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My body pressed deep into the bucket seat. The car lurched and raged as I floored the accelerator. Tires screeched at every turn; the smell of rubber thick in the air. My hands clenched around the wheel, pulse racing, as the brakes bit down to navigate the chicane. This may not seem like your typical test drive but this is the driving experience the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina delivers.
As a birthday present this year, Nicole bought me a two-hour Performance Drive experience at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina.
BEST. PRESENT. EVER.
This experience puts visitors behind the wheel of some of the best cars BMW has to offer, including their M series.
It is in no way similar to any dealership test drive I have ever taken. Nor is it how I would ever want to drive my own car. This is a chance to test your nerve in raging sports performance machines.
Let’s dive into the experience and get you behind the wheel too.
Table of Contents
What’s on offer at the BMW Performance Center?
There are actually two BMW Performance Centers. One is in Thermal, California. The other is in Greer, South Carolina. My experience was at the center in Greer as it is less than two-hours from where we live in Charlotte.
Both centers offer driving experiences and a driving school. The California center offers track experiences in both Mini and BMW brands. While the South Carolina location offers BMW off-road, track and motorcycle experiences.
The South Carolina location is also home to the BMW factory and the Zentrum museum. This is the only BMW museum in North America. The museum is free and open Monday through Friday 9:30 – 5:30.
Planning a weekday visit? Consider scheduling one of their factory tours too, there is a fee.
It’s worth mentioning, if you are lucky enough to purchase one of these beautiful machines, BMW will throw in their BMW Performance Center Delivery Experience. This includes a night’s stay, a day at the track, and a factory tour.
Since we aren’t in the market for a sports car, the two-hour Performance Drive suited me well.
What does the BMW Performance Drive Include?
The $299 (2019) two-hour Performance Drive package includes:
- Off-road course in a four-wheeled drive BMW X3 or X5
- Track time switching between four vehicles, including the M-series line
- A ride-along hot lap driven by the instructor
Arriving at the BMW Performance Center
As much as I was excited about the gift, I was also a little apprehensive. I envisioned something like a timeshare sales pitch. Stuck in a room until I can’t say no to their “great deals” any longer.
My experience was due to start at 8 am, so I arrived about 15 minutes early to sign in. Pleasantly, no one was there to greet me with a projector and a donut. There was no sales pitch and no salesmen in sight, just the driving instructors.
On the wall in the corridor, write-ups on the driving instructors highlighted their extensive racing and/or motorsport experience. It made for interesting reading as I waited.
When it was time to start, I was handed a lanyard and tablet to sign the disclaimer form. There were seven other drivers signed up for the experience.
Off-Road in the BMW X5
When I got to the track, all participants were paired with another driver. Each of us took a turn driving while the other rode shotgun.
Our group took out four fully loaded all-wheel drive BMW X5s, plus the instructor in a lead car. The base price alone of this vehicle is $61,200.
Inside the X5
Getting into the driver’s seat, the first thing I noticed was the gear shifter. Cut like a crystal, it screamed, “I’m expensive”.
Our instructor came over to each vehicle. She checked our controls and made sure we could switch between the front facing camera and the off-road information screen.
The off-road information screen was interesting. It showed the position of each wheel in relation to the others. This was handy as I drove over the course obstacles.
With the touch of a button, the vehicle’s air suspension lifted the car for off-road driving.
Driving the Off-Road Course
As we navigated our way around the course, the instructor talked us through each obstacle over the hand-held radio.
There were obstacles to practice balancing the car, a few very steep hills and a water course.
An interesting feature of the X5 was the cruise control system. Specifically, when used in conjunction with hill assist. This mode defaults to 2 mph when turned on, or can be bumped up to 5 mph for a little more speed. The car can entirely control its speed as it descends a steep gradient. There’s no braking necessary, all the driver needs to do is steer the way.
I also loved the forward-facing camera. There were so many times on the course where the hood was pointed uphill. So the view ahead was obscured. This was really useful to see the obstacle below the field of view.
We ran through one lap of the off-road course for each driver.
Onto the Performance Track
When we got to the Performance Track, our group took out four different BMW cars. Partnered again with another driver, each person did three driving laps and three passenger laps in each car.
As the instructor told us to pick a car, two guys in the group darted towards the M5 without hesitation. They later regretted starting off with the main event.
Out of sheer luck, my driving partner and I started our run with the lowest powered car in the group. From there, we worked our way up, finishing with the beefy 617 hp M5 as our last car.
I felt this was the best way to do the experience. The first car you drive is really your learning car, you are going your slowest as you learn the track.
As my confidence developed, I found myself pushing the cars more and more.
Learning the Track
With the instructor in the lead car, she drove us through a demo lap. Each car followed closely behind as she explained the circuit and the cones.
The BMW Performance Center track has three colors of cones to note.
- Yellow cones sat at the apex of the corners. These are the cones we needed to hug as we rounded the corners.
