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First Look: 2004 BMW 645Ci

A welcome return of the classic coupe

Sherri Collins
Mar 2, 2004 SHARE

Very few things seem to polarize opinion as much as a change in design, be it in clothing, architecture or automobiles. A departure from the current standard, while considered daring by some, is viewed as sacrilege by most. Yet over time, the new, seemingly outrageous design becomes the accepted norm and we wonder how we ever could have esteemed and even liked the previous fashion. Someone has to make the leap to a new look, otherwise lettermen sweaters and poodle skirts would still be all the rage, Ionic columns would still be considered a worthy addition to any building and big-finned hunks of sheetmetal would still dominate the highways. To put it bluntly: eewww!

Thankfully, there will always be someone willing to push past the norm, to create a new cutting edge and even go beyond it. You may not always agree with the end result (you may even loathe it), but you have to at least acknowledge the effort and appreciate the risk taken to force a change in the status quo.

A common complaint heard from generation to generation is that all the current cars look alike, that you can't really tell one from the other on the road. Well, now you can. Enter Chris Bangle and the evolving look of BMW design. It started with the 7 Series, and was followed quickly by the Z4, the 5 Series and now, the new 6. Love it or hate it, BMW's new design philosophy is stretching the envelope of accepted car appearances. Does it work? For the most part, yes. Will it hold? It's too soon to tell, but my guess is that it will. Three or four years from now, we'll wonder what exactly it was that we didn't like about the new designs. And the one new car that could lead the way is the new 645Ci.

I can hear the cries already, "But it doesn't look like a BMW! It doesn't even have the kidney grilles." Au contraire, it does look like a BMW if you know your timeline. The sloping roof to trunk line evokes the profile of nearly every BMW coupe, from the 3200 CS to the 635 CSi. The long and wide hood plays off the styling of both the 503 and the 850 CSi. And take a look back at the 3.0 CSi and the 3.0 CSL neither one had much of a front or rear overhang. As for the "kidney" grilles (whose kidneys anyway, an elephant's?), they have changed shape numerous times over the years. The one element that probably will cause the most consternation is the rear end and its accompanying trunk lid. Yes, it's a radical departure from previous BMWs, yet it does share the trait with the new 7 and 5, thus connecting it to the BMW family.

The new 645Ci looks the best from the side, especially when in motion. It is very pleasing to the eye, as the sleek silhouette (the coupe is 190.2 in. long, 54.1 in. high) hugs the road in a most sensuous manner--it boasts a very low Cd of 0.29. And the odd-looking trunk lid (it will take a while for me to get used to it) blends in better on the 6 than on the other two new models. The front is pure aggression; having a 645Ci appear suddenly in your rear-view mirror is a daunting experience. Its entire demeanor says "move out of the way, now." As for the rear, well, it is distinctive. Besides, you can't see the back end once you're sitting inside.

German press departments love to use the words dynamic and dynamism, frequently to the point of absurdity, when characterizing a new car's attributes. BMW used it more than a little to describe the 645Ci, especially its interior. And, in this case, it's not mere hyperbole. BMW interiors have been nice, functional and exceptionally boring for quite some time. Thankfully, the new 6er shares the new 5 Series' design philosophy of "dynamic harmony." Actually, minimalist luxury would be a more descriptive--if somewhat oxymoronic--term.

Minimalist in that the interior is very clean, almost Spartan in appearance. There aren't a lot of buttons, knobs or design embellishments, keeping the sweeping dash free of clutter. The instrument cluster contains only two chrome-ringed dials: the speedometer, which also houses the fuel tank gauge, and the tach with a fuel consumption rate gauge. In between the two rings are changeable digital displays for a variety of functions.

The center console features a permanent hooded 6.5-in. color display screen, which is a vast improvement over the typical pop-up module found in most vehicles. Several of the climate system functions have been pulled out of iDrive and placed below the central air vents: There are now dual controls for temperature and single controls for fan speed, defrost, auto and recirculating air. The in-dash CD player is separate from the navigation DVD slot, so you can listen to your favorite tunes and use the nav system at the same time. The standard surrounding material is beautifully finished pearl-gloss ruthenium (a silvery white metal). There are also touches of the metal on the shifter and glovebox surrounds. For those requiring wood in a luxury car, you can opt for either dark or light birchwood in place of the ruthenium at no extra charge.

