Unreal thing

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Back in 1991, BMW launched a much-hyped coupe to replace the elegant, outgoing M635CSi. Whilst the superseded model rapidly acquired ‘classic’ status, the newcomer didn’t exactly roll into its wheeltracks with a blaze of glory.

In many people’s eyes, the BMW 850i simply didn’t look quite right. Despite its copious external dimensions, you could barely call it a two-plus-two. In terms of packaging, it was a cross between a Routemaster bus and a Mini. It did not prove to be a winner for BMW in the same way that the XJ-S had proved to be for Jaguar or the 500 SEC for Mercedes.

Needless to say, it was also extremely expensive and, while it had to be considered as ‘a fast car’ in the overall scheme of things, its speed was hardly supercar material.

BMW sensibly decided that the Motorsport division, responsible for such greats as the M3 and M5, should wave its magic wand by adding a couple of letters to the bootlid. The new 850 CSi has an altogether different character to its rather soulless, progenitor. It seems puzzling that this subsidiary wasn’t entrusted with the 850’s development in the first instance.

Better late than never — though the sheer competence of certain rivals meant that the 850’s dynamics required a re-think as a matter of urgency.

At the time of its launch, cash buyers would have needed to approach their BMW showroom armed with £59,000. The intervening two years have raised the ante by £18,000 if you want a CSi, though the ‘entry level’ model, if you can call the Ci that, is available for just over £67,000.

In the case of the former, what do you get for the best part of £80,000? Well, the same heavy-looking, wedge-shaped, pillarless body (but for a deeper front spoiler) remains perched on its long wheelbase, but beneath lurks a bigger, more predatory engine, active suspension, a limited slip differential with traction control and larger brakes. There are detail changes both inside and out . . . BMW claims that the result is, arguably, the most technically advanced production car in the world: Formula One thinking for everyday road users.

On paper, it does indeed look impressive.

If ever there was a car that combined the looks of an RAF Tornado with the performance of the QE2 it was the 850i, an embarrassment to all who sailed in her. Its five litre VI2 simply wasn’t enough to enliven a two-ton coupe, and there were many ‘lesser’ cars which could offer more to those who enjoy driving for driving’s sake. The original 850 boasted 170 bhp per ton: acceptable, but in this case insufficient at speeds below those which are likely to earn your licence a trip to the shredder.

The solution?

To the basic recipe, add half a litre or so (5.6-litre V12), raise the compression ratio (9.8:1) and remap the electronic management. The gains are substantial. Power is up from 300 bhp to 380 (at 5500 rpm), and torque has increased by a massive 22 per cent, to 406 lb ft (at an unstressed 4000 rpm). It is actually possible to pull away smoothly in any gear from below 1000 rpm, and you can do so in third or fourth with surprising elan.

The final benefit, although unlikely to be of the remotest concern to those who can afford an 850 CSi, is, potentially, marginally better fuel efficiency than the five litre. . The tank will swallow 90 litres of unleaded fuel, so expect pit stops to cost in excess of £40. If most of your driving is around town, these may be as frequent as you light up a new, fat cigar. A fuel check on a typical commuter journey into and out of London revealed a return of under 10 mpg.

What sets the CSi’s engine apart is a world first on BMW’s part. We’re used to banks of switches in Bavarian cabins, allowing drivers to change all manner of things, from gear ratios (on automatics) to damper settings (all models). The CSi features EML, which adjusts the engine mapping system and you are given the choice between ‘sport’ or ‘comfort’. In the latter mode, the throttle (a fly-by-wire system, devoid of mechanical links) responds in a gentle manner, and promotes improved fuel economy. It also makes life smoother in stop-go urban traffic. Flick the switch to ‘sport’ and you are rewarded with vigorous urgency. Throttle response is instant, though be warned that the fuel gauge needle will dip almost as quickly as the revs rise. And if that doesn’t satisfy your hunger for hi-tech, the rev limiter cuts in progressively earlier as you move up through the gears. In other words, there are more rpm available in first gear than there are in sixth if you wish to optimise your forward progress.

Subtle changes have also been wrought to the manifold and catalytic converter, to improve both outright performance and efficiency.

The upshot is that the 850 CSi will accelerate from 0-60 mph in under six seconds about one second faster than the original – which is phenomenal for an ocean liner. It is also faster through the gears, all the way to its electronically governed, and artificial, 155 mph maximum.

BMW Motorsport’s active, multi-link suspension (AHK) reacts according to your speed, and steers the rear wheels slightly countering some of the waywardness that characterised earlier 850s. This has been fine-tuned to work harmoniously with the direct Servotronic assisted steering and firm suspension.

Just in case your ambition exceeds this combination of speed and balance, BMW provides a hooligan deterrent in the form of ASC +T (Automatic Stability Control & Traction). Comprising a 25 per cent lockable diff and traction control, this is yet another device activated by a convenient cockpit switch.

This plethora of technology ought, on paper, to elevate the art of driving onto hitherto unconquered planes. It should feel great behind the wheel. Remember though, the advent of traction control and active suspension sent many a Formula One fan reaching for the ‘off’ button on their TV set.

As in any car, it is imperative to be comfortable in the CSi to get the best out of your driving. This can take time, as nothing is manually adjustable. Even the steering column is electrically manoeuvred, and the motors are all painfully slow. A programmable memory is available once you’ve eventually set everything just so, and this does help.

