In the fast lane

ALI TOCKER
Last updated 09:23 24/11/2012
Hampton Downs in North Waikato.
Fairfax NZ

Flying the flag: Women race stylish BMW sports cars at Hampton Downs in North Waikato.

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Seven sleek and gleaming BMWs are lined up on a racing track, engines revving.

Lined up alongside is a group of equally glittering and eager women.

We're being thrown the keys and told we can drive them as fast as we want. It sounds like a fantasy, but it's real.

We're at Hampton Downs raceway, in North Waikato, on an ultimate BMW driver experience, organised just for us and liltingly labelled Ladies' Luxury Laps.

We all know sex sells, but this time the premier car company is turning the marketing maxim on its head. Instead of draping women over cars for photographs, it's putting us behind the wheel.

BMW knows women are key decision-makers in buying vehicles and it has identified them as a target market.

The day has been organised as a follow-up to Fashion Week, which BMW co-sponsored. About 20 fashion writers and celebrities are at the racetrack for a luxury day out with luxury cars.

The celebrities include Olympic gold medallist and kayaker Lisa Carrington and former Miss New Zealand turned broadcaster Amber Peebles, but we all receive the royal treatment.

I'm neither famous nor that fashionable, but have slipped in on the action, because our in-house fashionista isn't that fond of driving.

I have some driving credentials. I've done a weekend rally-driving course and have a motorbike licence. I may not have driven a sports car through Paris, but I have driven a rental car at 180kmh on the autobahn in Germany where, like Hampton Downs, you can legally drive as fast as you want.

So speed? No problem. Bring it on.

It appears I'm not the only one feeling like this. The other women at the track are mostly young and immaculately made up.

Like butterflies, they flit around the cars. A BMW representative says it's the most BMWs the company has ever had in one place at one time in New Zealand.

The day starts with putting seven of the most luxurious, reliable and thrilling BMWs through their paces on the track. We take turns test-driving all seven.

We slalom through cones, drive racing lines to experience the cars' performance and manoeuvrability on straights and corners, then go as fast as we want down a stretch of track.

It's all done in safe conditions. We take turns. It's not raining. The acceleration test is relatively short. I put my foot flat to the floor and reach a top speed of only 146kmh, but a better driver could have achieved more.

My first experience is the BMW X5. It's stately and stable. If I were a mother of 2.2 kids, I would be happy to have this in my garage. Not only does it manage motorways and streets with equal authority, but it can also be used to tow big things, including those found on farms.

My co-driver and I agree it gets an A for the family-oriented, the older driver and the multitasker - say, a busy mum with a business and kids.

But for those looking for a super-fast blast around the track, especially the corners, we turn to the other cars for more of a thrill. Three, in particular, catch the girls' interest.

The BMW M5 is the hottest supercar on the track on the day. There are a lot of Ms about this car - most powerful, most glistening and most expensive.

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You need a cool $229,000 to get your hands on one of these babies.

In our case, it's a particularly fetching metallic blue, making it a standout on the racetrack.

It is fitting that the car was released this year, for 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the BMW M (the M stands for Motorsport).

Just recently, BMW launched the M6 - the fastest two-door car the company has produced, having in common with the M5 a twin-turbo engine.

The M5 is marketed as one of the world's most powerful sports-performance touring sedans, performing in both racing conditions and everyday traffic. With racing-inspired technology, it can go from 0 to 100kmh in 4.4 seconds. That's fast.

The luxury features are almost endless - electric glass roof, professional navigation system with 3-D map views, 16-speaker audio system with hard drive to save music and so on.

It's a fantastic car, no question, and all who drive it on the day fall a little bit in love.

Next in the lineup is the BMW M3, a sporty coupe that takes my fancy a little more, because it's more feminine. A nippy little number, this two-door has everything the glamazon could want. Not only does it "think in bends", it also features a silhouette with long, lean lines. What women can't get through diet, exercise and pilates, we can achieve through this car.

But just when I think I have found a near-perfect mix of fashion and motoring finesse, we meet the BMW 335i M Sport sedan. This car has an extra sparkle which, I have to say, made it "the one" for me among the BMWs.

If it were trying to chat me up, it had me at hello, or even at first glance, resplendent as it was in its alpine white colour scheme.

Next time I'm in Paris, this would be my BMW of choice. With a sporty but elegant outline, it makes a style statement on the road. For a modern woman, a vehicle combining sophistication, racing specifications and practicality is pretty hard to go past.

The car is also clever. Like other BMWs, it can turn itself on and off at the lights or in stationary traffic to conserve fuel and the monitor displays all the key driving and navigation information you need.

Later in the day, we get to drive a range of BMW four-wheel-drives, including a BMW X3 and X6, over a purpose-built obstacle course. This includes driving a near-vertical drop to test the vehicles' hill descent function.

This enables you to pre-select a speed of between 8kmh and 20kmh and involves the rather freakish feeling of travelling downhill with your foot off the brake as the vehicle does the braking for you.

We also do hill starts without having to use the handbrake as, again, the car does the thinking for you.

We then get to experience a "hot lap" - hurtling around the track with an accomplished BMW racing driver at the wheel.

I was lucky, getting the front passenger seat in the M5, and can report it's a rush. At 240kmh, the experience rates as a favourite life experience, up there with rally driving, bungy jumping and parachuting.

You can pay to do a BMW Driving Experience at race circuits around New Zealand, including at Hampton Downs.

This practical driving course is designed to improve your driving skills and confidence. You spend 90 per cent of your time on the track, doing slalom driving, lapping, steering and braking exercises.

You also get a hot-lap ride with an experienced instructor, trained to international BMW standards.

BMW offers various options, including days for women and corporate days for men and women. Shout a loved one or your staff. It could make a great Christmas gift.

Details: see bmwdrivertraining.co.nz

- Waikato

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