Test drive: BMW 8 Series

By topgear, 01 November 2018
BMW 850i xDrive

What is it?
Broadly, the 8 Series replaces the 6 Series. But it gets a new number because it’s grander than that. Also, the number 6 now resides on the rump of a big practical hatchback, the 6 Series Gran Turismo.

Really though, in the traditional and proper sense of the term, a Gran Turismo isn’t a bulky five-door, it’s a swish-looking coupe. That’s to say the 8 Series.

Repeating the history of the old 6 Series, the 8 launches with petrol and diesel two-door coupes, and then the range gets populated by convertibles, and four-door Gran Coupes.

There will be an M8 version of each of those bodies. Lick your lips.

Outside, the 8 Series coupe wears the stentorian new face of BMW, more angular and big-grilled than ever – though the grille has active shutters and is actually blanked off most of the time for drag reasons, opening only when the engine gets sweaty at low speed. The sides are sculpted and chiselled and the rear shoulders broad. The roof can optionally be specced in carbonfibre, and it has a double-bubble section. It tapers downwards almost from the top of the windscreen.

Fine elements in themselves. But to our eyes the bulky nose and tail deny it the grace of some rivals. Still, you can’t argue with the drama of those low, wide, broad-shouldered proportions.

Underneath, BMW has thrown its best tech at it. The M8 will get the mighty M V8, but for the moment there’s a ‘ordinary’ V8 that makes a slightly extraordinary 530bhp. The other option is the 840d, a 3.0-litre six

BMW 850i xDrive

Whatever the engine, all wheels are both driven and steered as standard, and the damping is adaptive. For good measure the test M850i had optional active anti-roll too. All four of those systems alter their thresholds in harmony as you switch to the sport modes.

The body contains carbon fibre as well as aluminium and steel – it’s related to the multi-material 7 Series. Even so, overall weight hovers around 1,900kg for the V8 version.

BMW says this is a sports car, but to us it looks like a GT. There’s no shame in that. Pity the new 6 Series has burgled those initials though.

Anyway, in the past the number 8 has meant a big deal for a BMW. The 850CSi and Z8 became cherished. The i8 surely will too. But looking at the new 8 Series, and especially peering into its 3 Series-alike cabin, we wonder if it’s distinctive enough from the rest of the BMW range.  Let’s see if there’s much distinction in how it acts.

What is it like on the road?
The M850i has a new, cleaner-running and heavily powered-up version of BMW’s ‘regular’ 4.4-litre V8 - and its 530bhp and epic thrust are absolutely nothing to be sneezed at. The upper half of its rev band is solid nourishment, pulling like Jupiter’s gravity to somewhere beyond 6,500rpm. Albeit it operates without the audible spice of the M V8, or AMG’s, despite the fact ‘Sport’ mode both opens the exhaust flaps early, and switches on loudspeaker enhancement of its voice.

Lower down in the revs, its manners are nicely discreet for below-the-radar mooching. It’s laggy below 3,000rpm, but the smooth autobox is responsive enough to paper over the cracks. At those revs a distinct V8 rumble will stimulate your inner petrolhead, but it’s not so loud it’ll annoy the general population.

In full cry the suspension and steering will chomp their way down a difficult road at a crazed rate without batting an eyelid. Clearly a lot is going on down there to shepherd and marshal the 1.9 tonnes, but from your seat the effort is well disguised. Adaptive damping, four-wheel steering, active-anti-roll… yet it doesn’t feel like a computer synthesis. It’s just like a well-sorted car a couple of hundred kilos lighter.

The four-wheel-drive system favours rearward distribution in Sport mode, and in the rain the M850i becomes a pretty snaky customer if you loosen (let alone disengage) the traction control. Keep things in the comfort mode and it’s protective and super-secure.

BMW 850i xDrive
BMW 850i xDrive

For really long motorway hauls, you’re going to want the diesel. Its 0-100kph time still begins with a four, and driving with sense you’ll be taken an easy 805km before fuel.

Throwing it around like that, you’d feel even more confident if the steering carried a little less squidge and a little more feedback. There’s nothing wrong with its gearing, but even once you’re on lock it always carries an initial softness.

No doubt next year’s M8 will be sharper, but for now the M850i is a GT in character and maybe this isolation is deliberate. By the same token, tyre noise and sharp bumps are only distantly bothersome.

The brakes are plenty powerful for quick road driving. Like the suspension they feel natural despite a lot of tech behind the scenes – they’re effectively a by-wire system.

The 8 Series can be had with most of BMW’s advanced driver aids – steering assist on motorways, and very advanced cruise control. But the switchgear and warning lights make the handover from the car to the driver occasionally confusing. Use with vigilance. For long night drives, the optional laser headlights are just the business.

For really long motorway hauls, you’re going to want the diesel. Its 0-100kph time still begins with a four, and driving with sense you’ll be taken an easy 805km before fuel. Your bladder will give out sooner.


On the inside
Here’s what we mean when we say the 8 Series might not be distinctive enough.

Much of it is just like the rest of the 2018-onwards family of BMWs. Thumb the ignition and the displays that light up – HUD, instruments, centre screen – are exactly what you’ll get on a well-optioned new 3 Series. The switches and software and iDrive too.

Mostly, this stuff of course works vastly better than what’s in the high-zoot independent brands like Aston Martin or McLaren, or the non-independent Lexus for that matter. The iDrive screen is further developed, and has more display resolution, is more connected, and is more responsive than ever.

The head-up display, a standard fit, is awesome. It’s huge, clear and carries loads of usefully context-dependent info.


Just as well actually, as the new TFT-screen instrument cluster is a mess. There’s a big area in the centre that shows navigation diagrams, which can’t be used for anything else if you know where you’re going. Alongside is a near-unreadable rev-counter. In compensation you get a tach in the HUD when in sports mode. The new climate controls are a bit fiddlier than BMW’s previous efforts too, and the silver buttons are impossible to read when backlit. And while Apple CarPlay-over-Bluetooth is a convenient idea, it was glitchy in the test cars. That’s a nitpicking paragraph, but more nits than you expect.

The dash and doors are swathed in beautifully stitched leather. The front seats are a good place to be, poly-adjustable and supportive. The back ones aren’t. They’re horribly cramped, for knees and heads. At least the boot is biggish, and folding the useless back seats extends it some more. Around the front cockpit you’ll find useful storage. Well-judged packaging choices for a long-trip car. A GT.

The people who developed the 8 Series did a very good job. It’s across-the-board competent. The problem lies not in its execution but its concept.

Owning a BMW, even a top-dog BMW, doesn’t scale social mountains to the same altitude as owning a Bentley. That in essence is the trouble with the M850i, as, with a few options, it costs not a whole lot less than a Continental GT V8.

If you really like BMWs that’s fine. Because it’s not greatly different from the rest of the BMWs. Just more and better of the same. BMW does do a forward-looking 8, the i8. The 8 Series is less fun that that, and rather backward-looking despite all the technology.

You could argue the 8 Series’ rivals from other car makers are similarly traditional in outlook, but they’re more special because the roads aren’t clogged with their cheaper relatives.