BACK IN MARCH, I returned from a road trip in the Scottish Highlands for this very magazine to find the UK heading into its first lockdown. Trips like the one we’d just undertaken would become impossible.
We felt very lucky, like Indiana Jones and his hat just sneaking under the monolithic stone door before it slammed shut behind us.
Now, as I sit to write another piece – this time set in the stunning Welsh countryside – I feel a similar level of gratitude. We managed to squeeze one more trip in before another lockdown stopped the merry-go-round again.
For this particular road trip, I was behind the wheel of the new M8 Gran Coupe – BMW’s latest niche: a four-door version of a two-door car with the performance of a supercar, the storage of a family car, the finish of a limousine and the accessibility of a mile-crunching company car.
A car for all seasons, then. Question is do we want the vehicular equivalent of a Swiss Army knife? Or would we rather just have a Samurai sword? Questions that the Welsh rolling hills, stunning lakes and ever-changing weather
would help us to answer.
I’ve always felt that Bristol is the gateway to Wales, a classy pitstop before launching oneself off into Cymru and its vast countryside.
To make sure my photographer and I were well rested before the early morning’s drive to Brecon, we rolled up to Number 38 Clifton – a wonderful townhouse converted into a boutique BnB overlooking the Clifton Downs and a stone’s throw from the iconic suspension bridge.
Furnished with a stunning suite each on the top floor with incredible views over Bristol, we rested up begrudging the fact we’d have to make an early exit the next day.
After a delicious full English (we were still this side of the River Severn) we set off in search of rural adventure. It took us a moment to find where we’d parked as, other than some stylish carbon fibre details and tasty quad pipes,
the M8 is really rather reserved.
The problem with a recognisable brand identity (which in principle I like) is that despite having a huge gamut of models, they do have a danger of blending into one another. And for £140,000 (gulp) I would want my car to look like
a one-of-a-kind Caravaggio from every angle.
The familiar metallic staccato of a cattle grid under our tyres signalled our entry into the National Park – telegraphing the arrival of roaming animals and probably the equally familiar motorhome. Given the Brecon Beacons’ proximity to the rest of the UK, its roads are well-trod by many an automotive journalist and having lived off Top Gear for the last 20 years I felt like I recognised every metre of tarmac.
We found our way to the crest of a particularly Clarkson-esque road, complete with alpine switch backs and views for days.
Expecting the perfect photographic spot to be crowded by campers and ramblers, we in fact found a singular, solitary Asda delivery van. It seemed the driver was simply taking a minute between jobs to look out, breathe in the views and reflect. Instead of cursing we couldn’t help but respect his choice and allow him the space
to take in, what was, a phenomenal view.
After our own moment at the precipice, we set off down the racetrack of a road below – excited to throw this muscular figure around each apex like it’s a GT3 RS. Which, on paper, we could if we wanted to; it has the power, the acceleration, the clever traction control – but it didn’t feel right.
It’s too large, too comfortable, too safe.
It makes more sense to back off a bit, swing round the bends and plough the straights well within the limits, which is actually where we all want to be. Do we really want to get the back out on our way back from Sainsbury’s? Drift into the driveway? No, we want to get home for dinner with all dozen eggs in one piece.
Having driven the circumference of the Beacons we found ourselves at The Old Rectory Hotel – a restful spot to relax before continuing our Welsh adventure the following day.
And what a day it was: there’s rain and there’s RAIN. Suggesting one uses an umbrella in this weather is like offering Icarus sunglasses – it’s not going to cut it. The torrents we were met with made driving difficult and the job of a photographer nigh-on impossible – my naïve enquiry as to whether my photographer’s Canon was waterproof was met with a sarcastic ‘sure, and this car can fly right?’.
We found a particularly epic road, complete with alpine switch backs and views for days
We pushed on through and became very thankful of the impressive metal cocoon we were surrounded by. Brutal weather like this makes a car take on a powerfully protective yet wise and reassuring role – like David Attenborough blended with Dwayne Johnson
It reminded me of trips as a child being battered by wind and rain and thanking the family estate for keeping us safe throughout.
Finally, as if the Welsh Gods had heard our pleas, we found ourselves delivered out of the apocalypse and into nirvana. Met with sunshine and blue skies we pulled over next to a lake of National Geographic proportions.
I must have missed the point at which the smart heads-up display took us through the Wardrobe and into Narnia – it was simply jaw-dropping. Breathing a sigh of relief, I instinctively dropped into Sport mode and launched forward - the wet road and its weaving course was taken on with calm confidence by the Beemer.
I would’ve put it in Track Mode, but I found it a bit of a faff and the extra bit of patience required was, I imagine, designed to dissuade people like me from going there. Probably for the best – Sport was more than enough.
After a tiring and dramatic day, we finally arrived at our welcoming last stop: The Gliffaes Country House Hotel – a stunning fishing lodge overlooking the rushing River Usk. The M8 had carried us with surety, confidence and quiet strength through the wilderness, to a country house hotel befitting of this luxury super saloon.
Over dinner, Michael and I tucked into some indulgent pork belly, before attacking the well-stocked bar. A couple of Negronis in, we debated what the BMW M8 Gran Coupe is really for – or more to the point, who it’s really for.
Too often I write these pieces extolling the presence and theatre of a car or how an engine howls to high heaven, waking the dead and certainly the neighbours. Or how a car’s speed is ferocious and practicality laughable – and always in the name of excitement and automotive drama.
But some people want mad-hatter power under the bonnet, while also remaining a sensible grown-up on the surface. They’d rather not draw a crowd on the school run nor be branded a disturber of the peace. Instead, they like to be safe in the smug knowledge they could give any supercar a run for its money.
I never thought I’d describe any M-car as being understated, but I think that’s what the M8 GC is. It’s for the adult who wouldn’t be seen dead in a green Lamborghini, but still wants to know he could drag race one at the lights – if he didn’t have the kids in the back.
In today’s world of endless configurations, there really is a car for everyone. So, is this niche? Yes. But then again, if you’re spending north of £100k, it’s OK to be picky – you’ve earned it.