First drive: 2019 BMW 8-Series in Portugal
Remember the BMW 8-Series? A large, eye-catching coupe built from 1990-99, it was in many ways a pioneer for the Bavarian brand. Apart from the low-volume M1 sold in the early-’80s, the 8-Series is the only BeeEm to date with pop-up headlights, and its other claims to fame include being the Bavarian brand’s only V12 model to be offered with a six-speed manual gearbox. What’s more, it was one of the company’s first vehicles to feature a multilink rear axle.
Other cool features of the E31 8-Series: A cellphone was hard-wired between the seats; the steering column was adjustable and had a memory function; the windows raised and lowered automatically when the door was opened; the climate control was programmable to cool or warm up the car when you weren’t in it, and the car had both stability control and traction control.
But despite the massive investment and depth of engineering that went into it, the 8 Series never hit the mark as a driver’s car in the way that the 6 Series that preceded it did. It’s therefore not a complete surprise that BMW reprised the 6 Series nameplate for its next crack at a large premium coupe (the E63) that launched in 2003.
The E63 was succeeded by the F06 model, but for the fourth generation (G32) launched last year BMW repackaged the 6-Series as solely a five-door fastback – badged as the 6 Series Gran Turismo (taking over from the 5 Series GT). This opened the door for the 8 Series to once again take pride of place as the brand’s flagship coupe.
With a long snout and rakish, low-slung profile, the reborn 8 Series that goes on sale in the GCC on November 24 captures some of the grace of its 1990s ancestor and, like the oldie, again comes standard with an impressive tech arsenal to justify its positioning at the apex of BMW’s coupe pyramid.
Where does the 8 Series fit into the marketplace? In some ways it occupies a niche of its own as it’s not as luxo-oriented as the likes of the Mercedes S-Class Coupe and Bentley Continental GT, and nor is it as sporty as the Porsche 911 and Aston Martin DB11. It falls somewhere between these two polarities.
At launch, we drove the M850i, which will be the top model until the full-fat M8 lands towards the end of next year. It’s propelled by BMW’s familiar twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8, but it’s an upgraded version of the motor with new turbos and injectors, ramping up output to a towering 530 hp at 5,500 rpm and 750 Nm from 1,800-4,600 rpm. Drive is relayed to all four corners via an eight-speed auto and xDrive all-wheel-drive system, and this entire combo enables a supercar-baiting 0-100 kph split of 3.7 seconds and electronically governed top speed of 250 kph (which it hits with ridiculous ease).
Measuring 4,851mm long, 1,902mm wide and tipping the scales at a hefty 1,890 kg, the M850i is a big, heavy thing, but there’s a raft of tech to help hide its girth (to an extent) and endow it with the dynamism of a smaller coupe. Four-wheel steering, dynamic dampers, 19-inch M Sport brakes and an electronically controlled rear locking differential are standard, while an extra spend gets you active roll stabilisation (via electric anti-roll bars) to keep the car even flatter under hard cornering.
BMWs tend to be somewhat generic looking these days, but the 8 Series manages to stand apart from its siblings thanks to that long fastback roofline (with ‘double-bubble’ central cutout), muscular haunches and the slimmest headlights you’ll find on any BeeEm. Incidentally, the lights come standard as LEDs, but if you’re prepared to splash some extra cash you can specify the blue-tinged Laserlight beams that virtually turn night into day, lighting the tarmac up to 600 metres ahead. The M850i’s rear end is also distinctive, mainly due to those elongated L-shaped taillights and ducktail spoiler integrated into the bootlid.
Inside, you’ll find lots of familiar BMW design elements, but the virtual dials are configured differently; most notably the tacho as the (virtual) needle sweeps from right to left – anticlockwise, in other words. Looks cool, but I found readings hard to take at a glance in the cut and thrust of real-world traffic. The expansive centre console is topped by a 10.25-inch infotainment screen, and you can control the various functions via this, or the new-fangled gesture control (which we didn’t try as we were more focused on driving the car). The cabin is a comfortable place to be – unless you’re in the back, in which case you’ll feel distinctly cramped and hemmed in. Be in no doubt, this is a 2+2, rather than a full-fledged four-seater.
Once on the move, it’s evident the 8 Series was conceived as a grand tourer designed to effortlessly eat up vast distances. Ride quality is decently compliant in ‘Comfort’ mode, and even switching to ‘Sport’ via the drive-mode selector doesn’t make it a brute of a thing. Yes, the V8’s soundtrack becomes distinctly more audible, with copious pops and crackles from the twin exhausts on the overrun, but it’s still quite liveable in most conditions. Only some distinctly lumpy Portuguese backroads prompted us to switch back to Comfort mode, but in the GCC we never encounter such poorly surfaced roads in any case.
Our drive route covered a variety of narrow, rain-soaked country roads, which aren’t exactly tailor-made for an almost 2 metres wide coupe with 750 Nm of torque to burn. That said, the M850i’s all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steer made for nimble and surefooted progress, so our drive – although extremely brisk – was effortless and drama-free.
A fool-proof device it may be, but the 8 Series isn’t the most involving car to pedal, and that’s partly down to all the electronics that filter the whole drive experience. Yes, it makes the car safer and faster, but also a tad less engaging. On the plus side, the steering feels a bit less artificial than other recent BMWs, which felt a bit video-game-esque from behind the wheel.
The drive program also included a track session at the Circuito do Estoril, which formerly hosted the Formula One circus. Pouring rain and newly laid tarmac (offering very little grip even in the dry) made for an interesting experience as this scribe chased down BMW factory race driver Antonio Felix da Costa, who was mounted up in an M5 Competition pace car.
It was probably too wet for a track attack, but we set out anyway and, even in the treacherous conditions, the M850i felt composed and predictable. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system delivered good traction out of even the slower corners, and the four-wheel-steer dialled out most of the understeer that would otherwise have been the case on the ultra-slippery surface. If anything, the M850i was a quicker car on the day than even da Costa’s M5 Competition, which was sliding around everywhere. However, that was largely down to the fact the latter was equipped with semi-slick tyres that weren’t at all suited to today’s conditions.
There’s no getting away from the fact the M850i is a big, heavy car, and it’s not something you choose as an alternative if you’re after the agility and dynamism of a Porsche 911 or Mercedes-AMG GT. However, as a grand tourer that can turn its hand to a bit of everything – be it crossing continents or cutting a few fast laps at a racetrack – the M850i is a nicely executed all-rounder. And there’s of course the prospect of the imminent M8 for buyers wanting something more hardcore.
Photos by BMW.