The car wraps its driver in cool grey shades that started life as cattle and once you’ve adjusted everything to your liking, it really is comfortable. The seats are firm and supportive in all the right places, and the controls are fairly light (even the clutch, which is surprising in a car of this type).

The V12 thrum is subdued behind masses of sound-deadening materials, though not quite a match for Jaguar’s silkiest efforts. On the move the CSi can be as docile as a dozing infant, though carelessness needs to be avoided around town, simply because of its size. Visibility is OK, but could present problems for the vertically challenged. The tip of the long, sloping bonnet is not only invisible, it also protrudes beyond the edge of the bumper. It is one place where fitment of BMW’s optional sonic parking sensors, one of the greatest extravagances yet created by man, might actually be justified.

Although the 850’s extraordinary tractability means that you could drive around all day in one gear if the mood took you, it doesn’t take many miles of country tarmac to realise that the gearbox is not the car’s stong suit. The change from first to second is slow, and that from second to third can be obstructive. Its light, springy action deters from the car’s sporting ambiance.

Although there are unquestionably faster cars, the CSi has sufficient heart to be considered a true performance car. It is particularly impressive accelerating from around 100 mph in fifth, for instance, when momentum takes over, and the penalty of excess weight matters less.

The flat torque curve enables the 850 to pull like Popeye on steroids. All the way from below 1000 rpm to the red line, it remains potent and smooth.

Such awesome flexibility would be spoilt if the chassis couldn’t contain it, but it can. Switch off the ASC + T and it’s easy to overcome the 850’s tractive limits. In medium-to-fast bends it turns in neutrally and can thereafter be balanced in mild oversteer on the throttle without any need to saw frantically at the wheel, which retains a small degree of feel despite the Servotronic presence.

In tighter bends, more care is required, for the switch from inherent understeer to irretrievable oversteer may be sudden. With ASC + T engaged, of course, the car always remains settled. It may not inspire the confidence of lighter, nimbler supercars, but there is no question that the combination of driver-friendly devices will keep those whose bank balance exceeds their intellect out of serious trouble.

You can feel the ASC + T pulsing as the 850 argues with the established principles of physics. At times with the device’s continual on /off phases, progress round a bend is not as flowing as it could be, and you may find yourself making constant adjustments with the steering wheel.

Impressive though the CSi’s conception and execution may be, such aids unquestionably detract from overall driving pleasure. It’s just a little less involving, and thus not rewarding enough.

Having said all that, there is no electronic gadget on earth that will prevent a two-ton coupe from careering off the road if it is poorly driven. If it happens with the traction control switched on, the car will probably start and finish its accident in different time zones. . .

Good brakes are at least as important as the various aids on such a fast car, and BMW has complied by fitting the largest available discs in production. Quite simply, they’re as powerful as their specification suggests they should be. There’s no evidence of fade, and the ABS is unobtrusive, even on wet roads. You do, however, need to give the pedal a stout push on its lengthy travel to haul down such bulk from high speeds.

Ultimately, the BMW 850 CSi provides perhaps the ultimate blend of safety, luxury and performance. It’s still hard to justify the £77,000 price ticket though, particularly when you look at the vast expanse of plastic that comprises the dashboard (even if BMW long ago mastered the art of disguising plastic as a quality material).

If you’re a family man, even your toddlers won’t appreciate being compressed into the absurdly cramped rear seats, which, frankly, are superfluous. In any case, gadget-minded youngsters will prefer the battery of electronics at the front, including a computer that can tell you just about anything short of the best time to make a coffee stop.

Despite the computer’s presence, the facia is a paragon of functional neatness, in the true BMW idiom. Instrumentation is crisp and clear, and glows a warm red at night. The same is true of the stereo system, efficient operation of which isn’t immediately obvious. The air conditioning, conversely, is as simple to use as it is welcome. One ludicrous excess is the electronic rear blind. How many motors can a car take? That said, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea, bearing in mind that manual operation would require a PhD in contortionism . .

Two up, the 850 is soothing and comfortable. Add passengers into the equation and it’ll be a strain, particularly if there’s luggage involved. There’s barely space to stow an atlas, and the pointlessly small, elasticated door pockets will just about contain a tube of Smarties. Boot space, however, is reasonable, as well it should be in a car 188 inches long.

Verdict

Prior to its launch, there was a long waiting list for the 850, but the car’s purpose sailed over the heads of most motoring journalists. The CSi features most of the missing ingredients. It’s faster, handles better and is, potentially, safer. In short, it’s an impeccable long-distance tourer, as much at home off motorways as it is on them. In that respect, it is massively different to the original. It isn’t as refined as an XJ-S, but the latter could never keep up with a well driven CSi.

It looks fantastic, and turns heads like a streaker would running through your local Sainsburys.

Still, the exorbitant price nags at you: can it really be worth £77,000? The test car was also adorned with a fistful of options, including buffalo hide upholstery (£975) and heated front seats (£260).

What BMW has created with the 850 CSi is a symbol of power, and a statement of supreme technical accomplishment.

It is by no means the misguided missile that was the fledgling 850i, but one can’t help feeling that its creators aren’t totally in touch with reality.

R R B

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