June 24, 2004

Airport Shootout: BMW 5 Series Comparison Test Drive
Article by: Joe Wong

In the highly contested mid-size luxury sedan market segment, BMW Canada recently orchestrated a national marketing campaign called the "BMW 5 Series Comparison Test Drive". It was designed to demonstrate BMW's technical and safety prowess over their competitor's products.

BMW Canada, as would be expected, assembled a well-run venue in Vancouver, which happened to be the last stop of their national road trip. The event was run to "educate" salespeople from local BMW dealers as well as and press representatives. By invitation only "prospects" were also recruited to participate. The road show consisted of professional performance driving instructors, a BMW marketing representative, hospitality tents and a transport truck that hauled the fleet of vehicles for this comparo.

Anticipating an exciting day, I headed to Boundary Bay airport near the Canada/US border south of Vancouver, British Columbia. The Boundary Bay airport is interesting in its own right, complete with rusted, abandoned airplane carcasses and empty runways. Frankly, I thought we were lost or at the wrong end of the airport until we saw large white tents peppered with BMW flags.

The test track was situated on an unused part of an aircraft taxiway. As can happen in this area, it was a dreary day with light drizzle. The probably worked to our advantage since conditions were ideal to evaluate a vehicle's dynamics in real life, wet-weather conditions. Like most airport tarmacs, the track surface consisted of large slabs of concrete. The airplane taxiway in question was actually quite old and the surface was very abrasive.

BMW assembled a fleet of the newly designed 2004 530's with Steptronic transmissions. One was a "base" model, another had the sports suspension package and the third had both Active Steering and Dynamic Drive (computer controlled active suspension) - more on that later. The competition consisted of a 2004 Jaguar S-Type 3.0, 2004 Mercedes-Benz E320, and last but not least an 2004 Audi A6 2.7T S-Line.

After a brief presentation, standard waiver signing, and pre-test surveys we were ushered to another tent outside near the test subjects. We were first given an orientation of the track and the general rules of engagement, followed by an initiation lap around the track chauffeured by the driving instructors.

The course itself consisted of a slalom section, then a simulated pothole section, left 180-degree sweeper followed by an "accident avoidance" section. This section was designed to test the vehicle and the driver's ability to avoid potential harm and to panic stop in relative control. One of the instructors manually controlled a set of lights; depending on which light was chosen the driver had to swerve left or right to avoid the danger and then stop at the braking marker. Finally the driver proceeded to a 45 degree angle "skid pad" to test the vehicle's stability control system. The skid pad actually appeared to be a large sheet of white vinyl lubricated with dish soap to simulate winter driving conditions. The drizzle that day undoubtedly augmented the sensation.

There were recommended speeds for each section of the test in order to maintain consistency. However, it was funny to see the test drivers (myself included) take it up a notch in the slalom section. With the racer's instincts surfacing and/or elevated levels of testosterone, most of the drivers were traveling way too briskly through this section, the pylons generally "exiting, stage left, stage right".

Overzealous participants were reprimanded and were reminded that it was not an Autocross event - stick to the suggested speeds through each section! The poor chap assigned to reposition the pylons in the slalom section had quite the workout.

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