Words and Photos: Shawn Molnar [Racetrack Photos Credit: Kelsey Hepples]
To be considered a carmaker’s “flagship,” a car must become more than simply an automobile. It must rouse excitement, it must nip at the heels of perfection. The stakes are high when naming a flagship car, because to name a dud as a flagship would mean that every car marketed below it is downright useless. Such a catastrophe would not do well for sales figures and heads, not wheels, would roll.
With the gravity and significance of such a title fixed firmly upon our minds, BMWBLOG takes a look at BMW’s latest flagship convertible, the BMW 650i Cabriolet. Join us as we take the 650i Cabriolet over curvy country roads, along open highways, around the racetrack, and through downtown Toronto traffic.
Impressions as a daily driver:
Even after seven full days behind the wheel of BMW’s 650i Cabriolet – it still felt special to get inside. A swoopy and elegant interior molds around your body, wrapping you in modern luxury. Illuminated kick plates remind you of the top-shelf quality you’re about to enjoy.
A new high resolution info-tainment screen juts out from the middle of the dash. In many ways a center piece, all on-board systems can be manipulated through this screen. A couple of passengers asked me to retract the screen and twisted their face with confusion when I replied that it wasn’t possible. They looked at me as if I was playing some kind of prank, and looked at the car as if it was some dust-covered antique. Of course, my passengers missed the point BMW was trying to make when they mounted this screen, permanently and prominently, in the first place. The screen symbolizes BMW’s move toward high tech features, and the company’s love affair with electronics. It was intended to be as much an ‘electronic sculpture’ as it was a computer screen. Take it for what you will.
If you’ve driven BMWs in the past, then the layout of switchgear will naturally fall to hand. In typical BMW ‘form-follows-function’ design, drive related buttons are found on the left of the steering wheel, and comfort related buttons are found on the right. At night, all gauges and buttons glow amber so as not to compromise your night vision – a nod to fighter jet cockpit design. Also a nod to the fighter jet is a bright and height-adjustable HUD or “Heads Up Display” which can show information ranging from low fuel warnings, to step-by-step instructions from the navigation system.
Once inside, strapped in, and ready to go – the real character of this car can finally be released. Press the dash mounted “Start/Stop” button and you’ll hear the twin-turbo V8 unit politely clear its throat and settle into a baritone – if slightly muted – idle. Bop the center console-mounted gear selector into drive and with royal grace the ZF sourced 8-speed automatic will smoothly accelerate the car away from a standstill.
With the soft top still covering us, I was shocked by the measure of poise and quite comfort this car can offer. The interior is nearly silent – it’s quieter inside this cabriolet than in most hard top sedans. Spooky almost, particularly considering that this is a soft top – not a modern hard top convertible. While we’re on that note, it should be mentioned that the soft top adds a lot of character and charm to the 650i Cabrio. The soft top is a throw back to sexy and exotic convertibles or yore. The way the rear buttresses span down the rear deck is nothing short of sexy, and a touch Italian. And by Italian, I mean Ferrari’esque.
The ride was surprisingly plush as I navigated the harsh and poorly maintained roads of Toronto proper. Particularly so, considering that this low slung cabriolet was wearing 20 inch wheels wrapped in run flat tires – not exactly a recipe for luxurious damping. Yet BMW’s real-time adjustable suspension offered a comfort setting for the suspension that lived up to its name.
Carving along city streets, I often found myself switching to the sport setting in order to make faster progress, with faster reflexes at hand. The 650i Cabrio delivered a noticeable tightening of the suspension and steering in the “Sport” setting, and also offered up more sensitive throttle response as the transmission held gears longer, and shifted down earlier. Away from traffic, you can release all 400 horsepower on occasion, and you will often find yourself braking at the top of on ramps. Passing slower traffic in the 650i is not an issue, which is a nod to active safety.
