Sintra, Portugal - There are high expectations of the 8 Series not only because of its purposeful look and BMW’s rich heritage of producing large coupes, but also a lot has changed since the first 8 (E31) of 1989. The competitive onslaught has intensified from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Aston Martin, and customer demands with it. Cars are to be many things to many people; Segment lines having once been clear are now blurred, making it difficult for a brand to distinguish itself and tick the right boxes.
Market shenanigans aside, BMW’s own claim of the 8 being a true sportscar (trapped in a 2+2 GT), adds a further complication. Is this pluralism something that the new 8 can deliver on? Is it something that the market will respond to? Which boxes does it tick?
Important questions, yet at full tilt on the iconic Autódromo do Estoril I didn’t care too much about boxes. I was too busy trying to keep up with BMW Motorsport works driver António Félix da Costa. I was failing (of course)… but having fun.
The M850i Coupé is seriously fast. Out of sight burbles the familiar N63 4,4-litre, twin-turbo V8 found in other large BMWs, but here having been extensively reworked with stiffer crankshaft, revised cylinder heads and larger turbos. This engineering-fettling means the M850i packs a mean punch, delivering 390 kW and an M5-rivaling 750 N.m.
Yet, it is not a sledgehammer; power delivery is smooth and progressive… more a slap through the face than kick up the rear.
It employs a rear-biased xDrive system and through the Parabolica Ayrton Senna (an extremely long right-hander) allowed for careful moderation with the rear dancing a merry jig, but never getting out of shape. A harder step of the right foot onto the main straight also lets loose an addictive burbling howl from the exhausts. Shifts from the eight-speed Steptronic transmission are quick.
Estoril is tight and technical with short straights and, having been recently resurfaced, a little slippy. Traction on tight exits was very good and the car did well to disguise its weight. At nearly two tonnes, the M850i weighs more than the 6 Series (despite being shorter), so requires a bit more effort to reign in, but remained balanced under acceleration, properly fast on the straights and well-behaved under hard braking.
It does manage to hug apexes well, making full use of the Integral Active Steering with rear-wheel steering. However, on tighter turn-ins the nose erred to get in line as evidence of very slight understeer. The steering also felt somewhat austere. Even in Sport and Sport+ modes, I wanted a weightier feel and greater feedback through the column, particularly from the front-end. Other than that the 8 was well-behaved through the corners and clearly has dynamism to spare. In terms of sportiness it is possibly pipped by the DB11 and 911, but that is what the M8 is for and it is certainly more refined than the Aston.
That said the M850i was more at home off the track. While at times crashing over the potholes that dot the back roads of Portugal, it remained mostly refined at both low and high speeds. It is perhaps not as cosseting as an S-Class Coupé, but certainly more dynamic and rewarding. It was obedient even through bumpier corners and pleasingly lurched from one corner to the next, letting off loud bangs on override.
The cabin is understated and attractive, adorned with stitched leather and meshed stainless steel (the glass gear selector may split opinions). The front seats are very comfortable and offer good support, but the rear cabin is certainly only for occasional use.
The dash features old-fashioned buttons (which is tastefully finished) and a 10.25-inch screen running the new iDrive 7.0 system: More intuitive than before, all main menu items are now on a sidebar, freeing up space for configurable tiles on the main screen. In front of the driver is the Live Cockpit instrument cluster in a hexagonal design. While containing a plethora of intuitive driving information, I do miss the simplicity and understated beauty of the traditional BMW round dials.
Yet, what is nostalgia but a seductive liar and I have a feeling that BMW did not want nostalgia to cloud the purpose of the new 8 Series. It is not harkening back to the charm of the past, but rather defining BMWs future in the luxury segment.
It may be easy to think that the all-new M850i has an identity crisis. Does it tick the right boxes? This remains to be seen, but while it may not offer the fully immersive driving experience that one could expect from a purist sportscar, such as a 911 or DB11, it is perfectly refined on the road and manages to excel at enough faculties to impress with a broad spread of talents.
In a crowded market, the new 8 Series has actually managed to burble into a tidy niche.
Written by Brett Hamilton