Are we there yet?

Channeling Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. Distance measured by perception, travel defined by high style.

WORDS BY BRIAN M. AFUANG

Just as obvious as Jack Kerouac’s carefree take on the norms of his time was his similar attitude toward travel; this can be gleaned from the Beat Generation icon’s On the Road novel, a presumably hazy recollection of his post-World War II trips across the United States written in prose that is as generous in referencing substance indulgence as it is loose in punctuation-mark use.

If, in turn, Cars’ Lightning McQueen had chosen to drop acid and trip out on jazz rather than romp around country roads with a Porsche considered as the worst in the 911 lineage—a 996—the animated race car’s journey into self-discovery would have been vastly more interesting, less cartoony. A bit like Kerouac’s.

Well, choosing the right Porsche would have cut it, too.

These days, in the Philippines, a Porsche Macan would do fine for a country-lane drive or a thousand-kilometer road trip. No, actually it would be excellent at both pursuits, especially if the car comes in potent Turbo form. Porsche’s second-ever sport utility vehicle (SUV) model is presently the smaller, lighter, more agile jock twin to its pioneering big brother, the Cayenne. But it does not lose all that much from its sibling in terms of the sybaritic stuff, as well as in cabin acreage for people and packages.

Frankly, the Macan is a bit confused; it acts like a 911 on pavement but is no slouch on nasty terrain either, boasting genuine SUV credentials. And push need not come to shove for this bipolar behavior to show. In the Macan Turbo it all starts with a 400hp, 550Nm, 3.6-liter V6 engine that’s boosted by two turbochargers, then matched to a sequential-shift, seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox.

Exotic electronically governed mechanical bits like active suspension management and adaptive damper control and torque vectoring, as well as an all-wheel drive system filched off the 911 Carrera 4 (a car that takes grip to reptilian levels), ensure engine grunt gets to the wheel that has the best grip underneath.

If the surface is really bad, a button activates off-road mode in which traction-related systems switch to maximum settings, the air suspension rises to its loftiest stance, and stability management turns extra cautious. Porsche, remember, is no stranger to the dirty stuff—its 356 and 550 Spyder took on the mythical Carrera Panamericana while its 953 and 959 proved themselves worthy of the Dakar Rally.

That said, consider that these are ancient Porsches, and so are not as bionics-level wired nor are anything that by any stretch can be called luxurious. Nothing better underscores this than by dropping onto the Macan’s heavily bolstered cowhide seats and soaking in the cabin’s techie business lounge vibe. In the ancestral Porsches, destinations were reached after unimaginable difficulty, not least of which was the lack of a hole to slot a half-caf latte into—picture having to contend with that. No such issues come with the Macan. In this car, not only is caffeine drip-feeding possible but also almost guaranteed to be uninterruptible; the drive from one hipster coffee place to the next is always a breeze. No matter the terrain.

Now, this is not theoretical. Porsche introduced the Macan to this part of Asia by way of a road trip that partly meandered, partly tore its way across free-flowing expressways and deserted coastal routes in southern Taiwan. There, highways that cut through both farms and barren landscape—nothing that look markedly different from those in the Philippines; only the Chinese text on billboards identified the place as foreign—were great spots for occasional blasts of speed, during which time the Macan’s Sport mode entertained through quick shifts, equally rapid throttle responses and bellowing exhaust notes. The roads that sliced through one touristy resort town after another provided more local color, with the variety of food stalls, souvenir shops and seaside hotels along the way somehow managing to come together into one indigenous look.

Just as curious were the locals atop small scooters zipping by the roads’ shoulder, all of whom appeared to be as liberal as Filipinos are in interpreting what a crash helmet is. They did supply other motorists things to dodge though, livening things up further, and those fortunate enough to be in Macans genuinely came to dig the merits of quick steering and arrestor-cable-like brakes.

Meanwhile, secluded mountain trails that, at times, turned gravelly were perfect venues for playing out Panamericana/Dakar rally fantasies. That the entire route stitched together routine stops at out-of-the-way hipster coffee joints—housed in uncannily similar, white-painted boxy buildings with windows haphazardly placed about—only heightened the sense that the road trip was more about traveling, not arriving. One of the places played acid jazz, too.

