THAILAND’S OLD OPIUM REGION PROVIDES A FITTING CHALLENGE FOR BMW’S NEW X RANGE
As our convoy of new BMW SUVs drove though the mountainous village in the infamous Golden Triangle of northern Thailand, locals barely stopped eating their lunch.
You’d think that a convoy that included the X3, X4, X5 and X6, plus instructors and camera crews in X1s would have villagers coming out on to the street. But no, the Chiang Rai area of northern Thailand has such a colourful past that even new premium SUVs don’t garner attention. Then again, with all the utes and trucks on the roads, maybe the locals were more fans of practical work vehicles.
Driven was in the once opium-growing region as a guest of BMW Singapore, which was hosting motoring writers to test the SUVs’ xDrive system.
Over the two days we were to drive around the mountainous roads of the region, try some off-roading in a tea plantation — as the tea pickers across the valley looked on — and then head to Golden Triangle border where the Mekong River joins Thailand with Burma and Laos.
While we Kiwi journalists were used to driving on dirt tracks and negotiating rough terrain, some of our colleagues from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia were more used to driving on tarmac and didn’t get the opportunity to test BMW’s xDrive system.
Before leaving our accommodation just outside of Chiang Rai city on the 150km drive programme of day one, the instructor gave us a safety briefing: don’t worry about overtaking scooters or even motorbikes overtaking us; follow the traffic speed; and listen to advice from him via the in-car walkie-talkie.
And he took obstacle alert seriously. As we left the resort, headed on to a dual-lane highway, then into the mountain roads, the walkie-talkie chirped away.
“Look out for parked ute on left.”
“There is a scooter coming up.”
“A truck is coming on the opposite side of the road.”
“Dog on the side of the road.”
“Chicken on the side of the road.”
Cue why did the chicken cross the road joke.
“Watch out for the monk gardening on the side of the road.”
Only in Thailand.
But we weren’t in Thailand just to check out the local scenery. The country has manufactured BMWs and Minis since 2000, and recently celebrated its 50,000th locally assembled vehicle, some of which include our X1s, X3s and X5s.
All our test vehicles were diesel with Team New Zealand’s first vehicle on day one, an X4 with the new 2-litre, four-cylinder TwinPower Turbo diesel engine, producing 140kW of power and 400Nm of torque.
Sitting on 19-inch run-flat tyres, the eight-speed auto X4 not only had BMW’s four-wheel-drive system, xDrive, to give sturdy road handling but brake energy regeneration to help efficiency.
Moving from the straight, flat dual highway, which saw us driving at 130km/h, we began the drive up into the mountainous area of Doi Mae Salong.
The roads throughout the region were of impressively well-maintained bitumen, and this winding section convinced me to engage sport mode to give more power and performance from the coupe-like X4 while we drove at speeds of up to 120km/h.
Our driver break was an impressive temple the King of Thailand had built for his late mother, Princess Srinagarindra, in the village of Santikhiri, formerly known as Mae Salong.
Surrounding the village on the steep hills were tea plantations, created after the king’s mother persuaded locals to give up opium growing in the 1960s and concentrate on “winter” produce and tea.
And it was at one of the tea plantations that we tested our fleets’ xDrive capabilities. Adorned with a huge tea pot statue and giant “waving cat” effigy, the plantation entry looked more like a leftover from the opium days.
After a recent deluge, the steep clay track looping around the hillside and tea plantation was quite slippery, so the Singaporean writers at last had a chance to move away from the concrete test tracks they were used to and get some tyres dirty.
By engaging hill descent control and setting the speed at up to 9km/h, the BMWs took over throttle and brake control — all you needed to do was steer the SUV. While one leg of the loop was mainly dirt, a steep, rutted clay incline showed the capability of the BMW, especially when we switched the loop and drove down the rutted track.
After a lunch break it was time to move into the X3, sitting on 18-inch alloys and with the 2-litre diesel engine found in the X4.
Heading across the mountain range, we aimed for the alpine village of Doi Tung, the former residence of the king’s mother and famous for its exotic plants — though still no opium allowed.
The mist-covered hills may have made it hard for our lead instructor to see what was ahead and alert us, but the smooth bitumen saw us again average 120km/h. At Doi Tung, after sampling local tea and coffee, it was again car swap time, this time into BMW New Zealand’s popular SUV, the X5, which also came with the 2-litre diesel engine and paired with 19-inch tyres.
The large SUV’s route was downhill and on to the dual-lane highway to our resort — with the only reason to slow down the 130km/h pace, the police checks in place to catch drug smugglers.
Day two’s 218km programme headed into the scenic and tourist-filled area of PK Valley that includes the Thai border.
While the drive on flat tarmac wasn’t strenuous for our X6 3-litre, six-cylinder diesel engine (160kW/560Nm), it was great to be able to drive at speeds of up to 130km/h in the premium SUV.
Driving alongside the Mekong River, the only driving hazard was keeping my eyes on the road instead of looking at neighbouring Mynmar and Laos across the water.
But to test the xDrive capability of the SUVs, we headed for a local restaurant situated in a water buffalo park, where the path to the cafe was dirt clay road.
While the going was easy for us in the X6, some Singaporean colleagues did the amateur move of driving at speed through large mud puddles — with their X5’s passenger window open.
The result? The black leather seats and dash covered in dirt, and a packet of wipes needed before they could safely resume their seats in the vehicle.
With detours to the famous “black” BaanDam temple of local artist Thawan Duchanee then the contrasting white temple in Chiang Rai city, called Wat Rong Khun, it was time to test the capability of driver and vehicle.
A disused airstrip was turned into a sprint track with two X3s racing against each other around a coned slalom, then through a “gate” and a dash to the finish line. I easily beat my fellow Kiwi motoring writer (thanks to a sneaky turn into the gate), and as I watched the other teams compete, I noticed more and more locals on scooters line the side of the tarmac — smartphones recording the races.
The locals in the mountain villages may not have cared about a fleet of new BMWs, but the Chiang Rai residents certainly did.