Classic Cars

Classic Drive: 1994 BMW 850CSi

Behind the wheel of the roundel’s grunge-era halo car

The BMW 8 Series recently became the talk of the town when rumors suggesting that it was making a comeback surfaced. If true, it means the revival of a nameplate that first surfaced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1989. To explain why this is a big deal, we hunted down an original 8 Series for a test drive.

BMW launched the E31 in 850i flavor with a 5.0-liter V-12 good for 295 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque under the hood. It was the only version available until 1992, when two additional models joined the lineup: the V-8-powered 840Ci and the BMW M-modified 850CSi. Despite a mixed reception from critics, the M-tuned 850CSi stood out as the one to remember.

The 8 Series was in production for 10 years, with 30,621 cars making it off the line. Of those, 7,232 found a North American home between 1989 and 1997. The 850CSi is by far the rarest version. A total of 1,510 were made, with only 225 reaching the States in 1994 and 1995. That may quantify the 8 Series’ rarity in numbers, but the amount of heads it turns also speaks for its unfamiliarity. Fittingly nicknamed “the wedge,” the 8 Series’ unique slab-like shape eloquently stands out in a sea of overdesigned 21st century econoboxes, especially with its hideaway pop-up headlights. The CSi ground effects kit visually lowers the car and larger wheels give a more aggressive stance.

In terms of size, the footprint of the E31 compares closely to that of the current 6 Series coupe, minus four inches in length and a couple inches in both width and height. Interior space is a bit limited by virtue of the car’s sleek shape, meaning that the 2+2-style rear seating is best used as a parcel shelf. But the cocooning, cockpit-like interior and BMW’s signature driver-oriented dashboard are perfect for the two front occupants. The lovely leather sport buckets are both supportive and comfortable, and from them, visibility is strong all around.

1994 BMW 850CSi rear three quarter 01

Turning the key two notches annunciates BMW’s familiar dashboard tone. The fuel pumps quietly hiss far in the background as they prime themselves for action. Twisting a third click engages the futuristic-sounding starter, whirring the 5.6-liter V-12 to life.

Versus the standard 850i’s 5.0-liter V-12 (shared with the E32 750iL), the 850CSI’s version received lighter pistons, a forged crankshaft, and more aggressive camshafts with freer flowing exhaust and intake. It was bored and stroked to increase displacement to 5.6 liters, compression was increased, and heavier duty engine and differential coolers were fitted, all compliments of the BMW Motorsport division. Power jumped to 375 hp while torque increased to 420 lb-ft. The extent of M modifications earned this engine the coveted “S” designation code, signifying its official status as a true BMW Motorsport product. Dubbed S70B56, this engine was also the basic platform for the V-12 in the McLaren F1.

A long-throw six-speed manual sourced from Getrag was the only transmission on offer in the CSi; when it first appeared in the 850i, this gearbox gained the distinction of being the first six-speed manual to be paired with a V-12 in a production road car. No matter the gear or speed, the mill bears no hesitance to hustle every one of its dozen pistons. The clutch is heavy and while acceleration isn’t astonishing, the speedo climbs blissfully to 60 mph in slightly less than six seconds.

The 8 Series was among the first cars to use electronic throttle control (drive-by-wire) and the V-12 versions used two ECUs, one for each bank of cylinders. Because of the amount of processing power demanded by the 8 Series, BMW teamed up with Bosch to create an entirely new wiring system for all of the microcomputers needed to run the car. Ranging from engine management to the convenience systems that operate all of the amenities, these computers allowed the 8 Series to do neat things like automatically lower its windows when opening the doors.

To handle it all, the 8 Series pioneered the use of a CAN (Controller Area Network) system in an automobile — a series of microcontroller nodes networked to a function without needing a central host computer. This enables the nodes to operate independently from each other while communicating vital information, providing easier diagnosis for errors. The 8 Series’ CAN bus network ultimately became a precursor to what we now know as OBD or On-Board Diagnostics.

1994 BMW 850CSi front view

Unlike the robots on wheels of today, the 850CSi feels more natural than breathing, epitomizing how a well-sorted machine should feel like an analog extension of your body. The standard 8 Series focuses more on its grand tourer persona, but the 850CSi wrings out the chassis’ full potential with stiffer shocks and springs. Even with the massive all-aluminum lump up front and 4,100 pounds to lug around, the 850CSi hosts a magical balance of exquisitely precise handling, a compliant ride, vault-like stability, and a naturally sharp turn-in. No button-adjustable suspension or steering settings to mess with here. And that tiller is a revelation for feel and weight, a total throwback to when hydraulic assist was the norm.

Sadly, no U.S.-specification 850CSi came with the European model’s bespoke active four-wheel steering system. After owning both versions, the owner of this 41,200-mile U.S.-spec car said that he slightly prefers the European car’s handling.

The 850CSi left me with bittersweet feelings. The 8 Series might be making a comeback, but the march of time and “progress” prohibits us from ever seeing one quite like the original again. Its unique shape, rarity, technological prowess and performance are seductive, but it’s the treatment from Munich’s famed BMW Motorsport division that elevates the 850CSI’s status to one of BMW’s most legendary machines and my personal dream car.

1994 BMW 850CSi Specifications

Expect to Pay: $50,000+ (est)
Engine: 5.6L DOHC 48-valve V-12/375 hp/420 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
L x W x H: 188.2 x 73.0 x 52.4 in
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
 L x W x H: 194.6 x 73.5 x 58.2 in.
 Wheelbase: 105.7 in
 Weight: 4,111 lb
 0-60 MPH: 5.9 sec (est)
 Top Speed: 155 mph

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