In God's coun­try

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

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.

Danke schön.

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