I have a car problem. In addition to having several actual problems, like the need for a head gasket in my 200,000+ mile Volvo 850 Turbo, the fuel pump ground wire in my turbo Miata, and the minor issue of not having an engine that operates in my Spec Miata, I have this burning passion for cars for which I’ve found intermittent outlets but haven’t quite found the cure.
A small prescription to help alleviate this issue came in the form of Pennsylvania route 26 yesterday. I was headed to DC for the beginning of my bachelor party weekend, and I thought it would be fun to try to find some back roads after four hours of 75.4 mph and 30.8 mpg in my ’05 330i ZHP.
This car has never had a chance to stretch its legs and do what a 3-series BMW is intended to do, at least not with me behind the wheel. Something about the selection of all-season tires bought by the Charlottesville, Virginia-residing previous owner suggested that this car saw trips to the country club and not Virginia International Raceway. And really, Virginia does not get all of the seasons. As one who grew up in the Commonwealth but now lives in Ohio, a state in which you must have both shorts and snow gear available at all times, I can attest to that.
After exiting the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Breezewood, I headed west on PA 30 in search of an Arby’s. When Breezewood failed to deliver the tender roast beef I was searching for, I took a quick look at the back roads on my phone and decided to continue my detour. I headed toward the section of PA 26 that runs from Everett, Pennsylvania south to I-68. It’s 27 miles and runs nearly parallel to I-70, which is what I would’ve otherwise taken.
I got lucky. After the Subaru Legacy wagon in front of me turned off about a half mile south of Everett, I didn’t encounter a single car in my lane. The two-lane road started out running a ridgeline, and I quickly found myself going about 80 in 5th gear. It wasn’t long, though, before several elevation changes and blind hills suggested that I peel ten or fifteen mph off that number. No matter the speed, I enjoyed the three liter straight six’s guttural intake noises blended with a super smooth delivery that has been absent in my previous cars.
A few miles in, the road started to bend as it descended from the ridge into a valley. I was excited to discover that the random road I had chosen was turning into a good one. The ZHP shifter is still considered among the most communicative pieces to go into a BMW, and PA 26’s blend of corners and short straights allowed for spirited third through fifth gear changes and heel-toe work with confidence.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with the brakes. In the seventeen thousand miles in which I’ve owned the car, they always felt good. Not the immediate, nearly competition-level repeatability of the factory Mazdaspeed3 brakes, nor the communicative and reliable feel of a Miata brake pedal—but certainly not the mush of the crappy GM F-body brakes I grew up on. The bulk of my stopping early on was from 70-80 down to about 60, and while the ZHP’s pedal was slightly soft, it delivered each time I had to slow for the faster sweeping corners early in my journey. Once it’s time to replace the pads, a set of Axxis Ultimates and some stainless steel braided lines should secure the feel I’m looking for. I managed to engage ABS once toward the end of the trip when a “26 South” right turn sign appeared at the last second from under a leafy tree branch—the car remained composed and exhibited no drama.
About halfway into the journey, the road evolved to more undulating 40-50 mph corners from the sweepers I had seen earlier on. It was always my intent to arrive in one piece in DC to begin festivities commemorating the end of my bachelor-hood, so this adventure was a 7/10ths effort. Just the same, the car seemed to shrink around me as I got more comfortable and started to push a little harder into and around the bends. The stock suspension responded well but is probably a click or two softer than I would like. You can tell that this is not an M car—at the end of the day, this is still very much a sport tuned daily driver that does its best to provide comfort during the commute but much more engagement than your average boring sedan when the roads get curvy.
Despite the somewhat soft damping, non-sticky tires and a bit of body roll, the ZHP transitioned smoothly through the corners and stuck pretty well to the road. I only managed to set off the traction light a couple of times—owed either to the hard tires or the fact that BMW inanely decided not to allow the option of a limited-slip differential (something that the new 4 series option bin is finally curing, but that car is way too big). I’ll be looking at Turner Motorsports sway bars, sticky tires, and Koni shocks once I’ve tackled the projects I mentioned at the top of this entry.
235 horsepower is not a lot. It’s not a lot by today’s standards and it’s not a lot by my standards. Still, backed up with a great transmission and a decent final drive, I found a few times that I was coming up to a corner with more speed than I’d anticipated. Yes, if you aren’t in the right gear and you floor it, the torque isn’t there to pull through, but it’s just so smooth that, in the right gear, you don’t know that you’re going as fast as you are. Perhaps because my last car (the Speed3) was so dramatic in its delivery, I marvel at the composed nature with which the ZHP gets going—to nearly the same velocity as the Speed3, a car that had about 70 more hp to the wheels.
At the ripe old age of 33, I’m getting old. I have a grey hair or two showing up, I drive a sedan, and now I am finding out how much I appreciate a composed, gentlemanly way of going fast. Next thing you know, I will be talking about how great paddle shifting automatic transmissions are. All of this is not to say that I would pass on more power—I would love a supercharger for my ZHP. I’m just a little surprised at myself for really appreciating how well balanced and complete this car is.
PA 26 decided to save some of the best corners for the end of my time with it. The signs went from suggesting 40 mph (a 60+mph corner) to 30, and finally down to 20 and 15. Having had excursions off of similar unfamiliar roads in the past, I decided to tread with some care, but not so much as to take in any great detail of the sights. The rhythm of the heavily-cambered turns made for good bursts of second and third-gear fun through the forest/farm/valley views around me.
I emerged next to Interstate 68 knowing why I purchased this car. All the reading I did about the E46 chassis, weighing the E36 M3 vs the E46 ZHP, and finding a top notch version of the model once I’d made up my mind really paid off. A couple of tweaks over the coming year will tilt the balance toward performance over comfort but still retain a package that my soon-to-be wife won’t mind riding around in.
Thanks, PA 26, for supplying some much-needed car adrenaline. Now it’s time to go indoor go karting.