D. John Booth, Contributor
One of BMW's public relations staff corrected an autojournalist who wondered out loud why, if coupes were so important to the company's heritage, had it taken more than 15 years to replace the popular 6 Series.
"Because we had the 8 Series and that only stopped production in 1999," corrected Rudi Probst, head of product public relations for BMW AG.
His response was surprising on two counts. First is that BMW considered the 8 Series a replacement to the 6, which is news to anyone who attended the original launch of that heavyweight coupe, priced and positioned in a more upscale snack bracket than the outgoing 635.
Even more surprising was that Mr. Probst brought up the 8 Series at all. Where the 6 Series was a sporty coupe that found many happy homes during its long production run, the 8 was a portly beast that never really captured the imagination of North Americans its high price tag not accompanied by any significant performance advantage over lesser coupes.
I vividly remember testing the 850 V12 for the very first time. Unfortunately for the coupe, I also tested BMW's incredible M5 at the same time and the comparison left me confused. After all, a coupe should always handle better than a sedan and 12 cylinders should be more powerful than six, even if the six-cylinder sedan is an M car. To the contrary, the 850's dramatic front-end weight bias engendered by that big V12 made it understeer like a Camry on snow tires. Even more confusing was that the M5's high-revving 3.6-liter inline six absolutely slaughtered the comparatively tame 5.0-liter V12.
There will be no such confusion surrounding the new 645Ci. For one thing, the familiar nameplate is back. For another, though the styling fits in with chief designer Chris Bangle's recent motifs, the effect is nowhere near as jarring as on the 7 Series. Though he hasn't backed away from his trademark avant-garde styling, particularly in the rear, the 645 is much more pleasing to the eye. For those who don't like Bangle's direction (and I still count myself amongst those numbers), the rear taillight/trunk arrangement has been softened to the point where it's no longer harsh enough to preclude Bimmer fans from buying the new 6. And for those who love the new direction, the 645's execution draws plenty of rave reviews.
Most importantly, though, the new 645Ci performs. The focal point of the 6 Series' resurrection will certainly be the 4.4-liter V8 liberated from the 7 Series. Winner of the 2002 International Engine Award of the Year, BMW's Valvetronic V8 is simply the best eight-cylinder engine in existence. Never mind that its fully variable valve timing eliminates the need for a throttle plate, improving fuel economy dramatically. Never mind that its 325 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque are class-leading numbers for normally aspirated engines. Rev the big motor past 5,000 rpm and you'll be greeted with the smoothest, sweetest-sounding V8 ever. Clichés like "sophisticated" and "an engine note like ripping silk" were coined for this big block.
It is also lightning quick; its 5.6-second, 0-to-62.5 mph time is surprisingly spry for a coupe weighing 3,500 pounds. And its spread of power is generous as well, as passing acceleration is swift, even when the transmission remains in fourth gear. Making the most of the engine is a choice of no less than three six-speed transmissions a manual, an automatic and the SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) with paddle shifting. The choice for most Americans will, of course, be the automatic. Unlike most slushboxes, however, the ZF automatic gearbox displays a fair degree of driver control; its Steptronic function offers an automanual-shifting option while, in auto mode, it holds gears longer when it senses the driver is feeling frisky.
Sportier drivers can opt for the six-speed manual, which offers greater control, allowing the 645 to be more easily slid out of corners when the DSC stability control system is disabled. For those seeking the ultimate in performance, however, the 645Ci is offered with the SMG transmission that manually shifts its six speeds via paddles on the steering wheel, and its clutch is automatically actuated by a computer. Unlike a similar box on the M3, the 645's shifting is less harsh, though hardly less rapid.
BMW's technology-du-jour, however, is the new Active Steering system that made its debut on the 5 Series. Electronically controlled Active Steering not only varies steering effort, but also the steering ratio, according to speed. At low speeds, even a little steering wheel angle turns the wheels a great deal, making parking easier. At higher speeds, the steering is more direct, requiring more input and therefore offering more feedback to the driver. If it all sounds a little complicated, the result is not, especially when combined with the Dynamic Drive active suspension that all but eliminates body roll during cornering and maximizes the P245/45R18 performance radials' contact with the pavement.
Steering, as BMW claims, is both light and responsive. Said lightness is aided by BMW's liberal use of lightweight materials aluminum for the hood and various plastics formed into the trunk lid and fenders. BMW claims reduced weight, a superior distribution of mass and less polar inertia. Indeed, while there are a number of high-performance coupes that can outboogie the 645Ci on a twisty road, far fewer are those that can match its combination of handling and ride. And, yes, it's worlds ahead of the old 8 Series.
Inside, the 645Ci is very much the modern BMW. It features a much simplified iDrive that proves you can teach a young dog (or German engineers) old tricks. You just have to be willing to point vigorously at the offending technology while screaming loudly and belligerently.
Enormously powerful and almost as equally confounding, the original iDrive (as seen in the 745) was the kind of technology you impress your neighbors with when you buy a car, and then curse the very day it was invented when you're all alone, trying to figure out where the preset for your favorite radio station went. Or why the air conditioning is blasting hot air at your face in the middle of July.
It is the former that particularly irked me as I'm an inveterate channel hopper, never willing to suffer through Abba or hip-hop if I think there's a chance that ZZ Top is playing somewhere on the radio's dial. And while I'll initially conduct my search using the radio's seek/scan buttons, I'm more than willing to twiddle the tuning knob manually looking for stations that don't meet the requisite signal strength to register, as well as being plenty ready to rid my cabin of mediocre music.
On this last point, iDrive failed miserably; mainly, as it turns out, because none of the German engineers who designed the system ever roved through their audio system's dial looking for an obscure radio station. So, in the 7-Series' iDrive, you have to literally (I kid you not) stop the car if you want to manually shift stations from 97.3 to 97.5. In fact, in all my dealings with 7 Series owners, I've yet to find one who knew how to manually change a radio station (though almost all wanted me to show them how to do it).
I must not have been the only one complaining about this trait. Either that or I have a very loud voice. Because for the 6 Series (and the 5), one of the simplifications is that you can convert the entire iDrive screen into a radio faceplate, complete with all the stations between 88 and 107.9. Then the iDrive's center console-mounted knob becomes the radio tuner. Combined with the steering wheel-mounted seek/scan button, it's sooo convenient and finally delivers some of iDrive's promised enhancements to the cabin's ambiance.
And giving iDrive its due, since it eliminates the need for many of the dash's buttons, the 645's cabin is an attractive, minimalist affair with the radio and air conditioning mostly controlled by the iDrive's knob. The one remaining downside is that setting the temperature control can still be a little confusing.
BMW has also decided that the steering wheels of its sportier models need to be thicker, but the company might have overdone it in the 6 Series. Not only is it a little large for small, delicate hands, but it also blocks the top of the speedometer and tach gauges. As well, the binnacle housing the gauges protrudes quite high above the dash and may interfere with the forward vision of shorter drivers.
On the upside, the 6 is pretty roomy for a coupe, offering more rear headroom than the 8 Series of old. The rear seats aren't made for long-distance touring, but at least they are accessible and adequate for short hops, even if their primary use will be as a cargo rack. BMW also claims the 645's 15.9-cubic-foot trunk holds two medium-size golf bags and a large suitcase.
BMW's 645Ci not only resurrects the 6 Series nameplate but also the sporting competence of the automaker's large two-door coupes. It will be an expensive proposition (anyone expecting change from $70,000 will likely be disappointed), but the 645 marries comfort and performance in a competent two-door form not seen in BMW dealerships since the late '80s. If it's not the perfect coupe for the 21st century, it's an easy "9."
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