Scores of umbrellas lined the cobbled street along the dock next to the Jardim Manuel Bívar garden, shading a large group of suited young men toasting with flutes of espumante. The Old Town of Faro in Portugal has not sagged from the crowds of holidaymakers, but the cacophony of music spilling out from the balconies of restaurants with ornate Baroque styling and yelping laughter of yacht owners nursing their cigarettes under the sun proved that the capital of Algarve is a perennial spot for respite and revelry.
There was no surer sign that summer was nigh than the appearance of fresh cherries at the ice-cream stand or the clear skies above our heads that seemed expressly made for convertibles. The BMW M850i xDrive was a cinch for drivers like us — day-cruisers who enjoy a leisurely jaunt in the lap of luxury but would be forgiven for some occasional over-exuberance.
The 8 Series first raised the profile of an aesthetically progressive BMW in 1989, when the wedge-shaped motor with pop-up headlights debuted technology such as speed-sensitive power steering, multi-link rear suspension and advanced stability control. Although the ahead-of-its-time flagship model was not exactly a smashing success, the two-door with 12 cylinders boasted one of the most premium cabins sold then.
The classic, which had all the makings of a legacy car, was quietly discontinued in 1999 due to a perceived lack of consumer interest but the 8 Series nameplate has been rightly revived. The Bavarians have included a coupe, convertible and a recently unveiled Gran Coupe in its comeback line-up. The M850i variant we tested with a folding soft-top — a salient trait that distinguishes itself from the regular coupe — delivers the right amount of mechanical chatter that envelops you with a rush of sensory satisfaction fired from the 523-horsepower V8 engine.
Whetting appetites of drivers who value long distance motoring at high speed, the M850i xDrive convertible is underscored by cutting-edge driver assistance systems, a latest-generation display and up-to-the-minute connectivity technology. When the accelerator is dropped, a fusillade of exhaust noise roars, befitting the muscular surfacing of this new design language that characterises the 8 Series. The protruding front apron lends the front end of the car an undeniable athletic presence with its large air intakes.
Being behind the wheel of a convertible is to drive wickedly fast, letting the wind violently part your hair, and perhaps trigger some street envy as the car dwindles into the distance. Taking full advantage of a sky untroubled by smog or the hint of rain, we stowed the roof away and watched it origami itself into the trunk in 15 seconds. The physical barrier between us and the M850i xDrive disappeared, allowing us to truly hear the car flex as we darted down the highway. The wheels hung tight, never budging even when we accelerated too quickly while making a turn.
Manoeuvring the powerful convertible felt like wading into a vast reservoir of torque (750Nm, no less) but even if you decide to gaze at the world behind closed windows, the soul-stirring car is eager to demonstrate its virility. Passengers in the four seats are surrounded by a sweeping flow of the instrument panel, standard ambient lighting and the plush texture of Vernasca leather upholstery. A feat of physics, as the wind deflector in the rear-seat prevents unwanted air turbulence to attenuate outside noise so you can listen to Bob Seger’s Against the Wind through the crisp Bowers & Wilkins Diamond Surround Sound System, and absolutely mean it.
This Bimmer comes at a portly 4,738 lbs with most of its weight on the chassis, but the car — even with a slightly over-eager steering — moved nimbly and was surefooted when we navigated the small towns amid clusters of parched cactus and citrus groves. The most obvious trade-off was the cramped rear seat, which will be a test of your nerves if you travel with a huge family. Our suitcases in the back, thankfully, never complained.
The idea of convertibles used to only belong to the realm of formerly untouchable Italian roadsters, but a ride in this optimism-streaked BMW grand tourer proved that some vehicles just lend themselves to summer road trips better than others.
If an exotic convertible were an endangered species that is too temperamental, the ever-reliable BMW 7 Series, which we were acquainted with on the second day, pointed to painstaking feats of engineering. Jaded souls of the garden-variety luxury sedans will be pleased with the new LCI (life cycle impulse, or a facelift, for those who do not speak the BMW tongue) that delivers unexpected twists on tradition. However, mixed feelings have sprung afresh about a defining feature of the new 7ers that may be unlovable to many — the polarising kidney grille at the front end is now 40% larger than before.
