The German tourism folks designed multiple long, meandering routes intended for week-long sojourns through the countryside at a leisurely pace.
Words such as “beautiful”, “relaxed”, “scenic”, and, most laughably, “take your time” turn up in the travel guides for the Alpine, Romantic, and Castle routes, tracing hundreds of kilometres through idyllic little towns in the German countryside.
I say, amateurs! Don’t y’all need to work?! I am Singaporean, and I will speed-run and alpha-relax on the Alpine route in one-and-a-half days. Try and stop me, Olaf.
My ally is a lovely little purple 220i Coupe. The BMW brand is in the middle of a titanic struggle for its identity, fought between front-wheel-drive minivans and giant electric SUVs on a muddied battlefield where purists are the grass.
The idea is thus, with the 220i, to cling by my fingernails to the dying embers of “old BMW”. A three-box shape, a small footprint, modest power, and rear-wheel-drive.
This formula best bottles the E46 3 Series Coupe from the early 2000s, widely considered to be “peak BMW”. In an ideal world I’d have a manual gearbox and a naturally aspirated inline-6, but this is as close as we might get in today’s catalogue.
First, I need to take a train from the Ostbahnhof (that’s the East Train Station) to the Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station. German words are beautifully modular aren’t they), and then to the BMW fleet HQ in Garching.
Being in a foreign land always puts one in a slightly surreal state of mind, as if there is magic around every corner. The stony-faced Bavarians (that’s the B in BMW) tolerating their subway ride to work may beg to differ, but the dense fog that envelopes the adorably orange tinged autumnal greenery only lifts my cheer further.
This exotic sense of adventure is damaged somewhat by hilariously encountering an advertising banner for a holiday to Singapore (1400 Euros all in, in case you’re interested), but at this point nothing can break my holiday spirit.
Then there it was. BMW fleet HQ. It is modern, clean, neat and very, very concrete. I pick up my key and head to the garage, entering what can only be described as a supervillain’s lair.
All of BMW’s newest and shiniest line the walls, awaiting journalistic abuse. I take some time to orbit a fresh-out-of-the-oven i7 before looking for my own car. The deep Thundernight Metallic paintwork of the 220i Coupe broods in the shadows.
“I’m Batman”, a voice growled in my head. “Get a damn move on” it says next.
The main fresco of the great hall depicts as such, and there is literally a room where the walls are adorned with portraits of random women that the Elector found attractive, organised by social class. Okay.
Regardless, it is a beautiful place, as tends to be royal residences built as summer palaces. My wife and I spend a peaceful morning wandering around the sprawling garden grounds and ignoring the audio guide.
Then it is on to the city centre for food at the Viktualienmarkt, a cozy collection of beer gardens, wurst shops, and traditional German eateries. Getting there means braving urban traffic.
Munich’s streets can be butt-clenchingly narrow, even on higher speed main throughfares like their equivalent of Bukit Timah Road. It is here that the BMW’s compact dimensions and natural wieldiness are a relief.
Helping matters is the social compact amongst German drivers. They go fast, yes, and they have a reputation for not suffering fools. Yet, despite always seeming in a hurry, they are almost metronomic in their discipline.
I did not experience a single instance of aggression for aggression’s sake. Space is always left for merging, and turn signals graciously respected. One never feels, as one does in Italy, that one might receive an angry faceful of ravioli from the gesturing passing uncle who had spent the last two minutes mere centimetres from your rear bumper in a Fiat killer Panda.
I’ll come right out and say it. Germany’s cars are brilliant. Their beer, fantastic. Their food though, oh dear. I struggle to swallow my intensely salty wurst and tuck in for the night, eager to begin my Alpine adventure tomorrow.
PLAN OF ATTACK
The Alpine Route stretches 515km east to west from Lake Constance to Berchtesgaden near Salzburg. If I am going to cram it all in the time I’ve planned, I’d have to set off early. This foolhardy ambition means a journey commencing in the darkness of pre-dawn. Expecting desertion, I instead discover a city already jogging, breakfasting, and commuting.
It is 6.50am outside of Munich, and the sun has not quite yet surmounted the threshold of the horizon. Up above, the sky is still pitch black. Yet a blazing yellow begins to bleed up from the distance. Is that a sliver of pink I see?
The leafless trees starkly dig into the pastel sky like witches’ claws. Further afield, the Alps begin to reveal themselves, drawing a craggy line across a turquoise canvas.
One cannot dwell upon the scene too long, however. This is the German autobahn, and it demands attention. It is not long before the 220i is loping easily, unthinkingly along at speeds in excess of 160km/h. At least, this is what it says on the crystal-clear heads-up display. The perception of speed is relative. On an open road, this does not feel fast at all.
It strikes me that the little coupe is a brilliant grand tourer. Unflinchingly stable, the 220i just hoovers up the tarmac. The seats are all day comfortable, and places the driver in an absolutely perfect position, with controls just the right distance away and in a posture just recumbent enough to feel plugged into affairs.
The first truly interesting ribbon of road I encounter is called the Oberjoch pass, a hyper-twisted stretch of bitumen between the towns of Bad-Hindelang and Fussen. They are very tight, and one may think of them as an extended and far more picturesque South Buona Vista Road. Cracking my knuckles, I attack.
Hmmm. The sensations through my palms and back are surprisingly muted. No doubt the car navigates its way around alright. BMW’s chassis tune is well judged.
