New BMW 520d vs Morocco: ‘I’m looking for the Sahara’

Published: 19 May 2017

► A Moroccan mini-adventure in the new 520d
► Most new 5-series will lead dull lives
► But not this one...

Eighty-five percent of BMW 5-series buyers will go for the 520d, then make thousands of exceptional motorway journeys. To compensate, we took one to North Africa, where the exceptional is the norm. Scroll through the gallery above for a gallery of amazing images from our adventure, by photographer Richard Pardon

The 1970s W123 Mercedes saloon spews black soot under heavy acceleration, and as the road snakes left and right down the Moroccan mountainside and the suspension stretches and compresses, the bottoms of its skinny tyres tuck rhythmically under the car like a squeezed accordion. I’m driving a new BMW 520d xDrive, and, embarrassingly, I can’t get past.

Another W123 is in pursuit, all faulty electrics and strobing headlights, and, more embarrassingly, at moments when I wouldn’t dare overtake, its driver is pulling alongside, rictus grin, small bag full of brown stuff dangling between forefinger and thumb like he’s coaxing a cat indoors.

At first it’s funny in a ha-ha-isn’t-this-mental kind of way, but after 30 minutes of photographer Richard Pardon mouthing no thank you through the side window of our right-hand drive, Brit-registered, stands-out-like-a-sore-thumb BMW, our minds race. Surely they’re not chasing all this way just to sell pot.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

Unfortunately for the locals of Issaguen, we didn’t bring a new BMW 520d xDrive to Morocco to load its 530-litre boot – 10 litres more than the previous generation, drug smugglers note – with pot. We’re here because we’ve already driven other variants of the new seventh-generation 5-series, but have covered relatively few miles and not once driven a four-cylinder turbodiesel 520d, doyen of fleets that will account for up to 85% of UK sales. It deserves a lengthy road trip.

We plan to drive down to Marrakesh for six hours like a rep in a rush, then head deep into the Atlas mountains to see if there’s anything remotely ultimate about a driving machine once famed for sweet straight sixes and rear-wheel drive that’s now more likely to have a compression-ignition four under the bonnet and a 40% chance of driving all four wheels, which our test car does. And if we take some good snaps and eat couscous along the way, well, nice.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

We collect our 520d from the press launch in Malaga. In the airport car park, the G30 generation looks suave and appears far more expensive than a car basing at £36k should. Similarities to both 3-series and 7-series are striking, with headlights that extend all the way to the gigantic kidney grilles, like the old car’s wearing a Groucho Marx glasses-and-honker disguise.

Our M Sport styling package and all-wheel-drive xDrive-equipped car is nudged up from its rock-bottom £40k to £50k with some liberal optioning. We also get the £1495 Technology Package, with a key that displays remaining fuel range but barely fits in your pocket, and Gesture Control, which increases/decreases the volume with a finger-twirl, but it’s hard to precisely control and easy to accidentally deafen all aboard while signalling that the person pulling alongside you is mentally unstable.

Ninety minutes waft by on the AP-7 autoroute, the adaptive dampers and 19in rubber giving an almost air-sprung cushiness to the coil suspension, spoilt only by occasional fractiousness over tiny imperfections on an otherwise smooth surface.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

From our hotel close to the port, we look out onto the Strait of Gibraltar that separates Europe from Africa and sees 100,000 ships a year pass through its nine-mile-wide bottleneck between the Med and Atlantic. Tonight, the sea is churning and birds zoom chaotically overhead like flak-strafed Spitfires, the first 4 overtures of Storm Doris as she makes for the UK; our 9.30pm Monday evening sailing is cancelled, so too the 5.30am the next morning. Tuesday gives ample time to contemplate the irony of two Europeans unable to cross the Med on a boat to Africa.

Finally, the 5.30am Wednesday sailing gets the all-clear, but the departure time comes and goes without explanation, and by the time we board a disconcertingly empty and slightly tatty ferry advertising fishing in Nova Scotia, we’ve lost hours. We’re still in Europe, but already the certainties and time-is-money urgency we take for granted feel to be dropping away; we just have to roll with it.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

As the Moroccans unfurl mats, pray and then curl up asleep on the floor, we stand on deck as Europe vanishes, and slender fingers of sunlight break through the clouds ahead, picking out the steep green hills and – as we near port – the Arabic writing on them, and the wind turbines and cranes and oil storage tanks that suggest economic vibrancy at the shore. 

There’s a strangely euphoric sense of transitioning between worlds that you never quite get with the near time-travel nature of flying. Then another 40 minutes tick away at customs as 11am rolls on, and our plans finally implode. South of Marrakesh is now too far, but the squiggle of road on Morocco’s north-eastern coast leaps from the map; plan B here we come.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

The roads are instantly promising, but we quickly come across the first of many police checkpoints, and the traffic is meandering sedately, so I settle to a gentle cruise. It suits the 520d’s power delivery, with its easy boosts of low-down torque.

