Tuesday 1st March 2005

BMW 630I

Nick Hall checks out the smaller-engined of BMW's luxury coupés

Less is more is a phrase that has been commandeered by two-bit snake oil salesman trying to shift a cruddy product on the unsuspecting public, government officials about to screw us out of yet another civil liberty or evangelists trying to part us from our life savings. Just sometimes, though, it really is true and the BMW 630i is one such case.

At £45,255 it’s £5,200 cheaper than the range-topping V8 645Ci, which is a substantial amount of cash, and this smaller engine is no afterthought. It’s an all-new unit with a number of tricks that combine to make this the lightest six-cylinder production petrol engine in the world.

High-tech items like a composite aluminium and magnesium crankcase, which is apparently 43 per cent lighter than a traditional cast iron unit, together with a magnesium cylinder head cover and an exhaust manifold that is 2mm thick, compared to 12mm, contributed to the weight savings on the old 3-litre engine and the new powerplant tips the scales at 121kg. This all means the 630i weighs in at 1485kg, 130kg less than the 645Ci. And BMW has backed this up with front suspension constructed almost entirely from aluminium to further reduce the pounds on the front end.

The range topping V8 is a great car, but it’s a point-and-squirt machine, you need to go in slow and wait for the car to get out of a corner before putting the hammer down to keep that extra weight from dragging the car wide. If you don’t, the electronics take over anyway assuming you don’t have the skills to keep it out of the hedge and pillage the power as you head for the apex. The 645Ci is so technologically advanced that it has developed the will to live, and demands that you take care of it in the twisty bits. The end result is a slightly dull driving experience, it’s fast but in no way exhilarating as there’s too much happening between the input in the cockpit and the action at the wheels.

Now the 630i isn’t a radically different car, and has all the same computerised gubbins, but that little less weight on the front end has transformed its ability to cut into corners and changed the entire attitude of the car. This machine carries momentum into each bend more comfortably and, as the front end doesn’t start to slip until it’s pushed much harder, the electronics stay out of things and let the driver maintain control.

There are two levels of traction control, nanny state and Dynamic Traction Control, which permits a little slip before the car’s Deep Blue-style computer kicks in, applies the brakes to individual wheels and limits the power. Truth is, though, the slavish devotion to equal weight distribution that has long been a BMW trademark, together with a myriad of body roll-resisting innovations, means that the car is easily controlled with everything turned off. Be ready with the slightest twist of opposite lock and this machine dances round bends, while the V8 lags behind like a bodybuilder in a marathon.

With 258bhp on tap, it could be a little disappointing in a straight line, but it really isn’t. BMW has reworked its technology to give 200lb-ft of torque from 1,500rpm and have raised the three-litre's rev limit to 7,000rpm, to give it enough oomph to keep things entertaining. Peak torque remains at 221lb-ft and that comes at 6,600rpm, but some people will always enjoy wringing the last few revs if only for the fun of it.

The 630i hits 60mph in 6.5s in manual format and the Steptronic automatic is just 0.2s behind it. The engine is so free revving and involving that you’ll want the freedom of the manual box, though, or at the very least the SMG that we didn’t get to try on this test.

Whichever option you take will have more than enough performance for the public road and few of the hacks on our test run emerged without a slightly surprised smile and a nod of the head that suggested the performance of BMW’s latest 3-litre unit had surpassed all expectations. It doesn’t feel laboured, even when joining the motorway and powering up to illegal speeds, despite having to lug a substantial load and BMW’s combination of VANOS and Valvetronic for the first time can take much of the credit here.

There are obvious advantages with the reduced engine capacity, too, as the combined fuel consumption of this model is 31.4mpg. With a tank of petrol costing just less than a studio flat in the Midlands, it’s a serious consideration these days and that five extra miles per gallon will make a big difference to the cost of motoring. Carbon dioxide emissions are significantly less, too, so buying this car will mean the taxman loses out.

The noise is still sensational: the engineers have clearly spent time tuning the acoustics to ape the larger engine as closely as possible as the 630i is fitted with round exhaust exit pipes compared to big brother’s oval units. These, a de-chromed front grille, star-pattern alloys and of course the badge are the only styling differences between this car and the V8.

And the interior is identical. BMW’s clutter free cockpit reinforces its reputation as a driver’s car first and foremost when compared to the lavish environment of, say, the equivalent Mercedes. But that’s no bad thing, everything is where it should be and there’s little to distract the driver – apart from that iDrive abortion. Yes it’s clever, but it’s also confusing and about as intuitive as flatpack furniture.

It should be a matter of personal preference, but hardly anybody that’s used this system truly likes it and most have simply learnt to deal with it. Still, if that’s the only real criticism then you can take it as read you’re in the presence of something rather special.

And that exterior styling appears to have grown on the world. Chris Bangle was held up as the anti-Christ when his cars were revealed to the world, but this was largely due to love for the old car and the general reluctance to accept change. Now they’ve been around for a while, not so many people are slating these cars and the 6-series isn’t ugly. It’s perhaps stuck between the GT and saloon, but in fact it’s only slightly longer than a 911 and the upcoming M6 should sit firmly in the supercar category.

I tested the Coupé and Cabriolet, which comes with a £5,400 premium attached and lacks the style of the hard-top, on the winding roads of Southern Spain, while Formula One cars screamed round the nearby test track at Jerez de la Frontera. And while there will be no poor analogies and comparisons on that front from me, there was absolutely no doubt that the three-litre feels more of a sportscar than its more powerful sibling. Stripping two cylinders has created a more cohesive package and this is the pick of the 6-series range.

If you want to drive on motorways and only motorways, or want to show the neighbours just how well you’re doing, then you might still want to buy the 645. If you’re a real Pistonheader, though, and actually enjoy the art of driving, stick the extra £5k back into your pocket and get a lot more for a little less.

Author: Nick Hall