October 26, 2014 @ 12:08 AM

Feature: From Munich to Milan with four BMWs for company

I was disappointed that we were not driving the BMW i8 from Munich to Milan, BMW sort of made it up with a foursome. By Donald Cheah

I was disappointed that we were not driving the BMW i8 from Munich to Milan, BMW sort of made it up with a foursome

Words: Donald Cheah
Photography: Donald Cheah
Look, I was not the only one with the assumption that we would be driving the new i8 from Munich to Milan. But you can’t really complain when you have not one, but four BMWs to charge through the hills in. Of course, that was before they told us of the “strict-ish” speed rules they have. Bummer.

So it was summer. But given the location, the ambient temperature was lower than home. I enjoy the cool and cold weather, and my tolerance level is higher than most where low temperatures are concerned. Logically, I did not bring anything warm to wear. Why would I? You can spot me a mile away as someone who does not belong here by the lack of layering in the clothes I wear. And it’s summer, remember?

Bad move. It was raining and the wind was blowing, hard. Even to take pictures of the cars was a challenge, but I have to thank the BMW labcoats for heated seats. 

From the airport, we took two cabs to the BMW office where our rides await. The adventure starts almost immediately, one of the cabs of a “competitor-make” decided to hold the luggage in the boot, refusing to be opened. It smelled of conspiracy. But after some cajoling and a trip back to the taxi base, it released the hostages unharmed. 

So we walked into the garage, also known as the inner bowels of this benign-looking BMW building, and just for a moment, I felt like a kid let loosed in a candy store after a month on a sugar-free diet. I need the keys, to all the cars. Now!!!

Some of the guys had to wrestle me to the ground and bitch-slap me a few times before I came back to my senses. Embarrassed, with my senses fully returned, I immediately head to the security room and promptly deleted all the CC footages using only my Swiss Army knife. No duct tape required.

It had everything a BMW lover would want, everything except the new i8. The BMW guy, aka Sashi, threw a set of keys in my direction. I was to take the M6 Gran Coupe first; not a bad draw if I may add. While the rest settled in their respective rides, I dutifully dialed in the proper seating position. 

I will be completely honest; the M6 Gran Coupe was by far the most beastly of the four. Seated behind the wheel, it was just too easy to go too fast, more so with the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter that caused an inter-dimensional tear, warping time and space continuum, which created a heavier gravitational pull somewhere near the gas pedal. This is all completely true. 

I sped along the wet tarmac, the beastly elegance of the M6 GC tore along the Bavarian bitumen with poise and grace that simply owned the road. The ease and command in which it dominated the fast lane pushed all other vehicles to the side. Dominance is part of its DNA and presence is a bonus.

Pushing numbers like 680Nm and 560bhp, the M TwinPower Turbo is built in a V8 configuration and catapults the M6 GC from standstill to century in 4.2 seconds. And it seats at least four adults very comfortably. This is possibly the most proper car of the lot for this 500km drive from Munich, across Austria to Switzerland then Italy. 

Let the throttle go and you will be rewarded with the silky but testosterone gruffness of the exhaust, reverberating from the tarmac. Lesser cars were pushed aside by the sheer sonic resonance. Yeah, it was fun to drive. Even on a completely wet and windy day. 

Grip? Loads of it, and even the slippery autobahn was no match for it. The M6 GC stuck on the tarmac and there were no opportunities to loosen this death grip, which incidentally, was a good thing. The rather mundane route was no challenge to the M double-clutch transmission with Drivelogic, which is really a mouthful. Say “M double-clutch transmission with Drivelogic” twenty times in 10 seconds and you can send your resume to BMW for job opportunities, particularly in the Official Terminology Truncater (OTT) department, coming soon. Maybe. 

There’s really nothing to dislike about the M6 Gran Coupe, which should not come as a shocking surprising. Because there are three more cars that I have yet to drive, it was with great reluctance that I handed the keys back to the BMW guy. 

Next up was the X5, which was rather boring, in comparison to the M6 GC. I tried bribery to stay in the M6 GC, but to no avail, as the aforementioned BMW guy was pretty strict and serious about switching cars. Booo.

The X5 xDrive30d was no slouch, yet I could not help but compare it with the sleekness I just egressed from. But 560Nm from 1,500rpm and 258bhp are pretty neat numbers. They allowed me keep up with the psycho in the M6 GC, if that is any testament to the X5. As with any best laid out plans, ours disintegrated upon hitting traffic, which chopped up our convoy and left us to our own devices. Only the co-drivers were doing their best to restring the convoy together; we agreed on a rendezvous point.