At 187bhp and 295lb ft the new model is no thrustier than before, but there are gains in efficiency of 6mpg (to a claimed 68.8mpg) and 11g/km (108g/km CO2) – or 72.4mpg and 102g/km for the Efficient Dynamics model. That’s partly
because the 520d is now 70kg lighter, despite being 36mm longer at 4935mm, even though it doesn’t follow the 7-series’ part-
carbonfibre construction: it’s familiar aluminium and steel with a smattering of magnesium here.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

The last model never felt small, but this is a generously spacious car with a high-quality, big-car luxury feel: the clean, neatly organised dash, and comfortable, supportive low-slung seats are particularly satisfying.

Techies are kept amused too, with a pin-sharp 12.3-inch digital instrument binnacle – revs and speed still displayed within physical metal-arced dials, note – and a ‘Professional Multimedia Navigation System’ as standard across the range. It features a 10.25-inch screen, but isn’t mapped for Africa. 

We nit-pick over waggly rotary controllers and plastic buttons that jar a little alongside gloss-black siblings, but I’d happily spend 60,000 miles here.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

At Tetouan we turn onto the coastal N16, leaving most traffic to follow a more direct route inland. It’s a fantastic road, following weather-worn contours in third- and fourth-gear arcs that swing out over drops above the sea and funnel through carved hillsides in a seemingly never-ending left/right sequence; it makes Highway 1 in the US look like an under-10s’ rollercoaster in comparison.

You go into corners with the suspension loaded up, feeling the steering dramatically increase in resistance, knowing that if you’ve made a mistake, you probably made it with your entry speed a second ago and will pay the price a second or so hence. Sometimes you’ll find a much slower Mercedes – almost everything is Mercedes or Renault/Dacia in Morocco – or suddenly transition onto unpaved road at roadworks, so it’s best not to get too carried away. And at least we’ve got xDrive for support.

Previous-generation 5-series were optionally offered with all-wheel drive in other markets, but the new model marks its introduction to the UK for a £2k premium.

The system typically splits torque 40/60% front-to-rear, but can send 100% to either end. On these fast, flowing turns and with modest commitment, I rarely sense it working. It just feels rear-wheel drive, which is the idea. But I’m not getting much fun or feel out of the 5-series yet; there’s little steering texture, the gear changes are quick but so smooth you lose the sense of mechanical engagement, and the four-cylinder engine strains and thrashes, even with modest excursions out of its 1500-3000rpm sweet spot. Competent and capable, yes. Exciting? Not really.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

Then the thickest veil of fog descends like mustard gas, taking visibility down to maybe 20 metres; we can’t drive quickly, we can’t take pictures, so we take a shortcut on the P4115 that heads towards tonight’s final destination, Fes.

The inland road is narrower and winds higher into the mountains with what appears to be a huge plunge off to one side. We tip-toe along, 1970s Mercs occasionally punching out of the murk towards us, lights off, like phantoms; or, miles from anywhere, there’ll be a man with a donkey.

Finally we break out of the fog, and head down to Issaguen on the N2, later learning from Lonely Planet that we’ve made an accidental detour through Morocco’s kif, or pot, capital. There’s mud and straw and donkeys and people in utter chaos all over the road, like we’ve landed back in the Middle Ages, only with countless W123 Mercs to dodge around.

Quickly we’re spotted, people bang on the windows, but we leave town, dropping the Mercs that are following and flashing headlights on a faster stretch of road to the south. A few miles later, when we plunge down into a lush valley, we assume they’re gone, and it’s so beautiful we head back up the same road for photography.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

That’s when the trouble starts. Another car quickly approaches, the driver gets out, and pushes his face right up against our half-open window. Polite with an aggressive insistence, he offers us an incredibly unappealing trip back to his place for coffee and a smoke. He also asks if Pardon, 12 years my junior, is my son, which is either a measure of how haggard this trip is making me look already, or testament to this Moroccan’s lack of procrastination when it comes to fornication; we’d have laughed if we weren’t absolutely bricking it. As father and son make our excuses, re-join the road and abort the photography mission, an old Merc blasts past spewing black soot, the second car behind, weaving, flashing squinty headlights, pulling alongside waving pot.

