Worth the wait?



The British are famous for their patient and (usually) orderly queues, but I wonder if those within the queues for sporting/luxury coupes from West Germany seriously ask themselves about the years that may be spent awaiting RHD delivery of machines such as the Mercedes SL, or the BMW 850i. We have been privileged to drive both these rival machines in the last six months, and would summarise their characters by saying the Mercedes SL is a logical and beautifully crafted development of traditional SL appeal in a Nineties context. Meanwhile the BMW 850i fails to heed its sporting heritage and lies uneasily in the role of luxury coupé.

Aside from the weight and girth, the 850i’s vital statistics sound promising. There is a new six-speed gearbox, which has five comparatively close ratios plus an overdriven top gear that allows 100 mph at just 3350 of 5800 available rpm. The 15.6 foot display of flush curves in glass and metal allows an exceptional 0.29cd aerodynamic drag factor, even wearing the standard 235 ZR 16 rubber on 7.5 inch broad alloy wheels.

The body, with drawings dating back to 1984, has some attractive aspects. The styling must be a matter of personal taste, but we must say that there is not the composed elegance and clarity of vision seen in so many previous BMW’s. Pop up headlamps appearing in a design that also has the rather cliche wheel arch blisters (Audi quaftro, 1900, Lancia Delta Integrale, 1986 Vauxhall Nova and so on). A lot of BMW 6-series and earlier coupe drivers will not recognise this heavy two-seater machine of nearly 4000 lb kerb weight as a natural descendant to the cars which traditionally earned BMW European Touring Car Championship titles. The token “+ 2” element is also a poor joke in such a plump occupant of 188.2 inches length and 73 inches width of valuable road space. Only the low roofline and elegantly sculpted side glass properly combine today with tradition.

BMW is particularly proud of the extensive electronics including use of the interesting multiplexing system to cut wiring complexity in areas such as the sunroof or doors, and electronic traction control devices abound within the five arm IRS layout. “Elastokinematics” and the use of a subframe in support of those linkages allows the car to accumulate violent changes of power, cornering angle and speed with amazing grace. Both suspension and traction control devices (including the use of the ABS rear brake action as well as reductions in engine power delivery) serve the purpose of taming the effects of 300 bhp delivered suddenly from prow to stern. A Porsche or Audi engineer might well wonder why BMW did not start with a more promising traction formula in the first place? For this BMW coupe is completely unlike its predecessors in that it does not share the floorpan of an existing saloon, thus creating opportunities for basic engineering solutions to handling and traction problems.

BMW will forcefully assert that its new low drag body, six-speed gearbox, and unique rear suspension (production is too expensively slow for it to spread to other models immediately) are sufficient advances to earn respect for the 850i in a technically aware society.

The 4988cc V12 of 60 degrees (84mm x 75mm) had been thoroughly proven in the 750i. One might have wished for more than the usual 300 bhp at 5200 rpm or 332Ib ft of torque at a comparatively elevated (for 5-litres) 4100 rpm peak. Since BMW govern maximum speed to 156 mph — as they also do for the M5 and the 750i — the engineers would not admit the logic of increasing power merely to cut acceleration times of a bulky car beneath 6.8 manual seconds to 60 mph, or 7.4 sec in the four-speed ZF automatic. Neither would engineers on the launch admit that they had worked on 4 valve per cylinder versions of the V12 (probably with dry sump lubrication to avoid upsetting the low bonnet line), or that a V8 was anything other than journalistic imagination. What is far more likely is a return to world class motorsport using a purpose-built racing V12.

Driving out from the company’s Technical Centre at Fiz in Munich, the manual six speeds and graduated weight of the clutch demanded traffic concentration, but soon became routine. Despite the rapidity with which changes can be made, the sixth gear option on a 5-litre V12 did not strike us as an obvious priority as the 12 has more than a wide enough power band to cope with top gear down to a smooth 800 rpm pull away. The British speed limit is dismissed at a contemptuous 2345 rpm in sixth. The automatic, which offers the usual Sport and Economy operating alternatives, struck us as entirely more relaxing for the likely clientele in Britain and the USA, but in Germany they think up to 60% of customers will opt for the sextet.

Do not expect much practical mpg bonus with a manual gearbox; we got our best computed figure of 17 mpg from an automatic and figures ranging from 8.7 to 14.4 mpg assessed in three manual models. The official Urban figure is the same 14.3 mpg for either gearbox, which is served by 2.93:1 (manual) and 3.15:1 final drives.

The quadruple rectangular exhausts of the V12 and its demeanour are of more sporting character than the Jaguar 5.3 litre dozen. Insulation from noise and occasional driveline snatches, or road vibrations picked up by giant F700 covers, is inferior to Jaguar civilisation. Driven harder, over a country road on M-technic suspension, there was excitement and exhilaration to be had from the big BMW. However, you had to allow plenty of retardation space for the 12.75 inch ventilated discs to overcome the astonishing speeds indicated on a fussier black and white instrumentation layout then we are used to from Munich. The ball and nut power steering (Servotronic) and rear suspension will provide an accurate line, but not the flow of information and agility that makes driving a pleasure rather than an operational routine.

The 850i is not a bad car, but an autumn 1990 delivery cost estimated to be ‘£60,000-£65,000’ there were more disappointments than expected and very little sheer Joy of Driving that BMW has made a speciality of the marque in less complex cars. Standard British equipment is naturally more extensive than on the £50,000 home market 850i. Items such as outstanding electronic ABS braking, 18 button (allegedly simpler!) computer and electric adjustment of seats, mirrors and steering wheel with memory of three positions can be expected. Also included is effective air conditioning, cruise control, CD player and in-car entertainment. Options primarily extend to Buffalo hide to replace the standard leather, sportier ‘turbine’ alloy wheels and (in my view, vital) M-technic suspension.

BMW will offer four (three in England) separate suspension spring and damper ratings, including an electronically controlled system (EDC) that provides both Sport and Comfort settings. In action, only one layout, which also demanded a thickening of anti-roll bars, could be recommended to our readers. Anything softer than the M-Technic option allows excessive squirming and front end floating, not just over crests and through long motorway corners, but in straightline running on breezy autobahns. Ride quality is excellent, even using the hardest MTechnic layout, partially attributable to the 105.7 inch wheelbase. The BMW 850i is definitely one of those cars you should drive before blindly proffering £5000 of your money to swell a dealer’s bank account without earning a penny of interest when you, at one year waiting time of the two years quoted, are asked to offer such a refundable deposit. That is not the end of your 850i cash involvement, for three weeks before delivery they will ask for another £5000 and you now have no right to a refund on the £10,000 that you have invested. Terms may vary according to locality, but the factory quote of three years waiting and the British estimate of two years are consistent.

For twenty years I have enjoyed driving BMW coupes and even had the honour of competing with one (3.0 CSi) at the long track Spa 24 hours. So I approached the 850i with considerable goodwill that the 6-series had done nothing to diminish. It gives me no pleasure to say that BMW’s world class engineers were apparently mismanaged, producing a complex dinosaur which history may judge as an echo of their insensitive past faux pas, like the 2002 turbo in the middle of a fuel crisis. BMW carefully call an 850i unique, I would say it falls unhappily between the sporting role of Porsche and the ultimate refinement of Jaguar or Benz.