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December 13, 2023
5 Min Read
BMW touts the “Ultimate Driving Experience,” but this editor finds that experience tarnished by quirky controls.Spencer Chin
At a Glance
- BMW is supposed to represent the "Ultimate Driving Experience," but not to this driver.
- Functions such as transmission shifting became an adventure to this experienced driver.
I recently returned from week-long vacation trip to the left coast to visit relatives and take in a few sights. As relying on others to chauffeur me and my family around was going to be too much of a burden, I decided to rent a car, something I have not done in a few years due to the pandemic and the fact my business trips have largely revolved around shows and conferences in a single venue.
For years, renting a car involved going either to a travel agent that would handle all arrangements or calling the car rental company directly. With the Internet and online travel services, one can do this with a few keystrokes, which I did through the site Travelocity. The car rental company, which probably should remain nameless for reasons I will detail later, even sent me a pre-rental questionnaire that I thought would speed up checkout at the car rental counter.
No Such Luck
That was clearly not the case. I was stuck for at least 30 to 45 minutes on a rental counter line that almost snaked out the door at the airport. And to top it off, the standard-sized SUV I had requested was not available. After exploring several options, I opted for a white BMW X3 xDrive30i, which was a bit smaller than I would have liked for a standard-sized SUV, but at least I figured it would be highly maneuverable in miserable California traffic and handle sometimes-twisty highways, which it did with aplomb. And it looked good.
Unfortunately, some of the “Ultimate Driving Experience” that is touted by BMW was tarnished by my experience with supposedly mundane tasks like shifting a transmission and handling infotainment functions. First, the X3’s eight-speed transmission’s shift pattern was totally unintuitive to me. While it was supposed to be the familiar P-R-D-N-L variant I have become accustomed to (see photo), shifting into park was NOT at the top of the gear selector; instead, it was at detent between neutral and drive, something I did not get used to until almost the end of the trip. Moreover, to engage the car in reverse, one had to shift upwards, which took getting used to. Drive was at the bottom of the shifter.
The awkward transmission experience was something noticed by family members and literally made me feel dumb. I have rented cars for years and usually have the controls figured out by the time I exit the car rental lot. Of course, it doesn’t help that car rental companies no longer include owners’ manuals (remember those) in the glove compartments of their vehicles.
Like many newer cars, the X3 also has a paddle shifting option, but given how timid I became using some of the car’s controls I did not want to take additional risks using functions I was not familiar with.
Clumsy Infotainment Interface
The other main quip I had was with the interface for the too-complex infotainment system. While many newer cars use a touchscreen interface, BMW decides to put a rotary control knob on the console next to the transmission (see photo). While the knob was not hard to use, it does require one to momentarily shift his or her eyes away from driving, which can sometimes mean the difference between an accident and close call. The only way to safely control this knob is when the car is in park (once I found the park function).
I’m also going to give demerits to the X3’s built-in navigation system. On more than one occasion, it failed to recognize my voice commands, which in turn forced me to manually enter destinations, which itself was sometimes cumbersome because it did not recognize a complete address. One must enter the town first, then type in the street. And, even though I set up the navigation system to find the fastest route, it would often default to the most straightforward route, which often meant long stretches sitting in traffic on crowded interstate highways. Taking an hour to travel just 10 miles became commonplace.
My backseat driver spouse actually found a shorter route using Google Maps on her iPhone, which shortened one trip leg somewhat.
Car tech aside, I must take issue with the practices of my unamed rental car provider. My rental car was not cleaned prior to being loaned out to me, which I can live with. But, the vehicle, whose odometer read over 65,000 miles, showed that it needed an oil change and was low on windshield washer fluid (see photo). While I never bothered to open the hood and look at the oil condition itself, I do wonder if these car rental companies have cut back on regular maintenance. It is almost as bad as riding in rideshare vehicles with check engine lights and low tire pressure warnings.
On top of all this, the rental car company pulled a fast one by requiring its drivers to accept the supposedly optional collision damage waiver at the counter. My plea not to tack on this charge because my personal automobile insurance policy already covers collision damage fell on deaf ears with the rental counter person. Well, earlier today I examined the car rental e-receipt which spells out that the charge is optional. After a conversation with the rental company’s customer service, I was at least able to procure a credit card refund for 50% of the unwarranted charge, which while not ideal would make the bill more reasonable.
Needless to say, I will not rent vehicles from this company again, nor will I opt for a BMW.
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