2005 BMW 645Ci

Front Drivers Side View

We needed some advice from serious design professionals, so we jumped on the freeway to the Art Center College of Design in nearby Pasadena. This convertible is terrific on the freeway, solid and shake-free. The 325-horsepower, 4.4-liter V-8 has been engineered for quick throttle response, and its lively personality makes it far more exciting than the V-8s from Cadillac, Jaguar, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz. The six-speed automatic transmission suits the car perfectly in L.A., as both the available six-speed manual and the six-speed sequential manual gearbox are senseless affectations in a car that spends any time in traffic.

Richard Pietruska's transportation design class poured out of the Art Center to greet us, and we were soon joined by Nate Young, the school's chief academic officer (and former Caterham owner), and instructors Fritz Haeg and Geoff Wardle. So much style in one place really energized the students. One remarked, "You would have to wash this car by hand to understand it, so you could feel the way all the surfaces interact." Another noted that the car had the long hood and the short rear deck that so clearly communicate the rear-wheel-drive stance of a BMW, plus BMW's signature oversize wheels pushed out so wide that they look as if they're bulging against a taut sheet of cloth.

But there was skepticism, too. The multiplicity of lines at the top of the rear quarter-panels, among other details, leave the car looking a little unresolved and unrefined. It's almost as if it has too many details, from the clever shape of the headlights to the graphic spear on the front quarter-panels. At night, this car's form makes it instantly recognizable as a BMW, but when daylight comes, it's wearing just a little too much jewelry. "We still like the 3.0CSL better," one student said.

More expertise in style was called for, so we drove to San Diego, where the designers at Nissan Design America agreed to walk around the car with us. During the long drive, we came to grips with the 6-series interior. The driving position is perfection itself, but the massive dash structure obstructs your vision. The logic of the iDrive is much improved, and the overall combination of switches, voice-activated controls, and the computerized interface allows you to personalize every aspect of the interior environment. But you pay the price in the need to learn a new set of protocols for virtually everything, right down to the control stalk for the directional signal. Like a dinosaur, you must adapt or die.

Interior View Cockpit

Once we arrived at NDA, dozens of designers and craftspeople rushed out of the front door like an unruly preschool class. They were soon playing with all the 645Ci's buttons and making the top go up and down about fifty times. Alfonso Albaisa, NDA's interim design director, joined us, as did design managers Sheldon Payne and Doug Wilson.

From the first, the NDA designers expressed utter admiration for the way in which Bangle persuaded BMW to change its design direction-an amazing accomplishment when you consider that a small, privately owned company like BMW could always be close to financial disaster. They recalled a visit from Bangle and other BMW designers a decade ago, when they realized even then that BMW had reached the limits of its traditional rectilinear look.

Yet the NDA designers also noted that there was a kind of surface aesthetic at work in this car, a clear departure not only in style but also in philosophy. Now that BMW is pursuing a fundamentally different look for each of its car lines, the message from the engineering side of BMW doesn't come through as clearly. Are these the ultimate driving machines or the ultimate style machines?

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