Just like how Clark Kent and Superman are never in the same place at the same time, the 2019 BMW M850i xDrive shows up on the scene shortly after the 6 Series departs. Coincidence? Is the 8 Series just a replacement for the venerable 6 or, like Superman, something far more special?
(Full Disclosure: BMW needed me to drive the new 8 Series and Z4 so badly it flew me all the way to Portugal and paid for my food and booze. You can read my hot take on the latter next week too.)
Now, I’m not saying the old 6 Series was mild-mannered, and without the miracle of depreciation it was pretty far outside most reporters’ salaries. But the revived 8 Series is bigger, better and bolder in pretty much every way, from its power and opulence down to the price tag.
This is only the second time BMW has used the 8 designation. The last time was the 1990s, when it was a sleek and expensive V12 and V8 coupe with pop-up headlights. We’ve called it one of BMW’s best failed experiments for being generally awesome but also super expensive, hard to fix and built just in time for the big luxury coupe market to crash hard.
Now the 8 is back as an all-new car for 2019, and while the V12 isn’t happening (but a four-door Gran Coupe is, which is a sedan, but ugh, that’s another battle) it takes its place as BMW’s grandest tourer. And it’s out right as the market moves toward huge SUVs, like BMW’s own X7. Does it have what it takes to be the flagship?
Upon seeing BMW’s big 8 Series in the flesh for the first time, its angular, chiseled looks jump out at you. As much as I liked the 6, it always looked a bit too smoothed out to me, as if the aerodynamics won out in a cage fight with the stylists. The 850i, then, is the designers’ revenge.
A comparatively oversized grill dominates the front of the car. This seems to be a styling cue for several future BMWs, and while I’m not sold on it on a huge SUV like the X7, on the 8 series it seems to work well. In a peace offering to the aero guys, the kidney grille has adjustable slats that help reduce aerodynamic drag at speed.
Rounding out the look is a pair of very narrow headlights—in fact the narrowest headlights ever offered on a production BMW—that feature BMW’s LaserLight technology. That’s right, we finally get frickin’ laser beam headlights! Albeit a lower power version then the Euros get, because regulations, but laser headlights nonetheless. (They should light the road better than the bad flashlights on the front of PG and Raph’s 2500, at least.)
The back end of the 850i is almost as aggressive looking as the front, with the angular lines and massive rear diffuser fully looking the business. In fact, the only angle that doesn’t flatter is the rear three-quarters. The style is the classic BMW Hofmeister kink “counter-swing,” but with the elongated proportions of the 850i, it ends up having a little bit of an American pony car feel to it (thanks to one Mr. Jonny Lieberman for pointing that out to me and now I can’t unsee it. Now you all get to share my burden.)
Topping things off is a double-bubble roof, one of my favorite retro features, that is also available in an optional, weight saving carbon fiber. An optional “Carbon Package” is also available for the rest of the car, comprising of air intake surrounds, mirror caps, rear spoiler and a rear diffuser insert.
Moving inside the aggressive looks continue into the driver-centric cockpit. Dominating the interior are two high-resolution digital displays: the 12.3-inch instrument cluster display directly in front of the driver, and a 10.25-inch center display.
The digital instrument cluster features an all new graphic design that looks to become the standard throughout the brand. The old school circular gauges have morphed into semi-hexagonal shapes which have been moved to each side of the display. This new design opens space in the middle for continuous routing and navigation information.
The display will also change style based on your selected driving mode, which is something that’s been around for a bit. I’ll definitely miss the old-school BMW gauges and the new style is definitely an acquired taste, but you can’t argue with its efficiency in dispensing information to the driver. Which is kind of the whole point, isn’t it?
The second centrally mounted screen is the massive 10.25-inch touch screen. In the 8 Series the size of the dash allows the screen to be well integrated, unlike in some of BMW’s smaller cars (as you’ll see in my upcoming Z4 review) where it comes across as a massive, tacked in place, add on.
I have to say that BMW really hit it out of the park with this display. The screen is razor sharp to the point where it’s almost iPhone Retina sharp. It is by far the clearest, easiest to read screen I have seen in a production automobile to date. To top it off, it also is the most responsive touch screen if have ever used as well. To me there is nothing more frustrating than a laggy touch screen. You try to scroll through a map to see your next waypoint and by the time the screen responds you’ve scrolled through to Nova Scotia and have to spend the next 20 minutes sorting out how to get back to your current location, driving past your exit in the process.
Clearly BMW’s engineers have had similar experiences as they have created a screen that rivals an iPad (sorry for all the Apple plugs, but that’s what I use, so that’s my point of reference) for speed and responsiveness. It makes using the latest generation of BMW’s iDrive a pleasure, which I think is the first time anyone has ever said that.
But beyond the screens, the rest of the 8 Series interior is a bit of a letdown. I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with it. It, well, exists. The rest of the controls are well laid out and easily accessed. The driving position is great, with plenty of adjustability to fit almost any occupant. The seats are a new design and are supportive without being uncomfortable on the longer hauls.
There is enough room in the rear to stash a couple of full-ish size adults for quick across town runs and the standard Harman Kardon audio system rocks (but tick the box for the optional Bowers & Wilkins system as it is worth it). However, that being said, as good as it is, there’s also nothing really special about it.
The 8 designation should mean the best of the best for BMW, and thus it should have an interior to match. But here, the 850i interior wouldn’t be that out of place on a 5 Series, which is a bit of a let down. The materials read top shelf: Merino leather, cut crystal, piano black surrounds, Alcantara headliner. But they don’t come together in a way that feels 8 Series special, and other class competitors have done it better.
