The modern safety crusade by automotive manufacturers hasn’t entirely led to reduced accident statistics. A survey in Germany, a couple of years ago, revealed that the increasingly widespread availability of four-wheel drive and ABS in ordinary family saloons merely served to breed an aura of invincibility in customers, who continued having accidents. They just had them at higher speeds. ABS, the true purpose of which many motorists continue to ignore, and permanent four-wheel drive cannot overcome the natural laws of physics.
All the same, electronic technology continues apace and there are more and more systems being developed to make vehicles as driver-proof as possible. One of BMW’s latest innovations goes by the name of Active Rear Axle Kinematics, or AHK for the acronymists amongst you. AHK governs the build-up of lateral forces, and adjusts the position of the rear wheels accordingly. In effect, it’s a variable rear-wheel steering system, which comes into force during extreme cornering loads in order to increase the predictability of the vehicle’s responses. It is not designed to facilitate parking for the hard of judgment.
In its initial application, AHK is available on the 850 coupe as part of what BMW calls its Active Driving Package. This added £4710 to the £61,495 list price of the 850i automatic (henceforth to be known as the Ci, as distinct from the new, sportier 850 CSi that has recently been announced) that we tested, and includes EDC III (cockpit adjustable damping), ASC ± T (traction control), Servotronic (power steering with speed-variable assistance) and an electrically adjustable steering column. (One of only two other extras on the already lavishly equipped BMW range-topper was an automatically dipping interior mirror, self-indulgence gone mad for £105.)
In standard trim, the 850 requires no great effort on the driver’s part, habitual road manners and concentration apart. It is, without question, one of the world’s most comfortable means of storming down continental motorways at high average speeds. It is relaxing off the beaten track, too, though this is partly due to the fact that its size discourages vim on narrow, serpentine lanes. This is not always the case with large BMWs. The beautifully balanced 735 (recently superseded), for instance, could always be hustled along country lanes with all the vigour of a 325. The 850 cannot. It has to be one of the most curious pieces of vehicle packaging of all time, offering precious little space for some of the largest external dimensions. It’s the Metro effect in reverse, if you like.
For all that it understeered and wallowed around slippery, damp Belgian hairpins, however, it did grip well. Whenever the traction control is working, a flashing light on the dash indicates that an electronic saviour is keeping you out of the trees. If deactivated, via an on/off switch housed within the central console, you’ll soon spot the difference. Return to the same corner, take it at the same speed and the inside rear wheel spins for an instant before the car flops sideways.
Some might argue that such frippery detracts from the art of driving. If you feel that way, you always have the option of switching the system off, but bear in mind that, at 1790kg, roughly 1.75 tons, a wayward 850 packs a lot of kinetic energy if you do overstep the mark…
It might be hard to take seriously any car which features buffalo leather as a £950 option (just in case you shouldn’t be satisfied with the ‘cheaper’ bovine wrapping that comes as standard). You must, however, appreciate BMW’s commitment to keeping the unskilled — or even the skilled, but over-ambitious — out of trouble.
While the 850 may be regarded, in certain quarters, as a status symbol, pure and simple (and it’s difficult to defend the car’s viability, when the same company produces the M5, which is more accelerative, more practical, more fun, and around £12,000 cheaper), the wizardry lurking beneath its seductive shell should not be ignored. There will never be a complete panacea for stupidity at the wheel, but this goes some way towards cancelling out common rudimentary errors.
It may take some time before such technology is available on models that fit everyman’s idea of ‘affordable’. Purists will fear its arrival, but surely that day will come?