Parkers Adventure Drive: BMW 5 Series Touring to Mont Ventoux

  • We drive to the south of France in a BMW 5 Series Touring
  • A 1,000 mile road trip including a famous Tour de France ascent
  • Is this BMW wagon the ultimate cyclist's support car?

Chris Froome, Marco Pantani, Eddy Merckx – great names that have ground out victories on the way up one of the Tour de France’s most iconic peaks, Mont Ventoux.

Would I like to join those names? The proposal from BMW was fairly simple - we’ll deliver a new 5 Series Touring, you put your bike in it, and meet us in the south of France two days later for the ride.

Cycling aside - nearly 1,000 miles of driving through some of the best roads and motorways the continent has to offer meant we’d have the ideal testing ground for what is shaping up to be one of our favourite large estate cars currently on sale.

The small matter of a mountain to ride

Right, let’s get some excuses out of the way. Watch Le Tour and you’ll see riders of many shapes and sizes, from muscular to whippet-thin. Those who claim success in the mountain stages are generally the latter, and also super fit. I am not those things.

- Not the author

It’s my own fault – I’ve not spent much time on my bike this year, and the lifestyle of a motoring journalist (drive this car and then have lunch) isn’t exactly conducive to maintaining peak physical form.

Plus, for the week-and-a-half leading up to the ride I’d been eating my way across Italy with a diet largely consisting of pizza and gelato. I’ve seen a Bradley Wiggins’s documentary – this is not how he prepares for a big climb.

Still, best not to overthink things. It’s just riding a bike up a big hill, isn’t it?

What sort of BMW 5 Series Touring is this?

The car arrived on Friday and the plan was to pick up my co-driver (and considerably better cyclist) Josh Barnett of Flat-Out Magazine from Heathrow the following morning. That gave me a bit of time to poke around the new 5 Series Touring and make some detailed notes on its various clever features. Or, what actually happened, to just play around with the remote parking function.

If you’re not aware of this, it basically turns your 5 Series into a massive remote control car. From outside the cabin you can start the engine and drive (slowly) backwards and forwards using the touchscreen on the large key fob.

There are practical purposes for this (allegedly) beyond seeing how nervous you can make your wife by nudging a driverless BMW closer and closer to her car, but quite frankly, it’s just a cool thing to have.

Talking of additional kit, this car has much. A 530d xDrive Touring in M Sport trim will cost you just over £50,000, but ours – with its myriad option packs – totals £64,585. That’s quite a lot of money.

First leg – Peterborough to Dijon: 570 miles

BMW’s semi-autonomous tech makes the UK motorway section of this trip breeze by. The busy M25’s variable speed limits are also picked up by the car’s traffic sign recognition system and the adaptive cruise control’s ability to maintain a gap between you and the motorist in front reduces your workload considerably in traffic.

My only gripes are the price of this techno-wizardry (£2,250!) and the enormous distance the system leaves in front of you – obviously important for safety but more often than not quickly filled-in by another car. European drivers (particularly Germans) seem better at leaving a decent braking gap, so perhaps BMW needs to fit a UK setting for these adaptive cruise control systems, particularly in sub-10mph traffic.

On arrival at the Eurotunnel we headed to the tall vehicle carriage, which is also a bit wider than standard, to get the bike rack in and also dodge the train’s alloy-wheel munching kerbs. Considering that the new 5 Series Touring is 8mm wider (as well as 36mm longer and 10mm taller) than its predecessor (and that our car has 20-inch wheels costing £1,200) this was a good move.

Oddly, the 5 Series doesn’t feel so enormous when you’re driving it, until the time comes to park it or commit to a turn in the road, as we found out at the old Circuit de Reims-Gueux where we stopped for a break after blasting through northern France.

It’s a lovely car with a strong presence wherever it parks up. Even so, it was somewhat overshadowed by the vintage collectables and supercars at the old start/finish straight, including an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini.

The comfortable tech-fest 5er Touring looked like a space ship parked next to classic motors, its new widescreen, touch-sensitive sat-nav a stark contrast to their handwritten directions tacked to their dashboards.