After 30 minutes of moderate-to-high terror, a higher power intervenes as huge cracks of lightning ignite the dusky sky, like blood vessels haemorrhaging in the white of an eye. The Merc ahead pulls over. Seconds later, great gobs of rain smack off the 520d’s roof, punctuated at first, the sound quickly knitting together into a pneumatic hammering. The road, baked and glazed, glistens with slipperiness; suddenly the second Merc disappears; we pray earnestly for his safety, but wouldn’t have stopped if he’d plunged screaming and flaming into the abyss below. A few corners later, at around 15mph, the 520d understeers on a left-hander towards a steep drop and I brake hard and straighten the steering to try to stop in the space available. The intervention of ABS and stability control crackles beneath my right foot as the car grips a few metres from disaster.

It’s still 2.5 hours from Fes, and it rains hard as lightning sporadically illuminates the road surface like a flashbulb. We’re both on edge, we want to hide the car and – much as our instincts said the opposite before this trip – a reassuringly international hotel. We find it in Palais Faraj (like Nigel Faraj), its 19th century arches and ceramic tiles nestled right up against historic city walls; the staff are as warmly friendly as all the other Moroccans we meet, and quickly our scare feels like an aberration amid the pleasant normality and delicious spiced Moroccan lamb we’ve just bought.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

After three 4.30am starts and an exhausting previous day, I’m woken by the bellowing call to prayer at 5.30am, which is, with all due respect, a tad early. Then we brim the 5-series 10 4 minutes out of Fes, only to learn the filling station doesn’t accept cards. Amazingly, they let us leave to get cash, so we repay the faith – and the 200 dirhams – before striking out towards Parc National de Tazekka. It’s a beautiful area, the road threading through densely wooded, tinder-crisp hillsides as we climb up alongside a reservoir blue like a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. It’s just about wide enough for two cars here, but far tighter than the coastal road, so you can push hard in second and third gear and get a proper sense of the Five’s limits. Select Sport Plus from the controller and you can feel the body control tighten right up without descending into crashiness, the steering firming, the throttle response bristling with extra energy.

Suddenly the ultimate driving machine wakes up, connecting apex to apex in fluid movements, ample torque making easy meat of the short straights, the sense of driving enjoyment suddenly ramping up. It’s here that you can really feel xDrive working, still with that pronounced rear bias, but with extra front-end grip; it takes time to trust how early you can accelerate in a bend, but you learn how much harder you can work the chassis than you could with rear-drive only. Push really hard and you can feel some corruption as the front driveshafts start to tug on the steering, but mostly it’s pretty subtle, and I think the extra speed you can carry makes up for the lack of rear-drive purity, especially in a relatively low-powered, hard-to-drift diesel. I just wish you’d get more interaction on the commute.

We start to head back north, tracing a road that cuts through more stereotypically dusty, chalky orange canyons with the organic flow of a swollen river, sun beating down, traffic largely absent. Pardon sets up a drone shot in the middle of nowhere, and sheep-tending teenagers suddenly run out of the trees miles and miles from anywhere; they just watch on, smiling.

CAR magazine BMW 5-series vs Morocco

I could drive on roads like this all day, and it quickly transpires that may be necessary: while our navigation is correct, it hasn’t taken account of the occasionally appalling condition of the minor roads we’ll later traverse to reach the west coast. Heavily potholed and with chunks ravaged by landslips, it curtails our speed to walking pace at times, doubling the estimated journey time from four to eight hours. It’s here that the incredibly supple suspension really comes into its own, soaking up vast craters and taking the worst edges off what is, at times, a demoralisingly tough, fragmented journey.

By the time we get across to the A1, it’s 7pm and a rush to make the sailing. Thankfully the toll road is as smooth as the best in Europe, and we reach deep into three figures to make up lost time. The 520d feels planted and stable, its LED lights picking out dawdling trucks far in the distance, but the easy torque of lower revs disappears at higher speeds; you crave the silky refinement and extra performance of the six-cylinder 530d which, at another £7.8k, is a sizeable stretch.

But we make good progress, and roll into the port 40 minutes before our 9.30pm sailing, elated after almost 11 hours’ constant driving. ‘Gringo, 9.30 is cancelled,’ politely offers a man sitting outside a ticket kiosk. Not wearing uniform or name badge, he says he’ll sell us another ticket for the 10.30pm fast ferry, or we can wait until 2.30am for ours to be rescheduled. With an 8am wake-up call tomorrow, we give in. ‘Now give him good tip,’ suggests our man. We look around, puzzled. ‘Him!’ he replies in exasperation, pointing directly at his own chest. ‘Him!’

Considerably poorer and unsure whether we’ve been spectacularly ripped off, we board our ferry with a sigh of exhaustion and relief. It’s been an unintentionally adventurous adventure and we’ve been fortunate to have a car as dependable as the 520d to see us through. Three years and 60,000 miles in Europe? No sweat. But if you want to outrun Moroccan drug-pushers driving ’70s Mercs, I’d find that extra £7.8k for a 530d.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator