In a perfect world, vehicle evaluations would occur in the environment the vehicle was designed for: a VW Jetta at a sorority house, a Range Rover at Short Hills Mall, and a Toyota Corolla in the left lane of a four-lane highway going 50mph. When I was told that I would have the 2012 BMW 650i for a weekend I knew exactly where I had to go with it.
Wikipedia, for the lack of better sources, defines Grand Tourer better than I can:
(Italian: gran turismo) (GT) is a high-performance luxury automobile designed for long-distance driving. The most common format is a two-door coupé with either a two-seat or a 2+2 arrangement.
The term derives from the Italian phrase gran turismo, homage to the tradition of the grand tour, used to represent automobiles regarded as grand tourers, able to make long-distance, high-speed journeys in both comfort and style. The English translation is grand touring.
Grand tourers differ from standard two-seat sports cars in typically being engineered as larger and heavier, emphasizing comfort over straight-out performance. Historically, most GTs have been front-engined with rear-wheel drive, which creates more space for the cabin than mid-mounted engine layouts. Softer suspensions, greater storage, and more luxurious appointments add to their driving appeal.
And grand touring we shall go! Sort of. It was 1AM on mid-December Sunday night. It was the first freezing night of this rather warm New England winter and the 650i I was provided with happened to be a convertible. I don’t like convertibles. Drop tops are heavier, more complex, louder, have limited visibility, and they give me weird feelings of being exposed and vulnerable (I’ll explain this to my shrink one day). Regardless, I packed up my brown leather overnight bag, donned my best GAP® jeans, casual Dr. Marten’s, and a decent looking, yet comfortable, brand-name sweater I got for my birthday. A fancy watch timepiece completed my look, which was that of a working-class preppy guy in someone else’s car… I wasn’t fooling anyone.
In my life to date, I have owned six BMW automobiles, and as of the past few years I’ve been really falling out of love with this brand. Starting with the E65 7-series, the vehicles became more “styled” rather than engineered. The mechanicals have become unnecessarily complex, interiors became awkward, and the whole brand seemed to have gone away from making the ultimate driving machines. The M.O. became bringing joy to wannabe snobs who could almost afford to make their lease payments. The truth hurts.
BMW knows it too, and they want to change that. Is this car the beginning of this change?
Before my tour I decided to get familiar with the high-tech features of this vehicle:
- There are cameras all around to help with slow-speed maneuvering, allowing top or rear views. Proximity sensors will display the distance to obstruction. I wish there was more front camera coverage as it was difficult to see where the front-end of the car actually ends.
- Sleepy/drunk/busy/careless driver lane departure assistant is another nifty feature. It vibrates the steering slightly when the car crosses a lane without signaling, alerting that you are driving like a stereotypical BMW owner. It’s awfully nice of the company to admit that there is an image problem and provide an awesome solution.
- Working to actually reduce accidents and further minimize stereotypes is the “car in your blind spot” detection system. If there is a car in your blind spot, and you ignore the indication on the mirror while still attempting to change lanes, the wheel will vibrate, nudging you to remain in your lane. Thankfully that feature can be disabled for when you just want to cut someone off.
- The HIDs headlights on this car were the best I’ve ever experienced. The projection and cut-off patterns were perfect. The LED fog-lights were even better, with a very bright white light illuminating the area directly in front and on the sides of the car. This was my first experience with LED lights; low price (compared to HID) very white natural light, lower power consumption, smaller/lighter packaging – consider me sold on the technology. The BMW “angel-eyes” on this car, and the plethora of new 5-Series I have seen on the road are as bright as typical headlights. I think they use those as “city lights” in Europe.
- Ahh, the dreaded, hated by auto-journos, iDrive is… the best infotainment interface in business. Everything about it was easy and intuitive to use. No touch-screen, just a perfectly located knob with a few buttons. AM/FM (HD)/Sirius radios, CD, hard-drive, and iPod interface (which didn’t recognize my old iPod) should provide enough entertainment choices. If not, then connect your iPhone, use the “apps” feature and stream Pandora, amongst other things. Again, everything was super easy to use. When steering wheel controls were used, an additional display popped-up on the gauge cluster. My mother would be comfortable using the system.
From the driver’s seat:
- The seat itself is again, one of the best I have recently “used”, better than a Bentley Continental or the Ferrari California. Unlike in the E90, the seat can be lowered enough to allow plenty of headroom for anyone over 6’6”. The adjustable headrest does not push on the back of your head like most modern cars (Ford is worst). Lumbar support is superior, inflatable and adjustable for height. Side bolsters are adjustable too, and can most likely fit a participant of The Biggest Loser before and after the transformation. The bottom cushion extends as it does on any BMW sport seat. Heating and ventilation are options that should be standard.
