Regrettably I've accumulated enough years behind me to remember when the majority of car companies produced a coupé by taking a popular four-door family saloon, cutting the roof down at the back, and building it as a two-door model instead. It was all done in the name of making them look more sporting and to appeal to a younger, cash-rich crowd. Thus the Ford Cortina became the much maligned Capri, the Vauxhall Viva became the rarely bought Firenza and BMW built the sleek 635 Coupé on its E12 model 5 Series. Let's face it; even 35 years ago BMW knew how to build better looking coupés.
But it seems times they are a-changing, and car manufacturers are now claiming that a coupé is simply any vehicle with a roofline which strays from the vaguely horizontal. Thus BMW, buoyed by the success of its two-door 6 Series, decided to add a couple of doors instead, shave a few centimetres off the roof, and call it the Gran Coupe. For the record they insist I use that spelling, and no, I can't stand it either. It seems the Germans have lost their French accents!
When I first laid eyes on the 640iI was to drive, I was pleased to see that the rear end looks better than that of the convertible from which it's derived, and which has always looked to me as though it overdid the Botox one morning. Although the fundamental shape of the boot panels remains the same, the central brake light has been removed and now runs the full width of the top of the rear window instead. This, and the absence of the panel covering the convertible roof, has really tidied up the rear aspect. Switch to the front of the car and that long flowing bonnet and treatment of the grille and lights continues to be elegant, an effect which seems a little offset by the forceful design of the front wheel arch and its extension into the side skirts. It certainly couldn't be described as subtle, but will no doubt appeal to the very customers BMW has in its sights.
My test car was fitted with smart looking 19in rims shod with 245/40 Michelins on the front and 275/35s on the rear; 18in rims will be standard in the Middle East. Behind them, ventilated discs front and rear are 348/374mm in diameter respectively. Of course at the heart of any premium specification vehicle should be a choice of powerful engines and BMW doesn't disappoint. My test vehicle was the 640i variant which naturally, with a name like that, came with a 3.0-litre, straight six engine. Nope, I don't understand it either. The 650i model, which will be launched toward the end of the year, comes fitted with a 4.4-litre V8, whilst for European markets, a 3.0-litre diesel is available.
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These days developing a powerplant is all about getting the maximum performance for minimum fuel consumption, and to that end, both the petrol derivatives feature turbochargers. The one installed in the 640i is a twin-spool design, with exhaust gases from three of the cylinders fed to one side of the turbine impellor, and those of the remaining three fed to the other side. This minimises ‘pulsing' of the turbo and on the road, there's really no discernible lag in the delivery of power. Drop down a couple of cogs in the eight-speed gearbox and plant your right foot and there's enough clout to take care of any sensible overtaking manoeuvre. That straight six engine puts out320 horsepower and 450 Newton metres of torque, which sounds like plenty until you learn that the V8 with twin turbochargers develops 450bhp and 650Nm of driveshaft-twisting torque, with maximum torque available from 2,000rpm to 4,500rpm. Which is to say, right where you want it for on-road acceleration.
A quick calculation shows the 640i has a power-to-weight ratio of 175bhp/tonne, but you'll need a faster calculator for the 650i, with its 231bhp/tonne ratio ensuring large smiles all round when you hit the loud pedal. There's a 4WD model, the 650i xDrive available too, along with an M version, though the latter appears to be a largely cosmetic exercise with no additional power or suspension changes.
Out on the road, a mixture of Autostrada and sweeping blacktop through the mountains, the 640i soaked up the rough Sicilian tarmac in Comfort and Comfort+ modes, the Dynamic Damper Control adjusting the suspension to give a softer ride and negligible road noise. With a push of a button you're into Sport or Sport+ mode, gear changes are delayed to keep the engine in its maximum power band, accelerator and steering responses are sharpened and the suspension becomes firmer. The 640i weighs 1,840kg, whilst progress can definitely be described as rapid, I'd stop short of calling it exciting, simply because the damper settings err toward ‘contented' rather than ‘contestant', and because the exhaust note is, for the most part, strangely conspicuous by its absence.
Push on hard enough and you'll find the car understeers marginally, the front wheels running wide as you investigate its capabilities, but these things are relative; there are so many electronic aids on-board modern cars in this price bracket, that you've almost got to drive one off the road deliberately to have any chance of overcoming them. The 640i for example is loaded with Dynamic Traction Control, Stability Control, Cornering Brake Control, and Dynamic Braking Control. If you're still daft enough to somehow defeat all of those, it's also fitted with front, side and head airbags, belt force limiters and seat belt tensioners.
The steering follows current trends, being an electro-mechanical system rather than hydraulic, again in the name of reducing fuel consumption. It's nicely weighted and allows BMW to increase steering assistance at low speeds, but I had an issue with it. Away from the Autostrada, when accelerating hard on scruffy mountain roads, I occasionally experienced what I can best describe as a high frequency buzzing in the steering column. A colleague driving with me experienced the same effect several times too, though the following day in a different car on major highways it wasn't repeated. Press car gremlins maybe?
There are a couple more high-tech features on the BMW that took me back a few years to when I was working on defence projects, namely the Head Up Display and Night Vision, the latter warning of the driver of the presence of possibly unseen pedestrians close to the road. It's ironic to think that developments which started out as military aids for fighter pilots have been miniaturised, reduced in cost and fine-tuned to the point where they're being put to good use saving lives.
The view from the driver's seat is clinical BMW all around, with clear, uncluttered instruments, and a feature-packed infotainment system which seems to stretch halfway across the dashboard. My car featured an impressive 250mm wide screen with excellent GPS functions, and was also fitted with the optional Bang and Olufsen sound system. Given the clarity and bass notes achievable at high volumes, "Head Bang and Olufsen" might be a better description.
One clever feature with questionable benefits is the system's ability to read your text messages out loud as you receive them, so the world's worst estate agents can now harass you, even while you're driving. Thankfully, you can switch it off!
You can't possibly test a coupé without checking how much space there is in the back — BMW will tell you that up to three people can share the rear seat but that's being optimistic. Or sadistic! There's enough headroom back there for folks up to 1.85m tall, provided they've just had a short haircut, but since the centre cubby stretches all the way back to the rear squab, anyone in the middle would be straddling the same. Stick to two people in the rear and you'll be fine, though with almost no clearance for feet under the front seats, they'd be grateful for a chance to stretch their legs every couple of hours. Those rear seats split in a 60/40 configuration, giving up to 1,265 litres of cargo space with both folded down.
I don't usually struggle to summarise a car, but the 6 Series Gran Coupe leaves me with the feeling that BMW has almost developed it to appeal to other manufacturers' customers, not its own. The 5 Series is very good at what it does, and the 7 Series never short of buyers, which leaves the 640i Gran Coupe like the new child in the school playground, wondering if anyone's ever going to talk to him. What the 640i really needs to do is to copy his big brother, you know, the M5 with all the girlfriends. What he needs, is a great big engine with a loud exhaust. That'll draw plenty of attention, and once they see how many high-tech toys he's got, he'll soon have plenty of friends. Roll on the 650i.