BMW Grand Tour
We drive five BMWs on one of the best roads in the world: The Transfagarasan Highway.
By Sheldon Trollope
Photogrpahy: Radu Chindris
These days, cars are no longer defined by their shapes. Coupes for example, can have four-doors and look like Sport Utility Vehicles. So who then, is to say what a Grand Tourer exactly is?
Traditionally, a Grand Tourer or GT were big, fast, comfortable and usually very expensive two-door coupes driven by royalty and playboys (the same thing, perhaps) across Europe, usually to Mediterranean destinations like Saint Tropez or Monaco with their trophy wives or mistresses and very little luggage in tow. The latter evidenced by the ill-fitting Speedos and string bikinis that these folks would wear to the beach.
Today, many types of cars are capable of covering vast distances effortlessly. A case in point is the five BMWs kindly assembled for us by BMW Romania in Bucharest.
At our disposal, are the BMW M850i Coupe and Convertible, the BMW 750Ld, BMW X7 xDrive40i and the BMW Z4 M40i.
So we here we have five types of cars and each offer their unique take on the The Thrill of Driving.
Similarly, defining exactly what Romanian culture is, is open to interpretation. Surrounded by no less than six countries, is a melting pot of cultures influenced by its neighbours, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova and even Asian influence by way of Turkey, which it shares the Black Sea with.
This however, hasn’t stopped a new generation of Romanian chefs and influencers from trying to define their country’s flavour with a new cuisine that uses local ingredients.
In the Romanian capital, boutique eateries like Noua and Mazilique, a private dining studio by food blogger Cristina Mazilu point towards an optimistic direction of flavours and ideas that are emerging from the dark days of dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu and decades of Soviet Communist regime before that.
Much like the genre of cars today, you could call any dish Romanian and you’d neither be right nor wrong; goulash, hummus, pork tenderloin, chicken liver with sour cherries, boiled pork rinds, we had these and more over the four days or so and were all deemed authentic.
Whether good or otherwise, the influences of the past have shaped the Romania of today which has resulted in a country that looks like no other. Outside of Bucharest, the small towns and the highways are devoid of advertising signage and other signs of capitalism. The streets and buildings are also remarkably free of graffiti, vandalism or even litter. Along the busy highways, you’ll hardly see a scrap of paper or plastic bag. Instead, the little towns with houses that are modest by First World standards, are well maintained and manicured with flowering plants along the windows and sides of the buildings.
Among the motley crew of Bimmers, the BMW 8 Series is the classic definition of a GT. For starters, the car cuts asleek figure to make for a sense of occasion as you walk up to it. Inside, the 8 Series continues to look the part with a spacious interior, luxurious materials such as crystal gear knobs and quilted leather seats. For good measure, the Convertible model in the group was fitted with a premium Bowers & Wilkins sound system and cool accent lighting that could pass for the lobby of a W hotel.
While some might feel that the massage seats might be in keeping with the GT brief, to this writer, another essential ingredient is a big, fat V8 engine under the bonnet that makes all the right noises.
Happily, this present and accounted for in both the 8 Series cars by way of bi-turbocharged 4,395cc units that make 530hp and 750Nm of torque. It’s not so much the numbers that make for the driving experience, though they help, but it’s the staccato exhausts note that completes the picture for this car to deliver the emotional experience that separates a car like this from say a 5 Series or anything else with a 2.0-litre turbo that could make the same trip.
A break from tradition is that the M850i only available with four-wheel drive. Any suspicion that this drivetrain would dull the driving experience is instantly removed the moment the accelerator pedal is mashed to the carpet. Not only does the V8 roar into life like an angry lion who‘s tail was stepped on while in deep slumber, the weight distribution shifts to the rear axle where the driver can feel a shimmy as the twin turbochargers spool up for action. In a moment or two, you’re hurled towards the horizon and the steering lightens and writhes in the driver’s hands like a snake trying to work itself lose.
It certainly wakes you up like a shot of espresso and you‘ll relish doing it again at the next opportunity.
As we go through the cars, this welcome dose of unruliness becomes something of a hallmark amongst this group as surprisingly, even the X7 the biggest and heaviest car here, as well as the Z4 at the other end of the scale, pack enough fire power to send it scurrying down the road time and again.
The dark horse in more ways than one is the 7 Series. This version, the 750 Ld, is unfortunately unavailable in Singapore as it runs on diesel, which to the woke brigade elicits a reaction similar to holy water on vampires…
It’s their loss of course as the 750Ld xDrive is devilishly fitted with quad-turbo (yes, four) turbochargers to a 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine, the latter a classic BMW calling card. Depending on the throttle position and the load, the quartet of turbochargers can either work in tandem sequentially or all at once to conjure up to 400hp or60Nm of torque.
