Sports cars – and roadsters in particular – are supposed to be compact, nimble and athletic machines that place the emphasis on a dynamic driving experience. But not everybody is prepared to accept compromises in terms of space and luxury in the interests of driving excitement. And that’s where the new BMW 6-Series Convertible comes in: It’s a ragtop that places equal emphasis on luxury and performance. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
South Africans have every reason to be proud when they encounter the latest-generation BMW 6-Series. Not because the car is South African, but because BMW chose to launch its latest convertible to the world right here in the Cape of Good Hope.
It’s a welcome and appreciated vote of confidence in the country from the premium brand – and one backed up by the presence of a world-class assembly facility in Rosslyn, near Pretoria. Few people know that the plant is responsible for a large slice of BMW’s global 3-Series production, for instance, and that it exports those cars to some of fussiest buyers in the world, including Japan, the UK and the US.
On a more pragmatic level, the PR folk at BMW needed to launch their new drop-top in a sunny clime – and the Cape’s February weather menu provided just that: an endless array of sunshine-drenched days, with the iconic Table Mountain etched against an azure sky.
It had motoring media from around the world ooh-ing and ah-ing about the beauty and the splendour of it all, while cruising some of the Cape’s most scenic routes in the lap of BMW luxury. What a life! But perhaps, those reports about kiloWatts and Newtonmetres will also include a bit of positive reportage on SA …
Back to the car, which the SA motoring hacks eventually got to drive at the very tail-end of the four-week launch campaign. As before, the new Six will be offered in coupé and convertible forms, but the Bavarians chose to launch the ragtop first, with the coupé to follow a few months later.
The old 6-Series was a big car – and the new one is even bigger. It’s longer and wider, but lower – and it still weighs almost two tons. That said, this latest version does cut a finer figure.
It looks sharper and cleaner, with an aggressive, shark-like nose and slimmer waistline. At the front, the bevelled brightwork of the flat, wide kidneys is framed by slim, tapered headlights with ring-shaped LED daytime running lights that endow the car with a stern, even provocative stare.
The flanks are flatter and more streamlined, ensuring a trimmer and more athletic look: the old Six could look a little flabby, especially in the posterior region. The designers have given the second-generation model a slimmer, more elegant treatment in derriere, despite the need for a large boot.
Large-diameter alloy wheels and fat, low-profile tyres contribute to the new BWM’s low-slung, anchored stance and a poised attitude that suggests dynamic vigour.
The engine offering also reflects the Six’s performance intentions. There are two powerplants to choose from. The 640i is home to turbocharged straight-six 3,0litre engine credited with 230kW and 450Nm. Those output figures suggest more-than-adequate performance, and indeed, the key figures of 5,7 sec for the 0-100km/h dash, and the electronically limited 250km/h top speed limit this.
However, the want-it-alls are likely to opt for the 650i, which derives its muscle from a 4,4litre turbo V8, credited with 300kW and 600Nm. All that urge allows the 0-100km/h sprint time to be slashed to 5,0 seconds dead, while the electronic nanny still caps the top end at 250km/h. Both models use BMW’s latest eight-speed auto gearbox to transfer power to the rear wheels.
Of course, we chose a 650i for our day-long sojourn around the Cape Peninsula, although our focus was more on thrashing the Beemer through the region’s mountain passes than cruising the busy boulevards of the Atlantic seaboard.
Ironically, it’s the latter role the 6-Series is more likely to play. It’s an imposing, and visually impressive car that turns heads, especially with the roof stowed. Interestingly, BMW has stuck with the traditional canvas hood, mostly because it makes practical sense: it’s simpler, lighter and takes up less space.
That’s important, because BMW makes much of the fact that the 6-Series boot is big enough for two golf bags and a travel bag. Even with the roof down, there’s still 300litres of luggage space to play with, while an extra 50litres becomes available when driving with the hood in place.
Even so, this Big Six is only a 2+2, which means the front occupants get the lion’s share of the cabin, while the individually tailored rear seats are more suited for kids than normal adults. Legroom is all but non-existent, which remains a little bizarre, considering the car itself measures 4.9m long, and has a 2.86m wheelbase.
So, a family machine the Six certainly isn’t. But it is kitted out to the hilt, and the finishes and materials are top-drawer. BMW still manages to tailor its cabins around the driver and that’s true of the convertible, which provides the pilot with an ergonomically pleasing package of controls and switchgear.
