Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in June 2008 about the 2008 BMW 6 Series. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s changed for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The BMW 6 Series blends performance and luxury in a way few BMWs, relative to their competitors, have managed to do, and it throws in just enough practicality that it might actually suffice as the only car you’d own. Don’t get me wrong: This is no sedan substitute, but it does pack just enough utility to give it a leg to stand on when your sensibilities — or spouse — try to rein you in.
The 6 Series comes as a 650i coupe or soft-top convertible. There’s also a high-performance M6 version that’s covered separately on Cars.com. The current 6 Series was introduced for 2004; through the years it’s received a larger engine and, for 2008, a few styling tweaks. Click here to see a comparison with the 2007 model.
Behind the 650i’s twin-kidney grille is a 360-horsepower, 4.8-liter V-8. Noise levels belie the power — the engine purrs quietly at idle and gives only a perfunctory yowl when it’s revved, but it moves the car along with authoritative torque from anywhere on the tach. Acceleration is so smooth and persistent that you’ll easily hit the engine’s 6,500-rpm redline — there is little sign you’re about to reach its limit.
My coupe had a six-speed manual transmission. It hits each gate with definitive, medium throws. The clutch is hefty but not overly so — I’d expected something heavier, and it actually proved a welcome tool for creeping through traffic. Like in other stick-shift BMWs, the shifting can feel a bit rubbery at times, but short of the Porsche 911 there’s little to compare it to in this segment.
More impressive is the 6 Series’ accelerator response. Credit BMW’s Valvetronic system, whose variable-valve mechanics are more elaborate than most. It yields immediate pedal response, and there’s no waiting as the needle crests the tachometer — it comes down as quickly as it goes up, which makes for more precise, if not easier, downshift rev-matching. A Sport button behind the shifter quickens accelerator response and decreases power steering assist for more turning precision; both deliver noticeable differences. After a few days I left Sport mode on all the time. It can make for touchy acceleration in stop-and-go traffic, though, which may take some practice to iron out. My advice: Decide early on if you want Sport or not, then groom your driving habits accordingly.
A six-speed automatic is optional. It comes with standard steering-wheel paddle shifters and two Sport modes — one with the shifter in its manual-shift gate, which holds lower gears longer for better acceleration and increased engine braking, and the other coming with a press of the automatic’s Sport button, which quickens accelerator response and holds gears even longer. BMW’s ill-received Sequential Manual Gearbox, offered through the 2007 model year, has been ditched.
With the manual, BMW says the 650i accelerates from zero to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. The automatic takes only 5.4 seconds. The 650i convertible weighs a significant 463 pounds extra — about 12 percent — so it comes in at 5.6 and 5.7 seconds for the manual and automatic, respectively. Those figures put the car ahead of a Cadillac XLR or Jaguar XK, according to their respective automakers; the featherweight Porsche 911 and headstrong Mercedes SL550 are quicker still.
| Acceleration Compared
| Porsche 911 Carrera
|| 325-hp, 3.6L F-6; 6-sp. man./5-sp. auto
|| 4.8 – 5.2
|| 5.0 – 5.4
| Mercedes SL550
|| 382-hp, 5.5L V-8; 7-sp. auto
| BMW 650i
|| 360-hp, 4.8L V-8; 6-sp. man./6-sp. auto
|| 5.3 – 5.4
|| 5.6 – 5.7
| Cadillac XLR
|| 320-hp, 4.6L V-8; 6-sp. auto
| Jaguar XK
|| 300-hp, 4.2L V-8; 6-sp. auto
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. The pedal feels more linear than in some BMWs — which have a tendency for grabbier response — but it’s just as strong. Brake-fade compensation, which applies greater pressure when brake fade has occurred, and a brake-drying feature that attempts to keep the discs dry when it’s raining are also standard.
