It is difficult to imagine how much better, more competent or more all-encompassing a high-end sport coupe or convertible could be than the BMW 6 Series. It delivers exceptional performance in all ways, brilliant handling and that arrow-like stability that defines BMW. It is also loaded with an extraordinary array of technology and luxury features.
The 2010 6 Series comes in two versions, the standard BMW 650i and the ultra-performance BMW M6. Both are available in Coupe and Convertible body styles. BMW 6 Series Coupes and Convertibles have a back seat that can fit small people in a pinch, but are really intended to move two people and their belongings in high comfort, style and safety.
The BMW 650i is a premium grand touring car. The engine is a 4.8-liter V8 of 360 horsepower and the transmission choices are a six-speed manual or six-speed Sport Automatic with shift paddles. The 650i is more luxurious than the BMW Z4 sports car, and delivers higher performance, more agility and sportier styling than the 5 Series sports sedans.
The M6 line is a 6 Series with even more performance and features. Also available as either a Coupe or Convertible, the ultra-performance M6 is powered by a 5.0-liter V10 of 500 horsepower with either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG); the SMG can be driven like an automatic or as a manual, but without a clutch pedal. The M6 also has different suspension tuning and several other enhancements appropriate to its performance level, including distinctive interior and exterior styling.
The M6 sacrifices some of the Grand Touring comforts of the 650i in favor of a more aggressive handling package and stratospheric acceleration performance. At the same time, the M6, and especially its Sequential Manual Gearbox, takes the marque in a direction some purists find distressing, increasingly transferring control of the car from its driver to its super-sophisticated electronics. For these and other reasons having to do with the operation of the SMG, we prefer the six-speed manual.
For 2010, the on-board navigation system has been updated.
The styling of the BMW 6 Series is an interesting bit of design, with the Coupe and Convertible nearly identical except for their tops.
The twin-kidney grille, quad headlamps and other classic cues readily identify the 6 Series cars as BMWs. The M6 versions get a uniquely styled, more strongly sculpted front fascia. The 6 Series shares some key elements with BMW's 5 Series sedan, but the 6 Series was designed from the ground up as a Coupe, and then as a Convertible, rather than starting with a sedan and eliminating two doors or starting with a coupe and chopping off the top.
This is a classic BMW 6 Series: The front and rear overhangs (the distances from the wheels to the bumpers) are short. The cabin separates the long hood from the short deck. The 6 Series cars are shorter than the 5 Series sedans, but they benefit from a relatively long wheelbase, which contributes to stability and handling.
The turn signals are located above squinty-eyed, compound headlamps, which wrap well around the corners to the sides of the car. The grilles take front and center stage with no bumper ledge in front of them. When viewed from overhead, the front corners look rounded, giving the 6 Series a shark-like nose.
In profile, the lines are sculpted but clean. Sleek, Euro-style combination side lights-cum-turn signals in a thin slit at the trailing edge of the front wheel wells give the impression of attention to detail and on the M models discreetly house the unique, stylized logo that distinguishes those from the 650i models. The 6 Series looks raciest in front three-quarter view, which happens to be our favorite angle on the car.
From the rear the tail lamps and badge label it as a BMW, but the back end looks different from past BMWs. The tail lamps wrap around to the sides, so there's no precise break where the rear of the car ends and the side begins. As with the new 7 Series sedans, some critics don't like the way the rear deck looks somewhat disconnected from and perched atop the rear fenders. BMW points out that the high deck improves downforce, and therefore higher-speed stability, and also allows for a big trunk.
There are also some interesting design features that aren't apparent to the eye, starting with extensive use of weight-saving materials. From the windshield forward, the 6 Series load-bearing structure is made of aluminum, just like a commercial airliner's. Its doors and hood are also aluminum; the front fenders and trunk lid are composite materials. A carbon fiber roof on the M6 Coupe reduces weight without compromising safety. At the same time, because it's the roof that's lighter, the effect is to lower the car's center of gravity. The underbody is shrouded in more high-tech plastic, much like the wind tunnel-groomed bottoms of F1 race cars, to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
The soft top looks great. The rear glass can be raised or lowered like a side window by pressing a button. BMW has reinforced the B-pillars and the lower sides of the car's frame, and built the windshield with an extra-high-strength frame. This not only improves rigidity, but also adds an extra element of safety in the unlikely event of a rollover.
