as Avery and I were in and out in about an hour for the autocross portion. If you sign up for the “street drive” you can spend more time in the seat of a brand-new BMW in real-world situations. As we learned at registration, passengers for the autocross must be 18 years old, unlike the street drive which only requires passengers to be 8. A bit of a “parent fail” on my part as I misread the UDE FAQ regarding events, passengers, and age requirements, but even though Avery was too young to be an autocross passenger, she assured me that she still had a great time spending time together and checking out the new BMW fleet. Plus, I took her out to eat at her favorite restaurant for lunch, so that was fun, too.

On the way home, our E36 M3 rolled over 252,000 miles as we relaxed in the air-conditioned interior on such a hot afternoon. While I respect and admire the level of engineering that goes into new vehicles, it’s no secret that I’m an old-school guy at heart. Reflecting on my favorite eras of BMWs, I’m a bit partial to the 1980s and 1990s, as evident by the 1991 318iS and 1998 M3 in my garage. This two-decade span of time offered a blend of relatively light-weight vehicles (certainly when compared to today’s vehicles), driving engagement (hurray for manual transmissions), and somewhat modern conveniences that always leave me wanting more seat time. And I’m not the only one, as Avery said, “We should take the E30 next time.” I suppose I have been paying a bit more attention to the M3 as of late.

If a link between burning rubber and number of smiles hasn’t been proven, all of the necessary evidence presented itself at the Washington, D.C. area UDE. It’s a great event that I hope continues for years to come. If you haven’t been to one of these events, check out the UDE website and see when they’re coming to a city near you. Those who don’t enjoy “fun” need not apply. —Mike Bevels




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