BMW M850i xDrive: Driven

It’s been twenty years since BMW produced an 8-Series model. Welcome back, big dog

Few cars typify the age of their birth quite as powerfully as the original BMW 8-Series. Signed off in 1981, developed over the course of one of the most formative decades of BMW’s corporate history, and finally launched in 1989, the ‘E31’ could have been made for London’s ‘yuppie’ generation.

This car wasn’t bogged down by associations of old-world luxury like a big Benz, and was infinitely more modern than the Astons and Jags of the time; like the people who bought it, it was up-and-coming. It also had pop-up headlights, of course, and a car phone big enough to double as an offensive weapon (lest the wad of bonus cash in your inside pocket be looking a bit thin to be useful for beating a pauper with).

And now, almost twenty years since the ‘E31’went off sale, the 8-Series is back. If they’d reintroduced it a decade ago instead, I’m not sure too many city boy bankers would have been in a position to indulge. Now’s probably the ideal time.

So what’s new, what’s different, what’s to like – and to what do we owe the honour? The answer to the last of those questions is to do with Munich’s latest corporate strategy, which is intended to move our perception of the BMW brand back upmarket, after a good few years in which an increasing number of new smaller and more affordable models has had the opposite effect.

Big BMWs like this and the new X7 are intended to restore some of the equity and esteem that the blue-and-white propeller commanded in its nineties- and noughties-era pomp – and, if successful, doubtless to allow for an associated boost in dealer profit margins. And who’s not in favour of those, after all?

The car is based on the same platform you’ll find under every BMW saloon from the 5-Series upwards, as well as serving under the all-new 3-Series. For now it comes in a choice of 320hp ’40d’ turbo straight six diesel or 530hp ‘M50i’ turbo V8 guises, with a cheaper ’40i’ petrol coming later – and the potentially epic M8 super-coupe (also to be available with convertible and four-door ‘Gran Coupe’ bodies, if you prefer) following on later.

As far as we know, there will be no V12 version; so there will be no direct replacement of the memorable 850CSi (booo…). But anyone who remembers that four-wheel steering was one of the ‘E31”s technological calling cards may be pleased to read that it’s standard on the new 8-Series, with adaptive dampers and active anti-roll bars optional. ‘xDrive’ four-wheel drive will feature on all versions of the new ‘8er’ – something BMW diehards may be less pleased to read. But they needn’t worry: it’s an intelligent, torque-vectoring, rear-biased driveline, as we’ll come on to explaining.

On the inside, the new 8-Series is very plush, expensive-feeling two-plus-two coupe. While we’re on the subject of those back seats, though, we should record that, 8-Series or no, this car is actually 51mm shorter than the old 6-Series Coupe was. So, in this form at any rate, it’s not much of a true four-seater. You wouldn’t ask anyone over the age of ten to ride in the back.

The boot’s a good size, though. And for those travelling up front, the car’s cabin materials and latest-gen BMW onboard technology make for a rich and sophisticated ambience that’s unlikely to disappoint. You can have a cut-glass gear selector lever if you want one (thanks for the idea, Volvo). You can also have fully digital and customisable instruments, a la Audi Virtual Cockpit; only, in a BMW, they’re called Live Cockpit Professional. There’s a hint of restraint and conservatism about some of the car’s interior design, true; but then BMW regulars will doubtless have expected it to be less chintzy and more buttoned-down than a Mercedes S-Class Coupe – so fair enough.

Did you see Dafydd’s review on the M5 Competition earlier this week? Confession time: I pinched his spec panel to edit for this review – and so couldn’t help noticing that the M850i produces precisely as much torque (admittedly over a slightly narrower band or revs).

The engine in this car is new, and though derived from the M5’s V8, there are plenty of technical differences. But, while it doesn’t quite spin like the M Division motor, it’s got a familiar feel under your toe up to about 4500rpm: slightly elastic but seriously potent, and ready to mix it with just about anything you fancy, in almost any gear. There may be more powerful rivals out there, and there may be more powerful new 8ers to come – but the M850i isn’t a car that’s seems even remotely undernourished. Not ever.

The car handles quite sweetly for a coupe of its size and heft, doing a pretty convincing impression of a sports car at times. It corners flat and fast, with fine grip and balance up to a level beyond which you’re unlikely to want to progress in your 1.9-tonne, £100k BMW anyway. That four-wheel steering system works its voodoo to apparently shorten up the wheelbase around roundabouts and junctions, and makes the car feel darty and agile at lower speeds; sometimes, perhaps, a bit too darty, actually. More heft and feel though the car’s steering would be nice.

As a grand tourer, though, BMW’s decision to stick with steel coil suspension (rather than offer air suspension like many of the 8-Series’s rivals) does act like a straight jacket on the car’s versatility of character. In ‘comfort’ mode, there isn’t the smoothness or isolation of, say, an Audi A7 Sportback, a Mercedes S-Class Coupe or even of a Porsche Panamera here; the M850i just feels a bit under-damped on the motorway, and still slightly tough-riding over sharper edges. In ‘sport’ mode, close body control is better, but the rumble-and-thump of the road under the car’s wheels is certainly more present than it ought to be in a first-rate luxury long-distance machine.

It also bugged me a bit that, like in so many BMWs, there’s no one driving mode preset that seems to represent the perfect compromise of comfort and body control, and of tactile control feedback balanced against fluency and ease-of-use. As ever, you’re obliged to fiddle with an ‘individual’ mode compromise; and you’re never absolutely sure you’ve quite cracked it. Grrr.

Petty quibbles? Yes and no, in my book. This may be BMW GT, but it’s a GT nonetheless; and, though it’s more fast, poised and involving than most of its kind, it still ought to be able to soothe away the miles as well as a Porsche or an Audi. In that respect, perhaps being away from the big coupe scene for the last two decades has left Munich with a bit of swotting up to do. But swot away, lads; you’re very welcome back. The bankers have tighter suits and slimmer wallets these days, but we’re led to believe their Swiss accounts still have plenty to plunder.

4,395cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Power (hp): 530@5500-6000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 553@1,800-4600rpm
0-62mph: 3.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,890kg
MPG: 28.2
CO2: 228g/km
Price: £100,045

Matt Saunders

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