BMW’s hulking 6-series has undergone its first redesign since the model rejoined the lineup in 2004. The 650i has moved to the platform of the new 5-/7-series and sits astride a 3-inch-longer wheelbase. There’s a new engine and automatic transmission, the cabin has been upgraded, the chassis tweaked, and more technology is on offer.
What’s coming, and when
In a reverse of the usual BMW practice, the convertible, unveiled at the Detroit auto show earlier this month, will arrive first. Expect it in showrooms in May, just in time for convertible season. The two-door coupe should appear several months later. (A four-door “coupe” also is planned.) Putting the convertible first should please BMW dealers in the U.S.A., where the convertible outsells the coupe two-to-one.
“Most important was the design”
Ask 6-series project leader Dr. Frank Ochmann what’s most significant about the new car and he’ll tell you it’s the new sheetmetal. We agree. Like all recent new BMWs, the 650i is better looking than its predecessor, a natural consequence as the brand slowly pulls itself out of the primordial ooze of its Bangle-era styling. Where the old car was soft and melted-looking, the new one has thrust and crispness. It starts up front, where the previous grille was laid back, its two ovoid openings at best a perfunctory nod to the traditional twin kidneys; now we have a more BMW-like grille that pushes into the wind — squint and it’s almost a BMW shark nose. The dominant elements in the light cluster are now the four round headlamps rather than the eyebrow above, and LED fog lights are new. Along the body side, the sheetmetal is newly creased, and the more defined rear is a vast improvement over the previous car’s rounded rump. Capping off the design is one major carryover item: the soft top with its flared C-pillars; between them is a power-operated, receding rear window made of glass.
One nice aspect of the top is that it can be raised or lowered while the car is moving, at speeds up to 25 mph. One not-so-nice aspect is that the top’s design makes for major blind spots. The workaround, of course, is expensive electronics. A backup camera (cleverly hidden under the roundel badge on the trunk) is standard, but you might also consider adding the Driver Assistance Package, with its top-view and cross-view cameras and blind-spot warning; it also includes lane departure warning, a head-up display, and automatic high beams).
Turbocharging continues its march through the BMW lineup, as the 4.8-liter naturally aspirated V-8 is here again booted out in favor of the 4.4-liter turbo, code-named N62, that we’ve seen already in the X5, X6, 5-series, and 7-series. Fortified with two turbochargers, the smaller engine brings a lot more power to the party: 400 hp versus 360 hp, and it’s available lower in the rev range, at 5000-6400 rpm. Torque jumps from 360 lb-ft at 3400 rpm to 450 lb-ft, and again it’s more accessible, from 1750 to 4500 rpm. Power delivery is beyond reproach, and you’d never discern that this engine was turbocharged. And yet, acceleration doesn’t feel as explosively quick as the numbers suggest (0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, more than half a second better than the previous 650i), perhaps because the car is so heavy. At over 4500 pounds, it has gained some 250 pounds over the not-so-lithe previous edition. Practically speaking, though, you’re never wanting for power. On our test drive, the 650i made quick work of the 40-to-80-mph sprint, when overtaking on two-lane roads outside Capetown (where the courteous South African drivers regularly astonished the visiting American press with their practice of moving over onto the shoulder to facilitate a pass, and even signaling when it was safe to do so).
All the test cars on hand were automatics, but the 650i will also continue to offer a six-speed manual transmission — in the North American market, though not in Europe. (Talk about the reverse of the usual practice.) While we’re happy that the manual is available, the automatic makes a better case for itself than it did in the past, as BMW has replaced the six-speed sport automatic with the eight-speed unit from the 5-series. It’s controlled by BMW’s familiar electronic gearshift, here supplemented by shift paddles. The gearbox is just as lovely in the 650i as it is in the 5-series — more so, actually, as even during relaxed driving each upshift brings a subtle, deep-toned “brapp” from the engine.
The transmission’s shift mapping and the engine’s throttle sensitivity are just two of the parameters affected by the driving dynamics control, which retains the familiar comfort, normal, sport, and sport+ settings. The first three affect the throttle and automatic transmission mapping, steering effort, dampers, active roll stabilization (if equipped), active steering (if equipped). Sport+ allows for a bit of power oversteer. By the way, if you get the tail to step out slightly, don’t correct for it, at least not if your 650i has active steering — it will do that for you. If that’s a bit too much thinking for you, don’t worry; active steering is likely to remain a stand-alone option. But it’s actually far better than it was before. Even BMW engineers admit that, when it was first introduced, active steering was pretty awful. In this 650i, though, it has been refined to the point where it’s no longer unpredictable. Newly paired with a steerable rear axle, it also has more tangible benefits. It cuts the turning circle by nearly three feet and, BMW claims, raises the car’s maximum lane-change speed by some six or seven mph. We only wish the steering could provide at least some feel. Efforts, though, are okay, neither too light in Comfort and Normal modes nor too heavy in Sport. Active roll stabilization is part of the sport package, and it’s very effective at counteracting body lean when cornering.
The car is 2.9 inches longer and 1.5 inches wider, and it feels quite large from behind the wheel. The upside is that the cabin is stretch-out comfortable, at least for those in the two front thrones. BMW points out the increased legroom in back and the rear seat’s less upright seatback, but the area is still barely habitable for grown-ups. More impressive cabin upgrades include the new dash and more luxurious materials. The latter includes, as an option, leather upper door trim with contrasting stitching. Sun-reflective leather seats are standard, but seat heating and cooling cost extra. Highlights of the new dash are a four-gauge instrument cluster and an ultra-wide (10.2-inch) central display for the standard navigation system. The display sits out from the dashboard and is supposed to suggest a flat-screen TV. Um, okay, but the real innovation is the trans-reflective technology that keeps the screen from washing out in bright sun.
Despite all that’s new, the overall character of the 650i is much the same. That does not disappoint its makers. “It was not the target to make big changes,” says Dr. Ochmann. The 650i remains a big, heavy, 2+2-seat grand tourer, but one that’s faster, better looking, and more technology laden. For all that, you’ll pay more. The sticker price has crept up nearly $5000, to $91,375. If you can live with a tin-top, you’ll likely save a few grand by waiting a few more months for the coupe. If you want something more overtly sporty, you’ll need to wait a bit longer, for the M6.
BMW 650i convertible
On sale: May 2011
Base price: $91,375
L x W x H: 192.6 x 74.5 x 53.7 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Track, f/r: 62.8./65.0 in
Engine: 4.4-liter V-8
Power: 400 hp @ 5500-6400 rpm
Torque: 450 lb-ft @ 1750-4500 rpm
Transmissions: 8-speed automatic, 6-speed manual
Tires: Dunlop Sport Maxx GT 245/35R20, 275/30R20 (f, r)
Wheels: 9 x 20 in
Curb weight: 4531 lb (previously 4277)
Cargo volume: 12.3/10.6 cu ft (top up/down)