Surrender Without Shame
2004 BMW 645Ci Convertible Winter had broken its truce with spring, sending in cold winds and chilled rain. The top was not coming down on the 2004 BMW 645Ci convertible in that climatic betrayal. I was not disappointed. My spirits remained aloft with the cloth roof. That is the power of this car, also available as a hardtop coupe. It is motorized Valium. Rain or shine, soft top or hard, it brings smiles to the tightest faces, parts the stiffest lips. It is a matter of letting go, yielding to the machine. In this case, there is joy in surrender. The 645Ci convertible is no ordinary car. It isn't practical, nor is it politically correct. It is not ashamed of the wealth required to own it. It is hedonistic in the extreme. No one needs a $77,000 car. But what is virtue without sin? What is sin without temptation, seduction? The road to perdition can be a marvelous romp, and a damned fast one, too. The convertible, equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, moves from 0 to 60 mph in six seconds. The coupe, similarly equipped, does it in 5.5. But where can you drive in this manner, and enjoy all that is promised by the 645Ci's 325-horsepower, 32-valve, 4.4-liter V-8 engine? There are certain legal dens of iniquity. My favorites in the mid-Atlantic region include Summit Point Raceway in Summit Point, W.Va. (www.bsr-inc.com). It is 70 miles from the District of Columbia's automotive prudery, deep within the Shenandoah Valley. Another is the Virginia International Raceway (www.virclub.com) in Alton, Va., about a one-hour drive from Raleigh, N.C. Out West, there is the Infineon Raceway (www.infineonraceway.com) in Sonoma, Calif. All of those tracks are open to car clubs and civilian car nuts, usually for a fee. All cater to weekend warriors. All have sanctioned track events and driver-training courses. There are rules to be followed, of course. But the regulations, such as helmet requirements, are in place to ensure fun rather than to restrict it. There is something wonderfully liberating, exhilarating, about driving a car such as the 645Ci convertible at speed without looking over your shoulder in fear of flashing lights. There is a sense of risk, willingly taken in pursuit of one mile per hour faster than you've ever gone before. At the end, if all goes well, there is a giddy flush, a feeling of accomplishment tempered only by the desire to go even faster the next time out. Can you do it? Can your car? You wonder. Sometimes, after failure, if you're lucky, you pout about damage done to your car by going off-track. If you are truly unlucky, you don't pout at all. Your family mourns. Yes, this is crazy. But the millions of us infected by this insanity see logic, order, even nobility in the practice. It matters not that ours is a rationalization of lust. What mat ters is the speed of it all, the elegant balance, for example, of the 645Ci convertible moving nimbly around a track at the limits of traction. This rear-wheel-drive car does it so well. Handling is enhanced by super-rigid body construction. Not even the cowl, the section of the car body that supports the instrument panel and climate-control system, shakes at high speeds. Even with its fully lined cloth roof up -- and cloth is a natural ally of air resistance -- the car whispers through the wind. Bumps and other unpleasantness are absorbed through well-calibrated suspensions front and rear. They are strong, yet lightweight components employing lots of aluminum at both ends. The effect is to reduce unsprung weight -- the weight of car parts not supported by springs -- and render the car less vulnerable to the tortures and deceptions of irregular road surfaces. As you might expect, there are amenities aplenty in the 645Ci coupe and convertible, which share many fea ures with BMW's 5-Series and 7-Series cars. I could live without some of those items, especially the computerized iDrive system, which controls functions such as onboard navigation, climate control, entertainment and communications. I-Drive in the 645Ci is less of an overcomplicated nuisance than it was in previous BMW models. But it remains a nuisance nonetheless. I gladly would trade it for days of bright sunshine, blue skies, mild temperatures and cooperative winds. I'd push the button to drop the top on such a day, and happily speed off into the distance. Nuts & Bolts Downside: The iDrive system should be dumped. Period. As I've said before, BMW needs to swallow its pride and buy Honda's navigation/infotainment/communications system, which is much more intelligent than anything BMW has come up with lately. Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. But keep in mind that the six-speed manual gearbox is barely tolerant of first gear. This car wants to run. I often started the thing in second. Head-turning quotient: The 645Ci convertible, with its exaggerated, flippant rear end, snapped necks everywhere. There have been many complaints about BMW's radical new styling direction. I am not among the critics. The old BMW design was stodgy, boring, several short steps above the Toyota Camry. BMW should continue moving in a new styling direction. Body style/layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-seat convertible with power-operated roof. Engine/transmission: One engine. It's the 4.4-liter, 32-valve, V-8 that develops 325 horsepower at 6,100 revolutions per minute and 330 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. There are three transmissions -- a six-speed manual; a six-speed Steptronic automatic that can be operated as a manual shifter; and a sequential manual gearbox (SMG), which is an electronically controlled version of the six-speed manual. Cargo and fuel capacities: Luggage capacity is 12.4 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 18.5 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline. Mileage: Not great. Driven at posted highway speeds with the top up, the 645Ci convertible gets about 23 miles per gallon -- and less as speed increases. Safety: Anti-lock brakes, side air bags, stability control, traction control and automatic pop-up roll bars are standard. Price: Base price on the tested 2004 BMW 645Ci with six-speed manual is $76,300. Dealer invoice price on base model is $69,595. Price as tested is $84,590 including $7,595 in options and a $695 destination charge. Dealer's price with options and destination charge is $77,200. Purse-strings note: Great toy. Lots of competitors in the store, including the very competitive Cadillac XLR, Jaguar XK-Series, Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, 2004 Maserati Cambiocorsa Coupe and the Porsche 911. Competition means you can bargain . . . somewhat.
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