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Panke: No Apologies from BMW
Automaker may tweak technology, but there's no going back on design.
Los Angeles may be the single biggest source of debate in my household. To my wife, it is the ultimate fantasy land. For my part, I tend to agree with Woody Allen, wondering about a place whose biggest contribution to society has been the right-turn-on-red.
Actually, my opinion of the Left Coast softens about this time each year. Despite the word, “spring,” highlighted and circled on my calendar, the snows continue to sift down from leaden Midwest skies. And so, it is with eager relief I find myself cruising down the Santa Barbara coast with friend and colleague Marty Padgett. It doesn’t hurt to have a convertible for the drive, of course. Not just any ragtop, mind you, but BMW’s new 645Ci.
Few cars have been more eagerly awaited than the new 6-Series, which will shortly roll into U.S. dealer showrooms. The original 6er debuted in 1976 and stuck around for a full 13 years, an unusually long life in the hotly competitive automotive world. But few cars better defined their segment. Even in its final years, the original 6 was a visual standout, its sleek and sexy design openly admired by even BMW’s most bitter rivals.
BMW’s big mistake
“We never should have departed that sector of the market,” concedes Tom Purves, chairman of BMW North America. The Bavarian automaker’s attempt to supplant the 6 with the decidedly more expensive 8-Series met with a collective yawn. Few even noticed when that coupe was pulled from production; not when word leaked out that an all-new 6er would revive the legendary nameplate.
2005 BMW 645CiEnlarge Photo
The new car is unique for BMW in that it will now be offered in both in both coupe and cabrio configurations. There’d been some speculation the new line would be little more than a scaled-down spin-off of BMW’s flagship four-door, the controversial 7-Series. That’s clearly not the case. The 645Ci is more than just a sedan minus two doors. It’s smaller and sportier, if not less substantial.
It does, however, share some of the distinctive design cues that were launched with the latest 7, and which have redefined the BMW brand. There are those hooded headlights, as well as the tall and angular tail that some have taken to calling the “Bangle Butt,” for chief of design Chris Bangle.
Actually, to set the record straight, much of the credit – or blame – belongs to Adrian van Hooydonk, who has been running BMW’s California styling studio, DesignWorks, for the last four years. A Bangle disciple, the young Dutch designer was the primary pen behind both the 7- and the new 6-Series.
Adrian Van HooydonkEnlarge Photo
While the new car won’t win over all the skeptics, it’s likely to convince critics to tone down their abuse. The hard edges of the 7-Series have been softened into sweeping curves that capture the sporty spirit of the original coupe. Though the rear end of the coupe still seems a bit oversized, the 645Ci is the best execution yet of BMW’s new design theme. And it lends credibility to the philosophy behind all these changes — helping differentiate each of the models in BMW’s fast-expanding lineup.
The new 6-Series is outfitted with much of the new technology that’s been appearing on recent additions to the BMW family. Standard features include Active Roll Stabilization and “adaptive” xenon headlights, which can swivel to help light up curving roadways. The Sport Package adds Active Steering, which first debuted on the updated 5-Series sedan. A Head-Up Display, or HUD, system will be introduced over the summer, and will project data, such as vehicle speed and turn-by-turn navigation guidance, onto a mirrored portion of the windshield.
For the moment, the new 6er is offered with only one engine, a 4.4-liter V-8, but buyers will get the choice of three different transmissions: a six-speed stick, a six-speed automatic, or a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox, or SMG. During a day of driving, we had the opportunity to test these features, while also comparing the coupe and convertible back-to-back along a wide range of highways and back-country roads.
BMW officials proudly noted all the effort made to trim the weight of the new 645Ci. The hood and doors are made of aluminum, the trunk lid of the plastic composite, SMC. Even so, this is not what you’d call a lightweight vehicle. The 645Ci coupe weighs in at a hefty 3781 pounds with manual transmission. The convertible adds another 400 pounds. You’d be hard-pressed to tell while driving.
A resonant roar
The 32-valve V-8 is more than up to the challenge of moving that metal. Using a variety of sophisticated features like the Valvetronic variable valve lift, and Double Vanos variable intake and exhaust-valve timing systems, the engine pumps out a hefty 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than enough to shove you deep into the well-padded seats if you slam down on the throttle.
We’ve also got to add a few words of praise for the wonderful way the engine’s exhaust note has been tuned. At cruising speed, the V-8 gives off a soft purr. At full throttle, its resonant roar is likely to reassure you — but intimidate anyone in your way.
The new 6er is delivered stock with the six-speed manual transmission. It’s smooth as silk to shift, though we were a bit disappointed by the length of the throw — how far you have to reach for each shift. The six-speed “Steptronic” automatic and SMG transmissions are no-cost options which we expect a large number of buyers to select. The automatic is quite responsive and the Steptronic feature is one of the best we’ve seen at trying to duplicate a manual gearbox.
