Like it or not, the movie-style self-driving cars of your dreams are farther away than you think. But that will be the future, eventually. Until that future arrives, however, we’ll have to drive ourselves, and we might as well enjoy it, no? Fortunately, the Bavarian boffins at BMW have forsaken their market research-driven proliferation of concatenated crossovers (momentarily) to focus their skills on a task once much more common for them: building a sports car. And what a sports car it is.
It’s not even finished yet—hence all the camouflage vinyl. BMW estimates it is about 10 percent away from the car’s final tune and specification. That shows, but only just. In truth, even in prototype form, the M850i xDrive is more refined and complete than at least a few of the high-end cars launched to the public over the past 12 months.
How do I know this? Because I was among the first handful of folks to drive the car outside of BMW, caning the big sports coupe down narrow, bumpy, damp British roads, with BMW driving dynamics engineer Tomo Yoshihara riding shotgun. Certainly not the environment for a test of the absolute limits (except by surprise!), but revelatory in a way more true-to-life than any track outing could be. What the new 8 Series delivers isn’t the most blistering outright pace, but a sense of partnership between driver and car, transforming even a mundane outing into an event.
The event starts with the sparking to life of the heavily re-engineered 4.4-liter V-8 under the hood. Rated for 523 horsepower and 533 lb-ft of torque, the new 8 Series, at least in M850i xDrive trim, not only looks the part of the full-size luxury sport coupe, it sounds it—and feels it. The new engine builds on the strengths of the old one and adds iron-coated cylinder walls, graphite-coated pistons, reinforced pistons made out of a new steel alloy, a freer-flowing intake, and a pair of new 350-bar (5,000 psi) direct injection fuel pumps (one on each cylinder bank) to yield an increase of 67 hp and 74 lb-ft of torque over the previous iteration of the 4.4-liter eight-cylinder.
Switch into Sport or Sport+ and whack open the perfectly simulated throttle, and the new engine barks and snarls through its valve-controlled exhaust; lift and it pops and crackles. Pull the left-hand paddle-shifter and it gets even more aggressive; let the computer do it for you and the rev-matching system reads the brake pressure applied and the pace you’ve been driving to deliver downshifts ranging from mild to wild, but always exactly on point and executed in under 300 ms. Better, the power from the engine and the quick shifts from the transmission are maximized in their yield of acceleration by the new all-wheel drive system, which shares its philosophy with that of the excellent new M5. There’s a strong emphasis on rear-drive dynamics, with just enough torque sent to the front axle to enhance corner exit without the muddying effects of excess understeer.
What impresses most about the new 8 Series, though, is not any one particular trait, but rather the synergy between the many electronic and electromechanical systems. There’s no tweaking or fiddling just because it’s another knob to be turned. In the 8 Series, everything the driver does, you see, is simulated. Electronic power steering simulates its hydraulic forebears, brake-by-wire simulates the vacuum-assisted standard, throttle-by-wire simulates the nearly forgotten cable-actuated butterfly, and active anti-roll simulates a lighter, stiffer chassis setup. On top of that, a four-wheel steering system virtualizes the car’s wheelbase, which becomes variable between something smaller than a 3 Series and longer than a 7, depending on whether agility (low speed) or stability (high speed) are called for.
There are no outsized, dramatic antics or intentionally lairy “sport” modes. Instead, BMW has brought each system to a shockingly close analogue of the actual mechanical item it emulates, and then brought the whole together with finesse and balance.
That’s not for lack of opportunity to screw things up—it’s because of the philosophy with which the development team, including driving dynamics engineer Peter Langen, application driving dynamics engineer Jost van As, drivetrain integration engineer Christian Billig, and 8 Series vehicle line engineer Markus Flasch, among others, approached the new car: one configuration that is correct for each mode, not a million configurations that are sub-optimal. This breaks not only with BMW’s recent tradition of offering every possible adjustment under the sun, but with the industry’s in general. It’s a brave move, and one BMW is hoping will pay off. It’s one I commend, as the result is uncompromisingly brilliant.
Based on past experience, all of this virtualization and simulation is more likely than not to add up to a confused, ill-sorted mess, improving upon nothing but the carmaker’s bottom line. But the past doesn’t repeat endlessly into the future, and the M850i proves that BMW has cracked the code.
The cars on hand for our test drives, being development prototypes, had wire harnesses and plugs sticking out of every fold of carpet and dashboard crevice. Plug one into a ruggedized laptop with the right software, and engineers can tap directly into the car’s systems, allowing them to be tuned on the fly. I got a taste of this first-hand, living a few minutes of the life of a chassis validation engineer as application driving dynamics engineer Sebastian Spirk sat in the passenger seat, tweaking the active damping profiles from full soft to full stiff and many shades between, quizzing me about feel and handling as he went. The adaptive dampers fitted to the M850i span a huge range from comfort to sport, and the result plays so beautifully with the engine, transmission, and all-wheel drive system that you can easily forget the car’s size.
More than just a BS detector for car hacks with a tendency to speak loudly from their seating crevice, the exercise served to show how much feel, how much finesse, and most importantly, how much restraint is required to tune a modern production car to excellence rather than mere excess. With all that range and adjustability on hand, dampers are the haystack, and the correct settings are the needles.
Even the brake-by-wire system is tuned so well that it took me a full 10 minutes of driving the car before I suspected something wasn’t quite ordinary. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a damp, off-camber corner with a half-lane-width dip at entry provoking my first experience of the M850i’s ABS system, I might not have noticed at all.
The interior of each of the four prototypes on our dampened British tour was covered in black felt, but beneath the coverings, it was easy to spot BMW’s newest iDrive controller, its faceted rim sparkling like a diamond amongst the gaff tape. Also new is the relocated engine start button, now residing (properly) in the center stack next to the gear selector, rather than hidden behind the fat-rimmed steering wheel on the dash. Seating? Comfortable enough to cross a continent, at least for my large-ish frame. Quiet cabin, too.
After an all-too-short few hours behind the wheel of the new 8 Series, I was more than impressed. I was surprised. Having driven most of BMW’s current lineup, and found it less than inspiring with the exception of a few M Division products, I was expecting to be bored into submission. Instead, I was excited into passion for the finished product.
We’ll have to wait a few more months for the 8 Series’ final form to emerge to speak in any more detail about BMW’s latest and greatest sport coupe—and a hard day at the track may color my on-road perceptions—but even at 90 percent, it’s already looking like BMW has hit its target dead-center.