BMW 635CSi: PH Fleet

One of the oldest cliches in the book is that one about not meeting your heroes. And I had double the reason to question myself upon booking in BMW's M635CSi, for it could go one of two ways. I could either find it didn't live up to my expectations, spoiling the legend of a car I've always lusted after; or it could be everything I expected, spoiling the legend built up in my mind around my own pride and joy. Hmm. Was this really such a good idea?

Yes. It was. I decided as much right about the point I slotted the 635 in next to the M635 in the office car park and got out to admire my handiwork. Crikey, they looked good. And all the more so on the way out to our photo location. Call me a child, but tonking along in my car while catching glances of the smouldering nose of the M car staring me out in the rear-view mirror on the way there. I couldn't help but feel a huge swell of pride imagining how good our little convoy looked.

The purpose of bringing the two together was to find out exactly how much of a difference there was between the supercar-powered M-car and my "cooking-spec" model - if it can be called such a thing. Modern Ms are usually about as far removed from the saloons and coupes on which they're based as a lump of Dover limestone and a wedge of Somerset brie - was that always the case?

On first acquaintance, the answer has to be 'yes'. Even at slow speeds, the 286hp 3.5-litre six-pot of the M car feels more aggressive, with a coarser engine note and a keener response to the throttle; open the taps fully, and the intoxicating metallic snarl of a thoroughbred straight six fills the cabin as the revs pile on. For such a big, heavy car, the way the M635 moves is fabulous; an exponential surge of forward thrust that dares you to hold it in gear just a little longer, all the time.

The shift is, as per most BMW manuals of the time, long and a little baulky - and this example's a touch on the slack side, too. But each ratio is perfectly worked, landing you right before the rev range's sweet spot each time. Acceleration becomes addictive; your inner child begging you for just one more upshift and one more dose of that glorious engine note. And it feels properly quick, too, despite its age - in its day, it must have been astonishing.

Jump into the standard 6 straight away, and the difference in character is noticeable. It feels lazier and less crisp, and at first, that's an irritation; you long for the crazed yowl of the motorsport-bred M88/3. But as the miles roll by, its charms reveal themselves. It's happier at this laid-back pace; content to move along briskly, making good use of its mid-range torque with the odd excursion to the red line just for the hell of it.

The gulf between these two cars' characters, however, narrows once you hit the twisty bits. Of course, the M635 has the stiffer suspension of the two; its ride is a touch less pliant, but the payoff is that it doesn't roll as much. That said, there's still plenty of give in the suspension; combined with the same slow, deliberate steering and big, thin-rimmed wheel, the result is that the differences aren't as noticeable here as they are in a straight line. What you do get with the M car, of course, is the ability to slide the tail wide just as you please; the 635's standard slushbox makes that nigh-on impossible unless the roads are greasy - despite the fact it's fitted with the same limited-slip differential.

There's a slight dichotomy about the M635CSi, in fact, its hard-charging straight-line nature softening in the corners. As the 635CSi feels slightly softer all round it feels, strangely, better resolved. Mind you, that glorious, exceptional engine is enough to forgive the M's less focussed cornering abilities; I'd have one for its induction note's ability to tingle the spine alone, and then again for the way it takes off at high revs.

I said at the start that this could go one of two ways; happily, as it turns out, there's a third one. I met a hero, and it gave me goosebumps. You can't ask more from it than that. And yet I didn't come away disappointed with my own faithful old shark. Maybe I'm biased, and making excuses for my own car - you'd be within your rights to think that. All I know is that, driving home, I didn't feel disappointed. In fact, I was grateful for its effortlessness; for the big wave of torque its auto 'box kicked down to and surfed upon as I powered past a dawdling Honda Jazz on the back roads. Where the M635CSi is a classic supercar masquerading as a grand tourer, the 635CSi is a laid-back cruiser with a sporting edge. Which, quite frankly, is exactly what I want it to be.

Inspired? Search for a 635CSi in the classifieds

: 1988 BMW 635CSi Auto 'Highline'
Run by: Alex Robbins
Bought: December 2014
Mileage at purchase: 100,895
Mileage now: 107,928
Last few months at a glance: A drive in an M635CSi doesn't leave our 635CSi feeling like the poor relation - thankfully.

Previous updates:
Hello to one hell of a 6 Series
Going grand touring in a proper old grand tourer




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Comments (30) Join the discussion on the forum

  • tosh.brice 12 Mar 2018

    Good article, thanks! But you really do need to use higher resolution photographs...

  • Jual Mass Flywheel 12 Mar 2018

    Coolist bimmer ever?

  • Esceptico 12 Mar 2018

    Important bit of information missing from this piece: what is the current difference in value between the CSi and M car?

  • Gruber 12 Mar 2018

    article said:
    The gulf between these two cars' characters, however, narrows once you hit the twisty bits...
    That was very much my experience too. Of course, it's difficult to be objective because, at this age, unless both cars are wearing fresh suspension, bushes, and rubber, there's a lot more at play than original handling ability.

    But all that said, I always thought the 6 was better suited to the M30 engine and an auto box. For exactly the reasons outlined in the article, it kind of felt like the e24 just couldn't quite make the most of the M engine's potential. The standard 635 seemed to be a better match of engine and vehicle. We took our CSi down to the Dordogne a couple of times and it was an absolute pleasure to cover long distances - effortless, torquey and refined in a sports GT sort of way. And surprisingly frugal, if you stuck to sensible speeds.

    I later had an e28 M5. To me, that was a far better car for enjoying that engine - and oh what a masterpiece it was. The e28 was smaller, and felt smaller and more nimble on the road than the e24. It handled better as a result. Zipping across the North Yorkshire moors in that M5 remains one of my motoring highlights.

    Edited by Gruber on Monday 12th March 14:41

  • Foodfocus 12 Mar 2018

    Perhaps one of the only example of a BMW where it's the non M car I lust for. There's something so intrinsically right about the 635 that it doesn't need the M trappings. It's a very cool comfy GT car, non M spec in black and I'm in love.

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