A short jaunt down the autoroute and a lost toll ticket later we pulled into Dijon (which never features as much mustard as you’d imagine) and booking into a hotel for the night.

Second leg – Dijon to Mazan, via Alpe d’Huez: 530 miles

We didn’t initially intend to tick off two Tour ascents in one weekend but after programming the sat-nav and realising we’d get to the final hotel just after lunch, it kind of just made sense to divert. The additional miles east would only add on about three hours, the ride itself taking an hour or so for Josh (mad/athletic) and me (not even attempting it) so after some judicious man-maths we decided it was a no-brainer.

With a full tank of diesel and a baguette in the glove box we set off along some of the more scenic routes around Dijon to get a flavour of the Touring’s agility. On fast and narrow roads the BMW impresses – it still feels like a big car but you can tie the bodyroll right down using the sportier damper setting.

Ours is an xDrive which means inevitable understeer when the grip eventually starts to wane but you have to be pushing it very hard indeed to get there, and up until that point the chassis feels pretty neutral. The 0-62mph sprint drops too – to 5.4 seconds – thanks to all-wheel drive. It’s very good at wafting along at speed without anyone realising how fast you’re moving - a really stealthy wagon.

Another motorway slog saw us entering mountain country – flat northern plains giving way to the cloud-enshrouded peaks of the south - France really does have a remarkable breadth of geography.

Alpe d’Huez is a very famous Tour ascent and whenever it features you can expect a carnival atmosphere and a lot of spectators on the road, so I was expecting there to be a fair bit of traffic around from other cyclists making a pilgrimage. However, this being a Sunday in France, after dropping Josh off I discovered I could charge up and down the 21 hairpins more-or-less unbothered. Jackpot!

Here on the very tight corners the Touring starts to feel quite long – the steering, although very accurate and weighty, is also free of any feel which is a bit disconcerting (if not entirely unusual these days).

It reacts quickly to inputs but its slow rack required some significant hand position adjustment in the mountains. Universally impressive, however, were the brakes. On the way down the hill they were subjected to repeated hard use and didn’t fade or protest even in the height of the summer’s heat.

The additional power that the 530d packs over the 520d really came into its own here too – you get 265hp and a big, wedgey 620Nm of torque which meant the BMW could easily keep up with some sporty motorbikes making a spirited ascent of the hill.

After meeting Josh at the top we made our final descent (his nearly as fast as mine) and got back on the road to base camp in Mazan. Realising we’d slightly underestimated the length of the journey, and delayed by a 15 minute standstill, our arrival time was officially starting to get a bit close to the wire.

Luckily the roads west of the Alps were quieter and France’s higher speed limit (130kmh, or roughly 80mph) meant we could make good progress. The Touring is incredibly composed and quiet on the motorway, even with a bike rack on the roof, thanks to very little road noise and a refined six-cylinder motor that whirs away with barely a whisper.

Third leg – Bedoin to Mont Ventoux summit: 20 miles

Bearing in mind this is a car rather than cycling publication I’ll spare you a lot of the detail, other than to say Ventoux is a long old ride up a relentlessly steep hill.

It starts off quite gently, then you enter the forest section and the gradient kicks up to between 10% and 12% in places. This bit is soul-searchingly difficult. You exit the wooded area at the famous Chalet Reynard and then it’s about four miles of slightly easier cycling through the barren “moonscape” before the top.

I have no idea how anyone can race up this monster in less than an hour and I’ve got a new-found respect for the riders on Le Tour. At the final stages even the cars passing us looked like they were struggling with the thin air.

Waiting for me at the top was one of the cyclists from Rapha who cheered me over the finish line. He was either pleased for me or just happy he wasn't going to have to watch a sweaty, sunburned Englishman wobble around ungracefully in tight lycra any more.

Verdict

I imagine BMW and Rapha organised this trip to give us a bit of an idea how the 5 Series Touring would fare in the real world, doing the kinds of things potential UK customers would expect it to handle with ease.

Put it this way – if you’re planning on making a pilgrimage with your road bike to a famous Tour ascent then this BMW is an effortless way to do it.

Supremely comfortable, laden with labour-saving tech, and confidently powerful on Europe’s faster roads, it's a great choice.