Optional advanced cruise control integrates full stop-and-go functionality, much like Mercedes’ Distronic Plus. It can bring the 6 Series to a complete stop and resume acceleration to a set distance behind the car ahead. My test car didn’t have it, so I can offer no evaluation.
Like any car nearing the $100,000 mark, the 6 Series augments a conventional four-wheel-independent suspension with a host of technical wizardry. The results are impressive: The car remains planted even in bumpy corners, with minimal lean or lateral wheel hop. Quick lane changes yield a bit more body roll, but on straight roads the car rides smoothly. All told, the 6 doesn’t achieve the same ride and handling magic as the XK with its fully adaptive suspension, but it isn’t far off. An optional Sport package adds bigger wheels and sportier seats, but suspension tuning remains the same; BMW says the convertible’s heavier-duty suspension is also tuned to provide an identical feel to the coupe’s.
Buyers get a choice of two steering setups. The basic Servotronic system can vary the steering ratio for easier response at parking lot speeds and better straight-line stability on the highway. An optional Active Steering system does so even more radically; if you get Active Steering, though, the Sport button near the gearshift won’t alter its precision. My car had the more basic setup, which proved much easier to turn than in the 1 Series and 3 Series, particularly at low speeds. Fear not, performance fans: The steering still preserves BMW’s legendary turn-in precision on curvier roads. In tight quarters, the 6 Series’ turning circle is 37.4 feet, 1.2 feet more than the XK or SL.
Switch off the car’s electronic stability system and it doesn’t take much to push the rear wheels wide. The 6 Series does so fairly controllably. The chassis strikes a fairly neutral oversteer/understeer balance, so if you’re feeling especially gutsy, four-wheel power slides are entirely possible — and it’s easy to rein things in with your right foot.
BMW designer Chris Bangle came under fire for his earlier designs on the 7 Series and 5 Series, but the 6 Series doesn’t seem quite so severe. I found its proportions appropriate — there’s minimal front overhang, and the cabin sits nicely toward the rear of the car. The humplike trunk, probably my least favorite attribute, blends in from most viewing angles.
There are a number of slight changes for 2008, including revised lower bumpers and new lenses for the headlights and taillights. Check out the thumbnails on the right to see some of them.
Eighteen-inch alloy wheels are standard. The Sport package adds 19-inchers.
Appointments are what you’d expect of this class. The aluminum trim in my test car had an upscale, textured feel; wood trim is optional, and both materials are genuine. My test car came outfitted with optional sport seats, whose substantial side bolsters still leave ample room for comfort. (Disclaimer: On a good day, my waist is 35 inches.) Combined with the relative open space — the dash sits low and slopes gradually toward the windshield — they give the 6 a grand-touring feel not unlike the XK or SL. It’s a departure from BMW’s stricter interiors that I suspect many shoppers will welcome.
Fit and finish are excellent, and so are the materials. Leather seats are standard, but opt for the upgraded Pearl Leather I had in my test car and you also get a leather-wrapped dashboard. That isn’t offered on the 5 Series, and it’s only available in the 7 Series on the $120,000-plus 760i. Sun-reflective leather, which stays cooler in direct sunlight, is standard on the convertible. Cars.com reviewer David Thomas tested it out in a BMW convertible last month, and he came away impressed with its heat-resisting abilities.
Other features, most of them standard, include a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power seats and a fixed glass roof on the coupe. The seats have fairly conventional adjustments, unlike a loaded XK or SL, where you can stiffen the side bolsters or extend the seat cushions at the push of a button. Oh, the toil.
The standard navigation system uses BMW’s iDrive controller. BMW upgraded the graphics and added six programmable shortcut buttons on the dash for 2008, which can link to anything from a map destination to a Bluetooth phone number. They help, but I’d still like a hard-coded “Back” button near the controller. I’ll confine my other complaints to the picture captions (iDrive is a very, very dead horse), but competitively, the 6 Series is not necessarily at a clear disadvantage: The XK, its closest competitor, has a friendlier navigation setup, but its menus load at a glacial pace.
