By resurrecting the 8 Series, BMW has returned to the rarefied grand tourer (GT) segment, but does the newcomer strike a perfect balance between sportscar and cruiser? Our Irish correspondent Shane O' Donoghue drove the M850i xDrive (the only derivative that will be available in South Africa in March 2019) on road and track in Portugal.
Just as it did in 1990 (when the E31 made its debut), the 8 Series has replaced the 6 Series. However, the Munich-based company has much loftier goals for its GT (not to be confused with the still-on-sale 6 Series GT…) than it did for its executive predecessor. Aimed directly at rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe, the M850i xDrive Coupe is a car that packs serious technical firepower under its aggressively sporty sheet metal.
The 8 Series' swooping bodywork combines with the snarling nose and slim headlights to give it serious presence.
For starters, there is a new 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, which produces 390 kW and 750 Nm of torque, mated with the latest-generation 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission and a redeveloped xDrive all-wheel-drive system. This is tasked with sending most of the power to the rear wheels most of the time and actually, BMW’s engineers don’t like calling the car all-wheel drive, instead referring to it as rear-drive with added traction…
Regardless, the fun factor should be dialled up further by the inclusion of an electronically-controlled rear differential lock, which is mapped with the usual driving modes. Big brakes, adaptive damping and four-wheel steering round out the key chassis components, although buyers can optionally upgrade to active roll stabilisation, too.
The newcomer sports classic coupe proportions, but it's shorter than a 5 Series, believe it or not!
At 4 851 mm long, 1 902 mm wide and 1 346 mm high, the 8 Series is shorter, wider and lower than, for example, the BMW 5 Series sedan, and its swooping bodywork combines with the snarling nose and slim headlights to give it serious presence. That was ramped up a touch in our test cars by the addition of a carbon fibre exterior styling pack and a carbon fibre roof – the first time such a thing has been offered by BMW for cars outside the full-on M range. It highlights the "double bubble" shape of the roof, the sloping rear window and muscular back end. This may "only" be what BMW calls an M Performance vehicle, but it already looks the part, taking a distinctly sportier design route than its number one rival, the S-Class Coupe.
BMW has thrown its whole arsenal of high-quality materials and in-car technology at the cabin to help it live up to its position in the line-up and it’s largely successful thanks to raised stitching leather everywhere, tactile metallic trim surfaces and the usual perfectly weighted BMW controls and switchgear. After the new X5, the 8 Series is the 2nd BMW to gain the company’s fresh dual-screen dashboard set-up and it looks slick.
The driver-centric cockpit design features a dual screen layout, but it does not feel fussy and dominated by the electronic interface.
The centrally-mounted touchscreen is quick to respond to touch or you can use the latest rotary iDrive controller on the centre console. Voice and gesture control are available too, but they seem unnecessary most of the time. Unlike Audi’s migration to (oversized) touchscreen operation of its climate control, BMW has shrunk it all down and retained physical buttons. This has the benefit of freeing up more space for all your bits and pieces.
Speaking of space, the front seats are comfortable and there’s loads of room for the front occupants, plus tonnes of adjustability to the driving position, but the rear seats are woefully small thanks to the combination of the sloping roof, upright seat backs and pitiful kneeroom. Thankfully, most buyers of cars like the 8 Series don’t buy it to transport adults in the back.
If you like everything else about the 8 Series, but need rear legroom, hang around for the 4-door 8 Series Gran Coupe variant to launch, as it’ll have a longer wheelbase. The boot in the Coupe, meanwhile, is accessed by an automatic lid and holds a useful 420 litres of golf clubs or whatever.
The M850i's bejewelled transmission lever is an acquired taste, but the centre console is otherwise tastefully appointed.
What’s it like to drive?
We reckon that the standard 4-wheel steering (Integral Active Steer in BMW-speak) is potentially the most important aspect of the M850i. As the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds, it makes the 8 Series feel much smaller and more agile than it has any right to. That’s a massive help when negotiating packed car parks and city streets, but it also gives the coupe a delicious nimbleness in tight corners.
The flip side of it is that, at high speeds, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts, making for stable and precise lane changes. Because of this characteristic, BMW could fit a more direct steering rack to the front axle (it’s a variable ratio and assistance unit) and the nett result is a coupe that nips into tight curves eagerly, while feeling as composed as any luxury car on the highway (without any high-speed nervousness).
The introduction of rear-wheel steering (and a beefed-up braking setup) helps the M850i to compensate for its heft in the twisties.
Now, all that comes with a proviso, and that’s the fact that the M850i is distinctly sporty all of the time. Ok, you can press the Comfort button to soften throttle response, quieten the exhaust (it has active flaps), smoothen out the excellent transmission and put the damping into its most comfortable setting. And in this guise, the 8 Series whisks you along at high speed effortlessly, with great bump absorption and commendably well-subdued wind and road noise (despite the lack of double glazing on the side windows, we noted). The V8 rides its considerable torque with a calm, distant rumble.
But there is a pair of Sport modes to explore, and BMW has noticeably ramped up the aggressiveness of the Sport Plus setting. Choose that and the throttle is super-sharp (too much for stop-start traffic), the exhaust pops and bangs boisterously on the overrun and the transmission seemingly hunts for as low a ratio as it can get away with, giving you maximum performance at all times and a suitably raucous V8 soundtrack.
Although the 8 Series offers a plethora of driving modes, through which a driver can adjust the car's settings, its default attitude is certainly sporty...
Naturally, you can use the tactile paddles behind the (still too thick-rimmed) steering wheel to take control of the transmission. There’s no need to do that when in the regular Sport setting though, as it’s perfectly judged, so it seems like the most usable driving mode. It’s possible to customise the Sport mode to your liking as well. Through all this, while the damping does firm up, it’s never quite teeth-shattering.
On the road, you’ll not broach the M850i’s limits without attracting the attention of the authorities, which is perhaps why BMW let us loose on the Estoril race track in Portugal. On the track, the 8 Series committed itself better than you’d reasonably expect of a near-2 000 kg car and it certainly revealed that it can feel more like a rear-drive sports car, as opposed to an all-wheel-drive luxury model, to pilot. The balance is exceptional, notably under extremely heavy braking, while the active rear differential helps to point the big coupe's nose into a turn when you’re squeezing back on the power. We doubt many owners will bring this particular model to a circuit, but it bodes very well indeed for the imminent M8 derivative.
In M Performance garb, the 8 Series looks purposeful, but not quite as elegant as we believe it could be. The rear bumper detailing is a trifle fussy.
The M850i is an expensive car by any measure, but it offers a plethora of talents for the price. While there will be an entry-level, rear-drive 8 Series later on, this (current) range-topper puts a sharply designed stake in the ground, undoubtedly justifying the change in name for BMW’s GT. It marries long-legged civility and comfort with seriously sporty dynamics and performance. The only question is: how special will the 2019 BMW M8 be?
BMW 8 Series Price in South Africa
This is the basic price, with CO2 tax and a 5-year/100 000 km maintenance plan included.
BMW M850i xDrive Coupe R 1 887 827