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km : First Drive

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9 June 2011

Mexico’s Highway 1 connects the two beautiful coastal resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. Between these two slices of paradise, whose sandy shores are playgrounds for the world’s well-off sunseekers, the highway is a 135-mile-long, twisting ribbon of asphalt on a near-barren landscape stitched together by a mere handful of small, dusty villages. The miles of open road between them encourage a swift cross-country pace — the very definition of grand touring — and provide the perfect setting for a powerful, comfortable and sporty car like the new BMW 650i convertible.



Cruising along in comfort at triple-digit speeds, it would be easy to simply blast through these tiny villages without a second glance, if not for the massive tire-busting speed bumps scattered every quarter-mile or so throughout each one. Being forced to crawl through at twenty miles an hour opens one’s eyes to the fact that there are two Mexicos; the opulent and luxurious Mexico we gringos tend to see, and the simple, almost primitive Mexico outside of the resorts. This distinction, it occurs, is not entirely unlike BMW itself. While sharing a common spiritual DNA, there are two distinct classes of BMWs: the sporty ones (X3, X5, Z4, 1- and 3-series) and the luxurious ones (5-series GT, 6- and 7-series), though the lines between them often blur (the current 5-series, for example). The all-new 6-series, which just made its debut in the form of the 650i convertible that we’re driving in Mexico, is undoubtedly one of BMW’s finest luxury vehicles, and sportier than one might expect.



It’s no mistake that BMW launched its latest 6er in drop-top guise, either. The convertible 6 outsells its coupe companion by a small margin worldwide, and by a sizable stretch in its biggest market, the United States. The convertible also happens to be a slightly more stylish piece, in our opinion, making it a natural choice to draw attention to the new iteration. What surprised more than a few people was the return of the buttressed canvas roof rather than a folding hardtop. Not only did BMW retain this feature as a signature styling element, the stylists also dialed up the drama just a bit with a band of brightwork around the base of its rear deck to accentuate it. According to BMW’s design chief, the cloth top offers a more elegant and traditional appearance without the compromises (added weight and complexity, awkward packaging) of a tin top. Besides, for most 6-series buyers, this purchase is a discretionary one; it’s not like they’ll need to use it everyday, come rain or shine.



The theme of understated elegance comes through in numerous other details as well. The overall form of the body has evolved gracefully into a shape more reminiscent of the classic shark-nose 6er of the late-‘70s and ‘80s. Gone is the controversial bustled decklid and avant-garde taillight treatment of the last generation (though admittedly, this combination grew on us), replaced with more classic lines and well-sculpted surfaces. There’s even a deliberate hint of the old undercut grille in the profile. All told, the new 6 is clean and stylish, if a bit less daring. Like any great sculpture, its beauty is in those details cameras seem unable to capture.



The design carries over to the interior as well, which is far more inviting than the somewhat cold modernity of the last version. Wood, leather and metal work in concert to create an ambience of sophisticated luxury. The centerpiece of the driver-oriented cockpit design is a massive 10.2-inch color LCD display for all of the major convenience features — navigation, entertainment, climate and vehicle preferences. As the interior designers intended, it appears as if a small, theater-quality television has emerged from within the dashboard. Not only is the screen’s presentation fantastic, its large surface makes reading it a delight. The hi-res graphics are perhaps the best in the business, giving features like 3-D Google maps an impressive canvas on which to display.



Seating for up to four lucky souls has improved compared to its predecessor, particularly in the back, where the rear seats’ upper cushions are more reclined for greater comfort. A tasteful center console extends throughout the cockpit front to back, dividing the interior into quadrants of personal space. Multi-contour front seats are standard issue, as is Nappa leather upholstery.



The power-operated convertible top is a one-button affair that takes only nineteen seconds to put away and twenty-five seconds to re-erect. This can be done on the move as well, at speeds up to 25 mph. The inside of the folding top is finished in a seamless headliner that looks as nice as a coupe’s. The trunk has been designed to accommodate two full-size golf bags, even with the top folded.