Most of the time, this cars soothes you into a relaxed pace – but explosive power under-hood coupled with the chassis’ perfect balance still gets you in the mood sometimes. It is at these times when you are reminded most of the roundel and what it represents in: “The ultimate driving machine.” From a calm and sedate luxury liner, this car can quickly transform into a tarmac gobbling sports car. Its acceleration will pin you to your seat, forming a direct correlation between the accelerator pedal and your smile. The steeper the pedal, the bigger your smile – and your passengers’ too.
You’ll notice I stated passengers as plural and while this is technically possible – it is highly unlikely, unless you have extremely short legged friends, or you trust your fury four-legged friends to the plush leather. With my seat in its proper driving position, there is absolutely no room behind my seat. None. Therefore, we can consider this car as a two seater, much the same as we might label a Porsche 911 a two seater. Yes, there are technically four seats, but no one would ever be so unkind to their friends as to strap them in the back seat.
On the way home from work I stopped by Sobey’s for some groceries. This was around the time that I began to ponder the overall proportions of the car, and its use of space. Let’s be clear: this car was not designed with utility in mind. The trunk opening is extremely small (narrower than the previous generation) and due to the space requirements for the stowed top, there is little room in the trunk itself. Golf bags will have to sit in the rear seat, as you’d be hard pressed to fit them in the trunk. Thankfully, my three bags of groceries fit just fine, and I was merrily on my way.
Speaking of the overall proportions, you’ll come to notice that this is a very big car. It is long and wide, casting a very big shadow. As you can imagine, it can also be tough to park given the small parking spaces often available. BMW has installed their self-parking technology on the 650i Cabriolet for just this reason. Parallel parking is therefore a breeze, even for a first time driver – though we don’t recommend giving your 16 year old the keys to this car for their maiden voyage, and we release ourselves of all claims and liabilities should you chose to do so.
Nonetheless, your youngsters will certainly appreciate the high-fidelity sound streaming from the audio system. The sound system in this car is nothing short of epic. It replicates music as if an amphitheater and has you bopping in your seat like – well… a youngster. I recall thinking to myself that the sound system alone was nearly worth the price of admission. If quality sound means a lot to you – this car will not leave you disappointed. Versatile and powerful, it played all genres of music well, from classical to R&B.
By now you’re probably wondering why I still haven’t stowed the soft top, and I have a perfectly good explanation for you. It rained nearly the entire time I had this press car. Writer’s luck. But worry not, I did find a few sunny days to bask in “Flagship” glory, and they’re detailed below.
More than the sum of its parts?
Yes – absolutely. It’s easy to lose sight of the real meaning of this phrase, “more than the sum of its parts.” It can quickly sound cliche. But spending any amount of time in this drop-top BMW will slap you back into reverence of this phrase. This car is so much more than the sum of its parts. Allow me to explain.
This phenomena is rare in a car, and found only in automobiles that are truly special. This quality often surfaces in unique experiences that go a long way to explain how the car makes you feel. In the 650i Cabriolet, two experiences come to mind.
The first comes after a beautiful sunny day spent driving curvy country roads with the top down. Polished precision was found in every control interface – from the steering wheel to the feel of each button. Effortless power propelled us forward out of countless corners. The sun shone down, warming our skin. The wind caught our hair and after a few hours, we completely lost track of time. Returning to Toronto, I threw an address into the navigation and made my way to pick up a date. Yes, your faithful scribe is now single, and in search of not just the perfect car, but the perfect passenger. Arriving at the address – and in good time I might add – I jumped out to greet my date and welcomed her to the quite sophistication of my penthouse automotive cabin.
Together, we made haste for the movies, and arrived at the cinema. “Money Ball” was our movie of choice, and we were both excited to see it. But then, something strange happened just as I was about to pay the automatic ticket machine. I fumbled over the buttons, hesitating long enough to null and void the payment. Was I having a stroke? No. I was dreaming of the BMW, with wind in my hair, flying along country back roads. This car is flat out addictive. I turned to my date with a very awkward look in my eye and asked, “Do you feel like… going for a drive instead?” It was still bright out, with lovely sunny weather. With winter approaching, we were ever mindful of the impending cold. Somehow, embarrassingly, I turned from the ticket machine, and walked straight back to the low slung convertible sitting sexily in the parking lot, with date on-arm. Only a car with massive sex appeal can make you act this goofy in front of a date. But together, we enjoyed a long evening of open air motoring and we couldn’t have had a better time.
