one beefy, brisk bimmer

2020 BMW M850i Review: A Grand Gran Turismo With a Sole Notable Flaw


August 29, 2019 Cars By Photo by Will Sabel Courtney
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For the last 40-odd years, BMW has been swapping its big coupes back and forth with commendable regularity. From 1976 to 1989, the company’s biggest two-door was called the 6 Series. As that model wound down, Bimmer swapped in a new, larger model with more powerful engines called the 8 Series, which stuck around until 1999. That was followed up by a new 6 Series again, which appeared on the scene in 2003 and stuck around for 15 years over the course of two generations. As it wound down last year, it was in turn replaced by — you guessed it — an all-new 8 Series.

While the name might make you think it’s related to the giant 7 Series sedan, the new 8er is actually based on the same platform as the 5 Series sedan (which, to be fair, is now nearly as large as the 7 Series of 2008). Of course, that lofty number means BMW can charge full-size luxury prices; the M850i may have the same powertrain as the M550i, but the base price is a whopping $35,250 higher. But the two cars play to different audiences; while the M Sport 5er is made for upper-management types who still have bosses to please and children to ferry about, the eight-pot 8 Series is for empty nesters who can set their own schedules. It’s a gran turismo extraordinaire, a status-laden road tripper made to cover ground with the speed and luxury of a Gulfstream.

The Good: Stellar design and proportions, effortless and impressive V8 thrust, gecko-like grip, a cabin that looks and feels worth the six-figure pricetag.

Who It’s For: Those who seek comfort, speed and style over cargo capacity and other utilitarian concerns. Also, tall people. Front legroom, as in most large coupes, is outstanding.

Watch Out For: Low-profile tires are prone to blowouts on tattered roads; numb, unsatisfying steering; electronic control systems that add just a little too much complexity to what should be an involving driving experience.

Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz S560 Coupe ($125,950+), Lexus LC 500 ($92,950+), Porsche 911 Carrera 4S ($120,600+), Bentley Continental GT V8 ($198,500+).

Review: Oh, that damn steering. If there’s one facet of BMW’s famed reputation for building Ultimate Driving Machines has slipped in recent years, it’s the connection between that leather rim in the driver’s hands and the front two wheels — and that’s as evident as ever here in the M850i. In Comfort mode, the ratio feels right, but it’s too soft, a little too loose. In Sport, the resistance is dialed up — artificially, sure, but still feeling more substantial — but the ratio becomes too quick. Spend most of the time in Comfort, as you will most of the time, presumably, you’ll find yourself dialing in too much for every turn. It’s disconcerting, pulling you out of the driving experience — something that should be ever so natural, and is in almost every other cars. 

It’s a shame, because the car is delightful in almost every other way. The engine reminds you why the company is called the Bavarian Motor Works: Power starts arriving early and keeps on coming, a whopping geyser of torque and horses that keeps all four wheels busy thrusting the 4,478-pound Bimmer forward like a car half a ton lighter. A little throttle is usually all you need, thanks to the power and the delightfully proactive ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission — but bury the gas pedal, and this coupe feels every bit like the 3.3-second-from-0-to-60 car it is.

Not that you’d ever grow sick of the delightful rush of the twin-turbo V8’s accelerative force, but even if you did, there’d still be auditory delights to savor. In Sport mode, the back-pressure burbles when you release the throttle sound like distant thunder, and the roar under full whack brings to mind streetlight drag races in baby boomer glory days. It’s the primal delight of the automobile — Springsteenian emotion, delivered by analytical German engineers. I found myself yo-yo-ing my speed like an asshat just to hear the purr. 

Ultimate driving machine status is about lateral movement as it is acceleration, however — and the big Bimmer conducts itself plenty well in this regard. The all-wheel-drive serves up stunning grip, at least as far as I pushed it on back roads (which is probably as far as anyone ought to push the car on the road). It’s still a big car; on narrow two-lanes, getting accustomed to its track takes a little while, a quirk no doubt exacerbated by the steering issues. But it stays flat and true in the turns, carving through them with verve. I’m not sure how it would fare on a track, especially after a couple laps at the limit, but for street driving, the whole package is stunningly capable and quick. 

