In God's country
The BMW 530e, 420d Cabrio, 420d Coupe and 520d Touring in Portugal.
The men, swarthy and admirably hirsute–though not in the scuffed and scungy way the Italians can sometimes be–are lean and tanned, well put-together and impossibly friendly, likeably unaware of how good they look. The women? Good goddamn, the women! Like a conveyor belt, they appear to roll off thus: Slim. Tanned. Toned. White-toothed and lanky. And not always in that order.
Just as they might appear on the pages of a glossy magazine, Portugal’s men- and women folk lope easily along the sidewalks of Lisbon, Cascais and Estoril like so many African gazelles, insouciantly swathed in white cotton dresses and summery espadrilles.
The women canter about, as equally unaware as their men are, of how attractive they appear, in an already hot–uncannily so, if one is to be honest–portuguese October.
“It’s global warming for sure,” Carla, our tour guide (blonde, tanned, toned), remarked drily. “Normally at this time of year, it’s raining, but look (swinging a golden arm around the harbour), it’s like summer.”
Like summer it is for sure, as yet another impossibly toasted and whitetoothed fiftysomething local with zero body fat rode by barechested, on what appeared to be a race-prepared Pinarello.
Us Malaysians and Singaporeans, such as we are, and the Portuguese, such as they are, are as different in appearance as we are separated by weather and geography.
But it is for these contrasts, and good fortune, that BMW, the marque from Munich, anointed Portugal as the chosen locale to show off the road-tripping attributes of a selection of their models, handpicked from a sea of over-engineered cars in its stable.
SALES BONANZA Not they need any help with sales.
BMW sold nearly 5,000 new cars in Singapore last year, more than twice that of Audi and some ten times as many as their British counterparts Jaguar.
Which is a lot, since starting prices for their entry level 1-Series begin at nearly SGD130K and blow past SGD700K for their flagship luxury barge, the 7-Series.
In Malaysia, Bee-em shift even more cars, having sold some 9,000 units in 2016, a fifth more than the previous year, and now account for around 1.6 percent of the entire car market.
Which again is a big deal, since the vast majority of the population can only afford cheap cars, while foreign car marques are hogtied by lopsided legislation that favours local manufacturers.
It’s a performance that comes despite operating in some of the most stifling operating conditions globally, thanks to some of highest automotive taxes in the world.
BMW’S success has come largely from the sheer variety and depth of its model range, a veritable galaxy of models, variants and engines that appeal to just about every societal aspiration in the market.
Yes, aspiration. For that is what all brands are, ultimately. Aspiration. That human condition of constantly dreaming upwards: the lifeblood of all luxury brands, BMW not excluded.
Finally able to afford the 1-Series? Time for the Three then. Got the Five have you? Perhaps the M5 for you then, Sir. Already count a Seven in your stable? Perhaps Sir might like to consider an i8 then, to demonstrate how serious one is about the environment. And so on and so forth.
Sheer variety, breadth and depth of choice is the stratagem henceforth employed to prise our hard-earned dollars and ringgit away from us and into that of Munich’s coffers.
It is thus that the Germans are taking over Asia, as our collective economic miracles force us to emerge, wide-eyed and blinking from our jungles, kampungs and satellite towns into university and office jobs and on to a universe of malls, smartphones and cars.
Yes, cars. That ultimate graduation: from two wheels to four. First, local. Then Japanese. And thence from Japanese to European.
As Southeast Asia’s economies swell and expand from the collective millions of Wants and Desires, aspiration’s conveyor belt works its magic on the hundreds of millions of Southeast Asians that grow in wealth each year.
Into this heady concoction came the six of us.
Journalists, our name cards read, but we may as well be named ‘Loudspeaker’, for it was hoped that our words–and the pictures that accompany them–would transmit the pure unadulterated joy of a carefree blat down a country road, topdown, exhaust note wailing.
Or how a 120km grand tour between the UNESCO heritage site of Evora in the Alentejo region bordering Spain, and Comporta on the coast, will shrink like so much cling wrap, when executed at speeds of up 220km/h cocooned as one is, in calfskin and burr.