Taking centre stage is a large, high-res LED colour screen, which acts as the vital interface between man and machine via BMW’s iDrive control system. iDrive used to be clunky, but has been much improved over the years. It now provides intuitive access to the car’s long list of systems and options – although it’s still better to wade your way through the menus while stationary.
As expected, the standard features list is extensive, and there is no shortage of bells and whistles. But there is also more than a whiff of sophisticated technology, as well as a subtle doffing of the hat to increasingly important environmental responsibility.
In tech terms, a highlight is the Drive Dynamic Control system, which allows elements such as the power steering, throttle map and gearshift programming to be changed to a choice of sportier, more incisive modes at the push of a button.
“Green” systems under the Efficient Dynamics banner include electro-mechanical power steering and energy recuperation under braking to power various vehicle systems, all aimed at boosting efficiency in the interests of lower fuel consumption and reduced emissions.
However, the bottom line here is that the Six is a big car with sporting aspirations, and it’s that aspect we put to the test. While the sweeps and smooth surfaces of Franschhoek Pass will flatter the BMW, we considered the old Du Toit’s Kloof pass above Paarl a better test.The 650i Convertible certainly rose to the occasion – although it takes some effort, and not a little courage, to explore the ragtop’s capabilities. The raft of driver assistance systems – ABS, EBD, DSC – provide a confidence cushion that can make it all seem too easy, while robbing the car itself of soul and essence.
In the case of the 650i, the result is an understatement of the car’s true capabilities. You can drive this car at 80% of its considerable potential and not come close to realising just how rapid your progress is – or how hard the car is working to make up for such blissful ignorance.
But the camber changes, tightening curves and often compromised surface of Du Toit’s Kloof, combined with some vigorous driving in a 650i operating in Sport Plus mode quickly lifts that veil, and brings the convertible’s true talents into fine focus.
The chassis, for one, is one of the finest in the convertible genre, especially given its bulk and mass. The inevitable scuttle shake is not a factor, even when pressing on over unforgiving, even percussive surfaces. And the steering finally delivers the feel and feedback so vital to the sports car experience.
Make no mistake: For all its balance and control, the Six feels the big and heavy car it is. Sink that long nose into a corner with too much speed, and you can feel the weight transfer under heavy braking. But the attitude of the BMW remains poised and surprisingly neutral.
The chassis is stiff enough to allow a reassuringly direct dialogue between car and driver, and while the damper settings are taut, there’s enough pliancy to iron out some of the undulations, which adds to the overall sense of authority and finesse.
Of course, very few 650i drivers will ever want to give their R1,2 million machine such a caning. But just knowing that the car’s underlying capabilities are at such an elevated level will do much to add to its overall pedigree and its thoroughbred appeal.
The 650i’s more likely role will be that of a boulevard cruiser and a grand tourer, and it is more than adept at both. The wind-in-the-hair experience is offered with a veneer of sophistication, thanks to various devices that shield the BMW’s inhabitants from slipstream-induced turbulence.
Raise the top (electrically, at the push of a button, in about 18 sec) and the 650i becomes a convincing and competent luxury coupé with great cross-country capabilities. It covers ground so rapidly and so effortlessly, that it would make a great travel companion through the vast, empty expanses of the Karoo.
And yet, for all its capabilities, its technology and its head-turning style, I remain uneasy about the 6-Series. This second-generation version is better in every respect than its predecessor. And it pulls off the dual role of cruiser and sports car more convincingly too.
But the sheer size of the Six, and its inability to translate those dimensions into better interior packaging, remains out of kilter in a world increasingly focussed on efficiency. Besides, I like my sports cars compact, nimble and challenging – all the time.
Considering that the US will be the new 6-Series’ primary target market, its mix of presence, technology, effortless dynamics (and that two-golf-bag boot) should hit the sweet spot with conviction. SA sales start in May and the coupé version should reach our shores before the end of the year. DM
The BMW 650i will be featured on RPM TV at 20h30 on Wednesday 16 February on SuperSport 6. Visit www.rpmtv.co.za for transmission details and additional broadcast times.
BMW 650i Convertible
4 395 cc V8, turbocharged
300kW @ 5,500rpm
600Nm @ 1,750rpm
10,7 l/100km (combined cycle)
R1 178 530 (before options)
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