Video: What it’s like driving the Nurburgring Nordschleife, in an SUV

Taking on the world's longest, most demanding track in a 2023 BMW X4 M Competition

You’ve probably heard of the Nurburgring, especially if you’re a keen driving enthusiast. This is an almost sacred place where car manufacturers and industry engineers have been honing their equipment for decades. But for a short portion of every year it is open to the public to enjoy.

The Nordschleife, or ‘north loop’ is the longest and oldest part of the circuit, while the modern Nurburgring is where high-end motorsport still takes place today, including Formula 1 and other big FIA events. However, the north loop is not part of the F1 calendar anymore but it still hosts some very significant races, including the Nurburgring 24 Hour.

The track has claimed the lives many people over the years, including in motorsport. Rumours suggest over 12 people die every year on the circuit. However, definite numbers are hard to find.

The late Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda had a very famous but fiery crash on the circuit in 1976, when it was included on the F1 calendar. It was depicted in the epic biographical film, Rush, showcasing the furious challenges that he and fellow race driver James Hunt were often embroiled in at the time.

Although it is known as a public toll road, the Nordschleife is very much a racing circuit at heart. You only need to drive on it once to experience the speed and thrill it brings. During the open days, called touristenfahrten, enthusiasts not only from Germany but all over Europe hit the track, often in modified cars and take on the 160-or-so corners.

Yep, there are that many. Every corner and every section has a name too, often relating to the surrounding region. That’s because the track is 20.8km long; you literally drive through a number of totally different villages and boroughs as you make your way around.

During the warmer months of the year the circuit is usually open around three weekdays per week and at least one day on the weekend. During the weekdays it is used for various events, including driver training, club racing, and used by manufacturers for prototype testing.

But in between all of that, the circuit opens to the public for around two hours, from roughly 5:30pm until 7:30pm. There is still plenty of sunlight at that time so you don’t have to worry about driving in the dark. And then on the weekend it is often open for a half day or full day, depending on what else is happening.

To drive the circuit you need a road legal vehicle, as it is a public road, and you need a lap pass. This is a card that allows you to swipe your way through the boom gate at the touristenfahrten start-finish section, which is a bit past the halfway point on the old main straight.

You need to buy each individual lap (between AU$50-60 each, depending on the day), and you can load up the card with as many laps as you like. Keep in mind though if you’re making only a short trip, you might end up over-spending if there’s a crash and the operators shut the circuit early on that day.

My suggestion is to buy two laps at a time. The ticket booth is across the road from the track and you can also buy laps from a nearby petrol station. With two laps, it gives you a chance to do a warm-up, or citing lap first and then give the car a quick cool down run on the regular streets before heading straight out again.

During my recent trip, staying in one of the surrounding towns called Adenau – where the track literally crosses over the village (pictured above) – I did around nine laps in a 2023 BMW X4 M Competition. This was my fourth time at the circuit, after previously doing laps years before in a 2008 Opel Corsa, a 2014 BMW 520d Touring, and a 2017 BMW M3.

The X4 M was a big surprise. I knew it was going to be quick thanks to its 375kW, 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-six engine, taken from the M3 and M4, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so well sorted and confident on the track. Let alone a very demanding one like the Nurburgring.

Easily the most thrilling part of driving this circuit is dealing with the deep undulations and altitude changes. There are so many properly gut-heaving dippers and sudden rises (even a jump or two if you’re fast), that it often feels like you’re on a serious rollercoaster.

There are lots and lots of blind corners, too. You really need to study this circuit before taking it on. And one of the best ways to study it, in my opinion, is by watching videos. Specifically, Faszination am Nürburgring, with Stefan Roser driving the paints off a Ruf Yellowbird back in the 1980s.

I must have watched that film a thousand times, starting before I was even allowed to drive. I actually ordered a DVD of the film back in the 1990s which includes a modern recreation with Roser driving a 996-based Ruf Turbo R, signed by Roser and Ruf founder Alois Ruf – it’s basically my bible and I keep it in a fire-proof security box under my bed.

Another great way to learn the circuit is through computer games. Yes, there are people who will tell you it’s not the same as driving it in real life. But of course it’s not the same. It’s on a screen, for starters. In my opinion though it’s a good way to at least learn what corners are coming up next. Because, as mentioned, many corners are completely blind if you approach them with some speed. Knowing what’s next, left or right, is a great start.

Lap timing is not officially allowed during open days, and the main straight isn’t included in the lap so it’s difficult to time a complete run anyway. Even so, many enthusiasts, including yours truly, like to time the distance between the first overhead bridge and the last gantry before the big straight. This is what’s known as a bridge-to-gantry (BTG) lap, which is around 19.1km long.

In the X4 M I managed an 8:15 on my second lap, however, I was still getting used to the vehicle (and the circuit) so I know there is definitely more left in it. A video is posted up on my old YouTube channel, PDriveTV, showing that lap. My subsequent laps during the trip were cleaner, however, there was a lot more traffic which made it hard to improve on my time.

Here’s a full on-board lap in the X4 M, recording my second-best effort of the trip with a time of approximately 8:26. According to Wikipedia’s List of Nurburgring Lap Times, the quickest lap included in the list that specifically mentions BTG is 8:43.3, set by a Seat Leon Cupra R Mk1. A Tesla Model S P85D also did it in 8:50, and a Tesla Model 3 Performance lapped in 9:00. In other words, the 2023 BMW X4 M Competition is one quick SUV.

Check out our on-board lap video below for a taste of driving the Nurburgring and a glimpse of the awesome X4 M’s track performance.

Brett Davis

Brett started out as a motor mechanic, but eventually became frustrated working on cars that weren't his. He then earned a degree in journalism and scored a job at Top Gear Australia back in 2008, and then worked at Zoom/Extreme Performance magazines, CarAdvice, and started PerformanceDrive/PDriveTV in 2011 with Josh Bennis, and ran it for 12 years. He's now the owner and managing editor here at Driving Enthusiast.
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