The Eight Is Back
The original BMW 8 Series is very much a child of the 80s. It debuted in 1989, and bears the all the hallmarks of an ambitious, expensive sports coupe from the era: square corners everywhere, a large, boxy body with long, wedge-shaped bonnet, a silhouette that was streamlined with barely a curve to it—and, of course, pop-up headlights and an absolute beast of an engine (the top offering was a 5.6-litre V12). 80s design is not generally evergreen, and today once forward-looking demeanour has given way somewhat to kitschy retro-futurism, though it does retain a sense of studious elegance.
It would be a disservice to the 8, however, to dismiss it as a relic. Although it never made much of an impact and was quietly discontinued in 1999, it was cutting-edge for the time and filled with technological ambition. It was the first V12-equipped car ever to have a six-speed manual gearbox. It was also the first BMW to debut a whole suite of then-advanced features such as electronic throttle control, traction control and a multi-link rear suspension. It was a daring and ambitious project with a hefty dose of real innovation.
For BMW to reintroduce the 8 Series, then, is not something to be taken lightly. The new version debuts this year and is meant to fulfil a similar role as the original: slip in at the top of the brand’s product offerings as an unashamed luxury sports car. When it comes to uncompromising enjoyment, there was one final flourish missing on the old one: a retractable roof. Enter the M850i xDrive Convertible: a large, open-topped and luxurious two-door cruiser with seating for four (though the rear passengers will find themselves in a bit of a squeeze).
It certainly looks the part. A daring spirit is expressed in modern curvaceous athleticism, with deeply sculpted shoulders and sides. The bonnet returns, long and powerful and there is a touch of shark in the way the nose dips down. The trademark double grille is back, aggressively low set, and flanked with the slimmest headlights of any BMW ever—it is a tight and modern look, bold and precise. The soft top is an old-school nod and was chosen for the compromise between weight and noise reduction, as well as adding to a lower centre of gravity. Aesthetically, the car walks the fine line between audacious and over-the-top—but then, in this case a bit of the latter would not be unwelcome.
Where the looks end, the attitude persists: the 8 has an underpinning of sporting thoroughbred. It rides low, with a planted stance emphasised by the wider rear, and the chassis is a thoughtful cocktail of lightness, stiffness, and aerodynamic performance. The suspension—double wishbone at the front and five-link at the rear—is tuned with a racing flair, particularly noticeable during high-speed cornering.
A V12 is far too much for today’s motoring outlook, but the M850i maintains a respectable cylinder count with its 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8, capable of 530bhp. It is not one of BMW’s most powerful engines available—the M5’s V8 kicks out 600bhp—but it is more than enough for the open road and can send the car from 0 to 100im/h in 3.9 seconds. It is an exhilarating delivery; the 750Nm of maximum torque arrives at just 1,800rpm for a fairly immediate kick. The sound is that of a proper, deep-throated V8, undercut with athleticism and aggression. The power hits the road via an eight-speed transmission (with paddle shifters, naturally) and the all-wheel xDrive system, which is heavily rear-wheel biased for an old-school feel—but its action can be felt when hitting the corners hard, digging in to keep everything gripping right.
Thanks to the aggressive powertrain and sporty setup, as well as the low seating position, the 8 never feels like a sedan. This is not to say it is an untameable animal. Sure, in Sport mode the V8’s growl never dissipates, and it revels at each corner without consideration, but engage Comfort mode and the ride cushions up, thanks to the adaptive suspension, and the engine quietens to a purr that will not wake the neighbours.
The 8 debuts a new operating system, most noticeable in the revamped instrument cluster—all-electronic with an expansive 12.3-inch screen. It eschews traditional round displays for a pair of dynamically cornered tracks for speedometer and rev counter, which add an air of old-school cool. When combined with the host of advanced driving aids, such as heads-up display, blind spot and lane drift warnings, as well as the surround cameras, it makes for a high-tech and modern cockpit-like experience—especially with the voice activated Intelligent Personal Assistant, which acts as a digital aide.
The M850i was revealed in late March in southern Portugal, which is an almost unfair showcase of the car’s capabilities. 18 degrees, with warm sun and cool breeze is the perfect weather for top-down driving. There was even the odd shower that reaffirmed the roof’s 15-second closing time and quiet, seamless mechanism that operates at up to 50km/h. Traffic is sparse, the roads are decently maintained and the area has a mix of lengthy highway and smaller roads that twist through villages, forests and hills—in short, the absolutely perfect place to enjoy the carefree luxury and dynamic, involving character of a car like this. The world has moved on from the wasteful excesses of the 1980s—but a sense of that hedonistic spirit still permeates the new 8 Series, making it a delightfully guilty pleasure.