Or indeed, how the silence of an electric motor, when paired with a two-hundred brake horsepower two-litre engine that switches silently between volts electricity and horses, can lull even the most indignant of children into slumber.
And so, for the driving pleasure of us be-cameraed Asians, the not-unenviable privilege of navigating not one, not two, not three but FOUR of Munich’s finest around the Portuguese countryside: a 530e, a 420d Cabrio, a 420d Coupe and a 520d Touring.
A good week ahead then.
LIVING THE DREAM Portugal, with its impossibly attractive people and equally impossible blue skies and white sand–not to mention its impossibly fresh produce–can be an assault on the senses, but not in the overpowering way a Bangkok or Saigon can be.
The assault, such as it is, centres on the incredulity one experiences of how incredibly lucky this country is.
And yet, its economy has been one of Europe’s Sick Men.
A reluctant member of the PIIGS club (an acronym derogatorily used in economicsand finance circles to describe the indebted and distressed Southern European nations of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), it nonetheless chugs along in defiant comeuppance to its Eurozone overlords.
So the story goes, these countries overbuilt on overborrowed money, so as to incur the wrath of the Financial Elites. Resulting, as it were, on an avalanche of aid and several lifetimes of penury and austerity.
As of last year, these were Portugal’s vital stats: Unemployment: 9.5percent. Government debt: 130percent of GDP. Annual growth rate: 1.4percent.
Not great then, and as vital statistics go, nowhere near as attractive as its womenfolk.
But as the rivulets of olive oil (ahem: ‘Oliveira de Sierra’) stream down the side of my mouth as it gushes from the delicious homemade bread rolls (‘pão’) that precede each meal, it’s hard to fathom how Brussel’s measures are perturbing ordinary folk.
Almost no-one is fat here. It’s as if their diet of fish, octopus, bread and olive oil render them impervious to the modern world’s ills.
In this way, the Portuguese are so unlike the rest of Europe, in so far as white Europeans further north are sometimes arrogant, irascible and stand-offish.
PICTURE PERFECT And how can they be anything but happy and contented? Lisbon, its capital city, is orderly, historic and picture-perfect. Mealtimes are invariably an Affair. Bread, olives and pate are a starter mainstay, while the sea yields an abundance of bounty. Our maiden lunch, which we consumed like happy larks at the Restaurant Monte Mar on the banks of the River Tagus, was delivered with various flourishes.
They may sound simple, homemade almost, but you have no idea how delicious clams cooked in garlic and coriander sauce can be until you try them. Same goes for the Monte Mar’s signature dish, fluffy Hake fillets cooked with cockle rice, cooked just so.
Lunch was so good an entree to the country that our afternoon drive to the Alentejo region, punctuated by a stop at the L’and Vineyards in Montemor-o-novo, saw the convoy almost fall asleep at the wheel on the majestic Ponte 25 de Abril, a vast steel structure constructed in 1966.
Just as well then that my drive for that
leg of the journey was a 520d Touring, a luxury wagon we affectionately named ‘The Barge’ for its voluminous capacities –but which was no laughing matter, for it swallowed up all our luggage and then some.
THE 520d TOURING Wagons–or estates, in Europe, are no laughing matter. These variants are comfortably the most sought-after on the continent. In the UK, for example, one in every four 5-Series are estates. In Germany, that ratio rises to six out of every ten.
This particular example, a 2.0 diesel, produces 190bhp and 400Nm of torque– barely, admittedly, enough to set the pulse racing, but it was more than enough to shunt us down Portugal’s cross-country A2 Highway eastwards towards wine country.
Our unit came in a very handsome Sophisto Grey, which was perfectly adequate for myself and my co-driver, the cheerful travel and leisure blogger, Katherine Goh. We were the perfect Instagram couple, if only for the duration of this trip and the clutch of delectable models yet to come our way.
