BMW 8-series review: Iron fist in a £100,000 velvet glove

Andrew English
BMW M850i xDrive - Portugal October 2018  - Uwe Fischer

Not many manufacturers make cars like this any more; large, elegant motors capable of effortlessly crossing continents in a day. If the name hadn’t become so overused, you’d say Gran Turismo.

“I think it works pretty well,” says Josef Kazan, BMW’s head of design. “The parts come together and the proportions are about right.” Get any closer and the detail and overhangs start to overwhelm; there’s a lot going on and, at 4.8 metres long, a fair bit of bodywork on which it all happens: ducts; vents; venturi; trims; 20-inch rims... So stand back and relax, this is a good looking car.

Since debuting at the Villa d’Este classic car gathering in Italy, followed in quick succession by appearances at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the rarefied Pebble Beach concours d’elegance in California, BMW has set out the 8-series as a piece of high-performance automotive art, with the emphasis on performance - BMW doesn't disagree that the 8-series should fit somewhere between the Porsche 911 and Mercedes-Benz SL.

This is actually BMW's second attempt at the idea; the previous E31 8-series was sold between 1989 and 1999. Styled by Klaus Kapitza, it was one of the first cars to be designed with Computer Aided Design (CAD). Its obsessively clean lines were in stark contrast to rivals and it divided opinion, selling a total of just over 30,000.

From a European perspective, big GTs such as this have an almost end-of-days feel when you consider forthcoming emissions legislation, which will outlaw their large-capacity, multi-cylinder engines. While he defends a big diesel for environmental long journeys, Pieter Nota, BMW's sales and marketing director, admits that in Europe at least big-capacity internal combustion engines might be time-limited.

Covering vast distances in style and comfort - and at pace - is the raison d'etre of the 8-series. The level of equipment is high, as you might expect for your £100,000-plus Credit: Uwe Fischer

Two engines are available when the 8-series goes on sale next March: a 316bhp/502lb ft six-cylinder turbodiesel costing £76,270 and limited to 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.9sec, delivering 46.3mpg and emitting C02 at a rate of 160g/km.

The piece de resistance, however, is the M850i xDrive we’ve come to drive. This will cost £100,045 and has a heavily revamped 523bhp/553lb ft, 4.4-litre, biturbo V8 driving all four wheels through a specially adapted eight-speed automatic transmission and a modified version of the xDrive multi-plate clutch to direct torque to the front axle when it is required for stability - or to save cremating the rear tyres.

The chassis settings progressively reduce the drive to the front, but there's no rear-drive-only “drift mode” and you can't have the top speed limiter removed. Equivalent figures for the M850i are 155mph, 3.7sec, 28.8mpg and 224g/km, though I wasn’t much surprised to see an overall economy of 12.5mpg after one particularly invigorating piece of driving.

To follow next year will be a convertible and eventually full-blown M versions of both.

The 8-series is a handsome grand tourer, but best to think of it as a two-seater. The coupé will be augmented by a convertible in late 2019 Credit: Uwe Fischer

Equipment levels are predictably high, with BMW's roster of driver aids in the petrol version with M suspension with adaptive damping, active variable-ratio steering and an active limited-slip differential. The standard specification is high, with those inscrutable LED headlamps, auto-opening hatchback, Harman Kardon speakers, enhanced Bluetooth and intelligent cruise control - and, naturally, you can also buy options for this car until your bank sends round the bailiffs.

The cabin feels like the no man's land between German car makers' sporting perceptions and the luxurious lives of typical buyers. It's BMW turned up to the max, with show-off surface changes and then even more surfaces, but underpinned with existing BMW software and graphics in the instrument binnacle and centre screen.

That means it's all familiar and relatively simple to use, but not so very different from almost every other BMW. Stuff to like is the metal mesh covers in the centre console, which look like a medieval knight's underwear, the discreet M stripes in the seat belts (an option, naturally) and the seats which are supportive although mounted a bit too high for taller drivers.

Not so good is the dubious crystal gear lever, or the non-existent rear leg room. Last time it was Kapitza who took the rap for the 8-series’ lack of rear leg room, but as now it was all about exterior proportions. Think of the 8-series as a two-seat tourer, but with lots of storage space, a big, 420 litre boot and folding rear seats to allow the carriage of skis and golf clubs.

BMW's 4.4-litre, biturbo V8 has ben revamped to deliver 523bhp. It drives all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox, with torque increasingly apportioned to the front axle if the car senses it is required for stability Credit: Uwe Fischer

The big V8 dispels any impression of louche gadabouting. It’s a hard-edged, technical-sounding quad-cam V8, and then it gurgles fuel into the exhausts to bring up the reverb, because it can! It sounds magnificent, although how BMW got it through any sort of noise and emissions tests is a mystery.