The leather sport steering wheel is, as expected in a luxury sports car, multifunctional. The front seats are 12-way powered with memory and are covered in Dakota leather, as are the door grab handles, door inserts and the center console cover. Sport seats, also 12-way power adjustable, are optional and feature manually adjustable thigh support. The standard seats provide plenty of support and comfort for day-to-day driving, while the Sport seats give you that extra bit of lateral and thigh support needed when taking the twisties at maximum speed. There are two leather-covered seats in the rear. Passenger room is typical for a 2+2 coupe. You can fit two average-sized adults in the back on the way to dinner and a movie, but you wouldn't want to get stuck there for a long drive.

iDrive has been simplified in the 6 Series (and in the '04 7 Series as well). Instead of eight direction menu choices, there are five: one in the center and four at the cardinal points. There is a menu button to the right of the silver knob--placed slightly off center to the left of the parking brake--that allows you to return to the previous screen. I never had a problem figuring out the first version of iDrive, but the newest edition is much more straightforward. There are still layers to work through, but the most frequently used ones are relatively easy to access. If the "dreaded" knob still has you disconcerted, you can use the Voice Command System--it's standard on U.S.-spec cars--which controls nearly all of iDrive's basic functions, including the nav, audio and climate systems.

The iDrive system also comes with the optional Head-Up Display. Instead of shifting your eyes to the left to see the display screen, you can view all pertinent information directly in front of you on the windshield, making the data appear as though it's on top of the hood. The Head-Up Display projects a clear, easy-to-read image that adjusts instantly to changing light conditions. The two 6 Series I drove didn't have the option installed, but based on the presentation material, it looks like a rather nifty system.

We had a full day to test out the new 6s on the winding back roads and fast-moving autopistas of southern Andalucia. Sixes? As in more than one? Technically, yes. There is only one engine offered at this time: BMW's much-vaunted Double VANOS/VALVETRONIC 4.4-liter V8, outputting 325 bhp at 6100 rpm and 330 lb-ft of torque at 3600 rpm, with 0 to 60 being reached in 5.5 sec. But, there are three transmission choices: A six-speed manual as standard, a six-speed Steptronic automatic (no extra charge) and a six-speed SMG. (The SMG requires the Sport Package and has a delayed availability in the U.S.)

If there ever was a car made for the SMG, the 645Ci is it. The sequential transmission has been specifically geared for the 4.4-liter V8. The difference has to do with the Dynamic Drive Control system, activated by the Sport button, which alters the throttle response time, the gear rev limits, gearshift timing and the steering effort. Shifting is smooth and seamless; there is no noticeable lag in shift time, as there is with the Z4. Using the steering wheel-mounted paddles to change gears just adds to the fun. Concentrate on the deep, rumbly sound of the V8 as you flick a paddle back to downshift, and you just might convince yourself you're driving a BMW-Williams race car.

As much as I liked the SMG, the six-speed manual is truly the only way to go. Being able to row through the gears with a shifter built the way only BMW can--perfectly--is to experience automotive bliss. A quick twitch of the wrist and the chosen gear instantly mates and harmonizes with the V8's revs. Powershifting the 645Ci around corners, through curves, down long stretches of road is intoxicating. You'll want to find reasons to prolong the drive, just so you can row through the gears again and again. (Note: I didn't get to drive the automatic version, but based on time behind the wheel of an automatic 530i, the Steptronic in the 6er coupe should perform admirably.)

Part of that intoxication comes from the coupe's superior chassis setup, which features aluminum double-pivot-type front suspension and rear aluminum four-link integral rear suspension, both of which are sport tuned and use coil springs and twin-tube gas-pressure shocks at all four corners. The brakes are inner-ventilated discs with aluminum/cast-iron compound rotors and aluminum calipers, sized 13.7 in. in front and 13.6 in. at the rear. Both the suspension and braking systems are controlled by a variety of handling systems. Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)--which includes Dynamic Traction Control--electronic brake proportioning, antilock-braking (ABS), Dynamic Brake Control (DBC) and cornering/braking stability enhancement all work together in concert, allowing you to get away with a very spirited driving style--and all without fear of losing control if you happen to go a wee bit too far, too fast.

Keeping the chassis planted on the road are V-rated run-flat all-season tires, sized 245/45R18, wrapped around 18x8 cast-alloy wheels. W-rated run-flat performance tires--sized 245/40R19, front; 275/35R19, rear--mounted on 19x8.5-in. and 19x9-in., respectively, cast-alloy wheels are optional with the Sport package. Run-flats haven't been my favorite tires of late (they make for a rather harsh ride), but the addition of the performance version makes them more than acceptable.