The standard CD stereo has eight speakers and an auxiliary MP3 jack. My test car had upgraded Logic7 audio with 13 speakers, a USB jack for portable music devices and both satellite and hi-def radio. HD radio, offered by BMW and several others, is a boon if you frequent AM stations; it enhances sound quality to near-FM levels. I didn’t notice much of a quality difference in FM radio, but Cars.com reviewer Mike Hanley thought it brought audio quality closer to CD levels. Either way, HD radio options appear more prevalent on FM than AM. From my house a few miles north of downtown Chicago, I counted 18 of 23 FM stations broadcasting in HD, while just four of my 15 AM stations were.
Like the XK, the 6 Series is realistically a two-seater. The rear seats are better suited for groceries than people — it’s a similar situation in the XK and 911 — but having them allows for short trips with kids that would be impossible in an SL or XLR.
The backseat will likely become a vestibule for smaller items anyway, because storage areas up front are in short supply. The glove compartment is too small even for the owner’s manual, and apart from a shallow center console, the cabin is lacking any storage space.
None of the 6 Series’ competitors are known for storage abundance, so BMW isn’t necessarily behind the pack. Even if it is, its trunk puts it back in front: The coupe’s boasts 13.0 cubic feet of space, which handily beats the competition. Convertibles have 12.4 cubic feet with the top up and 10.6 cubic feet with the top down; both figures also lead the competition. Like I said earlier, this doesn’t make the 6 a car for everyone, but it does mean it could carry two people and a full week’s worth of luggage. Most competitors would be good for a weekend at best.
| Living Space Compared
| Porsche 911 Carrera
| BMW 650i
| Mercedes SL550
| Cadillac XLR
| Jaguar XK
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had not crash tested the 6 Series. Standard safety features on the coupe include front and seat-mounted side-impact airbags, dual knee airbags and tube-style head-protection airbags for the front seats. The head airbags extend a bit past the B-pillar, but not enough to protect rear-seat passengers. The convertible lacks the head-protection airbags, as do most convertibles. It has pop-up roll bars behind the rear seats that deploy during a rollover.
Active head restraints, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are standard across the line. Also standard are adaptive brake lights that illuminate brighter under hard braking. For 2008, a new, optional lane departure warning system uses a camera to detect lane markings and alert the driver with steering-wheel vibrations if the car drifts astray. Also optional is a high-beam assistant that switches the headlights to low beams when it detects oncoming traffic. Other options include night vision and a head-up display; I’ve detailed both in the “More technology” thumbnail above.
Reliability reports are a bit hard to come by for $80,000 luxury coupes. Neither the XLR nor the XJ had sufficient sample sizes for Consumer Reports to compile any ratings. The 6 Series didn’t have enough samples in 2007, but the 2005 and 2006 models fared worse than average and average, respectively. CR cited body hardware and audio systems as trouble spots, and it predicts worse than average reliability for a new model. The SL fares a bit worse; the 911 does much better.
The 650i coupe starts at $76,600, and the convertible starts at $83,700. Standard features include leather, power front seats and a tilting glass roof on the coupe. The automatic is a no-charge option. Chargeable options include everything from $500 heated seats, which really ought to be standard, to the $2,400 Pearl Leather upgrade. The Sport package runs $2,100.
All told, some $17,000 in options are available — enough to put the convertible into six-figure territory.
The 6 Series is competent in all the important areas, and BMW has kept it fresh enough that I don’t think its five-year vintage puts it at a significant disadvantage. (The ’09 SL, remember, is the face-lifted version of a car that’s been around since early 2002.) Other competitors, from the XK to the 911, occupy disparate sections of the performance-luxury axis. The 6 sits in between: It merges performance with the sort of luxury few BMWs can evince, and, improbably, its asking price ends up being fairly competitive. It’s a marvelous choice for many reasons, and practicality might just end up being the least of them.