Indeed, the car’s innate goodness is enough to make you wish the engineers didn’t lean so much on different drive modes. Back in the day, before adjustable suspensions and electronic throttle mapping and variable power steering assist, carmakers could only dial in the suspension, throttle, steering and brakes in one way, so they had make sure everything was nicely balanced for every task and driving style the car might take on.

Now, you’re cursed with too many choices, which are often too similar to offer a difference or too extreme to realistically use. At least the M8 gives you two buttons on the wheel that you can use to call up a pair of custom presets; the M850i just gives you “sport individual,” which lets you tailor a single preference that becomes the default when you hit Sport. (I’d recommend Sport Plus for everything but steering, which is best left in Comfort all the time.)

Still, all told, it performs the grand touring balancing act deftly. Doesn’t feel as weighty as the Continental GT or an S-Class two-door, but it has more get up and go than an LC 500. The Lexus drives with a tad more purity, in some ways; the rear-wheel-drive power delivery and naturally-aspirated V8 certainly make it feel a little more playful. But the Bimmer is more conventionally attractive, especially inside — and its infotainment system won’t cause you to drive off the road while attempting to change tracks. 

Speaking of looks — boy, does the M850i look good. It’s long, lean, low, and wide — idealized proportions for a car. The latest iteration of the Bimmer styling language fits it to a T, adding aggression without looking absurd. (Sorry, Z4, but you look weird.) The Barcelona Blue Metallic paint job of my tester — which has more gray and more flatness in it than the name would lead you to believe — suits the coupe damn well, bringing out the muscular nuances of the design.

If the exterior is aggressive, the interior is elegant — a spot where the company can justify the car’s six-figure valuation. The materials aren’t quite up to the level of six-figure Mercedes models, but by any objective measure, it’s a delightful place to knock out some miles. I had to make an unexpected weekend round-trip to Monticello Motor Club to pick up a piece of the Jeep Gladiator I’d left behind the week before; even after six hours and close to 250 miles in the saddle, I was nearly as relaxed as I was binge-watching Netflix’s equally-long extended cut of The Hateful Eight.

Admittedly, the new BMW instrument panel is mildly irritating, with its inverted tachometer that does a mediocre job of actually telling you how fast the engine’s turning at a quick glance. (Luckily, the head-up display manifests its own tiny tach in sport mode.) Other than that, it’s a pretty innovative way to display all the information you need while driving. It effectively acknowledges that the traditional “analog” speedo and tach can be pushed to the outskirts of the display, now that there’s a big digital speedo front and center in most cars and just about all of them come with automatic transmissions (and, in the case of sportier ones, have sport modes that probably know better than you do when to shift). That newfound space between speedometer and tachometer can be used to show a map, navigation directions, even the music playing (and a cool projection of the album art). Combined with the HUD, which puts the most crucial info smack in your eye line, you never feel lacking. 

The latest version of the once-maligned iDrive is better than ever, but it still has enough complex functions that you really ought to spend a good 15 minutes fiddling with it while parked before attempting to drive for the first time. While you’re there, take the time to delve into the many menus and tailor the car’s settings just the way you like; BMW offers more choices here than most automakers, even allowing you to dial in how sensitive you want the active safety systems to be.

Verdict:  The BMW M850i would seem to make for the perfect all-around daily driver, so long as you don’t need room for more than two people. In practice, it comes painfully close to being as good as it looks on paper, held back only by that unfortunate steering system. It’s a minor quibble, sure, but when you’re facing off against cars like the Porsche 911, you’d better make sure everything tied to driving fun is as good as you damn well can.

That said, the M5 doesn’t suffer from such steering maladies, so maybe the new M8 won’t either. Suppose we’ll have to find out for ourselves. (Hint, hint, BMW.)

2020 BMW M850i Coupe: Key Specs

Powertrain: 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 523
Torque: 553 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 3.3 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Top Speed: 159 mph

BMW provided this product for review.

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