- Visibility is not great. The beltline is high resulting in windows, which are not that tall. The side mirrors are small too, and with the top up the blind spots are huge. Get the optional camera and blind spot detection system mentioned above, they will pay for themselves and should really be standard.
- Gauges, warnings, and information displays are very easy to use and see, especially by anyone who has driven a BMW in the last twenty years. It’s probably best in business.
- The controls for the climate system are separate from the iDrive. Knobs and big buttons, all turned towards the driver make it easy to use. Unlike some other manufacturers, this is a true “set and forget” system. On my long drive I was never uncomfortable, and never had to touch the controls. The opposite is true in a car like the Acura TSX, where I found myself constantly adjusting the system.
- Once located around the shifter, the window switches are now on the armrests. The 650i had two additional buttons, one for lowering all windows are once and one for the rear window. The rear window can be opened with the top raised for ventilation (think old station wagon and pickups), or raised with the top down where it works as a wind blocker. More cars should have a rear window that opens.
- Best cup-holders of any BMW, ever. Also a nice cell phone holder and 12v receptacle in the center console storage space (don’t call it an ashtray). The small glove box-sans-light is complimented by large door pockets, and a huge center console storage.
Grand Tour, part I, the highway:
- Despite the premium sound system, audio quality was merely ok. This was probably due to the convertible top packaging, and the smaller speakers.
- The silly paddle shifters aren’t needed. Too many gears in this 8-speed transmission, and the 8th gets locked out in sport mode.
- Comfort mode allowed the bimmer to, at times, achieve an old Cadillac-like float, without the ill side effects. The ride was hampered only by the no-profile dub tires, which at times transmitted some of the bigger road irregularities directly inside to the cabin. A set of nineteen inch wheels would probably give more comfort without diminishing handling.
- Road noise through the fabric top, while not bad, was noticeable, especially when passing big trucks. Why BMW went with a metal folding top on the 3-series and not on the 6-series is beyond me. Nostalgia perhaps? Having said that, the car looks pretty cool with the top up.
Grand Tour, part II, the Merritt Parkway:
(insert TopGear Car vs. Something Race finale-like music)
- Sport mode, engaged! The steering wheel feels tight. It presents itself slightly more firmly when turned. As mentioned before, eighth gear is locked out, and the shifting gets faster. Those are the most noticeable changes. The iDrive screen informed me of suspension changes, but I must admit those were not as transparent. In SportPlus (fasterer mode?), the stability control allows for sliding of the rear end, but I wasn’t in the mood to experience that.
- Top down!
- Windows up! Rear wind-blocker up! (like the pansy that I am)
- Heated seat on highest setting! I miss the Mercedes-Benz Air Scarf, which blows hot air onto the driver’s neck.
- Steering wheel heat on! You can even feel it through a set of leather gloves.
- Heater blower on high! Directed at feet and dash.
- LED fog-lights on!! No rear-fog light which would complete the “I’m a tool effect”.
- Side windows up!!! I hate when people do that but it’s damn cold!
- Rear window up!! I also hate the wussy rear deflectors, if you have a convertible; you must drive like a man!!!! But it was sssoooo cold!!!
- “Classic vinyl” on satellite radio on!!! Because I couldn’t access the “drive” playlist on my iPod. And I’m off…
I was freezing within two minutes. Stopped just eight miles later, it was time to put on a jacket. I hate driving while wearing a jacket and I was really expecting not to be cold. Four miles later, I was cold again, specifically my lower back. I actually didn’t know if my lower back was frozen from the back draft or burning from the heated seat, but either way it was the opposite of comfort.
No matter, I still drove the entire 30-mile length of the Merritt with the top down. I was freezing, and I probably looked like a complete tool [Ed. Note – Probably?] to other people on the road, but damn was it fun! Predictably, the big Bimmer was overall quite good. There were no surprises in its chassis tuning, be they good or bad. The BMW 650i was simply a proper fun-loving machine, kind of like… the Bimmers of decades ago. Furthermore, after my three-hour journey I felt relaxed, happy, and wanted to keep going. And that, right there, is the difference between driving and grand touring.
The 6 Series starts at $74,000 for the six-cylinder 640i, and goes up to $93,500 for the all-wheel-drive 650i convertible (a BMW first). That’s before options, of course, and before the next-generation M6 arrives to push the price well past the century mark. My well-equipped 650i stickered at $104,000.
That’s a lot when you consider that a not-much-bigger-inside, loaded M3 convertible, or an Audi S5 can be had for a lot less. But the truth is that none of those can be considered proper Grand Touring vehicles like the 650i.
This updated 6 Series should instead be compared to similar products from Maserati and Aston Martin, and that’s when it practically becomes a bargain.