The 6 Series standard adaptive headlamps pivot to aim toward the inside of a corner as the steering wheel is turned. This helps throw light around a bend, reducing shadows and improving visibility for the driver. Sometimes just that extra moment of warning can make for a safer and more enjoyable drive. The 6 Series also features BMW's adaptive LED brake lights, which illuminate more intensely in a panic stop. BMW contends this conveys the gravity of the situation to drivers following when you slam on the brakes, but it presumes those following know enough to understand the brighter brake lights' warning message.
The BMW 6 Series has it all: Comfort, luxury, convenience and the ambience of a true high-performance car. The car inspires feelings of control, even of success, before it even leaves the driveway. The 6 Series promises great rewards to drivers who take their driving seriously, and, as far as the interior appointments go, with an exception or two, they deliver.
The 6 Series seats provide excellent support. The 650i base seats are the more accommodating, with the optional sport seats more firm than cushioned but still not as encapsulating as the M6's. Depending on the package, front seats are power-adjustable in either 12 ways or 14 ways (in the M6, either 16 or 18 ways, including seatback bolsters) and combine with a steering wheel that both tilts and telescopes, again with the push of a button, to allow drivers of virtually any stature to find a good fit. Front seats have manually extendable thigh support.
The back seats will accommodate pre-adolescents on short trips, but are not so good for a couple of adults. Access to the rear, though, is enabled by front seats that readily move forward and then will return to their previous settings. Driver-side memory buttons are on the outboard side of the seat base, a much more convenient placement than in the 7 Series, where they're on the center console and unreachable before climbing into the car.
Interior materials and finish are up to standards expected in this price range. The headliner in both Coupe and Convertible looks and feels rich, and expensive. The standard trim is a metallic material, and we like the way it looks on the doors and dash. Those who prefer a more traditional look can choose either light or dark stained birch wood. Olive Ash and Walnut are also available.
The engine starts with a button. The key is an electronic cartridge that slides into a slot on the steering column. Once that's done, the driver simply presses a button on the dash to the right of the steering column to start or stop the engine. But turning on accessory power requires pressing the button once, then again, and then again, all while consciously keeping your foot away from the brake pedal so the engine doesn't start. James Bond would be in big trouble with this setup.
Comfort Access is an option that takes this keyless concept a step farther. It's proximity-activated, meaning you can simply walk up to the car, open the door, and press the Start button without having to pull the fob out of your pocket or purse. The car will warn you if you try to leave with the key while it's running.
The gauge cluster features a large tachometer and speedometer framing an LCD box that displays a wide range of information. The package is crisp and legible and, if you like BMW's familiar orange backlighting, quite attractive. The optional Head-Up Display (HUD) projects speed, navigational information, cruise control status and other data onto the windshield and can be programmed to show whichever data set the driver chooses. It works well and we find it useful. The M6's HUD is further configurable, offering a minimalist display limited to the essentials of analog-like, LED tachometer, selected gear and road speed.
BMW's iDrive system operates the sound system, climate controls, navigation and other functions. It does this through a controller on the center console which functions much like a mouse on a computer. Now in its fourth generation, iDrive has new graphics and controls. This includes a new controller concept and a high-resolution 8.8-inch display; optimized menus with high-resolution graphics and an expanded range of functions; and greater convenience and more intuitive operation with direct-select keys at the controller, plus additional Programmable Memory Keys. Formerly there were six and now there are eight.
