Driven: 2012 BMW 650i Coupe

By Tom Martin

September 06, 2011

—Carmel, California
The BMW 6-Series is an oddly seductive car. Back in the day (the late ‘70s and ‘80s), BMW shipped the first E24 edition of the 6, and a beauty it was. BMW understood that many a driver wanted something more svelte and mature than a sports car. And BMW understood that such drivers wanted a car that drove well, but struck a balance between luxury and dynamics. BMW was emerging as the king of this balance, and the 6er became one of the iconic members of BMW’s rise in brand desirability and strength. This phase of the 6 was mostly seduction and very little oddity other than the peculiar balance of attributes that the car offered.
Then, icon or not, BMW dropped the 6-Series. From 1989 to 2003, we had no 6-Series, though for a time the 8-Series sort of filled that hole in the line. But not really. Remembering the E24, many hoped BMW would change their minds about the 6-Series, and they did finally roll out a car with that name. But when the E63 car arrived in 2003, it wasn’t beautiful, like the old car was. And it was rather heavy, more in the tradition of the 8-Series. Still, the 6-Series had its fans and, thanks in part to a convertible edition, sold rather well. BMW again showed that they understood the market.
Recently, the third generation (F12/13) of the 6-Series came along. The convertible, befitting its importance in the line, was launched first, and we covered it in May. Now the coupe is being introduced, and BMW invited us to Carmel for the launch. For those keeping score, BMW also announced, but didn’t show, an all-wheel-drive (xDrive in BMW speak) version of the convertible and coupe, which seems a brilliant idea. They also announced a turbo six-cylinder version of the car, and as you will see, this engine seems to make a lot of sense in this car, though we’ll have to drive it to be sure.
Approaching the 650i coupe, we had time to check out the factor that may be most important for real buyers: the exterior design. We’d say it’s a honey, and another among recent new cars that looks much better in person than in photos. It isn’t that the car photographs badly, but it looks more bland in 2D than it does in 3D, where some of the subtle sheet metal shaping can be better perceived. The glory of this 6-Series is that it manages to look sleek and powerful at the same time. Given the car’s relatively even balance of sales between men and women, this will be important. Too feminine or too masculine and some buyers (or couples) will walk away from the showroom empty-handed. We would also say that the car strikes a nice balance between a classical shape and modern detailing. If this is a car you’re interested in, you owe it to yourself to visit a dealer, and to look at the car in several colors.
The interior is nicely done as well. The materials are attractive, and the shapes seem reasonably functional without being industrial. This is a complex interior, both in terms of design and functionality, and here again it is worth looking for several different material combinations to find one that pleases (we saw a few that we liked, but some that were rather messy).
Living in the interior on a long set of driving routes, as we did, reveals what we think is the key design weakness here, if there is one on such a well-executed car. BMW has bought into, and is a pioneer of, the approach to brand management that makes each car bear some key resemblance to others of the same marque. That’s nice if it is important for you to remind yourself and others that you’re driving a BMW. But it also means that a model like the 6-Series, which lives near the top of the range, feels less special than it might. That’s because the same forces that cause you to see “BMW” also cause you to notice design cues that are familiar in, say, the 3-Series. That probably isn’t a showstopper, but might be a factor to consider before you write a nearly six-figure check ($83,875 base price with destination, to be exact).
In the end, you can probably determine if you like the design perfectly well for yourself. But you might want to know about the driving dynamics of the car, something that will be harder to assess on a short drive on congested roads near a dealer.
Let’s start off with the ways in which the 6-Series is an impressive drive. Impressiveness starts with the ability of the 650 to hurtle itself toward the horizon with a mere flick of your right foot. Yes, indeed, folks, if you assumed that taking a big BMW V-8 and adding turbochargers would yield some serious acceleration, you’d be right. The 650i has 400 horsepower, and more importantly 450 pound-feet of torque, and it feels like it. The great thing is not how the 6-Series works in dragster mode, but how it accelerates hard and long when passing or simply coming out of a corner. This car, in a way, is a Corvette for the class of folks who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Corvette.
The eight-speed automatic mates well with this motor. It shifts smoothly—so smoothly in fact that you almost don’t notice upshifts. You will feel downshifts simply because the engines revs change, but mostly you’ll sense the ability to choose the pace of the car at will. BMW has seen fit to supply a nice set of up/down paddles and a beautiful console-mounted shift lever, either of which can be used to shift the automatic for yourself. These shifts are quick, but as is almost always the case, seem slightly out of sync with driver inputs. Nonetheless, if you must have an automatic, this is about as good as it gets.
