Top speed 155mph
It’s Tour of Spain time and the Tour of Britain is round the corner, but one memory from July’s Tour de France sticks in my mind. As I drove up the A6 through Burgundy having spent weeks trailing the peloton through the Pyrenees and the Alps, I spotted a figure on a bridge. As I passed he started waving wildly at me. Had he spotted the race sticker on my windscreen or did he like the look of the BMW I was driving? Or both?
The new 535d M Touring is an imposing machine which we nicknamed the Big Mean Wagen. (The endless hours driving from stage starts to press rooms at the finish are a true spur to the creative mind.) The vast bonnet was intimidating enough to scare most other Tour traffic, and out back, the car’s rear load space had ample space for the “Killer”, a bike I take on Tour to explore France in the odd off-duty hour. This is an acid test I apply to estate cars at the race as most have back ends which look far more capacious than they are in reality.
The BMW was a good place to spend hour after happy hour flogging French roads in pursuit of Chris Froome and company. Its advanced aerodynamics make it astonishingly silent – until you engage Sport mode at which point it emits a Clarkson-pleasing howl – and the headroom is plentiful even for a six-footer like me. The Tour’s top brass judge their cars by the size of the sunroof; the BMW’s would have been big enough to enable a whole family to enjoy the mountain breeze in their hair had we not chosen to close it and cower from the heat of one of the hottest French Julys on record.
Impressively for a machine weighing nigh on two tons, there is no stodge or slop in the handling no matter how tight the hairpin or bizarre the camber. Somehow BMW has created a machine which feels totally in touch with the road. It is massively powerful and whizzes up mountains, but the fuel economy depends how you use that power. A single tank of diesel took me all the way from Le Havre to the Pyrenees in Comfort mode, but once into the mountains and using the Sport setting for the automatic gearbox, the fuel gauge headed west with startling rapidity as the Tour went east.
With high-spec cars, much of the pleasure – or stress – comes from how the extras fit into the driving experience. Here the BMW took a bit of getting used to. It is disturbingly easy to engage neutral by mistake if you rest an idle hand on the joystick.
Germany fell out of love with the Tour in the mid-2000s after the endless series of drugs scandals, but the romance was rekindled recently thanks to stars such as Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin and André Greipel.
It’s fun finding a parallel for a Tour car among the race’s cyclists. For speed out of the blocks, sustained power and moody looks, this one was Greipel, the four-times stage-winning sprinter nicknamed the Gorilla of Rostock. For surprising zip up a mountain and sure-footedness down the other side, the bearded Simon Geschke, a surprise stage winner in the Alps. The Big Mean Wagen is a machine with multiple identities, consummate power and, like the Germans in France this year, a winning formula.