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km : First Drive

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7 October 2011

BMW broke with tradition when it released the convertible version of its latest 6-series earlier this year, months in advance of the coupe. Getting a full summer’s worth of sales in the till was no doubt key to this strategy, but so was the fact that convertibles now account for more than half of 6-series sales. Fun though it may be to fold down the roof, the hardtop is still the true descendant of the original CS “big coupe” of the late Sixties, a car that has become emblematic of what BMW stands for as a brand: performance, style, and technological sophistication. More than four decades on, the new 2012 650i coupe bears that torch for a new era.



Visually, the new 650i coupe bears a much stronger resemblance to the graceful original Paul Bracq-designed 6-series (1977-1989) than the modern and somewhat avant-garde most recent generation, which was penned by Adrian van Hooydonk. In profile, it looks leaner and lighter, without the latter’s heavy back end. As with the convertible, with which it shares its entire front clip, there’s even a hint of the classic shark nose to the grille. There’s more surface play in the side panels than any previous 6, and the hood creates a strong, powerful presence at first sight, bearing resemblance to the wake created by a speedboat on bow. It’s all very dramatic stuff, and it works well to make the 650i appear fast even at a standstill.



The 650i coupe’s headlights are BMWs first full-LED headlamp units, incorporating LEDs for the low-beams, high-beams, eyebrow-style position lamps, and turn signals. Automatic high-beam assistance is standard, as is adaptive functionality, which turns the headlights in the same direction as the front wheels to see through corners. LED taillights are standard equipment as well, wearing the now-signature L-profile.



The interior, as on the convertible, appeals much more to one’s emotions than the previous model’s stark and very technical environment. Sweeping lines intersect playfully, creating an illusion of speed in the peripheral. Soft, hand-stitched leather covers most surfaces, and we expect most buyers will pop for the modest $1500 upgrade to a leather-covered dash with contrasting stitching on the 650i. Sitting front and center — and tilted six degrees toward the driver — is the massive 10.2-inch color display for the standard sat-nav system. It looks as though a small home theater system has been transplanted atop the dash, yet it blends seamlessly with the cockpit design. The same screen also functions as display for the iDrive-controlled audio system as well as numerous other vehicle systems, including an integrated digital owner’s manual.



BMW worked with the highly respected Danish audio firm Bang & Olufsen to develop the optional premium sound system for the 650i coupe. B&O’s contribution to the driving experience is built on a 16-speaker platform — two bass, seven mid-range and seven tweeters, each with its own amplifier — that delivers truly impressive levels of sonic clarity as well as volume. The closed confines of the coupe make it pretty ideal as a rolling listening chamber. The optional system also adds drama to the look of the cockpit, with B&O’s legendary Acoustic Lenses rising out of the dashboard to deliver perfect notes at ear-level, while drilled aluminum speaker grilles grace the doors and rear panels. This option is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and will also be offered on the convertible minus two rear speakers.



As on the previous 6-series, the 2012 model offers an optional head-up display. This latest version features a full-color readout for greater clarity, as well as more functions displayed on the screen. The driver can also choose what information he wants displayed using the iDrive controller, though road speed and driver assistance warnings are always included.



Power comes from the same 4.4-liter, reverse-flow twin-turbo V8 that powers the 650i convertible, and well as the 550i and 750i, as well as X5 and X6 xDrive50i models. Output is a healthy 400 horsepower at 5500 to 6400 rpm, and a mountainous 450 lb-ft of torque from as low as 1750 to as many as 4500 revs. Sending motivation to the rear wheels through either a six-speed manual or no-cost-optional eight-speed automatic trans, the 650i coupe gets to 60 mph in just under five seconds, on its way to a top speed of 155 mph with the sport package. The manual gearbox feels firm and precise, with a more engaging action than we’ve experienced on some newer BMWs, including our recent long-term 535i, though the clutch is still a bit vague in its take-up. The optional automatic is smooth and exceptionally quick shifting, and the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles make easy work of fast sections when you want to take over that duty for yourself.



The 4233-pound coupe sits on the same multi-link suspension and nineteen-inch wheels and tires as the convertible, with standard Driving Dynamics Control. A switch on the center console allows the driver to switch between normal, comfort, sport and sport+ modes. Each setting varies the chassis’ damping rate as well as throttle response, power steering assist, shift points (on the automatic transmission) and the intensity of driver aids like traction control and stability control.



Electric power steering is standard, representing the best development yet of this system in a BMW, with a steering wheel that feels quite natural regardless of speed, and with only a hint of latency in the initial response. An optional active steering package allows the rear wheels to steer as well, turning opposite the front wheels at low speeds to reduce overall turning radius, as for parking, and turning with the wheels at speeds above 38 mph for enhanced stability and response in lane-change situations.



That the 650i coupe is essentially identical in mechanical specs to the 650i convertible we drove earlier this year is no surprise. What we didn’t expect, however, is just how much different the coupe feels compared to its drop-top sibling. While the closed cabin feels much more personal and creates a more ideal listening environment for the upper-end Bang & Olufsen sound system, the coupe also seems to indulge a driver’s delight for twisty asphalt more than the open-road appetite of the convertible.



The 650i is the first of several variations of the new coupe to arrive. Eventually a 300-horsepower turbo-six will join the lineup as the 640i, and both engines will add the option of all-wheel drive, for a total of four 6-series coupe variants, and that’s before an M6 arrives next year. The 650i coupe is on sale now starting at $83,875, while the other variations will join the lineup before 2011 draws to a close.


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