A graphic depiction of the controller in the display orients the user to the next control step, be it rotation, pressing, or tipping. From there, rotation of the controller takes the user through the various menu selections, and pressing makes the choice. Tilting the controller right or left takes the system through the menu levels. A new refinement is the inclusion of four direct-selection keys, adjacent to the controller, for the most frequently used menus, which allow quick selections of the CD, radio, phone, and navigation system menus. Three additional keys, for general use, will take the user directly to the start menu, or to the most recently active menu, or to various options within the current area. All of this shortens searches, or makes them unnecessary.
The refinements and enhancements to iDrive also make it simpler and more enjoyable to use the on-board navigation system. The new display is also more realistic, and a new, circular speller makes it easier and quicker to enter destinations or phone numbers.
We recommend spending time in the driveway with the owner's manual to master this system. In the past the iDrive has been hated, loved and tolerated. We have found the earlier generations difficult to operate and distracting from the business of driving, and using it for everyday tasks often demanded pressing more buttons than with traditional systems. The earlier generations tended to make what should have been relatively simple tasks, such as turning on the radio to a favorite station or cranking up the heater, into complicated computer exercises. We may not necessarily yet be fans of iDrive, but the new fourth generation promises to be much, much better than in the past.
Another, unrelated control function that is unusual is that if you touch the turn signal lever the signals blink three times, which is useful when making lane changes but annoying when you change your mind and try to cancel it.
The Coupe's trunk is relatively large, with room for two sets of golf clubs. The BMW badge on the rear serves as the trunk latch. The lid pops open fully when a button on the key is pressed, handy when running through the rain with an armload of groceries. Watch where you put those groceries, however, as the trunk lid uses bag-crushing goose-neck hinges; the Convertibles use articulated struts, necessary to clear the expandable pouch for the folded top. The Coupe has a slightly larger trunk (13.0 cubic feet) than the Convertible (12.4 cubic feet with the top raised, 10.6 cubic feet with it lowered). Also, caution is advised when storing anything other than luggage or those golf clubs in the trunk, especially if it involves liquid, as the space below is full of electronics essential to the car's operation. The first time we lifted the trunk floor cover, it was like watching Darth Vader remove his helmet. The 6 Series cars do not come with spare tires; the 650i models come with run-flat tires, while the M6 has a temporary repair kit.
Incidental storage is limited. The glove box is nicely finished but not large enough to hold the portfolio with the owner's manual and other required reading. Its back wall houses the CD changer, a bracket for a spare key fob and a recharging slot for a small flashlight. Shallow, fixed map pockets adorn the doors. The front-seat cup holder sticks up out of a slot on the passenger side of the center console. The two cup holders in the rearmost section of the center console aren't convenient to either front or rear seat passengers. There's a mesh net on the transmission hump in the passenger's footwell for odds and ends. The center console cover adjusts to offer an armrest to drivers of varying heights but could use a more-resistant ratchet as it's too easily raised when all you want is to open it.
The BMW 6 Series comes with complimentary high-performance driving instruction at the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina, which includes accommodations, gourmet meals, transportation and instruction for the two-day program. We can't think of a better way to get to know these machines. Some reviewers have complained about BMW's high-tech control systems messing up the purity and driving satisfaction that have long characterized the brand, but we have no such gripes with either of the 650i versions, which immediately become an extension of the driver, flawlessly executing his or her wishes. Our take on the M6 is decidedly different.
Put simply, the BMW 650i is smooth and precise. It's easy to drive, always poised, and satisfying to drive at a brisk pace. The ride is taut but not harsh. The brakes take some getting used to but do their job with certainty. The accelerator is easy to modulate, and the steering is sharp. All the important controls work cohesively, making for a smooth driving experience.
The engine is silky smooth and tractable for easy going around town or in stop-and-go traffic. Yet you're rewarded with immediate response whenever you press down on the accelerator. The silky response of the 650i's 32-valve V8 benefits from Valvetronic variable valve timing and variable lift, which allows an impressive combination of low-rev, off-the-line acceleration and free-breathing, high-rev horsepower. The V8's breathing is controlled entirely by the valves. (Technically, there is no throttle, so the go pedal is rightly called an accelerator.) It's a fascinating engine for engineers and car buffs, but what it means for a driver is loads of power throughout the rev range, and the 650i responds immediately in any situation. The engine sounds great, emitting a guttural roar under hard acceleration through its nicely tuned exhaust system. Response is impressive in either the coupe or convertible, though convertible drivers enjoy those sweet engine sounds a little more intimately.
