Driven: BMW M850i

BMW’s new flagship M850i is a remastered multi‑role GT for the modern age that also evokes memories of the company’s classic coupes of the past. But the key question still remains: is it a driver’s car?

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There’s an aura to the M850I. IT’S not a mind-bending, Magneto-style force field, but it’s there all the same. Especially with the lazy, warm, coastal sunset of a Dubai summer plying the car’s flanks, exaggerating the fastback sweep of that long roofline in a subtly exotic scene.

This is promising. This is new. That aura has been missing from big BMWs for a long time. Think of classical coupes from the Munich manufacturer and the slender, sparse beauty of the ’60s/’70s E9 illuminates the mind, or the sharky, organic aggression of its E24 6-series successor, a powerhouse of the autobahn fast lane, and even the original architectural 8-series, so of its time, but increasingly impressive as the years pass. Aesthetics are a deeply subjective topic, but after the thick-set but rather joyless 6-series models over the past 15 years there’s at last a small-scale extravagance about the new 8-series – as though it’s not just a 5- or 7-series with a squashed roof, but a car you might desire just for the sake of it. For me it has something.

All of which makes me wonder even more just what sort of car this new 8-series flagship really is. On paper it is an engineering colossus, encapsulating the current art of conventional car making as pedalled by BMW: 500bhp-plus zero-lag twin-turbocharged V8, ubiquitous eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering, active anti-roll bars, multi-material construction, double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension – and on it goes. There’s talk of benchmarking cars such as the Porsche 911, even the Aston Martin Vantage, but a look at the stats suggests it’ll be akin to neither.

Consider that it weighs 1890kg, and delivers 523bhp and 553lb ft from its 4.4-litre ‘N63’ engine, the motor substantially evolved for this application with a stiffer cylinder block, revised cylinder head, larger turbos and increased injection pressure. Incidentally, all of that pulling power is delivered from just 1800rpm, which should make light work even of a car weighing nearly two tons.

For all of the above, the first thing I notice is the location of the driver’s seat. The underside of the base cushion is literally on the floor, to such an extent that alongside it the carpet curves up and rises for a good few inches before meeting the door aperture. In an era when we seem to almost copy and paste in this magazine the phrase ‘sadly you sit too high’, BMW has clearly gone to extraordinary lengths to endow the 8 with a suitably supine grand touring driving position.

It’s worked, and moreover, the environment is quietly seductive, the extended leather trim, aluminium mesh inlays and Alcantara headlining complemented by the optional glass gear selector. It’s not as flamboyant as an optioned-up AMG, but that’s no bad thing. Over the shoulder are two reasonably sized seats, compromised on headroom, and behind that a decent 420-litre luggage area.

I know, you’re wondering why I’m dwelling on these static details when I could be firing up the V8 and scorching some Bridgestone Potenzas, but the point is that the M850i is not that kind of car; don’t be misled by the capital ‘M’ in its name. When I do thumb the starter button the V8 awakes with a measured flourish. In Comfort mode the steering is notably light, but it’s immediately obvious how precise and linear it is, how clean its response – there’s none of the stiction in the rack like the Z4, no feeling of mysterious interventions along the contorted path to the front wheels. Within just a hundred metres it breeds a strong rapport with the car, and never do I find a secondary input is required once the nose has turned into a curve.

To be honest, it doesn’t feel much more demanding than a 7-series. The ride has a really nicely judged compliance to it, and a stern lid has been placed on NVH in general. At the same time, the first few corners reveal it’s still surprisingly light on its feet, and I love how a measured throttle input has the V8 lugging naturally from low revs, the ’box not frantically changing down first – it sounds good, too; much more ‘real’ than the spicier family relation in the M5.

Out towards the Hajar mountains the dusty roads ahead are a great challenge, and on this particular morning are devoid of human life. The expectation is that the 8 will feel one size too big here, but with Sport+ selected and manual control of the gears via the paddles, it’s nothing of the sort.

It dives for an apex and fires out the other side of the corner, repeatedly, and as hard as I try I can’t make it feel awkward or out of place. It just slows, turns, corners and then accelerates again. I’m enjoying it, too, even though the driver is a little detached from the experience. The following 30 minutes won’t be seared onto my mind as one of the greatest drives, but by the time we’ve reached civilization again, and the 8 has relaxed its electronic muscles back into buttery smooth GT mode, I am full of respect for what it can accomplish.

When the road opens up the M850i eats the long straights whole, which is to be expected – it hits 100kph in just 3.7sec and maintaining a limiter at 250kph feels very mean-spirited by BMW – but when the tarmac gets really tight and twisty two key points stand out. Firstly, even after extended pounding, the upgraded – but still iron – brakes (giant 395mm discs, unusually the same size front and rear) show not even the slightest sign of wilting, which is nothing short of miraculous. But most of all it’s what happens in the corners that reveals so much of the car’s nature. Brake deep into a tighter curve and as you turn in further there’s the sensation of the car miraculously digging into the apex. It’s fanciful to believe it’s the perfect use of trail-braking on the driver’s part, time after time, because it’s clearly the rear-wheel steering assisting corner entry. Moments later, back on the power, there’s another slight but notable rotation, as torque is shuffled rearwards and then to the appropriate wheel. You could call it artificial, but it’s nothing like as nervous or perplexing as the behaviour of other rear-steering systems we’ve encountered: every slower corner has these two subtle but definable rotation moments to it. Yet again, the 8-series doesn’t feel uncomfortable in an unlikely environment.

Trying to sum up this car isn’t easy. It’s clearly not a true sports car nor a great entertainer, not even a 911 Carrera rival, but at $125,730 it does feel as though it sits in clear air between that rear-engined car and, say, more expensive coupes such as the S63 AMG or Bentley Continental GT, offering more driver appeal than either. It’s the kind of car that’s rare to find these days – a multi-role GT remastered with the latest tech, that offers an engaging if not totally immersive driving experience. In many ways the M850i sits in a little niche of its own.

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