An all-automotive themed trip through Italy, Germany and Switzerland, culminating in the 90th Geneva International Motor Show. Sounds like the perfect trip for any enthusiast, right?
While we watched the COVID-19 pandemic unfold right in front of us, our Munich plans were almost entirely unaffected, something that seems like pure luck in retrospect. Having left Italy after a tense few days monitoring the news, watching all our museum and factory tour plans be cancelled one by one, we were unsure if Austria would keep the border open to permit us through, though in the end we made it through to Munich without issue.
Awaiting us there was our Tanzanite Blue M340i from BMW’s press office. After a few days driving around town, stretching its legs on the Autobahns, and twisting through some B-roads en route to Neuschwanstein Castle, we were left convinced this ‘M-Lite’ is BMW’s perfect daily driver for 2020; all-wheel-drive grip, abundant comfort and tech, athletic looks, all backed by the sonorous six cylinder turbo engine. The M340i forms part of the current G20 3 series range, temporarily the top model until the next M3 arrives.
The value proposition of M-Lite cars just gets stronger and stronger with each iteration. Here in Australia, the M340i is priced very sharply for a car with its performance credentials, and rides a little softer than the more hardcore M cars. 285kw and 500Nm are easily put down onto the ground through the ubiquitous and brilliant ZF 8 speed auto transmission. This transmission is something that must be experienced by any true car enthusiasts; the auto revolution has almost completely consumed manual driving experiences in the new car theatre, though not all autos are created equal.
The ZF unit, with clever programming by BMW, can both be buttery smooth in comfort driving, or almost brutal with rapid and decisive shifts during moments of harder driving. Unlike some other autos getting higher in the number of forward gears, the ZF never seems to hunt for the right gear, and will hold the gears if you tell it to. In manual mode with use of the paddles, shifts are quick with little to no lag from when you pull the paddle to shift action. While there’ll never be a substitute for the thrill of rowing your own gears in a direct, well sorted manual sports car, there is a certain thrill of accelerating up an autobahn on-ramp, seeing the open speed limit sign overhead and casually pulling the + paddle for yet another near-redline upshift as the car continues charging forward effortlessly.
Another little perk of having 8 forward gears – you can get through a couple more before you’re at risk of breaking the local speed limits back here in Australia.
Dynamically, the M340i is brilliant. Smart suspension and narrow body proportions (at least, compared to an M3) make it easy to twist through narrow roads with confidence. The clever suspension adjusts and adapts to the surface beneath the car, and even with the fitted winter tyres, the car felt planted and firm without being harsh.
From a comfort perspective, the M340i had it all. Comfortable and sporty seats, plenty of driving and entertainment tech. Heads-up display, digital dash and wireless charging are all present, BMW’s clever 360 degree cameras as well. A feature we rarely see specified on local cars here, the heated steering wheel, is a feature you don’t realise how much you’ll love until you experience it. It’s easy to dismiss until you’re jumping in the car after a few hours exploring the mountains in near-zero temperatures.
On our first afternoon in Munich, we were graciously hosted by Eva Priller at BMW Classic. Driving through the front gates of the original factory felt a little surreal for one of us, having seen it many times in photos, and a little like coming home for the other; Editor Jess Bell had visited once before. Perhaps even more so as Eva had prepared a birthday cake for Jess, awaiting our arrival.
Eva then took us on our own private guided tour of BMW Classic’s expansive curated collection of the brand’s history. Early models, motorcycles, concept cars spanning decades, just about every classic production BMW you can think of, and a handful of historically significant examples of BMW’s other brands, MINI and Rolls Royce. You could spend hours here and never get bored.
Perhaps the most curious vehicle was the Garmisch, a faithfully recreated concept originally penned by Marcello Gandini for Bertone, debuting at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. Drawing its name from a German ski resort, little was known about this unique interpretation of BMW’s Neue-Klasse line, and very few black & white historical images existed. BMW painstakingly recreated this car in 2019, building it by hand on a 2002 Tii chassis in Turin. The diamond-shaped kidney grilles and broad headlight assembly both set the car apart against the production range of Neue Klasse vehicles. It’s incredible to see a manufacturer go to such great lengths to recreate a long forgotten vehicle.
For the BMW Motorrad enthusiasts among us, a mezzanine above BMW Classic’s function and studio space hosts a vast number of motorcycles chronicling the marque’s storied two-wheel history, including a number of preserved Paris-Dakar rally motorcycles.
As one would expect, we also spent extensive time around BMW’s head office complex, with BMW Welt to start. A truly mind blowing space in both size and structure, BMW Welt feels almost alive in the way it’s ever changing; no visitor will ever see it in the same state. During our stay, the upper function areas played host to an international convention for DJs and Producers. Downstairs on the public floor, the Ultimate Sound Machine was on display. A collaboration between HarmanKardon and BMW, this project saw an i3 converted into a musical instrument; it’s occupants able to tap, swipe and turn various interior elements to create their own music.
Aside from transient exhibitions and displays, the new car showroom area along with the purpose built M Town make this a must-do for any fan of the brand’s newer products. You’ll likely never see so many BMW Individual builds gathered in the one place, with the exception of possibly Abu Dhabi Motors.
Across the road in the cylindrical Karl Schwanzer designed headquarters was our next stop, the BMW Museum. Between the BMW Classic collection and the sparkle and gloss of freshly built new product at BMW Welt, the museum hosts all things in between.
Our final BMW Experience before collecting a four-ringed rental car whom shall remain nameless to take us through to Switzerland, was a guided tour of the Munich Plant where the 3 Series, 4 Series and M4 are currently assembled.
Our tour began with an inside look at BMW Welt’s huge vehicle storage pre-delivery area. Freshly built (and detailed!) cars stacked high in a clever use of space, these cars are kept in a temperature controlled and low oxygen environment. We were told it’s impossible to light a match in this area. When a customer’s BMW Welt delivery experience is scheduled, their new car is retrived by machines and brought into the delivery area.
Understandably there was strictly no photography allowed, however the sheer scale of the plant left an impression burned into our memories.
Impressively, the entire assembly process is handled on site for these models. From the stamping of bare sheet metal into panels, complete engine assembly, drivetrain and interior installation, everything is handled here. Components arrive on a Just-In-Time basis as per most modern production facilities.
The painting complex was this writer’s favourite moment in the production process. A multi-level structure uses high flow compressed air to extract all paint residue and fumes, though there’s very little of that to begin with. The technology in the plant allows the precisely measured amount of paint to be flawlessly and accurately applied to each body, with negligible waste and an incredibly short space between each car. The same high-flow air system creates an invisible “wall” between each car, meaning one car can be painted in an entirely different colour to the one immediately behind it, with no risk of cross-contamination of paints.
Arriving at the end of the factory tour and returning through the rear entrance of BMW Welt directly into the M-Town display, we came back with a new appreciation for how these brilliant machines are produced.
We must extend our warmest thanks to Eva from BMW Classic, as her hospitality and coordination of our BMW experiences in Munich helped create a once in a lifetime experience for us both.
We must also thank Graeme Bell and Jo Mawson, as their efforts were equally great in putting together such a wonderful trip tailored to a pair of BMW tragics as ourselves.
Words and images: Leigh Kelly / Minami Media + Production
Originally published in BMWDCM’s idrive edition 2