The new grille on the 7 Series subverts the traditional standard of automotive beauty, as if daring drivers to not consider it, but the German marque has always been pragmatic with its decisions. Flanked by slimmer headlights to create a stylistically appealing contrast, the outsized grille will ingest more air for better cooling of the V8 engine. The raised front end (50mm taller than its predecessor) rounds off the car’s long body with a bolder visual presence — a sharp example of the BMW wisdom that good design should fulfil its intended function.
If the combination of charisma and intelligence makes up the formula of a long-lasting relationship, the 7 Series, which comes with a suite of utilities, would be a hot commodity. The open roads leading us on our way to the lunch stop were easy to navigate because they had clear paths and well-defined shoulders, but not the dense packet of erratic hairpin turns that required undivided attention. BMW’s AI-powered intelligent personal assistant system dazzled responsibly at a moment like this. A bright, electric chatter of a processor chimed when we (calmly) enunciated “hey, BMW”, activating the command function that enabled us to adjust the volume of the music with a twirl of our finger or roll down the window without poking around for buttons.
The air smelled of salt and fresh pine when we arrived at Guarita Terrace, a restaurant built on a beach slope overlooking Praia Verde’s sandy beach, which is speckled with tiny huts. It was too early for their signature orange-topped Negroni or elderflower gin and tonic, but the menu enticed with a cascade of prosciuttos, slabs of steak, and the local favourite patê de sardinha that was sufficiently robust to stand up to hearty red wines. Instead of roasted garlic, slices of crusty toast were served with lashings of olive oil and orange slices, which yielded a citrus tang and sweet aftertaste when rubbed against the bread’s rough surface.
Guarita Terrace is populated by droves of tourists during peak hours, which makes parking somewhat scarce and painfully confined. Exiting our spot without a clear view was made much easier with BMW’s reversing assistant system, which can reverse a vehicle for distances of up to 50m by steering it along the same path it took when moving forward. Although the system is smart enough to detect its surroundings, you should still place a firm foot on the brake pedal.
Driving long distances can be a time-guzzling downer, but the 7 Series holds a fresh appeal for the single-minded driver, who pursues adventure in comfort. The seat cushions are made better with exclusive Nappa leather, and surrounded by interior trims like American Oak Dark with metal inlay and Poplar Grain Metallic Grey high-gloss that are reminiscent of the corner office. No driver will be content with taking a back seat when the cabin feels like the cockpit of a luxury jet but you should — the optional rear-seat entertainment system is equipped with a pair of 10-inch, full-HD touch screen displays, including a blu-ray player.
For the conscious driver wanting a carefree roadtrip, the new plug-in hybrid 745Le xDrive offers dynamic driving and more than just commuting duties, which proved to be just as spry when we wrangled it into difficult spaces and tough terrain. Its agility, lightness and strength will liberate the feel of friction and bumps on the road. The stealthy plug-in hybrid, which could be driven for at least 45km at up to 145kph without sipping a drop of fuel, coasted in quiet solitude even when it hit a dusty, pocked-out road that did not deserve to see the undercarriage of this gentle beast.
Power is not compromised as the specially adapted six-cylinder-in-line petrol engine and advanced high-voltage battery can unleash a combined output of 290kW/394hp with the driving experience control switch set to “sport” mode. Car enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the combined fuel consumption of the BMW 745e, BMW745Le and BMW745 Le xDrive is between 2.6 and 2.1 litres per 100km, with 59g to 48g of carbon dioxide emissions per 100km.
Algarve carries all the hallmarks of a refuge for adventure seekers who enjoy discovering a slice of serenity by the coast or a quaint neighbourhood stripped of its commercial veneer while watching the miles tick away. The idea of exploring is to venture beyond the edge of the map and to return home changed and flushed with enchantment. Our rendezvous with the new BMWs felt precisely that.
This article first appeared on July 29, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.