It’s like Clark Kent became Superman but forgot to take off his off-the rack, Men’s Wearhouse three-piece. It still looks good and gets the job done, but doesn’t impress as much as the Man of Steel’s iconic cape and tights.
But that’s the only real complaint I have on the 850i, because now comes the driving part.
Let’s begin with the latest generation of the 4.4-liter turbo charged eight-cylinder engine. The highly revised motor now puts out 523 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque. More impressively all of those torques are available from 1,800 through 4,600 RPM. Zero to 60 mph is said to happen in just 3.6 seconds, amazing for its heft.
The two twin-scroll turbochargers are located within the V-shaped space between the cylinder banks shorting the path for the exhaust gasses. Combined that with high precision direct injection, fully variable valve control, Double-VANOS variable camshaft timing, and an electrically-controlled wastegate to ensure a quick build-up of boost pressure so you’ve got one hell of a responsive motor. Also, unlike the last 8, no manual this time—just the venerable ZF8 eight-speed auto.
But for me, the star of the show is BMW’s xDrive all-wheel system. I had my first taste of the system last year when I tested the M5. I loved it back then and that infatuation hasn’t faded.
If anything it’s only grown stronger.
I’m a big Audi fan, and for years I thought they’ve done AWD better than anyone. But with the rear biased xDrive system BMW has not only taken Audi to school, but graduated Summa Cum Laude, got its PhD and then married rich. Yeah, it’s now that good.
The inherent problem with front-biased AWD systems is that, while they offer better traction and stability than either rear-wheel or front-wheel drive systems, once the front wheels start to lose grip through a corner adding power to the rear just exacerbates the understeer.
However, with a rear-biased system, one that sends up to 100 percent of power to the rear first, when the rears start to lose grip in a corner the resulting oversteer is balanced out by adding power to the fronts pulling the car through the corner. In addition, the standard rear-wheel-steering helps get the big 8’s rear going in the right direction to start off with making the whole process of getting through a corner quickly, seamless from start to finish.
It’s a very odd sensation at first. The tail steps out and every fiber of your being says reduce power to stop the inevitable spin. But if you keep your foot planted, the system (in Sport+ Mode) will allow up to 10 degrees of slip angle in the rear before sending power up front. Trust the system and it is simply some of the most fun you can have in any car.
Coincidentally my M5 outing also took place at the same Estroil race circuit last year where we weent to test the 850i xDrive. This made comparing the two easy work. My expectations going in were that the 850i would be the boulevard cruiser to the M5’s world-beater sport sedan. But that’s clearly not what BMW had in mind.
Last time out at Estroil I was chasing BMW’s DTM champ Bruno Spengler, and this time around it was to be WEC/ WTCC superstar Nicky Catsburg leading me around. I hope to be going wheel-to-wheel with Nicky sometime in the not to distant future so I wasn’t looking to make life too easy for him here.
However, Nicky had the advantage as he would be wheeling an M5, meaning I’d be giving up almost 80 HP and a tick over 200 pounds to him. (It’s 600 HP and 4,268 pounds on the M5 vs 523 HP and 4,478 pounds in the 850i. Both cars have basically the same torque.) And also, he’s Nicky Catsburg—works BMW driver— and I’m not. So the scales were tipped firmly to his side.
But to my surprise the 850i was able to keep Nicky, or at least his M5, somewhat honest.
The Portuguese circuit has been recently repaved (the old surface was starting to come up so much that the loose aggregate was taking out a half dozen windshields every time BMW went out) which conventional wisdom would say would make the circuit quicker. But a lack of rubber down on the new asphalt actually made it substantially less grippy, as evidenced by my video’s accompanying soundtrack by a new band called “The Squealers.”
While the slippery surface made for slower lap times (or so I thought) it also brought the xDrive system onto its home turf. These were conditions that this system was made for. Trail braking into the corners to get the back end loose and then jumping all over the throttle would normally mean a quick trip into the retaining wall for lesser cars. But this BMW just wagged its ample rear end, sent power to the fronts and then disappeared down the road.
Oh, as for those slower lap times? Yeah, I went back and reviewed my video from last years laps in the M5. The 850i was less than two seconds off the M5’s lap times. And I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a second of that was due to Estroil’s new surface. Color me impressed.
Now I realize that the dozen or so launch cars that were on hand for the launch are most likely going to be the only 850i’s ever to lay rubber to a track but the same sure-footedness that makes the 850i such a track day champ translates directly to the road.
The narrow, bumpy, poor-excuse-for-a-goat-path roads that run through this region of Portugal are the worst case scenario for a car with the size and heft of the 850i. Add in massive tour busses and the largest concentration of cyclists outside the Tour de France and you’ve got the makings of a long day behind the wheel. But the 850i is so accurate and precise that it makes the narrow roads seem like Rodeo Drive and the instant torque makes quick work of the road obstacles whenever the infrequent passing zones appeared.
The 2019 BMW M850i xDrive goes on sale in the U.S. in December. It starts at $111,900, an almost 40 grand bump over the old 6 Series coupe, and pretty squarely into lower-end 911 territory. There aren’t a huge amount of options because it’s suitably loaded as-is, but it can hit $130,000 or so with them.
Expensive, yes, but suitably grander than the old 6 was. And anything this huge and nice that can be anywhere near M5 territory is hugely impressive.
Any BMW with an 8 in the name has a lot to live up to, and the 850i does. A somewhat ordinary interior does little to dull the appeal of this grand tourer. And like the Man of Steel, it’s capable of a lot more than the business-suit demeanor implies.