Portugal’s speed limits are civilised. But the inner lout emerged–blame the Hake fillets–and the 103km between the Monte Mare and L’and vineyards were despatched with consummate ease.
Cruising speed? Only the Lawdy knows. Somewhere in the region of 200km/h I think. I couldn’t check with Katherine though. She was fast asleep, ensconced in the Touring’s Dakota Ivory white leather amidst contrasting stitching and piping.
Portuguese wine country is everything one imagines it to be. A sultry 30 degrees in the sun and five degrees cooler in the shade, the colors at Montemor-o-novo are stunning. The skies are incredibly blue and the soil golden-brown and equally rich in minerals and nutrients. It is here that some of Portugal’s best wines are produced and winning awards.
It is also here that I met my first Michelin chef, a burly, serious individual named Miguel Laffan, who must be the only man in the entire known universe able to transform Alentejo pork necks into something of a culinary masterpiece.
Along with the octopus salad in barbeque onions and bell peppers, we were feted with a treatment befitting of kings.
It was a quite surreal experience though: although we were thousands of miles away from Asia, Laffan was deep in conversation with what appeared to be a wealthy Malaysian man, who I later learned had commissioned him to run a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur sometime in 2018.
Which would of course take him away from L’and, an oh-so-posh fivestar country resort with rooms that start at USD400 a night and whose lobby was
bedecked with Julius Shulman coffee table books on its shelves.
Before leaving, there were the customary car shots at Castelo de Montemor-o-novo, classified as a National Monument and a perfect setting for shots of the cars.
Life really couldn’t get any better than this.
THE 420d CABRIO Finally, we got our mitts on the cabrio.
It was a welcome distraction from the cosseting confines of the Touring, since the splendour of Portugal’s magical countryside is easily unleashed with a push of a button, and there was no way we weren’t going to stop at the UNESCO Heritage town of Evora, a museum-city whose roots go back to Roman times.
Evora’s apogee came came in the 15th century when it became the residence of the Portuguese kings, an era when its whitewashed houses, azulejo-clad walls and wrought-iron balconies had a profound influence on Portuguese architecture in Brazil.
It was in Evora’s ribbon-thin cobblestoned roads that we threaded the 420d cabrio through to sneak in a few shots of gap-toothed geriatrics and keen history students (also buying a sneaky pair of Alentejano’s finest vinos, the Ervideira Lusitano Reserva), before mounting horse–pronto–for Hotel Herdade at São Lourenço do Barrocal as the clock showed evening fast approaching.
Suddenly, Katherine and I went from sedate Instagram couple to post-haste (read: late) journalists.
Top down so our hair could blow, it was almost destined that we would get lost on the short 51km route from Evora to São Lourenço, a family estate with some amazing stats: 7.8million square metres of land. 275 days of sunshine per annum. And whose stone menhirs (think Asterix and Obelix) are a staggering 7,000 years old.
It was on those lovely, lively country roads that the 420d came alive. And as the golden evening glow of yet another glorious day on the Iberian peninsula lit the horizon, the full sense of why people buy open-top cars became clear.
Only with a chop-top is one fully exposed to the outside, natural world, with the full cacophony of the exhaust notes spinning and crackling behind you.
This may be a civilised cabrio set up for luxury but man, that steering wheel was chattering to me all the way.
It may have been German, it could have been English, but the messages coming through that napa leather-clad wheel were clear: point left, squirt. Point right, squirt.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Left-hand drive and in manual trim, of course the settings were switched to Sport mode.
The 420d has the same 2.0 diesel lump as the 5 we just left, but in a tub a fraction of the weight, all 190bhp and 400Nm were keenly felt.
Katherine and I must have looked quite a sight: top-down, manual gearbox revving to the limit, this Metallic Sunset Orange BMW flying down those country roads just inches away from lumbering farm carts and enthusiastic cyclists.
MORE ABOUT THE FOUR Aficionados of the 3-Series are mixed on the 4 and its raison d’etre.