The X5 vDrive30d was not a bad car, the diesel clatter was not at all obvious once you are seated inside with the doors and windows closed. One thing I felt secured in vault-like chassis of the X5. And as I said, 6.9 seconds to the century is decent. Both on wet and undulating terrains, it felt sure-footed and nimble, with a very direct steering feedback from the ground, keeping me in touch with the reality that this was an unfamiliar piece of road. 

Its presence was somewhat nullified, simply because we were in Europe and there were many similar vehicles on the road. There was no chance to do any stunts either as we passed the tunnel near Lake Garda, which you can see in the opening scenes of Quantum of Solace. A pity… I was ready to recite “I don speeka italiano, pleeeze ask the BMW-ah guy in that car-ah” complete with drawn up shoulders and thumbs and fingers together to emphasize a point, any point.

Instead, the guards at the border-check merely had a peek in and waved us by. Easy as peach. We reached our destination, largely unmolested, unless you take into account the ogling directed at us when four BMWs neatly convoyed in front of a swanking “in” hotel in Milan. Wait… they were probably stares of disbelief as a not-so-fashion-conscious crew of Asians swanker out of said cars, in one of the most fashionable cities in Europe.

This is the part where you will read the main reason for this trip, the new i8. I’ll save that for the next issue.

Now, on our way back to Munich, traversing the same trail, I am behind the wheel of one of the most fun cars, the M235i. ‘Nuff said, right?

But as much as I would like to tell you I smoked the Swiss Alps in this baby; it would be a lie. Draconian laws are in force and honestly, I don’t fancy any jail time anywhere. I did, however, simmer the Swiss Alps a little. Good enough?

Of course, three of the most telling numbers are 5.0 seconds, 450Nm from 1,300rpm and 326bhp. It is fast. And more importantly, it is ultra-nimble and as agile as Manuel Peter Neuer. In terms of directness of control via the wheel, this is it.

Apart from pride-building numbers, the way this M235i put me in control is rare when compared to other modern cars. It feels like being hardwired into the machine, feeling what it feels. Where the majesty and silky power of the M6 GC was like a brooding panther, the M235i is akin to a proud young lion… with the excitable demeanour of a pesky Chihuahua. It’s a funny imagery, and I do hate toy or lap dogs. But that’s how switched on the M235i is.

It will do whatever you ask, simply because it can. The short wheelbase helps, but it is involving because it puts the driver almost at the center of the two axles. Make no mistake; the M235i was designed for thrills. 

Accelerate hard to put a nice simmer on the tarmac, and you can almost predict what is around the corner, because it will adjust as fast as you can… probably faster. And incredibly confident, even if you are less so. The M235i is my pick of the lot, because it is easy to drive, intuitive, powerful, responsive and simply bloody brilliant. If you want to buy a BMW – any BMW – get the M235i.

This also puts the last car in a very distinct disadvantage, the Gran Turismo 328i. And if I am completely honest, this is the ugliest BMW in recent times. It just looks… wrong. And while I can completely appreciate the “meagre” 6.1 seconds, 350Nm from 1,250rpm and 245bhp, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the real performance when I spent half the time trying to hide myself from other road users.

The 328i badge I can respect, and truth be told, the real-world performance of the 328i is up there with the best in class. In fact, it is the ideally set up as the daily drive of the year. But – and you know this was coming – it’s not pretty. Sorry for being infinitely shallow but if you are going to pay money for a car, it should at least look nice. My opinion: get another 328i.

Munich to Milan, and back. A total of 1000 kilometres, give or take 2.02 kilometres. Yes, we were testing some BMWs and they are precise and accurate. Four very different machines, and undoubtedly they will appeal to a varied group of people. Will most of them be as successful as the suits in BMW hope? In all likelihood, yes, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the performance and selling points for all these cars. It will boil down to what switches the buyer on.

If you asked me, I would rate the M235i highest, with the M6 GC a distant second, the X5 a farther third and the GT 328i very far fourth. But that’s just me. 

In terms of sheer thrills and involvement, the M235i takes the cake, a few times over. It is brilliantly made and designed to put an incessant grin on your face. The M6 GC is about making a statement and possessing the firepower to back it up. This is the only kind of show-and-tell that matters. The X5 in diesel is being pragmatic and stylish, probably an ideal first family car for some. And lastly the GT 328i, likely a second family car or one the wife prefers.

All in, a great drive. Yet, there’s one more that’s greater and it will come with the i8. For that, you’ll have to wait till next month.

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