- Blue cones sat on the outside of the circuit. In conjunction with the yellow cones, these created the racing line.
- Red cones signaled where to start braking into the corners.
The track gave us two straightaways and a chicane to maneuver on each lap.
It provided a good mix between hurtling out of corners, punching it on the straightaways and sharp breaking.
M2 Competition Coupe
Next, my partner and I jumped in the 405 hp M2 Competition Coupe, MSRP from $58,900.
The cabin was small. At almost 6 feet tall, I had to push the seat all the way back.
Far from the smooth, quiet ride of the 330i sedan, this tiny car was feisty and mean.
Impressively, it’s 6 cylinder twin turbo engine can do 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds. I never imagined a BMW could rage like this. All the emphasis was on fast and fun.
I finally felt like I was in a sports car, and started to let go of my normal road driving mindset, a little anyway.
From the starting line, the car launched into the first turn. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my driving partner stiffen up and grab tightly onto the side of their seat.
Punching the accelerator, the car tore out of the first turn and onto the straightaway. I felt myself pushed deeper into the bucket seat.
“Don’t brake until the red cone” came over the two-way radio. It was too late, my nerves got the better of me as I found myself slowing down to hit the next corner.
I never did stop breaking too soon, but I had such a blast. The capabilities of this car far exceeded mine, but I didn’t mind trying.
It’s easy to underestimate the mental block we have when moving from everyday driving, to driving these much more powerful cars on an open track.
M4 Competition Coupe
Feeling energized from the M2, my driving partner and I dashed into the M4. This beauty retails from $69,150.
The 425 hp twin turbocharged engine, and 7-speed dual clutch makes this track hero fast. Though, the cabin was a bit more roomy, and the sports seats provided a comfortable ride.
Capable of doing 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds, the loud and angry engine roared as I took off from the starting position.
Getting more comfortable driving around the track, I found myself finally breaking later and harder into corners. With zero body roll, I was pulled from side to side and loved it.
On my third lap, I accelerated too hard and too soon coming out of a corner. The tail kicked out. Letting off the gas slightly, the car snaked back into position for the straightaway.
This car was amazing!
M5 Competition Sedan
Finally, it was my turn in the M5.
With a starting price of $110,000, it was expensive. With a 4.4-liter, 617 hp, V-8 engine, 8-speed transmission and capable of going 0 – 60 in 3.1 seconds, it was quick and powerful.
I sat down, the driver’s seat was comfortable, and supportive. The interior, luxurious, spacious, and modern.
A little apprehensive to drive this extraordinary machine on a track, I gently pressed the accelerator and the car took off as if it was on a mission.
Coming out of the first turn, it was obvious just how much faster the V-8 was. I flew down the straightaway.
As I approached the corner, I was taken back when I pressed the brakes. Not use to the strong bite, it felt like I hit a brick wall, as the car immediately dropped it’s speed.
It wasn’t until my third lap that I felt confident in controlling the power of this vehicle.
Or so I thought!
M5 Hot Lap
It was now time for the M5 ride along hot lap with the instructor.
I was in the first group to go out.
Three at a time, we excitingly climbed in the car and strapped ourselves in tight.
She sedately drove us from the pit area onto the performance track. Once we hit the track, I was flung back into my seat as she accelerated toward the first corner.
The car went sideways into a controlled drift as the tires squealed on the turn.
The three of us burst into childish laughter as the computer sensor politely warned of excessive handling.
Moving from the dry track to the wet track, the tires temporarily stopped their screams of protest. Gracefully, we slid around the giant circular doughnut in the middle of the track.
It felt like the eye of a storm. Everything went peaceful, quiet even, as if we were moving in slow motion.
Suddenly, she jerked us out of our daze as we glided back on to the dry surface with a screech.
Everyone gripped their seats tightly as she barreled down the straightaway toward the pit.
Swiftly, she hit the brakes as we exited the track.
Adrenaline pumping, the three of us had an extreme case of the giggles.
It was at this point I realized the limiting factor with these cars is the driver’s ability. This experience was a lot of fun and gave me a true appreciation for the driving skills of the instructors.
See It For Yourself
BMW Performance Center Q&A
Do I Need to Drive a Stick Shift for This Experience?
No, the vehicles at the BMW Performance Center are all automatics.
Do I Need a Driver's License?
Yes, you must be 18 or older with a valid driver’s license.
Can Spectators Watch Me Drive?
Yes, there is a viewing area, but you can only see half the track.
The 4 x 4 off-road course is completely out of view of spectators.
On the day I went, one of the participant’s husband and son were allowed to watch from an area with a full view of the track. He said, they enjoyed watching us progress and seeing all the tire smoke and squealing. To him it looked like a movie set.
Where is a Good Place to Stay Overnight?
Want to experience the BWM Performance School for yourself, pin this guide in Pinterest so you can find it later.