Those in the Yea camp laud its lower, stiffer stance and chassis changes, which include wider tracks front and rear and uprated damping settings. All told, its looks are the main draw, like the puffedout rear wheel arches and masculine rather than effete lines.
Those in the Nay camp accuse the 4 of muddying the 3’s waters as if it were some dilution of its ethos, a corruption of its original nimbleness and budget entry point.
But all icons either grow up or die, and it’s clear to see why BMW’S marketing boffins have decreed its ongoing existence.
The 4, it was reasoned, was–is–the grown man’s 3: an upmarket and more prestigious machine.
Which is why blokes in their forties– folks like me–were and remain enamoured, as like us, the 3 matures into graceful but raffish middle-age.
THE RETURN LEG: 530e São Lourenço do Barrocal was a stunning, serene but altogether too-short sojourn.
Our timetables had decreed this majestic estate a mere pitstop as we made a volte-face to Lisbon via the restaurant Ilha do Arroz in Carvalhal near Setubal, where Jose Mourinho hails.
An aside: I arrived in Lisbon the exact same time as Jose did. I was here to drive cars. He was back home to address his hometown of Setubal for naming a street–rua da Saude road on the seafront–as ‘Avenida Jose Mourinho’–in his honour.
I was starstruck. All I could manage was, ‘good job with Man U, Jose,’ to a brief and silent acknowledgment from The Man before he walked swiftly away.
Back to the future, and we were perilously close to his home town though thankfully we had the 530e to smooth The Special One’s airport snub.
A smorgasbord of technology and tricks, these are the only numbers thatmatter where this luxury express train is concerned: Nearly 300bhp and 420Nm of torque in combined output from an electric motor and internal combustion engine. 0 to 100 km/h in 6.2 seconds. Top speed of 235 km/h. And a range of up to 650km in real-world driving, 50km of which can be achieved purely on electric power at a maximum speed of 140km/h.
SHOW STEALER Which makes the 530e by far and away the real star of the show.
Rapid and assured on the motorway, it’s also cosseting and extremely well-appointed on the inside.
Our example was in a handsome Glacier Silver with Dakota Black leather in contrasting stitching and piping.
As with all BMWS, the interior, dashboard, switchgear and toggle placements were near-perfect. As were the seats, space maximisation and noise levels.
Everything was just so, and it’s just a lovely, lovely place to munch miles in. The tech is intuitive yet unobtrusive. To my mind, there’s really no other model or manufacturer at this level that combines pace, space and grace in a modern luxury saloon as BMW currently does, with this 530e.
It’s also a handsome devil, this unit, and clambering out of its hushed confines into the Mediterranean glare at Arroz Da Ilha, heads were turning at this quartet of gleaming BMWS piloted by a bunch of grinning Asians giddy from hours of mechanical titillation.
Again, what a sight we must have been.
Fish, shrimp and clam cataplana were awaiting our arrival, as were the Algarve-style squid and scrambled eggs ‘Farinheira’.
Sadly, the journey ahead meant we were unable to try the local vino, but all around, happy, smiley locals were busy taking in the sun, the food and the weather.
And again, it was hard to not admire these sunny, positive people and the troubled times they were still labouring through.
You have to admire their tenacity and resilience, even in their darkest hours.
The journey back to Lisbon sped by all too quickly and just like that, we were back in the capital.
And what better an abode to rest our heads on this final night than Cristiano Ronaldo’s Pestana CR7, a mecca to his footballing achievements.
Smack-bang in the most affluent part of town and literally just minutes away from the world-famous Elevador De Santa Justa, Pestana CR7 was a perfect end to a memorable respite from the heady rough and tumble of life in the Far East.
As far as experiences go, it’s monumentally hard to top a week in the Algarve with some of the most desirable street cars in the world.
Trips such as these are sore tests even of the most resilient and hardened of journalists. But credit where credit is due. This was an amazing trip through an amazing country with some of the best cars in the world, where ordinary folk are concerned.
May Munich continue to excite and amaze with its marvellous creations.