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David Freeman/CNET

BMW 550i: A spin through Bavaria

CNET producer David Freeman takes a BMW 550i out on a road trip in Bavaria.

BMW 550i
The BMW 550i in its native environment. David Freeman/CNET

It was a beautiful day in Bavaria. I was back on the autobahn for the first time in a year, making the 3-hour run from Munich to northern Italy and a long-awaited family vacation. My teenage sons were asleep in the back seat, exhausted after our flight from New York. Trouble was, I, too, was wiped out and worried I might fall asleep at the wheel. Melatonin, schmelatonin. I'd never felt so jet-lagged.

Luckily for all concerned, we weren't in some flimsy, gas-sipping economy car of the sort budget-conscious Americans typically rent for European holidays. We were ensconced in a BMW 550i, a sure-footed uber-sedan--on loan from the factory--that I had offered to write about for the CNET Car Tech blog.

Our sleek black 550i, tricked out with just about every high-tech gizmo the factory offers, occupies the topmost rung of BMW's storied 5-series line. Its heart is a glorious 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 rated at 400 horsepower. That's enough grunt to propel the sedan from a standstill to 60 miles an hour in 5 seconds and a top speed of 150 mph.

Or so the specs say. As we headed south toward Austria, I was focused not on speed but safety. Mash on the accelerator and work the eight-speed automatic's paddle shifters? Nein. It was all I could do to steer clear of the cars that streaked past menacingly in the left lane--many at speeds that must have been north of 200 kilometers an hour. Life in the fast lane? Not on that day. I didn't have that sangfroid.

BMW 550i
The Autobahn, as seen through the windshield of a BMW 550i. David Freeman/CNET

There was little in the way of eye candy along that stretch of highway. Featureless and mostly flat, the passing German landscape had an eerie generic feel. We might as well have been in Arkansas, or maybe Michigan. About the only thing to remind us that we were in a foreign country were the names of the cities on the road signs. Some were familiar, like Salzburg, others notorious, like Dachau. One town we passed sounded like someone's idea of a joke on visiting Americans: Bad Tolz. As far as I know, there are no tolls on the autobahn. Back home, it costs $8 just to cross the George Washington Bridge.

I'd been counting on a little conversation from the back seat to keep me awake. But the boys were totally conked. And in a car as solidly built as the Bimmer, road noise, too, was nil. Of course it would have been hard to hear anything over the catchy Europop tunes blaring from the lush 12-speaker stereo system (loud music being the linchpin of my hastily improvised backup plan for staying awake). I'd have killed for a cup of coffee. But my cell phone was kaput, so there was no easy way to alert my wife, who had agreed to lead the way to our destination in her rental car using the trusted GPS unit we'd brought from home.

If Ellen was tired too, she wasn't showing it. She kept zooming ahead, shifting lanes aggressively and sandwiching her flimsy, gas-sipping car between other vehicles. It was if she wanted to drop me. And being dropped would have been a most unwelcome contingency, as the GPS route displayed on the 550i's nifty head-up display kept displaying directions I knew to be wrong. Had I somehow screwed up when I punched in our destination back in Munich? Maybe that wasn't such a surprise, given that the 550i's "intuitive" fourth-generation iDrive electronic control system remains a head-scratcher for first-time users.

There was nothing to do but lock my gaze on the road and my hands on the fat steering wheel. And somehow, without once triggering the lane-departure warning system, I managed to keep our little convoy together. We passed Innsbruck and headed onto to the Italian autostrada for the final, mountainous leg of the journey. Soon the 550i was carving its way through long, curving tunnels and speeding across vertiginous bridges that afforded spectacular views of faraway castles. The driving was absolutely spectacular. And as we motored along, I realized that I wasn't feeling quite so tired. I was having fun.

BMW 550i
The cab of a BMW is not a bad place to be on a European road trip. BMW

But not for long. As we reached the outskirts of our destination--the picturesque northern Italian town of Sterzing/Vipiteno--Ellen raced through a yellow light just as it changed. Damn. The boys and I were stranded at the red, clueless about how to reach the apartment we had rented for our stay. I cursed loudly, waking the boys. When the light turned green, I drove aimlessly for a time before finding my way. The last few miles I drove with steam coming from my ears.