The second experience comes while parking the 650i cabrio using its automated parking feature. The first time you use this system, it downright scares you – not in a, “I think I’m going to crash” kind of way, but rather a, “this can’t possibly be happening on its own, there’s a ghost in my car” kind of way.
Deeply enamored by the auto park assist feature, my fun and edgy friend insisted on creating a bit of a spectacle. It was an electric night in the city, with packed sidewalks full of partying pedestrians. On Queen street West, I found a spot just large enough to park (according to the car, not me) and promptly set the auto park in motion. Top down, my friend insisted we both throw our hands high in the air while reversing into the space. Confused looks were cast all around as the glossy red convertible maneuvered into position. “Surly, no one could be that good at knee-driving,” we joked. My friend turned to me with a smile so big it looked almost painful. We were acting a bit young for our age – and that is exactly the magic of this car. It carries you in comfort – but riles the kid in you.
This BMW is endless fun to drive and on the fun-factor scale, manages a 9 out of 10 star rating. It was far more than the sum of its parts, becoming an experience more than an automobile. It is wildly entertaining and gratifying to drive, particularly top down.
A lap of Cayuga Racetrack:
All that fun and we hadn’t even reached the racetrack. I must admit that I had some doubts prior to arriving at the track. While I found that the car was extremely well balanced on the road, I was left less than impressed with its overall sporting feel. It just felt too relaxed to lose the gloves and pound the pavement. There was plenty of feel through the steering, but not enough to impress upon me its track-worthiness. Every sensation (except wind) is slightly muted in the 650i cabriolet – so how can it devour a racetrack, I wondered.
I’ve never been so wrong. Approaching pit lane, I turned all systems to their sportiest settings, eliminated all electronic interference, and waited for the flag marshal’s signal. With a green flag fluttering in the wind, I dropped the hammer and accelerated down the back straight. Building speed, the 8-speed automatic rifled quickly through each upshift. Approaching the entrance to turn one, the 650i’s powerful __ brakes burnt speed with surprising bite. Trail braking to the apex, the nose readily turned in to clip the curbing, and once back on the throttle, the car pushed wide to the exit as intended, and carrying serious speed.
This car was putty in my hands – and I honestly did not expect it. Through the rest of the track the 650i cabrio remained impressively neutral – in fact this BMW was one of the most neutral handling road cars I’ve ever driven on track. It actually wanted to turn in and showed very little to no understeer through most corners. Fathom that! In fact, I found myself counter steering through many corners and transitions when pressing on – and without coaxing. Brilliant!
The transmission proved reliable and quick if not particularly well suited for track use. The floppy paddles mounted on the steering wheel adhere to the proper “right for upshift, left for downshift” standard, but I found only the left paddle to be useful on track, as the transmission frequently needed a reminder to drop or hold a lower gear – whereas the transmission logic always upshifted at max revs, 7,000 rpm in this case, and there was no point to short shifting. Therefore, I found the right paddle to be purely an aesthetic appendage, and irrelevant for track use.
After several laps the brakes began to show considerable fade, in fact they were the weak link in an otherwise highly competent performance package. A set of drilled rotors and performance pads would go a long way to erase this problem, found only after hard charging on the racetrack.
Steering feel in the 650i cabrio was better than expected on track. I say that because all controls in this luxurious car are slightly muted, including the steering. And yet, a sufficient measure of feel and feedback remains to press on and extract maximum performance from the car. You can reliably feel for grip at the limit, although the racer in me does lust for more communicate steering for the racetrack. Seemingly a trend in modern BMWs, the car feeds you just enough feel and feedback through the wheel to get the job done, but not much more. This, in contrast with BMWs of yesteryear – which flooded your fingertips with lively messages from the road surface.
