It’s fitting that a whiff of cordite has settled around the BMW M4. This car is a weapon; a stealthy Bavarian bullet, with an especially menacing air when there’s a smoking shotgun in the boot.
I’ve been culling Wiltshire’s population of clay pigeons at the Barbury Shooting School near Swindon, taking a break from my mission on the BMW’s motorway namesake. This car was honed on the Nurburgring, but it’s the autobahn that established its reputation as the ultimate five-seat express. Due to this, and the riff on the badge, I’ve decided to drive the length of Britain’s M4 motorway from London deep into Wales and back again.
One hundred and 89 miles long, the M4 cuts east-west from Chiswick, past Reading, Swindon and Bristol, and across the River Severn to Pontarddulais, beyond Swansea. Along the M4 corridor I would seek spiffy lodgings and fine local grub suitable for a 425 horse-powered highwayman.
As I leave the capital in the mirrors the rain is lashing down, causing a percussive effect on the BMW’s carbon-fibre roof. By the time I exit the motorway at Junction 14, darkness has descended and a fog envelops The Pheasant, a 450-year-old but chicly spruced-up coaching inn overlooking Lambourne, Berkshire’s Valley of the Racehorse. With its eleven guest rooms and cordon bleu roasts, the Pheasant has long sheltered those traveling between London and Wales; originally drovers herding livestock, rather than drivers hurling M4s.
The Beamer is a beast, indeed. Exacerbated by the foul weather, it is rather skittish. Woken by the cockerel at The Pheasant, I make the short drive under the motorway and down to Hungerford to explore the antiques shops and blow the budget – £1 – on a Charles & Diana wedding mug. Given the incredibly hard ride and lively rear end, I wonder if the car and I are heading for divorce and tragedy too.
Back on the motorway and on course to Wales I whip along the fast lane in comfort mode. While the engine resists pulling at the leash and the suspension does a reasonable job of flattening out the bumps, it is still a tauter ride than you’d expect from the hottest setting of most bahn-stormers. The BMW M4 may wear a business suit, but it’s got Anthony Joshua’s boxing shorts on underneath. Put it in track mode and rumble over the joints of the Second Severn Crossing; you’d better hope there’s an osteopath in your corner.
It’s the bridge’s suspension that has my attention, though. The sun pokes through the charcoal clouds and creates stripes across the black leather interior as it glints between the overhead poles, framing the green Welsh coast in the distance. The royal mug that’s secured in the beverage holder is fitting, given the announcement in April that the Second Severn Crossing is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge.
At the signs for Cardiff, I slip off the motorway and take the A48 towards the genteel seaside town of Penarth. My destination is the dining room of James Sommerin, one of the country’s finest chefs. Located on the seafront esplanade near its Victorian pier, Restaurant James Sommerin’s Michelin-starred tasting menu is largely plucked straight from the glaucous water lapping the shore. If sea foam blew in they’d probably lay it on a dish and call it espuma. My six courses start with plenty of the stuff bubbling above a concoction of pea, Serrano ham, parmesan and sage. It’s followed by butter-poached lobster in bisque, and curried monkfish with salsify. Partridge, which arrives just before two dessert courses, hails from my next destination: the Brecon Beacons. Here I will be able to let the BMW off the leash.
Most kitchens are hidden out the back. This one is positioned out front, not so the guests can see the talent beavering away, but so the cooks get a pole position view of the Severn Estuary for inspiration. Chef Sommerin, though, only has eyes for the M4 parked in front. His is the Porsche Macan Turbo next to it. Food may be James’ first passion, but performance cars are a close second. I leave him wondering whether he could fit his three young kids in the back of the Beamer.
The rain has stopped and a dry line is emerging on the M4 as I zero in on its closing chapter. The end of the road is signalled by the unremarkable Pont Abraham service station, a McDonalds and a small roundabout. But beyond, lies a mecca for sports car drivers. I take the A483 to Ammanford, and then the B-road to Glanaman and Brynamman before plunging into the Breacon Beacons and threading around the emerald hillsides towards the Black Mountains.
The sports setting cannot condone the potholed tarmac, so I keep the suspension on ‘comfort’ while selecting Sport Plus for the twin-turbo straight-six. The M4 comes to life as soon as the roads get twisty. What seemed harsh and unforgiving before is now sublime and encouraging. The weight-saving carbon allows it to be alert and agile. A ton arrives in just 8.6 seconds, but the brakes and chassis ensure it remains planted for the next tight turn. The 3-litre’s bass-baritone coming through the quad tailpipes triggers a stampede of sheep across the moorland. I’m starting to love this car. I still think it’s too hard for British roads, and I reckon it could prove lethal in the hands of an unskilled driver, but a proper driver’s car it inarguably is. The best five-seat driver’s car in the world? On smooth asphalt, probably. The electric power steering is a little on the numb side, but the torquey engine and chassis dynamics are top notch. I find the Porsche 911 Carrera S to be more sophisticated, but that only has four seats. Mr and Mrs Sommerin would be stuffed.
Speaking of stuffing, I’m headed in a very round-and-about way to The Pig Near Bath for the night, a country hotel promising Wiltshire’s finest pork as well as boho-chic beddage. At Abergavenny, on the eastern edge of the Beacons, I head south down the A4042 before reconnecting with the M4 at Newport and cruising eastwards back across the Severn to England. I peel off at Junction 19 for 15 miles, taking the A4174 that cuts between Bristol and Bath before arriving in a deer park leading to The Pig, aka Hunstrete House.
This handsome Georgian manor, purchased by Robin Hutson’s burgeoning Pig empire in 2013, is furnished with characterful clutter. The décor is a credit to Hutson’s wife, Judy, who scoured bric-à-brac stores to arrive at country rock star chic. There’s bags of gastro buzz here, especially in the gussied-up greenhouse filled with potted herbs where we dine on tomahawk chops. I’m not sure it suits the teutonic BMW all that well, but it inspires my agenda for tomorrow: whacking on the wax and tweed and heading to the gun range.
Hand-eye coordination is clearly a necessity when manning the Beamer, and one I hone four motorway junctions further along at the Barbury Shooting School, predicting the course of high-flying skeet and blasting them to smithereens.
On the stretch back to London, the M4 munches the remaining miles while its firm suspension remind one of the abilities that lurk under its business suit. This car is a heavyweight bruiser, a four-wheeled 12-bore designed for sniper-precise cornering and cannon-like acceleration. But it has an Achilles’ heel: Britain’s bloody awful road surfaces.