Driving in a Winter Wonderland
Battling the Ghost of Winters Past: 2013 BMW 650i Gran Coupe
My winter BMW driving history is a sad one, littered with shattered taillights, bent frames and too many loaner cars. Over the course of a decade, I managed to put two of Bavaria’s finest — an old 528e and an E36 3-Series hatchback — into Jersey barriers and ditches. Driving a rear-wheel-drive car in winter is an art of throttle modulation, a light touch on the brakes and knowing when and where to steer. Clearly, I lacked these skills, and after one too many calls to my insurance agent, I finally gave up on the Bayerische Motoren Werke for good, moving on to more sensible Scandinavian cars that understood what winter is all about.
Given my less-than-stellar driving past, the prospect of piloting a 2013 BMW 650i Gran Coupe, in Germany — in winter — both thrilled and mortified me. On the one hand, the opportunity to put the whip to 445 twin-turbocharged horses on the very roads for which they were bred was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But it was December, and my PTSD flared up, with visions of mid-Autobahn donuts making my palms sweat.
Only when we disabled all safety systems in an empty parking lot did the full power of the mighty engine send the car into a full, teenaged tailspin.
The BMW 6-Series has, since its birth in the 1980s, been a two-door coupe. Some car buffs revere its many iterations as the brand’s most beautiful creations. With the new Gran Coupe, BMW has added two doors, making it, in effect, a sedan in disguise. But it’s a sedan in name only — I wouldn’t even subject my ex-wife to a mile in the cramped back seat, despite its dedicated climate controls and heated bun warmers. The sloping rear end that gives the car such elegant lines from the outside means that the backseat is for kids or (non-shedding) dogs only.
So why add two doors to what was already one of BMW’s most beloved models? It’s a direct shot across the bow of Teutonic rivals, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche, whose CLS, A7 and Panamera “super coupes” have been hits (the Germans are nothing if not competitive). Gear Patrol had a chance to drive the Mercedes CLS (in 4Matic trim) in similarly wintry conditions last year and came away impressed with the elegant Benz. So how would the Bimmer stack up?
Make no mistake, the 650i is a big car, more “gran” than “coupe.” Piloting it through the narrow streets of Dresden would have been nerve-racking if not for the 360° network of sensors that warns the driver, both visually and audibly, if you’re getting too close for comfort to another vehicle, a wall or some historic monument. In fact, the sensors on this car are what separate it from the BMWs of old and inspire confidence, no matter the road conditions. With lane-departure warning, rearview camera, a “God’s eye view” mode and of course the sophisticated Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, one feels almost coddled by a protective benefactor while driving. It’s as if BMW outfitted this car with a caring but stern German Hausfrau to watch over you, albeit one who likes to drive fast.
This Hausfrau also was pretty good with directions. The nav system guided us around Saxony, auf Englisch, with ease: The very large screen in the center of the dashboard is intuitive to use and maps and text are crisp and eye-pleasing. But perhaps the most impressive feature of the navigation system is the heads-up display that places simplified directional icons directly in the driver’s view. Combined with the pleasant British-accented female voice, the display means you never have to look away from the road ahead, which is good when you’re passing a line of right-lane-dwelling lorries at 130 miles per hour.
In reality, it’s a sedan in name only — I wouldn’t even subject my ex-wife to a mile in the cramped back seat.
The 650i got a lot of second glances in and out of town, and while it’s nice to think it was because of its drop-dead gorgeous lines, it was probably because people wanted to see what sort of idiot was burning Euros driving a 4.4-liter V8 in a country where petrol approaches the equivalent of $7 per gallon. Once you get over the fleeting guilt though, this car begs to be driven… inefficiently. Merging onto the B17 Autobahn out of Dresden, the big coupe roared to life, impatient after the bump and grind of city traffic. The twin turbos force-fed the big V8; before I knew it, the speedo said 180kph and the Skoda in front of me was getting big very quickly. Despite the car’s two-ton heft, it handled nimbly, befitting BMW’s reputation as a driver’s car. Steering was light when it need to be and required a bit more muscle when circumstances dictated.
Our test car was fitted with Dunlop snow tires, for which we were thankful despite the smaller (read: “wimpy”) rims on which they were mounted. Never mind the softer, siped rubber; there was no discernible compromise in handling on dry pavement. A sticker on the dashboard warned to keep the car below 240kph which, with flurries thickening into a legitimate snowstorm, was easy to abide by.
Speaking of the weather, the slick roads and blowing snow were no match for the combination of the DSC, 8-speed automatic and grippy tires. Only when we disabled all safety systems in an empty parking lot did the full power of the mighty engine send the car into a full, teenaged tailspin. Otherwise, we motored along at what would be idle rpms for more mortal cars, even at Autobahn cruising speeds. You’d have to work pretty hard to crash this car.
There was only one moment in which my BMW ghost of winters past returned. Coming around a bend in the road and facing a steep uphill, we suddenly came upon a stalled truck in the right lane. Cars were creeping around the truck up the snowy hill. When it came to our turn, the car’s rear wheels struggled for grip on the slick roadway as we fought to maintain the precious momentum needed for forward motion. The traction control system kept us moving at decidedly un-BMW-like speeds until we finally crested the hill. A man waiting his turn to descend in an older 3-Series nodded with a knowing look as we passed him. Was that admiration or jealousy in his eyes, or was it the familiar hint of fear? I nodded back and punched the gas.