Given a stickier set of tires, I have no doubt that this BMW could show up some very focused sports cars. Its pace was astounding, for such a large, luxurious car. At one point, the flag marshal turned to my photographer and said, “I can’t believe the lap times he’s turning in! He’s not far over the production car lap record!” I later found out that the 650i Cabrio was 13 seconds off the lap record – with mediocre Dunlop tires. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but considering that that the lap record has been fought over by Ferraris and Porsches sporting R compound tires… the 650i cabrio can hold its head high as a proper sports car in our books. This BMW is indeed, track worthy – and oh what fun with top down and helmet on.
A two hour tour:
Our trip in BMW’s premium convertible took us to the scenic town of Halton Hills. The surrounding country roads were our real draw, but we managed to find an excellent restaurant in town to get our fill. On the highway, BMW’s 650i Cabriolet exhibited supreme comfort and serenity. It was very quiet with the top up, and surprisingly quiet with the top down, even at highway speeds of 120 km/h.
The seats are easily one of the best features on this car, as they are adjustable about 100 ways and perfectly form to your body for lasting support. You will not need to see your chiropractor often if you drive this car.
Features such as the lane departure warning system, blind spot monitoring system and night vision camera may seem like gimmicks on paper – but trust us – over a long drive they become entirely relevant and much appreciated. No amount of coffee will warn you of a car in your blind spot, or see through the fog to warn you of a pedestrian or animal on the road ahead.
Canadian speed laws did not permit us to prove our theory, but we expect this car to be a brilliant high-speed touring machine. It’s real home is undoubtably on the autobahn, where it can regularly pass 200 km/h with poise, comfort and control.
Where’s the beef? Qualms and quibbles:
There is very little to complain about after driving this car. And there shouldn’t be, as this is, after all, the “Flagship.” But, true to our mandate as journalists, we were able to pick out a couple places for improvement.
Firstly, the 650i is not loud enough – even with the top down. I recall reveling in the immense power and acceleration of the car while thinking, “something’s missing.” What’s missing, is the glorious roar of the force fed 4.4 liter V8 engine. I do understand the purpose and intended market segment for this car, and no doubt engine noise is therefore not high on the priority list, but at least in sport mode – a little more sound would be appreciated to complete the otherwise thrilling experience.
Next, we found the chassis became unsettled over large bumps, on occasion. I tried to find a correlation between the size and type of bump or pot-hole, but the car would soak some up well, and shudder over others. It was not common, but neither was it rare for the car to hit a bump and shudder nervously before regaining composure. Of course, unless you live downtown Toronto, you would be hard pressed to find roads rough enough to experience this.
Lastly, we can take aim at the rear seats. They are truly useless. Perhaps, if eliminated altogether, the car could offer substantially more trunk space. This would be a trade off I believe most owners would readily accept, since back seat passengers are rare or non existent and trunk space is quite limited.
In the 650i Cabriolet, BMW have appropriately crowned a “Flagship” car. Its every move is poised and smooth, it caudals you in exceptional luxury and style, and baths you in speed – should you chose to unleash its potent engine. From the sidewalk, it is strikingly beautiful as light dances across its curvaceous surface. Most importantly, this car rewards you to a special experience with every drive, ranging from calm and relaxing, to thrilling and dynamic.
Driving a BMW 650i Cabriolet says, “You’ve made it” – and trust us: Once you’ve made it, you’ll want to keep on driving.
Thanks to BMW Canada for providing the 650i Cabriolet for testing purposes.
Special thanks to Hendrick BMW of Charlotte, North Carolina. They offer the largest and most complete selection of new BMW cars in the three state region. Hendrick BMW is committed to providing exceptional service and exceeding customers’ needs. They are constantly striving for excellence, character, and quality within every aspect of their business. Thanks to the tremendous support from their customers, Hendrick BMW just received their 8th consecutive “Center of Excellence” award in 2012. The Center of Excellence designation is only awarded to the top 8% of dealerships in the entire nation. If you would like to order an individualized model, one of the friendly and knowledgeable client advisors will guide you every step of the way. (Facebook Page)