To say that the second-generation BMW 6 Series caused a bit of a scene when it hit the world stage in 2003 would be to underplay its shock value. The Dingolfing, Germany-built coupe and convertible's styling seemed to win admirers and ruffle traditionalists' feathers in equal measure, but regardless of how you feel about its aesthetics, the 6's long model run has been a success, resulting in nearly 118,000 units sold.
Despite this victory (and despite what BMW officials tell us), there has been a clear bit of design capitulation in the halls of Bavaria, as Chris Bangle's controversial surfacing treatments and high trunk lines have been smoothed out in newer models in favor of less polarizing designs throughout the BMW empire.
So it is with the 2012 6 Series range, which launches with the 650i convertible model shown here, a model that's due to hit showrooms this April (just in time for top-down season). With North America enduring a hyperborean winter, it was only appropriate that we head to more temperate climates for some quality top-down running. BMW evidently had the same thought, so they sent us to Cape Town, South Africa. Famous for its finned and pointy-teethed population coursing offshore, we couldn't think of a more appropriate spot to sample the 6 Series' reborn shark nose look.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
There's no point on trying to get around it – the first topic of discussion with the new 6 is bound to be its appearance, if for no reason other than how radically (conservatively?) it departs from its forbearer. In the metal, the 6 Series convertible looks much lower, flatter and more angular than the car it replaces. This is particularly true at the rear, an inevitable result of its more conventional trunklid and 5-Series-like taillamps. Up front, the headlamps are more conservative, too, without the droopy lower edge and eyebrow turn signals of the outgoing E63/E64 model. The new light fixtures bookend a nose with a bit more forward thrust to the leading edge of the hood, which leans over a wider twin kidney grille. Contrary to expectation, however, the profile of the new 6 Series actually has more surface character than its predecessor, with an additional crease that plunges dramatically from the leading edge of the side vent. And the lower stance isn't an illusion – at just 53.7 inches tall, overall height has been given a haircut by a fraction of an inch, accentuating the 6's chopped-top look. You can judge the looks for yourself, but an informal poll among the journalists at the launch revealed something of a split between those who came to appreciate the previous model and the more cautious new look, with most favoring the 2012 design.
In a way, the crisper look of the new 6 Series almost feels like it could be an evolution of the 1989-1999 8-Series, had that GT lived long enough to progress to present day. The body panels are of varying construction – steel, aluminum (doors, hood) and plastic composite (roof, trunklid and side panels), so fitment of the pieces with materials of different properties must have been a task for BMW's engineers and paint experts, who have done flawless work.
At 192.6 inches long and 4,500 pounds, this big boy shadows competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E Class Cabriolet and Jaguar XK in nearly every dimension – it even outstretches the Bentley Continental GTC. Thanks in part to its new structure derived from the 5/7 Series chassis, it's 2.6 inches longer than before, and at 74.5 inches, it's marginally wider, too. The new model is thus a bit porkier than the outgoing E64, so it's helpful that the 650i Convertible has more brawn: 400 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 450 pound-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm from its twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter N62 V8. That's 40 hp and a whopping 90 lb-ft more than its predecessor. It also has two more ratios in its automatic gearbox – eight cogs are on offer from the well-liked ZF 8HP70. Interestingly, a six-speed manual is also available (though it was unavailable for testing), and in a reversal of fortunes, the three-pedal setup will be sold Stateside and not in Europe. Apparently, those on The Continent are growing increasingly enamored of high-performance automatics, while there were enough U.S. enthusiasts grumbling for a self-stirrer that BMW has obliged (North America is the 6-Series' biggest market anyhow).
When blurring the coastal mountain road scenery surrounding Cape Town, there are plenty of reasons to slacken one's pace – if only to take in more of the panoramic vistas, vineyards and beautiful people vying for eyeball time. Despite this, we can't quite bring ourselves to back out of the 2012 BMW 6 Series convertible's new V8 engine long enough to stop and smell the king protea flowers (though we do oblige a family of wayward baboons who've decided that the middle of the road is a perfectly acceptable spot to shade one's self from the waxing sun).
In truth, we're not really hammering mercilessly on the topless 650i – it's clear from just a few minutes in that this BMW remains a very much grand tourer and not a sports car. Besides, we're once again getting adjusted to driving on the other side of the road, something that requires a fair bit of thought – particularly given the road network's relatively narrow lanes and the Sixer's wide derrière.