Sterzing, our home base for our time in Italy, is a town of 6,000 situated due south of the Brenner Pass. Though not well known to Americans, Sterzing is a popular destination for German and Austrian tourists. They're drawn by the charming shops that line Sterzing's cobble-stoned main drag and for the world-class skiing, biking, climbing, and hiking in the nearby mountains. Then there are the town's cozy (but typically smoke-choked) restaurants, celebrated for Bavarian staples like speck (ham) and knodel (dumplings). Like wurstel? Ellen declared Sterzing's wurst the best, bar none.

Sterzing proved to be great for walking. From our apartment, it took only 10 minutes to stroll to the town's central plaza, which is bounded on one side by a 15th-century clock tower and on the other by a beautifully gloomy church that dates all the way back to 1399. As it turned out, the church was one of the performance venues for the music festival that one of our sons had come to perform in.

Since it was so easy to get around on foot, the Bimmer spent most of its time parked. And on those occasions when I did drive in town, the car could seem a bit cumbersome. Though not big by U.S. standards, it felt big on Sterzing's narrow lanes (and especially in its absurdly cramped parking lots and garages). Often I had to stop unexpectedly and back my way out of a tight squeeze. When I did, I was very happy to be able to rely on the 550's state-of-the-art rearview camera system. Its high-res screen doesn't just give a view to the rear. It superimposes trajectory lines that show you exactly how much clearance you have. There's even a button you can push to switch to a bird's-eye view of the car and its immediate vicinity. Nifty.

BMW 550i
The BMW 550i offers surround-view cameras. BMW

Before long, I found myself relying on our rental car for in-town driving trips, including visits to the Balneum, Sterzing's super-luxe municipal spa. (Tip for visitors: Don't wear a swimsuit in the facility's nude-only sauna. Ellen and I tried and were promptly ejected.)

For out-of-town day trips, it was a no-brainer--and an absolute joy--to take the 550i.

One especially memorable trip was to Bolzano, a bigger town about an hour south of Sterzing, where we toured the magnificent Assumption of Our Lady Cathedral and took in the marvelous Otzi exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Never heard of Otzi? That's the name given to the ancient hunter whose mummified remains were discovered on a nearby mountain in 1991, more than 5,000 years after he died. Another drive I'll never forget was the torturous mountain road up to--and down from--Vols am Schlern, a medieval hamlet surrounded by high meadows that look like something out of "The Sound of Music." Though the 550i is no one's idea of a road-carver, it inspired confidence along the tight, high-exposure switchbacks--even in the midst of a violent thunderstorm at night.

The Bimmer was also my vehicle of choice for my solo run back to Munich, where I was to fetch my parents, who had agreed to fly in for the music festival. This time traffic on the autobahn was light, as was my mood. So it seemed the perfect time let the Bimmer stretch its legs.

As I crossed from Austria into Germany, I silenced the radio and eyed the head-up display, waiting for three diagonal stripes to show up. They were my cue that I'd reached a stretch of road with no speed limit, where I was free to drive as fast as the car--and my nerves--would take me.

This wouldn't be the first time I've driven fast in the Fatherland. Once, while working as an automotive journalist, I touched 240 kph (149 mph) while piloting another twin-turbo sedan on the autobahn not far from Frankfurt. I say touched because as soon as the jittery automotive journalist riding shotgun with me that day noticed we were going that fast, he commanded me to slow down. I don't remember his exact words, but it was clear enough that he had no desire to risk his life just because some wannabe race-car driver had a need to prove himself and impress others.

Maybe it was a premonition. Because this same fellow almost died a few years later in a catastrophic crash while racing in the Indy 500. The shunt was so spectacular that it made the front page of the New York Times. I recall reading that the impact caused a tear in his brain. Ouch. It took him months of rehabilitation before he resume his writing career.

The three stripes!

I checked my mirror, eased into the fast lane and dropped the accelerator pedal. Zoom. The car rocketed smoothly ahead, as if eager to show its metier. I held steady at 140 kph for a few minutes, then pushed on through 160, 180, and beyond 200 kph. At least that's what I'd like to be able to report. Truth is, prudence beat out reckless abandon, and I never ventured above 160 kph. But cruising at that speed made it possible for me to make up for a late start and arrive at die flughafen on time. Mom and Dad were pleased.

On the drive back to Sterzing, an Austrian cop fined me $100 euros for failing to have a permit of some sort displayed on my windshield. I did my best to explain that I hadn't known the permit was required, but he seemed disinclined to listen. Besides, it was clear to us both that the driver of a car as pricey as a BMW 550i wasn't likely to have much luck pleading poverty.

I didn't have the cash on hand. But he accepted plastic.