The SMG is an electronically-shifted manual transmission, a concept derived from Formula One racing. A pair of paddles on the front of the thick and well-padded steering wheel can be used to downshift. Paddles on the back shift up. The SMG first appeared on the current M3 model, and in that package, shifts with all the subtlety of an NFL tackle taking down a quarterback.
On the 645Ci, the SMG’s shifts have been smoothed out, though the package still isn’t for everyone. Though the paddles are easy to reach and use, it takes a while to remember which does what. Flip the wrong one, and you may suddenly find yourself running at redline — or embarrassingly bogging down just as you were set to show up the kid in the Mustang GT.
Sport mode really does make a difference, increasing the responsiveness of the throttle, firming up the suspension, and making both the six-speed automatic and SMG gearboxes shift more crisply.
The SMG and manual are the most adept at extracting all the cornering forces the suspension can handle. The 645Ci, both coupe and convertible, are classic grand tourers. And as such, the suspension settings and steering feel are balanced fairly between sporting and stiff. The ride is admirably smooth, with minimal body roll and even less intrusive bump harshness. The steering, electronically modulated from parking-lot easy to high-speed solid, passes through those transitions virtually without notice.
As handsome as the coupe might be, the convertible may be even more attractive, whether you have the top up or down. Closed, the look is distinctive: BMW designers opted to create a pair of flying buttresses in the back. That permits the rear window to operate independently. Put the top down, then roll it back up and you’ve got an extremely efficient wind blocker.
As solid as the new 645Ci coupe might be, we wondered how the convertible would compare. There are plenty of stiff two-doors that suddenly turn to mush when you cut the top off. The 6-Series coupe is astonishingly stiff and, well, coupe-like — it’s difficult to distinguish any major trade-offs in structural strength. Even over sets of railroad tracks staged seemingly to set up body vibrations, the 6er handled them with aplomb — and no untoward shaking.
Who drives iDrive?
During a long presentation on the new car, we noticed a significant omission. In fact, it appeared only once on the edge of an interior photograph. All the debate over BMW’s new design theme has been nothing compared to the controversy over the iDrive system. For those blissfully ignorant, it’s a computer-style controller that replaces most of the knobs, buttons and dials previously found on BMW’s cluttered instrument panels.
2005 BMW 645CiEnlarge Photo
In theory, iDrive should make it easy to access and operate any of the countless electronic systems onboard the 645Ci — from climate control to navigation. Theory didn’t translate into reality. Consider what happened when we tried to cancel a route plugged into the navigation system. Nothing. We later discovered that this command is not located in the navigation section of iDrive. So for 150 miles, we listened to a prodding female voice repeatedly advising us to “make the next U-turn.”
We did discover a few other complaints, most relatively minor. There’s the coupe’s massive sunroof. You can pop it up to vent cigarette smoke, but it doesn’t roll back. If that’s what you have in mind, buy the convertible.
Officially, the 645Ci is a 2+2. If you’re serious about inviting friends along for the drive, better make sure they don’t mind holding their knees up to their chest.
We’d like to see BMW relocate the various stalks mounted on the steering wheel. No matter how often we drive the 5-, 6- and 7-Series cars, we continue to reach for the wrong one.
The 645Ci’s interior design is more sporty than the 7er, with a choice of wood or aluminum accents. Between us, it gets one thumb up, one down. I thought it tasteful and subdued; Marty feels it’s chaotic and immature, with odd nacelles and strange character lines that are, well, out of character for BMW, though interiors have never been the brand’s strong suit.
And while BMW officials insist they’ve priced the new 645Ci in the heart of its market segment, at $69,995 for the coupe, $76,995 for the convertible, we expect a lot of potential buyers will suffer a serious case of sticker shock.
That said, there are a lot of folks waiting with checkbooks in hand for the 6er to land. It took just five minutes for eager buyers to snap up the 50 offered up in the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue.
The original 6-Series helped define BMW. The new car may not be quite as singularly handsome, but it is still striking and extremely satisfying to drive. The new coupe/convertible combination is a clear winner that is likely to remain in short supply for some time to come.
Base price: $69,995 coupe, $76,995 convertible
Engine: All-aluminum, 48-valve, 4.4-liter V-8 w/Valvetronic variable valve lift and Double Vanos variable intake and exhaust-valve timing, 325 hp/330 lb-ft
Transmission: Choice of six-speed manual, six-speed manual with Steptronic manual shifting mode, or six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) electronically shifted manual
Length by width x height: 190.0 x 73.0 x 54.1 in
Wheelbase: 109.4 in
Curb weight: 3781 lb (coupe with manual transmission); 3792 lb (coupe with automatic or SMG); 4178 lb (convertible with manual); 4189 lb (convertible with automatic or SMG)
EPA City/Hwy: 17/25 mpg (coupe with manual); 15/23 mpg (convertible with manual)
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control system, dual front airbags, side airbags, head curtain airbag (coupe), three-point seat belts
Major standard equipment: electronic suspension, active steering system (sport package), dual-zone digital climate control, power seats, windows and doors, rain sensing wipers, Harman Kardon premium audio system with CD changer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles