I went to the BMW event that I've mentioned a while ago. Lots of fun. An actual autocross with 6 laps: 3 laps in one car, 2 laps in another (3 and 4 series gas and diesel), and a timed lap. And they've actually had some SCCA champions as instructors. The only slightly disappointing part about the autocross part is the video recording they've sent. It's the in-car footage of the driver interspersed with the stock footage of the car driving (it wasn't even the car model that I drove). But then again, people might be more interested in seeing themselves than seeing how they drive, and having two cameras would be more complicated.
And aside from this a couple of demos, and lots of cars to drive on the street. I've spent a lot of time driving them, and I still didn't drive them all (but I've done a very good representative sampling :-). And also some fancier cars (the Ms and i8) on static displays, you could sit in them.
The hill descent demo is pretty impressive. They've built a steep ramp about 2 or 3 stories high, and ran the X5 truck over it. It's something like 40% ascent and descent, when going up, you can't see where you're going other than by the front camera. The early part also has rollers, so that you can see on the display how the torque gets redistributed by the wheels. And on the way down it keeps the speed all by itself.
Now about the cars. The controls in all of them are very similar, so once you learn what is where, it's kind of a transferable skill. But you could see that there are different generations of the system. The newer cars have the instrument panel all-digital, really the screens with the gauges displayed on them. The models that were last refreshed earlier (like X5, 2-series and Z4) still have the actual gauges. X5 seems to be the oldest, it didn't even have the "Sport+" mode (but maybe the combination of "Sport" and turning of the traction control by the button does the same trick, I'm not sure, because they've been resetting each other's indication on the display).
I drove a few cars before the autocross, and they all have left the impression that they could use a lot more of the sway bars. Then at autocross the same 3/4 series actually didn't feel like that. And then I've tried to change the mode from "Comfort" to "Sport" after autocross, like they've done there, and realized that it made the difference. The cars become a lot more controllable and fun to drive. I don't understand why they have the "Comfort" mode at all. It sucks. The car wallows and the steering is very light. VERY light. Once you engage the "Sport" mode, the suspension tightens (I've been wondering if they adjust the shocks or sway bars, and from the web site it seems to be the sway bars), and the steering also becomes normal. I'd just leave the "Sport" and "Eco" modes and drop the "Comfort". I mean, come on, even the "Sport" mode settings are pretty mild and comfortable. I mean, I like how mild and comfortable is my Pontiac, but the BMWs in "Sport" mode are even cushier (Z4 with M suspension is probably comparable or maybe a little stiffer). And yeah, I drove my car around the same route afterwards for comparison.
I wonder if they have some way to set the "Sport" mode as default, but looking at the internets, apparently it can't be done. Pressing the buttons every time after starting the car would be annoying. Well, I can tell for sure that it's annoying because I don't normally bother to press every time the button to disable the stability control on my cars (yeah, I would like to buy a plug that would do it for me).
Speaking of which the even more right mode is "Sport+": same "Sport" but with the traction and stability control reduced. You can get there in two ways: either press the mode selection button twice, or press it once and press the DSC button once. I'm not sure, why are there two ways, and if they do the exact same thing or somehow different. The traction and stability control can be also turned off altogether by holding the DSC button for 6 seconds (like on the stinkin' RX-8 but BMWs at least have some torque and the traction control might potentially be helpful). And there way a demo that yes, they turn off all the way. That's where I've learned about the 6 seconds. The demo was kind of about the opposite, about how the stability control won't let you spin, but you can read it either way :-)
But as the settings go, that's not the end yet. The automatic transmission also has its own sport mode. Pull the selector to the left, and it's on. I'm not exactly sure, which sport mode controls what, and they seem to overlap on the engine settings. When both sport modes are on, the transmission does the very nice downshifts and has the quick reactions. In the Eco mode it keeps the engine around 1000-1500 RPM, and you can press the gas pretty hard and lug it in there without the transmission shifting, kind of like I usually drive on the street with the stick. In the Comfort mode it does neither and is not much good at guessing anything about what is wanted from it. Can't see why anyone would want that mode.
It can be shifted manually too, with the selector or with the paddles. With 8 gears, that's really too much work. Reaching the paddles also needs practice, because they're sitting pretty tight between the steering wheel and the turn signal and windshield wiper stalks.
Speaking of that, the windshield wiper stalk has a lot of buttons on it, I haven't figured them out, and I'm not sure if I can remember them all. I forget the complicated things that I don't use regularly. It's something that would require regular exercise to stay in practice. The navigation system seems OK at navigation as such but it doesn't have a touch screen. It uses a joystick instead. Which means that controlling it is impossible. I have a system like that in RX-8, I've tried using it once, found that it sucks big time, and never turned it on ever since. I've tried playing with the BMW's navigation, and it's just as bad. Worse yet, they have menus with pictographic icons. Icons, Carl! Pretty hard to guess what they mean. It might be nice to have if you get to drive a car in say China and can't read their words, but why not have both words and icons?
And yes, the car is started and stopped with a button, and there is no option to get the key instead.
Getting back to the chassis dynamics, after learning about the better modes, I'd rank the Z4 with M suspension first, then 740 with M suspension and 2 series, then 5 GT (which is built on the 7 platform), then 3 series and the trucks, and then the 5 series and I think 4 GT. I think the 6 series was better than 5 series but I'm not sure. I wonder if 4 GT is built on the 5 platform, like 5 GT uses the 7 platform. No matter how much Sport mode you press on the 5 series, it still wallows. Is this the model they've updated last? Not a good sign then.
I've been quite impressed by the turbo-diesels. They sound a little funny at idle but once you start driving, they feel like the normal engines.
The start-stop mode when the car turns off the engine after stop is a bit strange. Can't say that I liked it much. But the sport mode turns it off. And even by itself it's mostly smart, if you stop and then crawl forward, and then stop again (like at a stop sign or in crawling traffic), it usually doesn't turn off the engine the second time.
The ergonomics is wonderful. Even the seats with the big side bolsters (which I usually hate big time) are very comfortable. The more expensive versions have a surprising number of adjustments: among them, separate adjustments for the angle of the lower and upper parts of the seat back.
i8 is a very strange car in the ergonomics department. It has the very wide and high sills and the scissor doors. Crawling over these sills without hitting the head on the door is probably more tricky than fitting into a Lotus. I haven't sat in a Lotus recently, so I can't say for sure.
i3 the electric car is a pretty interesting experience. It goes pretty well. The gas pedal controls both the acceleration and the electric braking (by releasing it). Feels like a good engine braking, and all the way to the full stop with the foot off the pedal. I don't know, maybe it automatically engages the usual brakes at the end. The dashboard shows the meter for the flow of energy. But it's a tall car, and it could use a lot more sway bars, say an inch thicker at each end.
The normal cars also show the economy meter in the Eco and Comfort modes. In the Sport mode the instrument panel is all red, in Eco mode it becomes blue. And they also have the recharge meter. My guess is that's for recharging the normal battery (it doesn't seem to create any noticeable braking force).
Parking the cars after the drive with the reverse camera can be counted as a separate ride :-) Makes things pretty easy to fit into the tight spaces, though it still requires skill at forecasting, how the projected path lines will match the reality. They show what would happen if the steering wheel is held as-is, but normally you'd unwind the wheel near the end, so you need to account for it and overdo a bit at the beginning.