I wasn’t looking forward to driving this big coupé around the old Portuguese Grand Prix circuit at Estoril. It still has tricks up its sleeve; that evil uphill double hairpin, or the long, scream-in-your helmet return to the seemingly endless main straight. Bruno Spengler, the infectiously likeable Canadian BMW works driver, is generous with his lines around the circuit, which cut great chunks out of a lap time.

It quickly becomes clear that you need to plant the 8-series front end by braking deep into the bend. Oh, and switch off the traction control or it won’t dance. This is a four-wheel-drive car, but loaded up in the middle of turn it feels like a rear-wheel drive chassis, without the fuss - or the fear of disappearing backwards into the scenery, of course.

You might think that’s all very well, but BMW's 6-series Gran Coupé did all of this. The 8-series has more depth and ability, though, together with a degree more vim. You need to spend a bit of time turning things off mind; steering intervention, lane-keeping and so on.

The interior is familiar and relatively simple to use, but not so different from any other BMW. English likes the mesh in the centre console but dislikes the crystal-topped gearlever. There's plenty of space in the front, but leg room in the back is non-existent Credit: UWE FISCHER

“You drivers all do this,” says Carolin Raabe, product expert on BMW’s connected drive system. “Journalists and our test drivers all switch everything off, but we know our customers love this stuff.”

Perhaps they do, but if you’re blowing over 100,000 big ones on a sports coupé I think you’d want to know that it can cut it on a racing circuit if you were so moved. BMW calls this the “gentleman’s racer” - it’s not a bad description.

Back on the public road, back in real life, the 8-series is an affable companion. With the double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, along with the steering, engine and transmission responses all in Comfort mode, plus all of Raabe’s safety sentinels switched on, you’ll only barely be aware that there’s a razor-sharp V8 under the bonnet unless you floor it. Or when the 30 per cent profile Bridgestones hit a sunken drain cover, when you'll believe the sky fell in.

It's quick, too, and not just with the throttle to the floor; the auto gearbox allows the torque to effortlessly waft the 8-series along and you'd be surprised at how fast the scenery arrives in the insulated windscreen. And if the steering with its clumsy, over-wide wheel rim, isn't the most communicative device, dial in Sport and it gains weight and precision to add accuracy to placing this wide car. In the end it's the 8-series’ size which will inhibit the most enthusiastic driving to A-roads and autobahns.

The M850i is mighty on a racing circuit, although its sheer size will limit rapid road riving to A-roads and motorways Credit: UWE FISCHER

Fortunately the brakes are sensational. Unusually they use the same diameter rotors front and rear, but with fixed, four-piston calipers at the front and floating, two-piston calipers at the rear. They also combine the most progressive pedal feel with authoritative stopping power on the track for lap after lap, never once showing any sign of fade.

There will be faster versions, of course, and the convertible, to come, but as it stands the 8-series is wonderfully old school and riven with technology to give it a Jekyll and Hyde character; old-fashioned road-smoker and refined tourer in one.

I'd still prefer the M5 four-door saloon with which it shares a lot of its technology and driveline, but you have to hand it to the Munich car maker for building what seems like the most successful back-to-the-future machine since Doc Brown toggled the flux capacitor in that DeLorean in the eponymous 1985 movie.

THE FACTS

BMW M850i xDrive

TESTED 4,395cc twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine, eight-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE as tested £100,045 (diesel version from £76,270)/March

POWER/TORQUE 523bhp @ 5,500rpm/553lb ft @ 1,800rpm

TOP SPEED limited to 155mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 3.7sec

FUEL ECONOMY 28.8mpg/21.6mpg EU Combined/Urban. 12.5mpg on test

CO2 EMISSIONS 224g/km

VED £1,240 first year, £450 next five years, then £140

VERDICT Something of an iron fist in a velvet glove. Technology allows this two-door luxury coupé to have a dual personality, which combines old-school road-burning performance with a refined and comfortable cruising ability. This isn't a big market, but BMW has invested heavily to get back into it and the 8-series is a credible contender.

TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five

THE RIVALS

Porsche 911, from £77,891

It isn't just the engine placement which makes this a different car, the evergreen 911 starts from a different place as well as it’s adored and reviled in equal measure. An all-wheel drive Carrera 4 Coupé costs from £82,877. About to be updated, so there might be a few pre-WLTP offers out there.

Mercedes-Benz SL, from £77,395

Since 1954 various incarnations of Mercedes’ Sportlich-Leicht (or SL) series have provided high-tech but luxurious top-down peregrination to the well-heeled. The current R231 model is a clever mix of pressed and extruded aluminium and although the bigger-engined cars feel unwieldy the starter models are good fun.

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