One of the greatest leaps in automotive progress this past decade has been the taming of the convertible. Once requiring a tradeoff — open-air enjoyment versus performance and year-round comfort — today's convertibles are increasingly civilized beasts, making the body style more practical than ever.
Despite its considerable handling and power, however, the gorgeously redesigned 2012 BMW 650i has missed out on all that progress.
It remains a convertible at heart, with an incredibly loud ride and a gigantic blind spot with the top up. When the top's down, though, drivers will enjoy a pleasant open-air experience as a terrific-sounding exhaust powers them down sun-kissed roads.
The redesigned 650i is striking. The hood seems even longer now, with extremely small kidney grilles up front. New taillights — similar to those on the recently redesigned 5 Series — change the rear design significantly. The retractable canvas top connects to the car with long rear cowls that are even more pronounced than last year's.
It's a stunning look, top up or down, with an elegant cabin to match. It also borrows from the new 5 and 7 Series with an updated iDrive multimedia system, a digital gauge cluster and comfortable leather seats that add to the upscale feel of this $90,500 convertible.
The 650i is the only 6 Series trim available for 2012; the convertible is hitting the market ahead of the hardtop coupe. The rear wheels are powered by a 400-horsepower, twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 engine. It comes with either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission at no additional charge … sort of. The manual gets 15/22 mpg, and with that comes a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax.
My test 650i came with the eight-speed automatic, good for 16/24 mpg city/highway. Performance fans won't mind the eight-speed: It shifts quickly and smoothly, and steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles allow for manual shifting.
The 650i also has separate settings that allow you to select a Sport mode that delivers faster accelerator response while maintaining a normal suspension setup. A second sport mode — Sport+ — alters the suspension and stability control system for more serious driving.
For most drivers, the first Sport mode will be all they need. Even in the Normal and Comfort settings — meant for a slightly softer ride — owners get a lot of acceleration on demand, with a healthy exhaust note.
It doesn't have the guttural sound of Jaguar's XKR convertible — a faster, more powerful competitor — but it's just enough to enjoy when the top is down.
For such a large vehicle, the 650i handles exceptionally well. Like the new 5 Series, it doesn't have an overly heavy steering feel, but it still delivers excellent feedback through twisty sections of road. And even with its considerable length, the 650i is relatively easy to navigate through parking lots.
Like the 5 Series, the 650i features a type of regenerative braking to help overall mileage, similar to the technology hybrid and electric cars use to store energy generated from slowing the car down. In our test of the 5 Series, the car's brake feel suffered, but it appears BMW may be working on that issue with successive models; the 650i's regenerative braking system was not as noticeable.
Given its fuel economy ratings, the 650i could use all the mileage help it can get. That said, we doubt most luxury owners look at mileage as a primary factor when buying a V-8-powered convertible.
When the top is down, the 650i is truly magnificent. Very little wind intrudes on front passengers, and the car feels rigid — very rigid. Like a tank.
The cruising experience is terrific right until you have to put the top up. My wife and I took a short road trip to Milwaukee from Chicago, leaving the kids behind. Sounds like it should be an idyllic time, but the drive itself — over various concrete and asphalt highways — was loud. Noise from the shoddy surfaces was extreme, and the canvas top let in more noise from passing semi trucks than I thought it should. Jaguar's canvas-topped XK is an improvement over the 650i in this regard, as well.
Lowering or raising the powered top is as easy as pressing a button, and it can be initiated while moving at low speeds. I also appreciated the accompanying clear, audible alert, along with a visual cue on the gauge cluster, to indicate when the process was complete.
The convertible top's long "tails" make for interesting styling when in place, but they also create a huge blind spot. There is little visibility for backing out of parking spaces, which is why it's a good thing the 650i comes equipped with a variety of parking sensors. On the open road, I found the mirrors adequate enough for merging. The large glass rear window also helped with visibility while driving.
Like most up-level BMWs these days, the 650i can be equipped with a dizzying array of technological wizardry. Ours came equipped with an optional lane departure warning and correction system, adaptive cruise control, and night vision with pedestrian detection to help drivers see better on dark roads.
The only piece of optional technology that I would choose to add to my 650i — with its already high starting price — would be the revised head-up display.
Few automakers offer the feature — GM is the most notable other one — but I find it extremely useful. Besides displaying the current speed in the windshield using a digital projection, it also offers route information from the navigation system, which is standard. Unlike in previous BMWs — including the current X5 SUV — this route information is detailed and in color.
I used it on the way home from Milwaukee, and it quickly became my favorite guidance device yet.
While navigation is standard, the head-up display is part of a $3,900 package that includes the lane departure system, blindspot detection, top-view cameras and an automatic parking feature. Night vision is an extra $2,600. My test car also had a premium sound package that added $1,800 to the price, and a $1,500 luxury seating package with ventilated front seats that automatically adjust when cornering, meaning the seat's bolsters move inward to hug the driver during turns. All told, our 650i test car was $104,225.
That 2011 Jaguar XKR I like so much starts at $102,125, but it comes with ventilated seats, navigation and a premium Bowers & Wilkins stereo. There's no night vision, and it lacks some of the BMW's other gadgetry, but it's more fun to drive and live with.
The BMW 650i has not been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Neither organization typically tests low-volume cars with sticker prices this high.
The 650i comes with seat-mounted side airbags. Because it's a convertible, there are no roof-mounted side curtain airbags. You can see all the standard safety features here.
It also comes with an emergency telematics service — like GM's OnStar — called BMW Assist. It includes four years of collision notification, emergency request, roadside assistance and stolen vehicle recovery.
BMW 650i in the Market
I may prefer the Jaguar to the BMW, but the 650i is still a remarkable machine that will find plenty of fans among current BMW owners. Does it deliver a luxurious convertible interior and a gorgeous exterior? Yes. Is it lovely to cruise around town in? For sure. Would I invest $100,000 in one? Probably not.
Most BMW shoppers, however, look to Mercedes and Audi as competitors, not Jaguar. As neither of those companies have a model that offers similar performance and size, the 650i should sell quite well.
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