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Monday 21st March 2005


BMW 645CI

If it's grunt and luxury you're after, BMW's 645Ci delivers. Manek Dubash reports on a week behind the wheel.

With a slinky-shaped 645Ci automatic, brand new with just 200-odd miles on the clock to enjoy for a week, where would you go -- assuming hacking round Alpine passes wasn't possible? I headed off to Scotland from my home near the south coast in BMW's top-end coupé -- and there's a number of reasons why this was the right car to go in, and maybe one or two why it wasn't.

What I had in mind was hooning round some of my favourite roads across the Highlands but it didn't quite work out that way. Not even as far as Birmingham, the road clogged up and everything came to a standstill. Up till then, the car's all-leather interior, satnav, excellent stereo and smooth motorway manners had lulled me into a false sense of security.

Interior

When you're stuck in a jam and only once you're stationary do traffic announcers bother to tell you about it, the car you're in matters. Firstly, the 645Ci is very comfortable. The seats are multi-way adjustable and include lumbar support, and the wheel is adjustable for reach and rake -- motorised of course -- so anyone can find the right position, and the car will memorise it.

It's clear that much thought has gone into both materials and design, the silver grey exterior and burgundy and grey leather interior. Together with the ruthenium pearl gloss trim, it's a restful combination, and went well with the silver grey paint finish. There's also lots to fiddle with, especially the iDrive system which, with a little thought, proved simple to master, though I had to check the manual a few times.

The fully reclining, front sports seats allow for a traffic-jam snooze but the rear seats are a bit of an after-thought. Though low-mounted and comfortable, anyone in the back bigger than a child will hit their heads on the roof.

On the move again, as it got dark the adaptive headlights flicked on and the orange glow in the simple, easy-to-read dials proved a boon. The car turned heads at petrol stops too, and it cleared the BMW lane -- sorry, the outside lane -- of the M6 most effectively. As the hours passed with cruise control taking the strain from the right foot and no clutch to worry about, it felt like piloting a trans-Atlantic flight. There was just a quiet woofle emanating from somewhere below-stairs, and though the 90mph wind noise was a bit louder than expected, there was little to do.

And the toys? The satnav DVD covers Europe and offers a zoomable, dynamic view of your position while the climate control is almost infinitely adjustable and works well. You also get a Sport button which sharpens up the gearbox and throttle response, and a dynamic traction control (DTC) button which can either turn the traction control off, or make it less intrusive.

Engine and transmission

Out on snow-covered Highland roads the next day, it was a different story. The optional automatic gearbox, instead of being an asset, turned into a hindrance, especially with the high possibility of ice underfoot. The delay in response, even in Sport mode, between the time you want power now and the moment the cog swapper decides to deliver it is long enough to be unsettling. I'd pass on the £1,350 auto option and plump for the £880 sequential manual 'box.

The 645Ci's 4.4-litre engine doesn't disappoint. The same unit as BMW fits to the 745i, it pumps out 333bhp at 6,100rpm, and 332lb-ft of torque at 3,600rpm. And BMW has tuned the exhaust system so you don't forget you're behind a big V8. At the point of max torque, the noise rises from a barely perceptible thrum to a satisfying throaty roar, marking the point at which the car switches from cruiser to bruiser.

The engine is fitted with all the latest BeeEm technology, including Valvetronic variable valve lift and Bi-Vanos variable valve timing and intake manifold length. A flap behind the grille manages engine temperatures so that, even on very cold days, the car's interior warms up quickly.

Performance

With that V8 thrusting the 1,615Kg coupé to 60mph from zero in 5.6 seconds (manual), the 645Ci comfortably holds its own on the motorway, and has plenty of grunt to push you quickly and safely past slowcoaches, creating passing opportunities that are confidently exploited. There's not a lot of low-down torque but it has enough to bumble along in top at low speeds, helping to reduce its appetite for refills. While on motorway runs the car returned nearly 25mpg, pressing the fun button quickly brought it down into the mid- to high teens.

Handling

The 645Ci is more GT than sports car. Hauling it round perversely winding (and thankfully empty) roads showed the electric steering rack delivers plenty of feel -- my car wasn't fitted with the £675 active steering option. You can lean on it and get a clear sense of what the front wheels are up to. However, it was hard in tighter corners to drum up enough confidence that the car wasn't going to plough straight on. I could really feel the weight of that big V8 up front.

Or maybe the problem was potential ice and the sense that bending a £50,000 car, miles from anywhere in sub-zero temperatures isn't the smartest trick in the book. Whatever. I only felt comfortable switching the DTC, which manages power and braking when near the limit, into minimal mode when ice didn't threaten.

In halfway mode, the DTC allows you a little rope before the electronics kick in and gather things up again, and is a good compromise for having fun while pressing on. At other times, you can feel it intervene but, if it keeps you on the black stuff on slippery surfaces, that's no bad thing.

But even when cornering on dry but rough tarmac, the car showed a tendency to skip sideways under power, despite the high-tech all-aluminium suspension which underpins the car's excellent manners on motorways and fast A roads. Much of this is, I suspect, a consequence of fitting big 19-inch wheels, with their stiff-sidewalled run-flat Bridgestones. If it were my money, I'd be tempted to go for the standard 18-inchers instead. Their 45 ratio sidewalls give you more compliance, and you get both to trouser the 19-inchers' £1,010 option price, and better real-world cornering on classic British broken tarmac.

Looks and impressions

After nearly 2,000 miles added to the clock, I quickly got used to the car, even though the Bangle bustle at first offended. From the side, there's almost a hint of 911 in the way the roof slopes down to meet the rear haunches, while the low rise windows give the aluminium, thermo-plastic and steel-constructed coupé body a sleek appearance. From the front, it's not that much of a looker, but the rear three-quarter view shows off its muscularity.

Living with it for a week in all sorts of conditions brought out its good and bad sides. It's not the sharpest tool for attacking the tight twisties, and it didn't handle broken tarmac as well as I'd expect. If you spend any time looking out of the side windows -- endemic with the kind of driving this coupé is designed for -- you may also find the thick, airbag-fitted A-pillar somewhat obtrusive.

On the other hand, the DTC impressed, both with the quality of its intervention when required, and by getting the car up a steep, off-camber slope with both rear wheels heavily snow-bound -- it looked at first like a tractor tow job.

Though big outside -- it's 400mm longer than the new Porsche 911 and almost 50mm wider -- the 645Ci is more comfortable than you'd expect at fast cruising speeds and on the less tight twisties.

Does it live up to BMW's claim to be the spiritual successor to the 1970s designed 633CSi? I think so -- it's fast, comfortable and looks the part. For the size, it's a relative lightweight in these days of legislation-lumbered cars, and is under 200Kg heavier than its famous ancestor.

But if you're spending the 645Ci's £50,450 on a car, you'd have to consider a nearly-new 911, which is over 200Kg lighter and faster too. What a 911 doesn't give you though these days is rarity value -- for the moment anyway.

Both GT and sports car combined, 645Ci has both the grunt and the theatre you want -- only the question about where that weight lives and what kind of driving you want to do might make you opt instead, as Nick Hall suggested (see link below), for its 3.0-litre sibling, the 630i.  On the other hand, you might want to wait for the M6 -- watch this space...

www.pistonheads.com/roadtests/bmw/BMW630i.htm

© Manek Dubash

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