CAFÉ RACERS

As well suited as a Porsche sport-ute is at letting travelers schmooze with baristas, there is actually a vehicle specifically built to shuttle people from one hipster coffee place to another—the café racer. Basically standard motorcycles modified to look like vintage race bikes, these highly personalized machines were birthed on the city streets of 1960s Britain, ridden by fashionable mod types who zipped not from one racetrack to another but, you guessed it, café to café.

BMW’s R NineT—its name is a cheesy take on the company’s legendary R90 motorbike from the early 1970s—is unabashedly retro, channeling the spirit of its sort-of namesake forebearer but heavily influenced by customizers’ touch (particularly that of custom god Roland Sands), and strongly infused with café racers’ flavor. It’s a statement first, transport second.

Of course, it only takes after its siblings. BMWs are some of the best-built motorrads on the planet, and its adventure bike genre-inventing/defining GS, in particular, is truly intended to go to any place on the planet. Long favored by hardcore, ultra-distance bikers, the GS’s capacity for all-terrain cross-country travel is amply, if cheekily, illustrated in the 2004 and 2007 riding documentaries Long Way Round (London to New York via havens like Kazakhstan and Mongolia) and Long Way Down (northern tip of Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa), which starred a couple of Brits—TV presenter and Dakar rider Charley Boorman, and Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, the actor Ewan McGregor.

At the other end of the current BMW Motorrad model spectrum is the S1000 RR, a super sport bike that happily does away with a couple of traits common to super sport bikes—an edgy ride and a twitchy throttle. The S1000 RR, smooth in actuations and refined in manners, can be ridden in terrible Metro Manila traffic without it throwing a tantrum. It is also a ballistic delight on Luzon’s northern expressways, and is quite the handy instructional tool in superbike riding classes at the Clark speedway in Pampanga.

In between the GS and S1000 RR are BMWs whose characters lean toward either of the two bookend bikes. Each of them—in true Bauhaus fashion—is a study in form following function and purpose-driven design.

The R NineT is no different. In the confines of a speedway, used as a tool in superbike riding classes, it’s pretty much duck-out-of-water useless. Leaned over in sweeping and tight corners its foot pegs would constantly scrape the tarmac. The riding posture it affords its rider—a bit laid back, feet forward—is not ideal for deliberate attempts at knee-dragging or crouching over the tank. It’s somewhat lazy 1,170cc, classically air/oil-cooled boxer engine responds a bit tardily, so matching revs while downshifting the bike’s six-speed gearbox is routinely hit-and-miss.

But out of the racetrack and onto public roads, these same things count for little, or are even welcome. The R NineT’s laid back stance lets one tackle expressways sans sore necks, backs, arms and wrists, as the case would have been on a sport bike. Its engine, though lazy-spinning, is no slouch as it puts out 110hp and 119Nm—more than adequate for cruising or, if so desired, highway speed blasts (all the while remaining cool and relaxed, too).

Its pliant suspension—inverted forks and BMW’s famed Paralever—soaks up all but really bad pavement. Now strap on some panniers and a cowl (BMW sells a myriad customization pieces for the R NineT) and get the luggage compartment and weather protection requirement boxes ticked—the R NineT is good to go for thousand-kilometer road trips.

On city streets, the bike shines, too. Its riding posture is great in traffic-crawling; its wide handlebar provides the needed leverage to quickly swerve away from errant small bikes; its brakes are handy at avoiding taxicab doors that wildly and suddenly swing open; its size, svelte enough for filtering through stopped cars or for lane-splitting between moving ones; its low seat renders tiptoeing at stoplights unnecessary; its torque-rich engine is effortless at getting past most everything on the road. 

But the R NineT’s true strength lies in its capacity for haute couture. Left stock, there is no denying the bike’s curbside appeal, and yet BMW went further and intentionally designed it to be a retro canvas that could endlessly be embellished to suit personal tastes. While not strictly adhering to the typical café racers’ lightweight and small engine, the R NineT subscribes to the philosophy of this particular bike subculture by encouraging customization. So, even as many other bikes are as capable at marathon riding or at tooling around town, the R NineT does the same but with more swagger and attitude. On this bike, distance is measured by perception, travel is defined by high style.

This makes the R NineT the ideal choice for journeys into self-discovery and stream-of-consciousness road trips. It does not matter if these are merely from one hipster café to the next.