Some cities - like New York, the enormous metropolis explored elsewhere in this issue - sprawl endlessly into suburbia over dozens and dozens of miles. San Francisco is different. It ends abruptly. Head north over the Golden Gate Bridge, and within hundreds of yards, you'll find some of the most picturesque, lightly trafficked roads in the world.
You've probably heard of California's State Route 1, which is called the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California. North of San Francisco, Route 1 is called the Shoreline Highway, and it's here that we've planned our day trip. Whether heading north or south, there's no car that could better serve as an accomplice in the conquering of Route 1 than BMW's brand-new coupe whose name is of the same numeric value. The new 1-series might be sized like a city car, but it shares lots of components with its larger sibling, the 3-series, which means that the 1 carves through corners like the world's most involving sports cars. Whereas most city cars serve only to facilitate movement from point A to point B, our 128i coupe will happily scream its way through thousands of corners from Fort Point to Point Arena. How far will the trip take us? You guessed it - it's 128 miles north along Route 1.
The resplendent Golden Gate Bridge is the northern escape route out of San Francisco, and it carries two roadways - U.S. Route 101 and California Route 1. Fort Point is located just beneath the southern end of the bridge, and we pass directly over it, heading out of the city on a cold morning before sunrise. What we can't see in the darkness below is a fort, erected after the 1849 gold rush to protect the bay from hostile ships. It wasn't the first military establishment built here; the Spanish constructed a fort in the same spot more than fifty years earlier, but its adobe structure couldn't survive the area's wet weather. True to form, it's raining as we cross the span.
Just a few miles north of the Golden Gate, Route 1 splits off from U.S. 101 and becomes the Shoreline Highway, leaving all traces of the city behind. Sidewalks and streetlights are replaced by hairpin turns illuminated by the BMW's swiveling HID headlights. And, thanks to the Bay Area's many microclimates, rain has already given way to clear skies and dry pavement as we dive deeper into Marin County.
The roads here clearly favor cars that handle well, and Route 1 is no exception as it winds up and around the base of Mount Tamalpais. As the sun comes up, our 128i is relaxed at speeds that would topple SUVs and might make the passengers of big luxocruisers grab for sick bags. The road is narrow, the turns are tight, the grades are steep.
And the ocean is incredible.
To a native East Coaster used to seeing endless miles of tourist traps along the flat, visually uninteresting Atlantic shoreline, the Pacific Coast might as well be a Dalí painting. It is an improbable convergence of impossible geography: cows graze in flat meadows that end at the sea like infinity pools; wide-open hillsides become so steep you wouldn't be able to stand on them; building-sized rocks jut proudly out of the water. And the road? Were it not for the several-hundred-foot drop into the cold water below, Route 1 could be a competition road course - a would-be racetrack with a stunningly picturesque backdrop, that is.
Just a few minutes ago, our Monaco blue metallic 128i was sitting at a stoplight, and now it can run free. "BMW heaven," says photographer Andrew Yeadon as the smooth in-line six sings the sweet serenade of twenty-four valves and 230 horses. The sport package's Goodyear summer tires don't make a peep no matter how hard we push, and the taut suspension disallows any excess body motion. The electrically adjustable bolsters in the sport seats keep our bodies free of any excess motions, too.
After twenty or so miles of frenetic, spaghetti-like tarmac, Route 1 descends to sea level at Stinson Beach and then lazily curves around the calm waters of the Bolinas Lagoon. Diverting slightly inland, the roadway suddenly becomes tranquil as it heads northwest toward Point Reyes Station, giving us time to contemplate our chariot. With a sticker price of more than $36,000, our loaded 128i certainly is not cheap, but it offers a significant discount over a 3-series with no real trade-off in refinement, equipment level, front-passenger room, or performance. That's among the highest automotive praise we can give. Its frameless windows let in no wind noise, and its stereo system - with full USB and iPod integration - makes a great companion on a long road trip.
As we make a left turn onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard for a twenty-mile detour to see the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the scenery begins to look like Wales. A heavy rain again pelts the front of the car, and high winds howl across the rolling hillsides, which are peppered with small shrubs and livestock.
The region's history is just as diverse as its geography. English-man Sir Francis Drake is believed to be the first European explorer to land here. No one is sure where exactly he originally touched terra firma in 1579 - the port's actual whereabouts needed to be kept secret from Spain - but his claim allowed the British to declare that they had conquered the New World from sea to sea. Sir Francis Drake named the area Nova Albion, which means "New Britain" in Latin, but it wasn't long before the Spaniards arrived to stake their claim.