In other words, all these numbers, allow the big sedan to gamely keep up with the 8 Series duo, even on the twisty Transfagarasan Highway that when viewed from high up, looks like God’s Scalextric set.
Putting the Z4 M40i into the role of a GT was always going to be a bit of a stretch. While it certainly has the legs for long journeys, its frenetic character bombards its occupants with so much feedback, you’ll be buzzing after a day’s drive at high speed. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, it’s just not exactly relaxing. To get the best from the this roadster, the driver has to resist giving it the full beans all the time.
Flooring the accelerator pedal prematurely will find the Z4 M40i getting squirelly and over-braking as a result. It’s best instead to let the power come to you as a constant surge of torque that feels like it’ll never run out of breath.
The BMW X7 might be the biggest and heaviest car in the group but it is by no means out of its element. Spacious enough for most families, it covers ground without its occupants really being aware of how fast you’re actually driving. Show it some curves and the big SUV will oblige with its air suspension. When the time comes for overtaking, the Big ‘7 is also capable some brow-raising acceleration that finds its front wheels lightening up like the sportier 7 and 8 Series’.
When it comes to the best roads in the world, the Stelvio Pass that borders Switzerland and Italy as well as the N222 in Portugal might come to mind. These however, might just pale in comparison to Romania’s best attraction, theTransfagarasan Highway.
At a glance, the Transfagarasan Highway could pass for a facsimile of the better known Stelvio Pass that links Germany, Italy and Switzerland. However, having driven on both, this writer can attest that the Transfagarasan has wider lanes where one corner can flow into the next. Most of the hairpin turns of the Stelvio in comparison, are much too tight where you have to come to a complete stop and perform one u-turn after another. My last drive there was in a BMW M235i and even that car felt too wide for the Stelvio.
Just like the Stelvio however, getting the best driving experience from the Transfagrasan Highway is a matter of timing and luck. For starters, the road is only open in the warmer months from around late April to early October. Even when we visited in late July, pockets of compacted snow could still be seen. The bigger issue however is more about traffic. During our visit, thousands of visitors lined the sides of the road for photos of the dramatic landscape that could pass for a Lord of the Rings filming location.
Although the traffic was heavy in places, it was just light enough to avoid a ruined drive. Perhaps mid-September might be a better time to visit when most of Europe would have already had their vacations.
Romania is vast, especially by Singapore standards and four days simply isn’t enough to do this interesting country justice. Even then, we managed to visit Sinaia, known for its ski resorts in the winter and the winter palaces of the nation’s former royal families which areascinating to visit.
Given time, there are more driving routes to explore deeper into the Carpathian mountains and Transylvania, where we stayed for a night. Although we didn‘t run into the region’s most infamous resident, we were fortunate enough to secure an invitation to visit the personal garage of Romania’s biggest car nut, Ion Tiriac.
Perhaps best known for being the mentor and coach that brought tennis superstars like Boris Becker to our attention, the billionaire used his sports earnings to open a bank just as the Iron Curtain fell and also became one of Romania’s biggest car importers, which turned his millions into billions. Naturally, his car collection grew to Leno-esque proportions where around half his cars are displayed in a purpose-built gallery that holds over 300 cars.
Maintained by full-time staff, every car in the Tiriac Collection is registered, insured and ready to be driven within an hour’s notice. Apart from the allegedly only complete collection of all seven generations of Roll-Royce Phantoms, there’s also enough exotica in there to impress even the most jaded car enthusiasts.
Although every one of the five BMWs faired well on the demanding but thrilling roads of Romania, I’m behoved to pick out a car that’s best suited for the job. Unsurprisingly, it’s the M850i Coupe that is capable of turning a road trip into an epic drive to remember. It is a Grand Tourer after all.
BMW 750 Ld xDrive
Engine: In-line 6, 2,993cc, quad-turbo
Power: 400hp @ 4,400rpm
Torque: 760Nm @ 2,000-3,000rpm
Transmission: 8-sp automatic, 4wd
0-100kmh: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 250kmh
BMW Z4 M40i
Engine: In-line 6, 2,998cc turbo
Power: 340hp @ 5,000- 6,500rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1,600-4,500rpm
Transmission: 8-sp automatic, rwd
0-100kmh: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 250kmh
BMW M850i xDrive Coupe/Convertible
Engine: V8, 4,395cc, bi-turbo
Power: 530hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque: 750Nm @ 1,800-4,600rpm
Transmission: 8-sp automatic, 4wd
0-100kmh: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 250kmh
BMW X7 xDrive40i
Engine: In-line 6, 2,998cc, turbocharged
Power: 340hp @ 5,500-6,500rpm
Torque: 450Nm @ 1,500-5,200rpm
Transmission: 8-sp automatic, 4wd
0-100kmh: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 245kmh