Of the two transmissions available with the 650i, we recommend the six-speed Sport Automatic, unless you're a serious enthusiast, in which case we recommend the six-speed manual.
The automatic is smooth around town and very responsive for spirited driving. In fact, a 650i with the automatic is nearly as quick as a well-driven 650i with the manual. It offers a Sport setting that moves shift points to higher revs and quickens downshifts for increased response. The manual mode allows the driver to shift semi-manually, imparting some of the same involvement as a manual. For everyday driving we prefer to use it in the fully automatic mode.
The six-speed manual gearbox is smooth, precise and easy to shift, with easy clutch pedal effort. It's an excellent choice, unless hours of stop-and-go traffic is part of your daily routine.
The 650i offers a nice balance of ride and handling. Though taut, it doesn't beat up your passenger on rippled highways. The springs and shocks are firmer than those in the standard 5 Series sedans, and the 6 Series cars ride lower. A 650i is absolutely joyful on a winding highway, as we discovered on some mountain roads near Santa Barbara. Handling is precise, with a superb self-centering feel to the steering. The car can be driven very hard into tight corners, and it tracks through high-speed turns like it's on rails. The suspension is tuned to minimize undesirable behavior when braking hard, accelerating hard, or lifting off the gas while cornering. Our car was equipped with Active Steering, which improves high-speed stability while making it easier to steer at slow or parking lot speeds. Some drivers don't like BMW's active steering; we're not among them.
Active Roll Stabilization dramatically reduces body roll (lean) when the 650i corners. As the car leans into a corner, the anti-roll bars are twisted by little hydraulic motors that counteract the body lean, so the 650i leans very little, even in hard cornering. In addition to increasing driver confidence, the system improves handling over bumps, increases cornering capability and improves steering response.
Push the 650i past the limit of the tires and the Dynamic Stability Control and other active safety systems kick in, allowing the car to motor around corners with little drama. The DSC works toward keeping the car from skidding into understeer or oversteer, making it easier for the driver to maintain control. Simply aim the 650i where you want to go and it'll go there, assuming the laws of physics allow it.
The brakes are excellent. The brake discs consist of high-carbon, cast-iron outer portions, or rotors, which constitute the conventional braking surfaces, with aluminum center sections, which mount the rotors to the vehicle. The benefits are less weight and reduced rotor deformation, or warping, under hard braking. The front brake calipers are also aluminum, for further weight savings. These brakes are fully up to the performance of the 6 Series.
Yet, for its impressive performance envelope and response, the 650i is not the least bit balky when driven at a lazy pace, and that's important for a luxury car. The 650i models come standard with aggressive, 245/45VR18, high-performance, run-flat tires. The Coupe and Convertible we drove were equipped with 19-inch wheels, part of the optional Sport Package, and they rode well. The main drawback is more noise over bumps or pavement joints.
The 650i Convertible is remarkably quiet with the top up, nearly as quiet as the Coupe. Wind noise is hardly more noticeable. The power rear windscreen can be lowered even when the top is up, though we didn't find it significantly added to air circulation. Conversely, the rear glass can be raised when the top is down to act as a wind blocker, but turbulence with the top down was minimal in any case, and raising and lowering the glass didn't seem to make a big difference. In short, this is a fun feature, and we like having it, but we could find no significant practical benefit. With the windows up and top down, the 650i convertible makes for great open motoring even on briskly cool days. We prefer to put all the windows down, however, because it looks cooler.
