Nick, an old friend who worked as a test driver at the BMW assembly plant in South Africa enthused over the 3 series. “This is the gutsiest little beast ever designed to run on wheels,” he told me. I couldn’t agree with him, as I cut my teeth on the 5 series.
The first time I drove a BMW, I was serving in the Rhodesian Police Highway Patrol Unit, which monitored traffic on the open highways. BMW’s were about the flashiest cars you could buy in the country. After intensive advanced driver training based on that of the California Highway Patrol, a newly qualified driver got to ride passenger. It was like waiting for dead man’s shoes to get your own set of keys but after a year or so it happened for me.
By 1981 after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, we had moved on from the BMW 2800’s and were policing the roads in the newer and superior 528i (E28s). Taking on the Trout Rally motorbike riders through the on a fast ride escort, the bikers were stunned when they battled to keep up through the passes. We told them it was driver technique, and that had a lot of bearing on keeping the baby on the road, but so much of it lay under the bonnet and in the manual transmission.
Cornering at over 100 miles an hour, manual control was vital. Touch the brake, ease up on the juice and she wanted to spin out. Pushing the lines of the curves and accelerating through, the back dug in and sweet as - she popped out the corners ready for more. Always out the bends faster than we went in – she was safe and reliable.
3 vs 5 series.
Pitting the 1980's 325i and the 528i against each other, Nick in the 3 series lost the race every time on the racetrack corners but I will admit gravel road driving felt safer in the 3 series. In the wet, the 528i tended to waggle its bottom. That’s not to say it went to the extremes of the old Peugeot 404's that spun like a top at a drop of rain.
528i's age with grace.
12 years after I last drove a 528i (E28), 1981 model I had the opportunity to drive one from Pretoria to Cape Town. The aging lady still hugged the road like she had been painted onto it, and the superb gear control could get you out of trouble when you needed it. These days, with the Arrive Alive Campaign and African roads carrying more vehicles than they were designed for, speed is a real issue, so buying the latest 2016 model is a bit of a waste of time. Who wants to potter along in a speed machine at 120kmh?
I had a recent opportunity to drive the 2016 528i around an old airbase. I was a bit nervous about the speed thing. It was nearly 20 years since I had broken a speed limit and I had been living in areas where gravel roads are the norm. I had trundled around in a variety of 4x4’s from old series 2 land rovers through to Isuzu 280D’s. I had a hesitant moment when I looked at this new 5 series beauty with its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 240 hp and can do 0-100 km/h in just 6.6 seconds and I did want not to drive it; the reason being, that the trusty, I’m in control feature of the manual transmission was gone and was replaced with an auto–transmission.
But driving a BMW at speed is like doing cartwheels on the lawn – you never forget that you once did it; you just need the courage to try it again. The new model has rounded edges, more chrome, and Bluetooth connectivity, but apart from that, I instinctively knew that underneath it all, she is still one of the finest cars of her breed. It just felt right - it all felt familiar. For the first millisecond, I dawdled along getting the hang of her.
Older models more stable.
After a rubber-burning hour, that proved they don’t make tires like they used to, I fell in love with the car. BMW's are still tops for sheer driving pleasure. Nevertheless, I came away feeling the older models had better handling and were more stable. Not that I would say “no” if anyone wanted to give me a 2016 528i xDrive, despite the auto-transmission. #Motors