The SMG version I drove had the optional Dynamic Driving and Active Steering Systems, which were first introduced on the new 5 Series. For U.S.-spec cars, Dynamic Driving is called Active Roll Stabilization (ARS) and comes standard. Dynamic Driving (or ARS) is a chassis and suspension control system that uses two active anti-roll bars integrated in the front and rear axles, which convert hydraulic pressure into torsional momentum and/or exert a stabilization force through the body of the car. The result is a 3,792-lb coupe (3,781 lb for the manual) that is remarkably tossable from corner to corner, yet maintains a ride quality that is smooth and comfortable enough for jiggle-sensitive passengers. A necessary combination when you're building a luxury sports car.

BMW's Active Steering System (funny, BMW hasn't given this one an acronym) is a speed-sensitive system taken to the next level of electronic control. Active Steering affects the overall steering angle by combining the original steering angle (steering wheel turn) with that of the angle generated by the system's electric step motor. The system also works in tandem with DSC for improved yaw and pitch control. In essence, it makes slow, wide turns easier and quick, narrow turns tighter. Editor-at-large Kevin Clemens was much dismayed by the effects of the system on the new 5er, but I think he would be less critical of it on the 645Ci. It is much less apparent, making its presence known only when sudden under- or oversteer situations occur.

The 645Ci is able to weigh as little as it does through the ample use of aluminum and other lightweight materials. Weight-saving innovations include a Weight-Reduced Aluminum Front (WRAF), aluminum hood, doors and front and rear axles, Sheet Molding Compound (SMC) thermoplasitc front fenders and trunk lid, and Superlite floorpan. For comparison, the BMW coupe is a mere 6.2 in. shorter than Mercedes' CL500 (the 645Ci's height is 1.3 in. lower, the width, 0.1 in. less), yet it weighs 278 lb less--that's almost 45 lb per inch of car.

Though the coupe is lightweight for its class, there's no scrimping on safety features or luxury amenities. On the active safety front, the 6er is replete with dual-airbag SRS with two-stage Smart Airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags, front seat Active Knee Protection (USA only), AHPS side head curtain airbags, automatic front seatbelt tenioners and force limiters and automatic locking retractors on all seatbelts, and a safety steering column with a deformable-spoke steering wheel. Other safety features include the previously mentioned run-flat tires with a tire defect/low-pressure alert system, BMW Assist with automatic collision notification (also standard in the U.S.), SOS button and enhanced roadside assistance, bi-xenon adaptive headlights (also standard in the U.S.), daytime running lights (you have to program them on), halogen free-form foglights and adaptive brake lights with LED technology.

The list of standard equipment on the new coupe is so long, I'd need another page just to mention every item. Fortunately, I've covered many of the standard items already. Those on the U.S.-spec 645Ci (ours come with more features loaded in than the European-spec version) still needing mention include a power-tilting glass Panorama moonroof with power-operated interior shade, the high-version iDrive controller with GPS navigation system and voice command, dual cupholders front and rear.

Not surprisingly, the options list is much shorter. If you're not satisfied with the base AM/FM/CD audio system with eight speakers, you can opt for the Premium Sound Package Logic 7 system with 13 speakers, Digital Sound Processing, Surround Sound simulation and a six-disc CD changer. Care to have the car do most of your thinking? Then you should consider having the Active Cruise Control and Park Distance Control with graphic display installed. For those living in colder climes, the Cold Weather Package offers three-stage heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a ski bag. And, it's a given that I highly recommend the Sports package with sport seats, 19-in. wheels and performance tires, DDC, Active Steering and high-gloss Shadowline exterior trim, as it gives this already impressive luxury sports coupe an even sharper edge.

It's been 15 years since the first 6 Series was on the market. First introduced in 1976 (1977 in the U.S.), the 6er--especially the later versions--was, and still is, considered by many enthusiasts to be Munich's ultimate driving machine. When BMW announced the coupe's return, those same enthusiasts were worried that the new version would not live up to their beloved classic, that overly helpful technology and Chris Bangle's design philosophy would ruin everything. And, there will be several who will hold to this line of thought, no matter the convincing evidence to the contrary. (There's just no pleasing some people.) But for the open-minded, the new 645Ci will be everything its predecessor was and more. The classic coupe has returned. Welcome back.

Editor's note: As of this printing, U.S. and European pricing had yet to be announced.

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By Sherri Collins
39 Articles

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