Malaga to Bordeaux in style

In days gone by, the Continental Grand Tour was many a car-lover's dream. John Simister turns his into reality
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There is a strand of motoring folklore inhabited by the automotive Grand Tour. Those of us who grew up loving cars in the 1960s had a notion of the ultimate road joy, an expensive blast "on the Continent" across exotic foreign parts. There would be customs posts, carnets, petrol coupons, borders to traverse; but in our dreams it would be easy because we would have the money, the influence, the Grand Touring car.

There is a strand of motoring folklore inhabited by the automotive Grand Tour. Those of us who grew up loving cars in the 1960s had a notion of the ultimate road joy, an expensive blast "on the Continent" across exotic foreign parts. There would be customs posts, carnets, petrol coupons, borders to traverse; but in our dreams it would be easy because we would have the money, the influence, the Grand Touring car.

It could be a Ferrari, an Aston Martin, a Maserati; speed limits were absent on the near-empty open roads (Britain was the first European country with a blanket speed limit, imposed after accidents in fog which had no relevance to clear-road conditions), and you could eat up whole countries at three-figure speeds with a pretty girl (or handsome chap) by your side.

The reality is largely gone now, unless you employ the police-deflecting force-field of perceived (but not actual) fast-car privilege. Yes, a car such as a BMW 645Ci has braking power and manoeuvrability far greater than a clapped-out, 10-year-old Ford Escort, but this cuts no ice with the narrow strictures of the letter-of-the-law enforcers.

Nevertheless, the idea still appeals and we just have to make the best of what we have.

So it is that a friend and I set off from Fuengirola, near Malaga on Spain's southern coast, on a Friday afternoon with the intention to be back home by Sunday evening. Our car is that BMW, just launched in convertible guise. This should be a happy drive, but there is a cloud beyond those looming inland: two days earlier, al-Qa'ida visited terror on Madrid. Our 645Ci is black: coincidental, but fitting.

It has a black hood, too, helping fulfil BMW's intention of making it look as much like the coupe version as possible. Walk round to the tail, though, and there are shades of Ferrari in the way the vertical rear window sits between a pair of "fastback" buttresses. It is a neat solution to the problem of incorporating a sensibly-sized rear window into a compactly-folding hood. It is, you will note, a fabric roof; BMW has not followed the trend to a metal, folding one because a soft top leaves more boot space for the Grand Tour.

Southern Spain to Blighty. Which way to go? Where to disport our 4.4-litre V8 engine's 333bhp? Granada is in the right direction, so that is where we aim. Our 645Ci is a six-speed manual version; most buyers will opt for the automatic, or maybe the SMG sequential-shift manual, but the three-pedal version is necessary for the full transcontinental interactive experience.

Punching onto the autopista, shifting smoothly into cruising gear, feeling the engine's huge pulling power. Yes, driving can still be an open-road thrill. Soon the Sierra Nevada mountains poke through a crest, streaks of snow on their peaks. And then we are in Granada, my friend (whose Spanish sounds fluent to me even though she says it is not) at the wheel and machismo males wondering where my manhood has gone.

A kamikaze moped rider mouths an expression of astonishment, then nearly falls off his smoking steed. Maybe we should take a picture of the BMW by the Alhambra. Or maybe not; once there, car access proves impossible.

We have not gone nearly far enough for the first day. Will we make Madrid? Should we? Already there are "No to terrorism" banners by the road sides, images of black ribbons in shop windows and on lamp-posts.

We aim for Manzanares where there is a Parador, and as darkness falls the rain joins in on slippery-smooth, unlit, unmarked roads. The 645Ci is a virtual coupe now, roof up, CD player able to compete in its bass notes now the windrush has gone. Provided, of course, we can find how to control it via that infernal iDrive thing.

The Parador proves empty and soulless, the town proves chaotic, so we plan anew. Toledo is reachable, and within the hour it looms into view with lit castles on every hilltop and a Parador in pride of place. It is full, but the Hotel Domenico over the road has rooms. Day one completed.

Day two is drizzly as we head for the Pyrenees via Zaragoza, where Vauxhall Corsas are made. The one tapas bar we find is a half-hearted affair. But the road towards the mountains is magical, the tightest, twistiest of dual carriageways opening out between mountain-spines, tightening again, letting the BMW be at its best.

The last 645Ci I drove, a coupe, had "Active Steering" which responds quickly at low speeds, more gently at high speeds. I like it, but this convertible does not have this and seems none the worse for the lack. It steers, handles, rides beautifully. You could not want for more in such a car.

We mean to go over the snowy mountain tops but miss the turning, burrowing under the Pyrenees through the tunnel instead. On the far side is a greener, smaller-scale landscape as we head towards Pau, past scene of many a street race when Grand Prix cars had their engines at the front.

Our destination, passing Bordeaux and driving mainly on Routes Nationales is the Ile de Re, because my companion knows an especially fine restaurant. We are running late, I am scared of les flics -- she says I should worry less and put my foot down.

Le Clos Saint-Martin is a little hotel with its weathered wood, which now lacks a branch of its olive tree because the BMW's powerful electric hood mechanism got caught up in it. And the restaurant? Le Serghi, by St Martin's quayside; the tuna steak topped with foie gras is to die for.

Next day the sun is in full brilliance as we head back towards the mainland, La Rochelle and, many autoroute miles later, Le Tunnel sous La Manche. Through customs, still on the French side, and legally we are home, adventure completed.

So, can you still do a proper Grand Tour in a grand touring car? With a few fantasies to fill in the reality gaps, you can.

THE BIG BANGLE DEBATE

Has BMW design director Chris Bangle really put a spanner in the BMW works? Some think he has only now been rendered safe by his move to overall BMW Group design responsibility. (Fans of the new Mini are already howling in protest at the power he may now wield over their cars' successors.)

The poor chap already has "Stop Chris Bangle" websites railing against his works. But you have to admire what he is doing, even if you do not agree with the results.

Bangle is genuinely thinking out of the box with the unique mix of concave and convex. There is nothing retro about the latest BMWs. He is moving design forward.

Blond, bearded and bespectacled Christopher Edward Bangle, the fastest-talking, most laterally-thinking car designer this writer has ever encountered, joined BMW in 1992, after time at Fiat where his most controversial creation was the slashed-arch Fiat Coupe.

His arrival at BMW was a breath of fresh air for a company accused of making one design in several sizes. But people find it hard, so far, to "get" Bangle-ism: opinions are mixed on the 5-series and the Z4 and will no doubt be split on the new 1-series.

Maybe he pushed too hard, too soon, but recent designs -- the two 6-series shapes -- are the most understandable because they mix new thinking with conventional notions of beauty. The Bangle-bashing bandwagon is an easy one to climb on, but give the guy a break.

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