There is always a brand-familiar sense of starchiness to proceedings, but, because intrusions come in the form of bassy, rounded thumps rather than sharp edged stabs, you can call it life-affirming rather than uncomfortable. This is entirely appropriate for a sporting coupe, adding flavour to the tactile perception of the road and eliminating any dreaded sense of float at speed.
Yet, as accurate as the thick-rimmed steering is, it is light on effort and absent in feel. Certainly, it does not replicate the talkative, vibrant sensations of rubber wrenching against road that so blessed the 220i’s E46 ancestor.
As far as the powertrain goes, the 4-cylinder motor had been a peach all the way to this point, what with its low-end turbocharged oomph and pleasing synthesized thrum. It does its best work between 2000-4000rpm.
However, when pressed into its upper reaches, called upon to slingshot the 1.5 tonne plus German out of low-speed bends with verve and playfulness, it does come up a bit short of accelerative and auditory punch. Nor does it send shivers of exhilarating energy through the seat, up one’s spine, and into the brain’s pleasure centres.
This is not entirely surprising, as at 7.5 seconds to 100km/h, the 220i falls behind the modern hot hatch pack for outright vigour. With an open differential out back, in the dry there is never any real threat to the rear wheels’ purchase on the road either, even at full throttle.
Now don’t get me wrong. I would still rather be here than in a front-wheel-drive, tarted-up family hatchback. Even if the rear end remains resolutely planted, the sense of agility, balance, and equal distribution of grip is clearly perceptible and very satisfying indeed.
Those are different cars, though, and remembering how composed and enlivening the 220i had felt thus far I am able to credit it for its mature blend of abilities.
Poised and interesting without setting your hair on fire, the 220i fulfils its much broader remit as an executive sporting coupe with confidence and clarity. Just the way the cappuccino-swilling junior exec likes it on their way to work.
A COLOURFUL TALE
It is not long before I rock up at the foot of the hill leading up to Castle Neuschwanstein. If it looks vaguely familiar, it is because it inspired the Disney logo. No kidding.
This particular construction is the product of a particularly mad aristocrat, belonging to the charming category of ancient buildings of great expense that served neither an administrative nor military purpose. Purely a manifestation of its commissioner’s personality, I guess it is not surprising it should find a spiritual ally in Mickey Mouse.
It is now 1pm, and the sun is at maximum radiance. Clouds are but wisps. This time, on the straight blast to the lakeside town of Chiemsee, there is neither darkness nor fog. No mystery nor mystique. Only golden sunshine, green grassland, orange-hued flora, and crystal blue skies. One can see for miles. I grin involuntarily.
The journey should take 2.5 hours, but I feel like I would enjoy it going on forever. If there ever were a reason to yearn for a convertible, this would be it. I put the 220i into comfort mode and let its natural athleticism glide it through the flowing mountain routes at a brisk but comfortable pace.
The next day brings the final leg of the Alpine route, and the one which I had been looking forward to most. The mountain pass between Inzell and Berchtesgaden is called (checks spelling) Schwarzbachwacht.
It snakes seductively through forested mountains, then breaks out as contorted tarmac cut into the side of beautiful green hills dotted adorably with little houses of charming German countryside architecture.
I dance through these roads on a sopping wet day. The good news is that the mountains are shrouded in rolling clouds and enchanting mist to form a magical backdrop. The bad news is that one miscalculated move on these slick roads and I’ll be the one doing the rolling on the hills. Fortunately, these roads are where the 220i’s blend of dynamic characteristics shine the brightest.
The Schwarzbachwacht is a broader and higher speed route than yesterday’s Oberjoch pass. Here, the chassis’s composure and poise come to the fore, delivering an invigorating, agile-feeling experience, while the car muscularly rides waves of torque and momentum from one flowing corner to the next.
Blatting straight through Berchtesgaden and using the rain as an excuse to not stop and walk around, the 220i rolls up to the toll gates of the Rossfeld Panoramastraße.
This bookend to the Alpine road trip is basically an 8.50 euro pay-to-play scenic mountain route that distils the very best of the preceding days. Bendy roads, camber changes, stunning vistas. Or it would have but for the miserable weather.
The only thing visible from the lookout points is a wall of mist. The upshot is my complete solitude, and so I could entertain thoughts of zombie apocalypses. Also. There was snow on the ground, with which I made a snowball to hurl off the edge. Take that, cloud.
That’s that for the Alpine route, then. I will concede that this is not the best way to do it. One is supposed to stop, stay, soak in the natural beauty. Hike, partake in mountain and watersports, and eat many strudels. I did intensely immerse myself in little BMW coupe, though, which is an invaluably delightful way to spend 40 hours.
SOURCES OF JOY
Thus sated, it is time to truly deconstruct the machine beneath the tired man, and observe how BMWs are born. Back in Munich, I embark on a tour of BMW’s original manufacturing facility.
At approximately 400,000 square metres, the Munich plant is actually one of the company’s smaller sites. Dingolfing’s is much bigger, and the SUV-spawning Spartanburg factory in the USA is multiple times larger still.
Still, the logistical and technological complexity on display here is awe-inspiring. Seven thousand employees from more than 50 countries build the 3 and 4 Series variants, combustion-powered and electric, all on one line.
Each car takes 28 to 30 hours to construct, from flat sheets of metal to complete vehicle. The factory runs 24 hours a day in 3 shifts.
For the uninitiated, the line looks like a forest of robots in a hypnotic technical ballet, although the hip-hop dance style of “popping” might be a better descriptor for the crisp, clipped, movements of the synchronised orange arms.
At the exit, a newborn i4 glides past us on a test drive, ready for the world. You go, girl. The Alps await.