Befitting its place as BMW’s spiritual flagship, the new 6 is offered with loads of standard and optional technology. Standard kit includes 19-inch wheels, an 80-gig hard drive for media storage, keyless comfort access, rearview camera, HD radio, and 20-way front seats, and the options list reads like a NASA spec sheet. Head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection, active cruise control, integral active steering (with rear-wheel steering assist), blind-spot assistance, side-view front cameras, lane departure warning and BMW’s ConnectedDrive are all available.



For now, only one powertrain is available, a 4.4-liter V8 with a pair of turbochargers and direct injection. It’s the same great unit found in the 550i, the 750i and the X5/X6 xDrive50i. Power output is 400 horses across a range that sweeps from 5500 to 6400 rpm on the tachometer, while churning 450 lb-ft of torque through 1750 to 4500 rpm. An eight-speed automatic is the standard transmission, though BMW continues to show its commitment to the manual gearbox by offering a conventional six-speed stick as a no-cost/no credit option. In truth, performance and economy are actually better with the auto-box, but for some drivers there’s no replacement for the direct interaction that comes from shifting one’s own gears. And the power they’ll be shifting is fed to the rear wheels in true BMW fashion.



Performance is quoted at 4.9 seconds to get from a stop to 60 mph with a limited top speed of 155 mph. Those numbers hardly matter though, as the potent engine has no problem launching the 4531-pound grand tourer down the road at the driver’s whim. Fuel economy may not matter much either, but the new 650i turns in EPA figures of 16 mpg city and 24 highway.



The new 6-series chassis shares its major component architecture with most of the current generation of BMW luxury models, including the 5-, 6- and 7-series and the 5-series GT. Structures such as front and rear suspension sets, utilities like the ventilation system and even the electrical infrastructure are all common, though it shares no bodywork with any of its siblings. In fact, the 650i convertible shares very little of its sheetmetal with the upcoming 650i coupe, utilizing various degrees of high-strength steel in its monocoque to compensate for the lack of a fixed roof.



Cars like the 650i convertible are a fairly uncommon sight on the back roads of Mexico’s Baja peninsula; cargo trucks and Nissan Sentras are more the norm, along with stray dogs and unbound livestock. But it’s these very roads that show off the big GT’s unique duality best. As the coastal boulevards dissolve into the winding two-lanes, the 650i plays along, switching moods to meet the new conditions. With the press of a button, the Dynamic Damping Control (DDC) firms up the dampers, quickens the steering ratio, sharpens the throttle response and commands the automatic transmission to shift more assertively; in an instant the car goes from posh cruiser to asphalt bruiser. The chassis’ electronic aids do a commendable job of managing the physics while the optional 20-inch performance tires (19-inch all-seasons are standard) claw away at the pavement at speeds not imaginable in other four-seat luxury convertibles.



Make no mistake, the 650i is not a sports car; still, it turns in a mighty impressive performance when pushed hard, exhibiting the kind of balanced handling and braking that earned BMWs their reputation as drivers’ cars. Thank the guys in Munich who insist that every BMW — even luxury convertibles — should strive for optimal weight balance (it’s 50.7% front and 49.3% rear in this case). Drivers who opt for the manual transmission will be rewarded with a shift action that is firmer and more precise than the somewhat vague shifter in the current 5-series.



At a base price of $91,375 with destination charge, the new 650i convertible offers more standard equipment for less money than its outgoing counterpart, adding real value to its purchase proposition. The 650i coupe will arrive at the end of summer, followed by a six-cylinder 640i in both coupe and convertible form, and the addition of xDrive all-wheel drive as an option across the 6-series lineup before the end of the year. The last generation 6-series was a best-seller in the history of BMW’s big coupes, thanks in no small part to the convertible variant. With its graceful good looks and on-demand muscularity, this newest version looks set to break new ground.


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