Despite the shivering cold and strong wind on this early Tuesday morning, a quiet eagerness is humming through the inside of this bus. Sitting here are friends and families, fathers and sons. And as we turn off the main road and approach the BMW Performance Center's glass facade, some begin to point. "Is that it?" asks one. "There it is!" says another.
Some on this bus have had this day circled on their calendar for months. Me, too. When we ordered an X3 xDrive28i for our long-term fleet, BMW supplied its VIN. After creating an account on the automaker's website and plugging in the 16-digit alphanumeric string, we watched as our X3 completed each milestone of its assembly, including video of it being married to its powertrain and getting its sunroof installed.
Now, our finished Vermillion Red X3 is sitting prominently at the front of the Performance Center in its own glass room. Similarly parked are another X3 and an M3, whose owners are the ones pointing through the bus windows. Today we're taking ownership of our new cars though BMW's Performance Center Delivery program, a unique experience in the U.S. where, as part of a daylong new owner introduction, we'll receive driving instruction and a tour of the factory across the street that builds the X3 and X5/6 for world markets.
Performance Center Delivery costs nothing for customers who've ordered new vehicles, and it includes ground transportation, an overnight stay at a nicely furnished Marriott, and dinner and breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. All the owner needs to cover is airfare and the fuel needed to get back home. (Customers who buy their car off a dealer lot, instead of ordering one, can participate in a similar program, called BMW 101, for $495.)
After the friendly BMW team takes the group's luggage, we're guided to a classroom. Here, we meet two enthusiastic driving instructors who begin what's best described as Driver's Ed Plus. The training is all about proper seating position, hand placement on the steering wheel, ABS use, and stability control intervention. When it's time to drive, the school provides a vehicle similar to the one you're picking up. The reasoning here, which the teachers strongly emphasize, is that you're free to push hard because you aren't risking your new car with all of six miles on its odometer.
The driving portion consists of a short handling course, an ABS drill, and a wet skidpad. To teach proper emergency stopping, the instructors have us enter a turn at 40 mph and grenade the brake pedal, and after each successive run, they bump up the speed in 5-mph increments. The process builds important muscle memory and familiarization with ABS intervention, a sensation that's far too alien to many commuters.
On the wet skidpad, the instructors demonstrate the effectiveness of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) with 3 Series sedans. With the system deactivated, we're asked as we lap the circle at 40 mph to flatfoot the throttle. After promptly zipping backwards off the skidpad, the instructors activate DSC and tell us to do the same. This time, with the throttle pinned to the floorboard, we can feel the system modulating the brakes on each wheel, preventing slip. We never lose traction.
After two hours of instruction, excitement falls over the group when we learn it's time to meet our cars. A BMW employee guides each new owner to the office where his or her car sits. After verifying and signing paperwork for the last time, they receive an in-depth look into the vehicle's particulars, from iDrive to how the various contraptions in the luggage compartment work. The thoroughness of a knowledgeable representative walking you through each aspect of the car, helping you learn how to use it in detail, is something that every car buyer should be able to experience.
How It's Made
The massive BMW Manufacturing facility, which occupies 1140 acres of Spartanburg, South Carolina, looms across the street from the Performance Center. Founded in 1994, the factory initially produced the Z3 and its variants, but has since been retooled to produce the X3 and X5/6. About 69 percent of the production here is exported; BMW claims to be the largest exporter of vehicles in the U.S.
The automaker's presence in Spartanburg is impossible to miss. The local airport has an X3 on display in its baggage claim area, and the BMWs at the plant wear temporary license plates reading "Proud to call South Carolina home." The impact goes much deeper: A study conducted by the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina found that for every one employee hired at the factory, 4.3 jobs were created in the surrounding area.
We enter the factory through the Zentrum, a large, swooping glass-faced building that doubles as a visitor's center and museum. It's the host to a Z3 (a reminder of the plant's past), the first hydrogen 7 Series, and a number of BMW Isettas, motorcycles, and other examples from BMW's history. The tour ($7 for the public; complementary for Performance Center Delivery participants) walks you right through the production lines, from bare metal to finished product.
The life of an X3 and X5/6 starts at the body shop, where, in a six-hour process, the unibody is constructed and painted. The process is close to 100 percent robotic; employees are responsible for final MIG welding and checking the quality of the automated welds. Robots perform the rest of the work. A lot of robots. They pause, dive, whirl, and twirl with inconceivable speed and precision. It's difficult not to project emotions onto them and give them characters as they wait for a job, then eagerly twist and turn to complete a task. As we walk by, sparks erupt, shooting around us like fireworks. It's also difficult not to whistle the Looney Tunes theme played whenever its characters entered an industrial area (Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse").
After the unibody is completed, X3 and X5/6 assembly lines diverge. The X3 bodies move through an underground tunnel to a separate assembly hall that isn't open to tours just yet. The tour follows the X5/6 line, and we watch as around 8000 parts are attached.
The genius in the assembly line is that these vehicles are built and assembled in invoice order. It's uncommon to see an X5/6 that's identical to the one in front or behind it. Such flexibility demands intense logistical planning, which BMW manages with "just in time" inventory. Parts are delivered very shortly before they're needed; the sitting inventory is measured in hours.
It's difficult to comprehend the complexity of the modern car until you see how one is built. In the X5/6's case, for example, it takes more than 7000 employees and more than 380 robots. Its 90-pound wiring harness needs to be heated to 100 degrees to make it pliable enough for a six-person team to run it through the car. Marrying the powertrain to the body takes about three minutes. An X5/6 takes 30 hours of work to complete (with time spent sitting, the total build time is around three-and-a-half days). And, at the end of a shift, two vehicles selected at random go through an exhaustive eight-hour quality audit.
Performance Center Delivery has been a runaway success for BMW, and it's easy to see why. It makes the new-car experience something special -- you're not driving home from the dealer tired from hours of haggling. Instead, after driving lessons, education about the brand, and an astounding look into the car-building process, you're embarking on the best kind of journey you can take with a new car: a road trip.
That's why associate photo editor Mike Shaffer is joining me tonight. You see, we have a bet with executive editor Ed Loh. It goes: We can cover the 3000 miles that separate BMW's operation in Spartanburg and Los Angeles before Monday morning, giving us four days to zigzag through the South and Southwest, hunting for interesting sights, and more important, food.
We'll make it, no problem. Stay tuned for Part 2, the adventure back home.