The Wholly Unfriendly BMW 528i


I, like many guys, enjoy cars. There's very little to compare to a well designed vehicular personification of your spirit. One that thrums with power and corners like a slot car. Getting into an imposing dominator and becoming one with all of those under the hood horses is a feeling of assurance and control. It's a relationship based on trust. And if you treat it right, it will always do what you want without letting you down.

So, I got sent out to "the field" the other day and thanks to the hand of serendipity I rented a BMW 528i. I mean, it is "the ultimate driving machine" isn't it? And then there's the whole Volkswagen "German engineering" propaganda slogan that must include BMWs as well. I mean, didn't German egineering result in the Tiger tanks in ol' Dub-ya Dub-ya eye eye?

To use the car, I'm handed a conversation piece the size of cigarette pack and twice as heavy. It's smaller than a gas station restroom key and looks more like a shiny hunk of plastic than something that could potentially be servicable. Where am I supposed to put this monstrosity when I'm not driving? In my pants pocket? I don't want something that big sending out radio waves that close to my jewels. Besides looking dorky, it can't be safe for my potential progeny.

As svelte and stylish as any radiation emitting river rock

So, I approach the Beemer in the rental lot, plastic nutmeg in hand. It's a pretty and distinctive car with a soft pearl finish to its white exterior. I open the door and get in. The first thing I notice is that you can't start the car with a key. I look for a keyhole and find nothing but this:

And the mice looked up from the floorboard in awe

(The yellow rectangle is mine. Also, the picture isn't of a 2013 528i steering column. But the untranslatable symbols are the same.)

Maybe you can tell me what that means. In a rather dark parking garage, to me it means either, "Play Galaxian to start the car," or "Your key used to go here, now it doesn't." Since I don't see a video arcade nearby, I deduce the latter. The Beemer is full of non-information like this.

Now ever since I've been driving, you start a car with a key. Maybe back in 1911, you pushed a button to engage the electric starter, but this is over a hundred years later. Yet, in today's world I see a push button that looks like a starter button.

BMW has created an ultimate driving machine by going back to 1911? And what's up with that word "ultimate"? Ultimate means the pinnacle, the top, the nothing after. Is this the last car BMW will ever make? There's nothing left after ultimate. Sadly, BMW is still making cars. Then maybe this is the PENultimate driving machine? Do ya think? Maybe there's only one more iteration? I doubt it. Perchance, maybe they meant ultimo driving machine, as in last month's conveyance. Probably not and it wouldn't be accurate anyway. I wonder if there's a "u" word for last century, circa 1911, that they could use instead.

But the starter button is there, so I push it. Nothing. I push the button above the button. Nothing. I push the lower button again. A message appears on the dashboard readout. It says, "I'm not going to work that way and you are a car thief." I look around the parking lot for some help. The attendant is deliberately avoiding eye contact. He's not gloating with superior knowledge, he's afraid I'm going to ask him something that he can only shrug to as a reply.

Thinking that I'm wily, I tell my companion to drive. He says, "Sure. Get it started first." Then he calmly wanders away. Curses! Foiled again!

It's not much of a "driving machine" just sitting there. And what is a "driving machine" anyway? I assume it's a machine for driving. What is it driving? Nails? Spikes?

Ultimate (pile) driving machine

Ultimate (pile) driving machine (Rev. 2)

After trying to find out how to start the car from one user manual (nothing), and then a second (again nothing), I stumble upon the answer in the third manual. To turn this hunk of metal into something running on gasoline, I need to

  1. Possess the key
  2. Keep its invisible rays near the starter button
  3. Make sure that the shift knob is in Park and only in Park
  4. Hit the on/off button
  5. Depress the brake pedal (What?)
  6. Press the starter button.

Why do I have to push down on the brake pedal? Isn't the car in Park? Isn't the transmission strong enough to keep the car from moving when it's in Park? Why do I need to stand on the brakes when the car is in Park? Does this vehicle decide to shift out of Park on its own? Doesn't the word "Park" mean something in German engineering? I don't trust this car...at all.

We decide to give the Beemer a skip and check out a Volvo. Upon opening the trunk, in the spot where there should be a place to throw our luggage, is a spare tire. It's not hidden under something, it's right there covered in some plastic canvas-like cloth, daring people to figure out how to jam luggage in around it. I guess it's why we never hear of Swedish engineering.

Not having the ability double dare us, we leave the Volvo without loss of much self-esteem and go back to the Beemer where we are presented with our latest dilema. How do you open the trunk? Ever since the mid-80s, there has been a trunk release lever in cars. So we search, and we search, and we fail to find one. So, we go back to the trunk and look for keyhole. Of course there's no keyhole. We go to the users manuals and they indicate that there is indeed a manual trunk release but it's location is hidden and there's no clue as to where it might be. I'm thinking that it is inside the trunk, which is only helpful if you can get the trunk open in the first place.

But, on that ugly, oversized, RF emitting contraption that is the electronic leash (Here, boy! Here, boy! Bad doggy! You've got to stay close to me, boy.) there is a button to open the trunk. We press it. Nothing. We press it again. Nothing. We press it and hold it down for five seconds. The trunk clicks. We've opened the trunk! Yay! And our luggage fits without having to cram it in around a spare tire! Yay!

So we jump in the car and get ready to roll. Is the car ready to roll? Do we just move the stick shift in the console to drive and go? Are you kidding?

First you've got to figure out how to get it into Drive. There's a stick shift and it moves, but it does nothing but wiggle. There's a button on it marked "P". There are plenty of glowing hieroglyphics. There's movement of the knob. But the car is in Park. It turns out that you have to press a well concealed button on the left of the knob if you want to get the car into Drive. Do you want to get it into Reverse? It's not one "click" away like every other automobile in existence. Nope. You've got to put the car into Drive and then click the button again to get it into Reverse. How do you know? Well, you hand covers the knob when you're button mashing so you can't see the pretty hieroglyphics change color. You have to look at the dashboard.

And it's not long enough to brag about, either

And that's what stands in the way of ever feeling as if you're part of the BMW. You have to do everything twice. Want to get out? Pull on the door handle twice. Want to turn off the windshield wipers? Hit the wiper button twice. Want to go forward after stopping at a red light? You even have to hit the accelerator twice. The freaking car turns itself off when you're stopped at a red light. You have zero rpms. When you try and go, the engine restarts and you lurch ahead when the transmission re-engages. Sometimes for added thrills, you nearly hit the car in front of you.

Now maybe in this enlightened age, shutting off the engine on a whim has some special name. When I was learning to drive, it was called "stalling".

Who thought that this was a good idea? Who thought that a car that can't even be relied upon to stay running is the "ultimate driving machine"? Oh, I hear it saves gas. Really? Constantly restarting a car in bumper to bumper traffic saves gasoline? I'm sure it also cuts down on wear. It's not like equipment that's being repeatedly stressed wears out faster than something that is steadily running. (I'm being facetious. Things that are constantly being stopped and started DO wear out faster.)

I can't imagine what other wonders German engineering built into the car. Rather than sliding in and feeling like I was one with the road and the horizon was my destination, I begged to get in, was berated for not thinking outside the box, kept on my toes awaiting the next hazard (stopping the engine in traffic IS a hazard), sadistically taunted, and at no time felt the joy of being in command of a roadway cruiser. The next move by BMW will be estrogen laced air freshener to reduce road rage.

Beemer - German for verschlimmerung

Just to be historically accurate, the German Tiger tanks were soundly thrashed by the Russian T34s. So much for German engineering.