It’s been 20 years since the original, exotically-styled 8 Series cast its 12-cylinder spell on us. Times have changed. This type of pricey “personal reward” car, whether coupe or convertible, can seem even more out-of-fashion than a sedan. BMW sold fewer than 3,800 6 Series cars last year, compared with nearly 10,000 Americans who forked over big bucks for a 6 Series back in 2013. Bring pitchforks of cash for this new M850i xDrive, a big, blazing GT with a rorty 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque from a twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V8. (That engine is lavishly upgraded from its application in the M550i sedan, where it makes "only" 456 horses and 480 pound-feet.)
BMW is quick to correct anyone who calls the 8 Series a “replacement” for the 6er, but it might feel that way in showrooms. The 6 Series coupe and convertible have bid “Auf Wiedersehen” (lame-duck GT and Gran Coupe models waddle into 2019), while the 8 Series builds a penthouse in the clouds of the BMW lineup where halo cars belong. It costs $112,895 to start, which is about $30,000 more than the lowest-price 2019 640i Gran Coupe, and nearly $16,000 above a 650i Gran Coupe with a V8 and xDrive AWD. This 8 Series coupe, initially offered in America only with a V8 and AWD, also sits roughly $12,000 above a 750i xDrive sedan.
The M850i convertible naturally starts higher, from $122,395. Upcoming full-blown M8 coupe, convertible, and Gran Coupe models will charge more, and supply more than 600 horsepower. Mum's the word at BMW, but we’re hoping it will eventually offer a (somewhat) more-attainable 8 Series with a six-cylinder powertrain, rear-wheel-drive, or both. Not everyone wants or needs 523 fuel-sucking horses or AWD; plenty of owners would happily slow down to be seen in this most fashionable of Bimmers.
If you’re going to sell people a $113,000 grand tourer and call it an 8 Series, it had damn well better look good. Well, hubba hubba, Hans bubbie: The reborn 8 Series brings the requisite star quality. It’s a frankly pretty car from a brand that’s only rarely been associated with “pretty.”
BMW granted The Drive a full-day test of the 8 Series prior to its recent annual Test Fest in Palm Springs, California. The groaning smorgasbord of cars we sampled at The Thermal Club’s track included the new Z4 convertible, the brilliant 2020 M340i sedan (direct from our Portugal media drive, and still in camouflage), the 625-horsepower M5 Competition, M4 CS coupe, M2 Competition, all-new X3 M and X4 M, the 205-mph B7 Alpina, and more. (Check back soon for the full story on BMW Test Fest). The nearly overwhelming assemblage of butt-kicking, track-worthy cars underlined how BMW is rapidly restoring order to its Ultimate Driving universe. Considering the brand’s recent winning streak, I wasn’t overly surprised that the 8 Series is fun and engaging to drive.
What did surprise me was the M850i’s bizarrely capable performance on track, a place where only the most eccentric 8 Series owner will ever set his Gucci-soled feet. In the pits, when I jumped from a track-tuned ninja like the M4 CS straight into the 8 Series’s swanky driver's seat, I reminded myself to limit expectations for such a big, street-focused GT. Yet the 8 Series easily held its own on Thermal’s South Course, thanks to natural, smartly-tuned steering—none of that fake BMW heft or detachment here—and a taste for tail-happy antics. All-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steering—the new killer app of large, high-performance cars and SUVs—help the BMW drive, quite magically, like a smaller car than a 4,476-pound curb weight might suggest. (The new 600-mph M5 sedan, which weighs 100 fewer pounds, employs similar tricks to great effect.)
Turn-in is crisp, aided by BMW’s newly-transparent variable-ratio steering. Body roll is finely controlled. The rear-biased AWD system boots up to 50 percent of power forward when required. Rear wheels that counter-steer at up to 2.5 degrees (and then turn in-phase at higher speeds) do their part to keep the 8 Series clawing through curves, even when the back end is dancing wide. Oh, and the speed: With that monumental 553 pound-feet of torque and sparkling changes from an eight-speed, paddle-shifted Steptronic automatic transmission, the M850i clocks a smoking 3.6-second run from 0-60 mph—faster than any M2, M3, or M4 model, and just 0.4-seconds behind the 600-hp M5. The biggest tease is the 155-mph top speed, in a slippery car that would easily top 190 mph without an electronic limiter. Expect the M8 version to correct that oversight.
The coupe looks better than the convertible, as coupes often do, thanks to its sleek fastback roof that melts into big, buttery hips. Yes, the current Mustang is also a fastback, and the Ford is a sweet-looking car in its own right. But the only people who will ever mistake this BMW for a ‘Stang are drunk or blind. If anything, the BMW’s rear- and three-quarter views whisper “Aston Martin,” with that slender, raked greenhouse atop widebody flanks. Compared with the 6 Series, the rear quarter windows’ signature Hofmeister kink tightens its angle. Up front, the bristling double-kidney grille is like the porn ‘stache of this louche coupe, dyed in black Shadowline trim. That fronts a hood with creases as sharp as meringue peaks. LED headlamps, the brand's slimmest yet, add BMW’s Laserlight technology to their arsenal, while LED taillamps light with a distinctive L-shape. The Bimmer looks the modern GT part: dynamic, elegant, and damn-right-it’s-expensive.
