When BMW built its 850i, hopes were that a successor to the M635CSi was on the cards. Andrew Frankel was disappointed
It came with high hopes and a very big engine. It had five litres and, more significantly, 12 cylinders. BMW had finally healed the wounds of the M1 and was about, once more, to produce its supercar. And, BMW being BMW, it was unlikely to make the same mistake twice.
We knew, of course, that, 12-cylinder engine or not, the 850i was not going to be a rival for the Testarossa. The engine was in the wrong place, it seemed to have seats in the back and was priced more in line with the Mondial. Even so, it seemed the perfect successor to the M635CSi, one of the most beautiful and beautifully balanced coupes ever built. It had twice as many cylinders as the M6, an extra litre and a half of engine capacity, six gears and the whispers said that, were you to find a way to bypass the device that limited its top speed to 155mph, it would reach 170mph. Or more.
We should, perhaps, have looked a little more closely for the signs, paid attention to the fact that, despite all those extra pistons, the V12 had the same number of valves and camshafts as the straight six it replaced and that its power output of 300bhp sounded good only until you read that the M6 possessed just 14 fewer horsepower yet weighed over 300kg less. In one stroke, the power to weight ratio of BMWs flagship coupe fell from over 180 to under 160bhp per tonne. This was not good news.
Its styling fell particularly wide of the mark too following, as it did, M1 and M6, both of which boasted a combination of purpose and elegance that the 850i could not hope to match. It had a certain presence, for sure but in its coldly brutal lines lived no sign of passion.
And that was the way it drove. I was shocked to discover a car which, far from behaving like a purpose built sports-car, felt more like a competent but cramped saloon. There was no doubting the grip nor the innate security of the chassis but if it was poise and balance you sought, both had left with the M6. What remained was, put simply, a dull car to drive. The steering did no more than determine the direction in which the large car travelled: there was no feel, no real sense of involvement or enthusiasm for the job at the helm. The soft suspension made sure the 850i rode tolerably well but was engineered to disallow the sort of throttle adjustable progress that made its predecessor such an enduring delight.
The engine was a sore disappointment too. Not only did it lack entirely the ability to bowl the fat 850i up the road with anything approaching the conviction of the old motor in the M6, it lacked its manners too. Where once there was a rich, crisp howl of intention from under the bonnet now there was mere muted whirrings rising to a crescendo of mechanical indifference as the unadventurous red-line approached. Those looking for the character of a Ferrari, or even Jaguar V12 motor, left to look elsewhere.
The 850i’s defence is that it was never intended to be the next M6 and, to be fair, BMW released pictures of the still-born M8 as proof that the real replacement had, at least, been thought about seriously enough for it to reach the prototype stage. The defence says that the 850i is a grand-touring coupe, a sort of latter-day, German XJS, something which would smoothly cosset you all the way across Europe and still cut a dash when you arrived. It is a more practically minded car than the M6 ever was, more of a tool, less of a toy.
The defence has a point. At high speed and spared the rigours of enforced entertainment, the 850i always was a fine device. Comfortable, attractive from within and ergonomically resolved like no other coupe produced to date, it made light of the serious business of maximising the miles-to-effort ratio. In this one respect, it even had the measure of the altogether more crude though dramatically more rapid Porsche 928GT.
It’s not enough, least of all for a car with a blue and white propeller on its nose claiming to be the flagship of the company with ‘The ultimate driving machine’ as its motto. And it’s not as if the 850i could even claim to be a wonderfully useful and practical device. For sure two could sit in the front in airy comfort and the boot was big, but the rear seats were a complete joke. A mid-engined Ferrari Mondial had more room in the back. For such a large car, the 850i represented a profligate waste of space. There are few cars indeed of which so much was expected and so little delivered. Where the M6 had been fast, thrilling and beautiful, the 850i was slow, dull and ugly. Today, the looks remain but the car inside has been transformed for the better. Fitted with V8 engine, the 840Ci proved a markedly more characterful, satisfying and considerably cheaper and better route into 8-series ownership while the 850CSi, with its 380bhp, 5.6-litre V12 motor at least possessed a similar turn of speed to the by now much missed M6.
As a breed, however, the 8-series in general and the original 850i in particular, is likely to be remembered as one of those few examples of BMW getting it wrong, the exception which proved the rule of its otherwise deeply impressive range of cars. At the time the 850i must have seemed like a good idea, but in years to come we will wonder how BMW, usually one of the most dependable sources of great driver’s cars of all, came to build a V12 coupe that, in pure driving terms, was no more fun to drive than its cheapest saloon.
Verdict: Rotten apple