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Track testing in NZ

2013 BMW M135i.

The M135i and I are snarling in frustration as we’re forced to hold speed through the 250-degree right hander. For once it’s not entirely driver error. New Zealand’s newest racetrack, Highlands Motorsport Park near Cromwell, is a 4.8km concoction of corners designed to give man and machine no relief.

The only thing that runs off this track unscathed is rainwater … and there hasn’t been any of that since the circuit opened at Easter, so a talcum-powdering of dust lies in wait to punish any deviation off the racing line. The prospect of arguing with the Armco and concrete barriers tends to give even me a degree of patience.

BMW’s baby performance car is on the dregs of its massive mechanical grip but is still letting me know my steering and throttle finesse is about as subtle as Bob Katter. The M suspension can only do so much with so little talent, as the fast-vanishing M6 ahead shows.

A few laps later and the base 116i hatch is even more impressive through the same sweeping turn - and all the turns that followed. Despite its skinnier rubber affording a little less grip having less grip skinnier rubber, the entry level 1 Series has 160kg less weight to worry about.

As a result it clings to the corner at a similar pace, albeit with a bit more suspension-bobbing. It’s only as the lock comes off and the power goes down that you remember the engine, as willing as it is across the rev range, is channelllng about half the 135’s output. Which helps explain why the auto-equipped 116 costs $41,300 and the M135 is $75,100.

The other surprise performer is the tri-turbo X5 M50d. The big SUV carries its weight like a rugby forward. It’s not the quickest of this quartet to change direction but there’s no sign of wallowing once pointed in, thanks largely to the anti-dive suspension and all-wheel-drive system that transfers torque depending on which wheel is about to let go.

The monster diesel has a momentary lag as the go-pedal is mashed but then winds up like a turbine on the tiniest straight. The next corner is consequently approached at pace but  no sense this is a 2.1-tonne truck as the brakes refuse to fade despite incessant flogging.

Finally, there’s the M6. Point it at a fast bit of road and the premium coupe is in its element.  A flat design and well-engineered layout help disguise the 1.8-tonne mass as the 4.4-litre V8 propels the grand tourer from corner to corner at a pace that has passengers paying to slow down.

But this is a track and the M6 will hold neck-straining corner pace without complaint. When it does break loose, the traction control hands control back before the pace has even slowed.

The verdict? If you have the coin, the Highlands Motorsport Park is a rewarding place to play. The same applies to the BMWs that plied its surface last week.

The Bavarian company holds the global lead in the prestige stakes and that’s down to the dynamic capabilities of its cars. In Australia, it needs to fine-tune the feature/cost return to regain that lead from its arch-rival with the three-pointed star.



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