The M6 is everything the 650i is and more. And therein lies the disconnect, the proof that sometimes more can be too much. The ride is stiff, quite noticeably so on bumpy neighborhood streets. Active Steering is not offered, nor is Active Roll Stabilization; perhaps the engineers assumed the more aggressive suspension made it unnecessary. Too bad, as we prefer the elegance of the active setup to the less refined settings of the M6. The short sidewalls on the low-profile tires don't help, magnifying the suspension's limited compliance.
The Sequential Manual Gearbox is especially distasteful, almost overbearing in its insistence on managing every shift, up or down, with its own pre-programmed sequence and pace. In Automatic mode, it shifts up only when it's good and ready; yes, there's a switch at the base of the shift surround that adjusts the timing between shifts, but we never found a setting, among the 11 programs provided (six for the manual function or S-mode, and five for the automatic function, or D-mode), that delivered the quickness, smoothness and precision we achieve using a clutch pedal. It's only marginally better in Manual mode, where you shift by tapping the lever forward for a lower gear or rearward for a higher gear or by working the appropriate lever mounted to the steering wheel. In Manual mode, the driver at least gets to control the timing of the shift. In Auto model it downshifts as the M6 slows to a stop, dutifully double-clutching and blipping the throttle between gears, which sounds neat.
And when that long-awaited opening appears in oncoming traffic on a busy two-lane road, flooring the accelerator does not deliver that vital, immediate kick-down to an appropriate passing gear. Instead, first the transmission's brain has to figure out what gear is appropriate, and then it ponderously double clutches its way to that gear, all while you're anxiously watching that once-beckoning opening rapidly shrinking. This hesitation shows up in other unusual spots, for example, coasting up to a Stop sign at the top of a hill; the SMG pauses as it downshifts to first gear when taking off. This hesitation can be annoying.
At the other end of the spectrum, like in a tight parking space, trying to ease the car ahead or back two or three inches is equally frustrating. When we'd press the accelerator enough to get the clutch to engage, it did so abruptly, making the car lurch forward or backward more than we wanted. Using the brake pedal to minimize the lurch didn't help as that blocked the clutch from engaging. Ultimately, we had to ask the other car's driver, who fortunately was nearby, to move the car so we could escape the parking space. All hope is not lost, however; simply choose the six-speed, manual gearbox.
The M6 engine is a mixed bag. On the downside, a V10 is inherently unbalanced, with crankpins awkwardly dispersed around the crankshaft's center, unlike a 90-degree V8 or a 60-degree V6. For another, that's a lot of moving parts, even more than usual when all the parts necessary to suppress the engine's disharmonies, with gaps and gears and chains spinning, clicking and meshing, all of which has to be somehow muted while left essentially unrestrained. And, quite frankly, to our ears, the M6 comes up short in this effort. We enjoy the musical mechanical sounds a finely tuned engine produces as much as the next person, but those emanating from the M6 were more raw and raucous, almost cheap sounding, than rich and rewarding. This includes the raspy exhaust.
On the upside, however, the engine benefits to a limited degree from BMW's participation in F1 motor racing. Every cylinder has its own throttle butterfly, for example, which is very high tech, and engine lubrication is dry sump, which is more commonly found in race cars. And we confess we did get a kick out of the three, computer-managed power settings, ranging from something you might feel halfway comfortable turning over to a parking valet to one that buries your backside in the M6's admittedly unsoft seats.
Beyond these troubling specifics, the M6, in either coupe or convertible, is comparable to the 650i, as in, reassuringly BMW-like. Again, while we like the ARS and the Active Steering, the ride, although stiff, is well managed, and steering is direct and supremely responsive with reassuring on-center feel.
The BMW 6 Series is a remarkable car, an intriguing attempt at blending state-of-the-art electronics with award-winning mechanicals. The BMW 650i Coupe and Convertible succeed, offering a combination of comfort, luxury, sportiness, exhilarating performance and ease of operation that's hard to beat in the class. On the M6 models, it remains an attempt, perhaps a misguided one, as it inserts unnecessarily isolating layers of electronics between driver and car, muddying a unique, symbiotic relationship that BMW has painstakingly cultivated over decades.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and California's Northern Central Valley.
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