BMW has seen fit to offer a true manual six-speed gearbox as an option. This is available in the US and Canada only, so note that all the whining about sexy parts the Europeans get and we don’t needs to be cut back a notch. The six-speed livens up the car a bit, but the ancient shift mechanism and the gestalt of the car don’t completely make a coherent package. And, the car feels a little slower with the manual, if that’s an issue. Still, we’d buy the six-speed if it were our money, and we’re glad BMW offers it (on the 650i convertible and coupe, but not with xDrive or the six-cylinder).
Next on the list of things to like is the handling of the 650i. The car feels flat and balanced, and lighter than its 4233-pound curb weight. The car pretty much goes where you point it, and in combination with the monster motor, some pretty impressive pace can be attained on the twisty bits.
Now not to hedge, but the real dynamic issue with the car, the one that determines “Is it for you?” lies in the level of involvement and engagement on offer from the package. The basic summary is that this is a pretty demure, quiet, non-communicative car. That could be a good thing if you basically want a luxury sedan in a sleeker and faster package. Or it could be a bad thing if you want your balance of sports car and GT more tilted in the direction of “sport” or “grand.”
The problem is threefold, if you want specifics. First of all, the engine is very quiet. You just don’t hear much of the glorious German engineering that is obviously needed to whisk you forward so quickly. Then, there’s the steering, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t offer much feedback either. And finally, there’s the chassis, which offers precious little in the way of data about where you are versus the limits of the car. In the 6-Series, 0.8 g feels pretty much like 0.5, except for the lateral forces you feel. This often happens on heavy cars because so much control is needed to keep body motions in check that suppleness is crushed in the process.
As we said, these “problems” might be virtues if you want to climb into your 650i after a day in the OR or the courtroom and decompress. We should mention that the ride quality that results from the tightly controlled suspension isn’t in the magic carpet ride category, though it isn’t harsh either. But the big point for Winding Road readers is that, if you are looking for entertainment, you might want to consider another chassis.
Or you might turn to the instrument panel. Like many high-end modern cars, the 650i offers all measure of audio playthings. Of course there is AM/FM/CD/satellite/phone/iPod. In addition, this will be the first BMW to run Pandora music streaming using the iDrive system in the car. BMW will also (later) release a MOG app that allows you to subscribe and then use unlimited tracks from a library of millions of tracks. For around $10 per month, you can listen to anything you want to. You can do this via streaming, or you can download the tracks to the car. Pandora and MOG are the first in a series of apps envisioned for BMWs, each optimized for the interface in the car and for mobile use.
All of this can be played through an optional Bang & Olufsen audio system with 16 speakers and 1200 watts of power (as if quantity were an indicator of quality). We had a reviewer for our sister magazine, The Absolute Sound, along, and he noted that the spatial reproduction and bass quality were quite good, but that the upper frequencies, as in many cars, had some harshness. His summary was “better than average, but not quite great.”
So, the BMW 650i is an impressive car that does many items well, given its coupe positioning. If you like but don’t love cars, it will probably seem superbly done. If, on the other hand, you are a car lover, the 650i’s lack of character may leave you yearning for more. Maybe the upcoming M6 will be that car.
VS: Jaguar XK
The 650i and the XK are remarkably similar cars, philosophically. Both are powerful, sleek and smooth. Both are quiet and oriented toward the open road. The BMW is more powerful and smoother. It is also a bit more spacious, which may be a plus over long distances. The Jag is also a worthy contender, and counters with a bit more agility and interactivity. But make no mistake, these cars are not poles apart in their dynamics.
VS: Porsche 911 Carrera
For a really different coupe in the premium price range, Porsche is the place to look. Where the 650i is smooth, the 911 is tight. Where the BMW carves, the Porsche cuts. Where the 6-Series is silent, the Porsche is thrum and click. Both cars are willing partners on all sorts of drives, but where the BMW is laidback, the Porsche is involving, the former going from point A to point B without a fuss, the latter urging and encouraging you to make a fuss.
2012 BMW 650i Coupe 6MT
Engine: Biturbocharged V-8, 4.4-liters, 32v
Output: 400 hp/450 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.9 sec
Weight: 4233 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 15/22 mpg
Base Price: $83,000
On Sale: Now