The 1991 BMW 850i was blasted by the automotive media and ardent Bimmer-philes as an enormous letdown - a passionless cruiser from the self-proclaimed makers of the Ultimate Driving Machine. The complaints were numerous, and many were valid. But the 8-series' mission wasn't to tear up back roads, it was to grab attention on the boulevard - and nearly two decades later, it still turns heads.
The 850i was a technological showcase, boasting cutting-edge luxury features such as remote keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, a power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, a twelve-speaker stereo, and windows that automatically closed at high speeds. An active five-link rear suspension helped steer the 850i at the limit, and an early form of electronic stability control helped keep the big coupe on course. Under the hood, an aluminum-block, 5.0-liter V-12 used the industry's only drive-by-wire electronic throttles and was attached to one of the world's first six-speed manual transmissions.
That's an impressive list of ingredients, but the 850i weighed a hefty 4100 pounds - about as much as the long-wheelbase 750iL sedan, which shared its engine. And the V-12, instead of snarling and screaming, was a snoozer. The symmetrical aluminum intake manifold is a work of art, but the engine it fed isn't - in fact, it's little more than two BMW 2.5-liter in-line sixes joined at the hip. And while those sixes sang a sweet song individually, the tune went decidedly flat when two of them were brought together in a vee.
BMW boasted that the six-speed 850i would hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, but most 8-series models came with only four speeds - and an automatic transmission. The automatic added almost a full second to the 0-to-60-mph sprint, and it was recalcitrant in normal driving, reluctant to downshift in response to even the most violent prods of the accelerator pedal. The novel electronic throttle didn't help, as it offered neither linear nor quick response. The lazy power delivery, long gearing, deliberate steering, and grand-touring suspension made the 850i a grand disappointment for adrenaline junkies seeking a thrill ride.
But for those looking for a high-style V-12 boulevardier, the 850i hits the jackpot. Its raked rear buckets are sized perfectly for a couple of boutique shopping bags - or an anorexic model friend - and the trunk will easily swallow the proceeds of a frenzied shopping spree. The pillarless 850i offers great visibility all around. The four circular gauges are inscribed with a classically simple font and a twin-row surround that are more elegant than those found in any BMW since.