First Drive

2019 BMW M850i Convertible First Drive | That's more like it

The 8 Series drop-top refreshingly captures BMW's past while still moving things forward

2019 BMW M850i Convertible
2019 BMW M850i Convertible
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  • Engine
    4.4L Turbo V8
  • Power
    523 HP / 553 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    8-Speed Auto
  • 0-60 Time
    3.8 Seconds
  • Drivetrain
  • Curb Weight
    4,736 LBS
  • Seating
  • Base Price
  • As Tested Price

PORTLAND, Ore. — There's probably a band or a TV show that you used to love, but as time went on, they changed what they were so much that they were no longer the thing you fell in love with. The name's the same, but it's just not the same, you know?

Well, I know I'm not alone in feeling similarly about BMW. I yearned for those of the late 1990s as teenager, then objectively appreciated those of a decade later as a professional journalist. Then things changed. BMW started appealing to a wider audience, created new market niches and adopted new technologies like electric power steering with imperfect success. Its cars just didn't possess the driver engagement fans and reviewers had come to expect. The name's the same, but it just isn't the same, you know?

Well, the 2019 BMW M850i Convertible is not the same as a turn-of-the-century E39 5 Series or reborn 6 Series of the mid-2000s. Feels nothing like them and that's fine. It's a sensational car oozing with advanced engineering and class. It is an astonishingly rigid four-seat convertible, courtesy BMW's "Carbon Core" technology first found on the 7 Series that introduces carbon fiber to the aluminum and high-strength steel structure. Giant bumps are absorbed without a hint of shake or harshness, while even my crazy inclined driveway couldn't make it creak or flex. This is a stunning achievement for a vehicle with some cloth for a roof.

So too is the amount of noise inside the cabin with that roof raised. Wind and road noise are basically nill, and only when it started to rain could you really tell you weren't covered by a rigid material.   

The M850i Convertible is the first BMW since the E90 3 Series with steering that made me nod with approval. That's not to say the two are similar. They're extremely different, just similarly well-executed. You can feel vibration through the M850i's wheel and there's sensation transmitted from the tires to your hands. It does indeed engage you when driven quickly. Engaging Sport mode helps, but isn't the necessity it was in so many BMWs of the last decade. In fact, there's not that much difference in steering effort between modes, a welcome trend now permeating the automotive industry.  

However, the M850i is a GT, and as such, the steering behaves in a way that encourages a relaxed, yet responsive effort at higher speeds, and a lighter effort at low ones. When driving lazily around town, there's initial resistance at turn-in followed by easy, but linear effort. It's slightly comparable to an Audi, but there's far more information filtering through. This is most definitely not indicative of those "glory days" BMWs folks like me fawn over with rose-tinted glasses, but it's appropriate for the car and in fact superior in certain respects. For instance, the E60 5 Series and the second-generation X5 had unpleasantly heavy steering at low speeds.

The M850i's ride is excellent, a testament to superior suspension engineering and that ultra-rigid Carbon Core structure. Even the firmest Sport Plus setting sops up road imperfections capably and has no problem with the gnarly mid-corner bumps. Comfort mode isn't some isolation chamber, either, which makes the middle-ground Sport setting a bit unnecessary. It's basically like having an old-school Series BMW and an M model all in one – both well-damped, but with varying degrees of firmness.

Despite its comfort, however, handling is also exceptional, especially given the M850i Convertible's gigantic proportions. Besides that same suspension keeping you level through corners – far more so than BMWs of the past – the rear-wheel steering stunningly shrinks the car around tight corners, and makes the turning circle laughably tight.

Then there's the engine, a 4.4-liter turbocharged V8 good for 523 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque. Turbocharging has sapped some character from BMW's mills, but there's no arguing with the performance and relative efficiency they're able to achieve. The M850i will hit 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, thrusting you effortlessly forward as all four wheels claw at the pavement for traction. It is absolute overkill, and the overall dynamic package might actually be better appreciated if the engine wasn't there to constantly steal the show.

But it certainly does, in no small part because the exhaust sounds fantastic. It's there as a soft rumble when driving at low speeds (one of my favorite aspects of the mid-2000s Mercedes CL65 AMG), but warbles with delicious anger when you let 'er rip – especially in a Sport mode. Yet, it doesn't inauthentically pop and crackle under braking. It strikes just the right tone, both literally and figuratively.

Besides allowing you to enjoy that audible exuberance, the open-top cabin also impresses in a way that its celebrated predecessors did not. There's a genuine air of luxury present that was missing in even high-dollar BMWs of yore. Through its design and materials, there's the sort of flair present you'd hope to get from a car that costs well north of $100,000. Yet, there's also plenty of functionality. Older BMWs were typically bereft of small item storage and useful cupholders. The M850i, by contrast, has large door bins, decent cupholders, a wireless charging pad and an under-armrest bin big enough to hold a smartphone, sunglasses case, water bottle and a hat.

That said, the back seat is incredibly small given the exterior dimensions. The M850i Convertible actually has 3.6 fewer inches of rear legroom than a 4 Series Convertible. The trunk is at least usefully deep even if, expectedly for a convertible, it shrinks in height when the roof is lowered. The 8 Series Convertible also doesn't have a separate rear window as the two previous 6 Series convertibles had. This allowed you to have free-flowing air with the roof still in place (good for hot, sunny days) as well as a built-in wind deflector. Instead, the M850i has a traditional, removable wind deflector covering the back seat that must be folded up and placed in the trunk when not in use.

Needless to say, that didn't exactly mute my objective, professional appreciation for this automobile. Plus, the M850i Convertible looks good enough that I might even throw some residual boyhood automotive yearning its way – it sure looks sexier than the 6 Series. However, a $131,395 range-topping convertible does not a renaissance make. For that, the 3 Series and 5 Series must make similar impressions, and to date, they have not. Yet, perhaps it's just easier for the 8 Series as it's not carrying around the same historical baggage and expectations. It has license to be different, yet it's also the same enough to make crusty old former Bimmerphiles stop yearning so much for the good old days.

BMW M850 Information

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