When they were new
An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, October 1982 | By Alan Henry
For more than a decade the cornerstone of BMW’s sporting image has been its imposingly styled big coupé. The stylish CS-series gave way in 1977 to the more rounded 6-series range that continues to entertain enthusiastic owners. When the original 633CSi was supplemented in 1978 by the 635CSi, we enthused over a refined, extremely well equipped and very fast product. Four years later, we have reacquainted ourselves with the latest 635.
Outwardly it remains almost unchanged, bearing virtually no visual testimony to the enormous amount of development work that has made it significantly more efficient while sustaining its sporting appeal. In fact, that does the 635CSi less than full credit: in many areas its performance has been improved, for the car is lighter and more economical. Continuing model improvement has not resulted in a drastically revamped profile, merely a refined interpretation of a popular line.
Although it has been available on the British market for five years, familiarity hasn’t bred contempt. By any standards the 635CSi remains an imposing, even striking, machine. It is a big car, well proportioned from its gently sloping bonnet to its sharply cut-off tail.
It seldom fails to turn an interested head in traffic, although it manages to avoid some of the vulgar excess epitomised by that 3.3-litre CSL ‘Batmobile’ of the mid-Seventies.
The heart of the 635CSi remains its sohc six-cylinder engine, which has served BMW extremely well in a variety of forms since the late 1960s. The bore and stroke have been slightly revised for a capacity of 3430cc, but quoted power remains the same: 218bhp at 5200rpm, although the 635 is now more than 170lb lighter than when first introduced.
From a handling point of view the car is sensitive and responsive, although it definitely calls for respect on wet surfaces. In contrast to the 635CSi I tested in 1978, the latest model has excellent braking. The ABS’s ability to prevent wheels locking under emergency braking instils confidence, especially in the rain – a pleasant bonus because the wet road handling is not so reassuring. A suspension redesign has reduced the tendency for sudden transition to oversteer, and in the dry we found the 635CSi reasonably forgiving.
Hurrying through country lanes, the 635 doesn’t feel particularly big, the ZF power steering sustaining a pleasant amount of feel – one revels in the system’s crisp response and accuracy.
A reassuring touch of understeer is the abiding characteristic when hustling the car on secondary roads, and the rear trailing arm modifications seem to prevent any sudden reaction if you have to back off mid-way through a corner. In the wet, however, it really does snap abruptly to oversteer, so a sensitive right foot is required.
That six-cylinder engine is an absolute joy. Whether sustaining high motorway speeds or threading through a snarl-up, the 635 adapts instantly to the role.
Its flexibility in traffic is one of its high points – in fifth gear we could trickle down to 20mph and pull away without any juddering.
Noise levels are modest below 4500rpm, though beyond this point the 635 lets you know that it is a six rather than a V8 or V12. BMW’s claim of 142mph seems quite acceptable, even though we never found sufficient room to reproduce that. Particularly noteworthy is the way it covers the ground between, say, 80 and 110mph in third and fourth gears.
Internally, instrumentation and positioning of minor controls is, as always, beyond reproach. Gearchange movement is pleasant, although it is occasionally possible to snag the overdrive fifth (dog-legged away from the driver to the right) when you’re actually seeking third.
Through the upper half of the three-spoke steering wheel, the large speedometer and matching rev counter remain clearly visible and reflection-free. I confess I took only a passing interest in the sophisticated trip computer. It is very informative to have all these pieces of information at one’s fingertips, but
I hope I will not be wasting my time watching such a gimmick as I sail into the back of a stationary bus, my attention diverted. I prefer to enjoy driving such machines to the full, especially when achieving an average of 24.1mpg during the course of our test. You would not have dreamt of such a figure in the old 3.3-litre CSi!
The steering column is adjustable for reach and this, in conjunction with a highly adjustable seat, means that one would have to be an awkward shape indeed not to find a comfortable driving position. The seats are deep and firm, and visibility is fine from every angle.
I have always considered BMW heating and ventilation systems to be excellent, but that fitted to the 635 is further improved by a pre-set facility on which a temperature can be selected and controlled. The fan works quietly when assistance is needed.
It goes without saying that paint finish and trim levels are of a very high order. Standard equipment includes an electric sliding roof, central locking and a Blaupunkt stereo radio/cassette player.
To sum up, the revised 635CSi is a civilised tourer, refined to fresh levels of sophistication. In a highly competitive sector of the market, the £22,950 BMW faces mouth-watering competition from the Jaguar XJ-S HE (£19,708), Porsche 928 (£21,827) and Mercedes-Benz 380 SEC (£25,700). I’d find it impossible to make a choice, although pondering such a problem would be quite delightful.
BMW 635CSi factfile
Max speed: 142mph
Handsome, practical four-seat coupé with one of the great motors and close-ratio box. Minor upgrades from 1982 improved suspension and flexibility but brought standard box, with auto alternative. M version from ’83 had 282bhp, LSD and wide TRX wheels.
Perfect spec: M635CSi – what else?
4 Star Classics