The ultimate compromise: 2016 BMW 650i

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(July 20, 2016) The BMW 650i went back at the end of a week in my care, and left a number of conflicting feelings. A beautiful design (much better looking than its droopy eyed immediate predecessor), the big coupe exudes status and power, luxury and wealth, and reinforces these impressions with an anal-retentive attention to detail that is uniquely German.

This trait shows up elsewhere, especially in the two tugs you have to give the inside door handle before the door unlocks and opens, or the two presses of the pushbutton start (but never with your foot on the brake, Nein!) necessary to turn everything off before exiting. You are constantly reminded, both subtly and overtly, that there is but one way to do things, and the sooner you adapt, the better things will be.

The Cognac and Black Nappa Leather interior is inviting, neat and crisp, and contrasts nicely with the Alpine White exterior. An electronic instrument cluster — dominated by video representations of the speedo and tach, each of which is ringed by a semi-circle of brushed silver trim — nestles under a stitched leather shade just behind the shift paddles and a satisfyingly think three-spoke leather wheel.

In “Comfort” (the default setting) or “Comfort +” the gauges mimc “number and pointer” analog gauges with the exception of the numbers on the speedometer. The one nearest the digitally rendered pointer enlarges, giving you an immediate reference point for your current ground speed. However, if you push the console-mounted button to engage “Sport” or “Sport +,” the gauges turn red and the numbers above the pointers disappear. The suggestion is that you have unleashed the hounds of hell, and are left to judge your speed (and that of the engine) by the width of the red band racing around the gauge.

In addition to this change, the throttle becomes instantly more responsive. Do it on the fly, and you will gain a good bit of speed without having to move your right foot. In most situations, the eight-speed automatic drops down a gear, and the dampers stiffen. Go for the highest setting, and the traction control gives you a wide berth before intervening. Even the exhaust takes on a snarl never before noticed. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appear right before your eyes.

Unfortunately, like those two characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, the transition is not smooth. There isn’t the broad and, at times, uncoordinated change of the Lexus RC 350 F Sport, but a more subtle yet disconcerting stutter that comes as the car tries to serve two masters; the boulevardier cruising the Cote d’Azur and the track day nimrod trying to impress on inviting back roads.

As I pondered this inelegance, my mind kept drifting back to the bottom line: $91,500 as tested. The Black Accent Package, Cold Weather Package, Smartphone Integration (this is an option?), and the Ceramic Package that puts a deep black glaze on various controls combine with the $950 destination charge to push the 650i into a monetary realm where compromise is a word best left unspoken.

With all of the sensors and systems, why can’t the car determine which is the best throttle, damper, steering and exhaust setting for the situation? A more sophisticated (and, yes, expensive) dynamics setup would look ahead and preload the proper responses. Yet we are led to believe that the level of technology found in the 650i is incapable of smoothing out the transitions and making some of the hard decisions on the fly.

Unfortunately, I think the answer is more crass than this. With the multiplicity of models in the 6 Series lineup and the large sums expended, the average buyer requires proof that his money has been well spent; that it has bought him something tangible. So you get the switch that changes the drive mode and gauge faces, and makes the step between them readily apparent.

It gives this buyer something to brag about to their friends and to show off on the way to lunch, dinner or a even weekend getaway. It is the automotive equivalent of “Proof of Life” and justification for the money spent to acquire the badge on the nose.

It also is evidence of just how far BMW has slipped from its guiding ethos, and how little its customers seem to care.

The Virtual Driver