If it weren't for the road signs warning of the possibility of leaping springboks or the fact that more than one out of every ten cars we pass seemed be a derivative of the original Volkswagen Rabbit, visiting motorists could be forgiven for thinking that they are driving in an unfamiliar pocket of Northern California, wine country and all. It just has that sort of feel, with meandering, well-maintained roads, picturesque mountains, cascading rock fields and coastal views.
Aside from its wide carriage, the 650i couldn't be much better suited to this sort of driving, as its ample power, big brakes and posh ride suit the roads well. Just as importantly, our test car's optional Integral Active Steering proves predictable and accurate – a welcome departure from earlier BMW forays into the variable-rack realm that resulted in disconcerting turn-in speed and erratic feel. We're still not sure we'd pony up for the technology (there's not a ton of feedback), but now that it incorporates rear steering, there's a clear dynamic benefit – BMW engineers tell Autoblog that models so-equipped can change lanes much faster – by six or seven mph – and there's a significantly tighter turning circle, too. All test cars were equipped with grippy 19-inch 245/40 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT run-flat summer tires, but we'll get all-season rubber as standard fit, so we'll have to wait until we get one back on U.S. soil to see how the ride and handling balance shakes out.
As with other BMWs, the 650i has a center console rocker switch that allows the driver to set the Driving Dynamics Control system to Comfort, Normal, Sport or Sport + settings to better suit the motoring mood. Toggling between the settings alters the throttle map, suspension firmness, steering effort, transmission shift schedule, as well as active steering rate and active roll control if the car is so-optioned.
Regardless of the mode we have the DDC rocker set to, the rear-drive 650i is well-behaved, cornering flatly on South Africa's lilting roads at anything short of stupid velocities, the ZF's paddle-shifters respond smartly when it comes time to pass one of the region's ubiquitous soot-spewing diesel trucks. To be fair, South Africa's motoring populace reveals itself to be the very model of courtesy, with most drivers pulling onto the shoulder and indicating when it is safe to pass so that we're never trapped behind slower traffic on single-lane roads for long. (Just be sure to double-flash your hazards in appreciation upon completing the maneuver). Even though the transmission works seamlessly in full automatic mode, using the paddles is a treat, if only because the V8 issues an unexpected yet welcome burble at shift points – even at modest speeds. Plant the skinny pedal in the carpet and you'll find that 60 mph arrives in 4.9 seconds, and it won't be terribly long before you're bouncing against the modest 130 mph limiter (if you spec out the optional Sport package, the governor is relaxed to 150 mph).
While the official EPA fuel economy figures haven't been released yet, BMW promises the new powertrain will be more efficient, but that's not saying a great deal, as the outgoing car was practically an OPEC Club Gold member, ringing up 15 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.
With such indulgent exterior proportions, it's no surprise that the 6 Series' interior is a suitably grand place to be. BMW notes that despite its lower overall height, there's still more headroom front and rear than before. That said, the rear seat is still firmly in the "occasional use only" category thanks to limited legroom.
Dominated by a massive freestanding 10.2-inch transflective display, the dashboard mixes high-quality leathers and plastics with matte chrome accents for a mature, driver-centric environment. Everything is within easy reach and is self-explanatory – at least for those with previous iDrive experience.
Our tester was outfitted with the latest generation of BMW's optional head-up display, and it's a peach, combining crisp 3D graphics, a wider array of vibrant colors and more driver-selectable information, from engine and vehicle speed to navigation directions and ancillary system telltales like the lane departure warning and night vision (when equipped). It works fantastically well, even with the top down in direct sunlight, and we found it preferable to taking our eyes off the road to look at the center stack display.
Speaking of direct sunlight, despite pleasant ambient temperatures, there was no denying the intensity of the rays this far south of the equator – even with the BMW's reflective leather seats. We love driving top-down no matter the season, but in the name of science – and in a vain attempt to keep our pale, wintered skin from peeling – we whirred the soft top into place (24 seconds to close, 19 seconds to open) for our final leg of the drive. Once again, we're glad that BMW has chosen to forego the added cost, weight and complexity of a folding hardtop, as the multi-layer canvas lid is a very refined piece, with excellent sound insulation and a unique top-up look with its vertical power rear window and flying buttress construction. What's more, the top can be operated at speeds of up to 25 mph, a trick we have yet to see with a folding tin top.
With all of the improvements, it's no surprise that the sticker price on the 650i Convertible has swelled to $91,375 (the outgoing model commanded $87,725 including destination and gas guzzler tax). That's a lot of scratch, but we don't see the typical 6 Series buyer balking at the increase – especially now that the car continues to deliver the big GT experience in a more refined package with broader aesthetic appeal.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL