Can there be any discussion, debate or assessment of a contemporary BMW without making reference to how it looks? Nope, thought not; no better place, therefore, to begin contemplation of the 8 Series Gran Coupe.
Handily, this large, swooping, handsome coupe can be resoundingly classified as one of the firm's successes. Let's be honest, there aren't many unequivocal ones in the current line-up: the 3 Series is very nicely done, but the Z4 isn't quite the ticket, the X7 gaudy, the X2 dumpy and the enormous grilles spreading with the speed and destruction of Japanese knotweed. Harsh, but you get the point.
This 8 Series though? Spot on. Really, really nice. The sheer size immediately imbues presence, though it's genuinely good looking as well. Much of the length gain from the two-door coupe is in the wheelbase, meaning it retains a lot of the 8 Series cues, any awkwardness that might be there with a higher roofline negated by an increase in width. The new design of BMW lights at the rear always accentuate width and sit here more stylishly than anywhere else. The front lights are perhaps less distinctive, but the (sensibly sized) kidney grilles ensure the identity is never in doubt, even if it many will point out it's not quite as stunning as the old four-door 6 Series. The 8 GC sits low, confident and assured, which will surely count for a lot in a sector that prioritises looks and luxury - if not, why not have an A6, E-Class, 5 Series or similar?
Actually, that's something of a disservice to the 8 Series, which is now pitched as a more opulent proposition than the 6 ever was - see the £70k starting price, for starters. But also look inside: the Gran Coupe is a vehicle of expensive materials and touches, waxy leathers and cool metals. The link with other BMWs is tangible, and may disappoint those with recent experience of the Panamera's more immediately delightful cabin, though there's easily sufficient wow factor here to elevate it. Imagine your house gets a TV makoever - you know what's in front of you, and much is recognisable, only everything is much nicer than before.
The 8 is a good mood car from the get-go, one you're only too happy to be behind the wheel of. Sadly, that impression doesn't last all that long on the road. The only model available to drive on launch was the 840i SDrive (like the two-door version, an 840d and M850i are also offered) which, to be frank, feels a bit limp initially. The 3.0-litre turbo straight-six does fine work in a 2 Series, 4 Series and Toyota Supra, but has a tough ask on its hands with the larger Gran Coupe. It never feels totally overawed, and is aided in its cause by the expertly calibrated gearbox - but there's an absence of the imperious, effortless motive force one might have hoped for.
Combine that with body control that's all awry - the 8 Series somehow floaty and crashy, sometimes in the same bend - and the allure created by the styling soon begins to ebb away. It feels like a 520d might be a better bet. It's all a little too reminiscent of the 435i once run on the PH Fleet, with damping that can't quite keep up and a general aloofness to the drive - it's bizarre. Other journalists suggested that two-door 8 Series on tyres that aren't the Bridgestone S007 felt better resolved, but it's a weird feeling.
Like every BMW for a good while now, the 8 Series Gran Coupe comes with drive modes - Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport - as well as an Individual setting and the Adaptive mode, which adjusts the car's behaviour in response to driving style and conditions. Furthermore, like many similarly configured BMWs, the 8 Series really needs the bespoke setting to bring out its best.
Aided by a better road surface later in the day, the Gran Coupe makes a lot more sense with its powertrain and dampers made more aggressive. Without losing sight of the more opulent remit, the 8 then feels more like a BMW; dynamic, confident and poised through direction changes. The Integral Active Steering is so well, er, integrated as to go largely unnoticed, the only tangible effects of having to make little steering effort and fine composure through long, sweeping bends. And while the engine never feels the most muscular - the diesel may well be the better bet - working through the intermediate gears at middling revs suits it seemingly much better than striving for every last bit of performance.
Then, of course, it's a motorway dream, smothering outside noise and murmuring along at next-to-no revs. Though it isn't quite a 7 Series, the Gran Coupe would surely prove a joy over longer distances - as you'd want it to.
From slightly inauspicious beginnings, then, the four-door 8 Series eventually leaves a pretty positive impression. The combination of style, luxury and driving engagement secure it the sort of appeal you would want - though perhaps not always expect - from a flagship BMW. Given the paucity of rear-seat space in a standard 8 Series Coupe, it's easy to see the appeal of a GC; you're going to end up with an enormous car anyway, so it surely makes sense to have one with proper carrying capacity. There's that 190mph M8 on the way, too...
Perhaps the bigger concern for the 8's prospective success is the sheer quality and variety of rivals. BMW cites the Panamera as the greatest foe, which may well drive a tad better, but there's also Mercedes-Benz and Audi to consider, both of which make competitive, desirable rivals in the CLS and A7 respectively. They're arguably less exclusive prospects, given there are four-cylinder CLSes and front-drive Audis available, though they shouldn't be discounted entirely. The point is that, while the BMW has proved itself more than worthy of consideration on this experience, it hasn't yet done enough to assert any authority as a class-leader of the four-door grand coupe niche. It's a familiar cop-out, sure, but the true test of the 8's abilities will be in the UK against its nearest competitors - all signs are it will be a close-run thing.
SPECIFICATION - BMW 840I GRAN COUPE
Engine: 2,998cc, straight-six turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 340@5,000-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369@1,600-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds (4.9)
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,800kg (EU) (1,855kg)
MPG: 37.7 (36.2)
CO2: 168 g/km (179)
(Figures in brackets for xDrive)