Prior to that instructive track day, I spent six hours driving the 8 Series in a place that’s bound to see its share of them: Palm Springs, where wealthy silver foxes and gilded cougars retire or winter from other locales, bringing hot cars with them. My test car turned heads with a lovely new color called Barcelona Blue Metallic, paired with black 20-inch M wheels and a $3,000 carbon-fiber roof that lowers center-of-gravity and plays up the roof’s double-bubble shape. Here in the newly-hip Palm Springs, the BMW played the role that most owners will cast it in: burbling, cruising, and schmoozing. A castle-solid structure and serene cabin put me in a chill mood as well, with brutal passes of other cars just a squeeze of the throttle away. Adaptive dampers keep the world at bay, then firm up nicely in Sport or Sport Plus modes. And the sound is prime V8 beef, but not so obnoxious as to flout covenant laws in a posh subdivision. Sport Plus mode does open the dual-flap exhaust, eliciting amusing trills of backfires, in case there’s one stuffy neighbor you’d love to piss off.
Multi-function seats, clad in a handsome mix of saddle-and-black Merino leather, were as well-planned as the rest of the car: virtual Barcaloungers for all-day drives, but with enough bolstering and adjustments to fix me in place during track-time workouts. The cabin look isn’t radically different—this is BMW, whose interior designs change more slowly than Alpine glaciers—but the 8 Series still feels new and special inside.
A waterfall center stack flows from a low, slim dashboard. Subtle, kinky Hofmeister motifs play over the angled metal door pulls and other cabin elements. Sparkly cut glass for the gear lever (with an illuminated “8” set within) and other controls added $650; a knurled-metal controller for the iDrive 7.0 system replaces the previous plastic. A leather-faced, slim-circumference M Sport steering wheel is another tactile gain. The clamshell center console is newly deep and roomy. And BMW’s new Live Cockpit, first seen in the new X5 SUV, combines a 12.3-inch digital instrument display with a 10.3-inch center touchscreen. The views aren’t as flashy and configurable as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but it’s a handsome, legible presentation nonetheless.
The BMW’s biggest digital failing remains its lame, laggy navigation system that shows your route on a low-contrast strip of white on roads and streets—the least-intuitive color possible, akin to drawing a treasure map on white parchment in white ink. Consolation comes via BMW’s industry-best head-up display, which lets you follow directional arrows in your field-of-view. I also climbed into the back seat just to make sure I’d never need to do it again. Like any two-plus-two, the rear quarters are handy for luggage, shopping, munchkins or emergencies. Cargo space fares better, with a narrow-yet-deep trunk and rear seats that fold 50/50 to fit more stuff inside.
A word about the brakes, those unsung heroes: The BMW’s brake-by-wire system must be the world’s first that doesn’t feel like brake-by-wire; many owners will have no clue that there’s no physical link between the pedal and the binders themselves. That transparent action—even in AARP-heavy Palm Springs traffic—stands in sharp contrast to models like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, whose touchy, hard-to-modulate electronic brakes are by far the biggest demerit in an otherwise spectacular car. Those sophisticated brakes also shined at Thermal, where this 4,500-pound bullet lasted all day with no brake fade or smoke; and on my epic blasts on Highway 74, the famed "Palms to Pines" run into the stark, tumbled Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. Twice, I ran Highway 74’s plunging descent into the blue-misted Palm Valley, attacking dozens of cliff-hung switchbacks, and the BMW’s brakes never succumbed. (Here, the steering could have transmitted more feedback, but I’ll say that about nearly any new car with electric steering).
It was the kind of barnstorming that 99 percent of owners will never attempt, yet the BMW stayed fast and composed throughout. While the BMW gobbled up those miles with elan, the serpentine road did reveal some understeer near the handling limit. Physics can be fooled but not denied: This is still a hefty machine, not a quicksilver sports car like a Porsche Cayman. But between its AWD, electronic rear diff, and other tech tricks, I couldn’t break the BMW’s tires loose on public roads. Pushed harder on track, those Bridgestone Potenza S007A summer tires broke away with an almost eerie lack of noise, as I’ve experienced before with these latest, sticky Bridgestones.
As America marches lockstep into SUVs, it’s become tough out there for gentlemanly GTs, cars expressly designed to thumb their long noses at practicality and family values. With the Jaguar XK long gone, the excellent (but lesser-performing) Lexus LC 500 V8 coupe is really the BMW’s only direct rival—and happens to cost less, at $93,000 to start. Audi doesn’t play in the six-figure coupe space. For all its glories, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class coupe is comparatively massive, and not at all sporting. Mercedes-Benz's smaller E-Class coupe is a stylish boulevardier, but it’s a full class below the Bimmer in power and performance. The knee-wobbling Aston Martin DB11 V8 is a similar GT in terms of size and layout, with its 503-hp Mercedes-AMG V8—though the BMW has more horsepower and torque, accelerates a touch faster, and handles as well or better. That Aston also starts at $202,000, versus my BMW that chalked up a pricetag of $119,295 including options. A Bentley Continental GT is a 626-hp, 12-cylinder fantasy, but it weighs 5,000 pounds and will set you back $250,000 with options, double the Bimmer's price.
Sure, the BMW doesn’t directly compete with Aston or Bentley, those British holies of design and prestige. My point is that the M850i definitely competes, or even wins, against any current player in terms of overall GT performance, even with loopy-powered M8 versions still to come. And the BMW looks beautiful and desirable in its own, more-modest way. It all looks like a smart move by BMW: If you can only sell a few thousand grand tourers each year, anyway, you may as well sneak upmarket and bank significantly more profit on each one. With the groundbreaking, electric BMW i8 fading into obsolescence, the 8 Series now wears the BMW halo—and wears it well.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.email@example.com.