Big Hero 8 : BMW M850i xDrive Coupe Driven [review]

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BMW's M850i xDrive Coupe leaps into action and displays its stupendous talents

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Estoril, Portugal - When was the last time you saw an 8 Series and 6 Series of the same generation? And by 6, we're talking about a proper sporty 6 of the Coupe/Convertible/Gran Coupe genus, not the current Gran Turismo model that wears the 6 badge. Can't think of an occasion, right? That's because the 8 is almost like the 6’s superhero alter ego that springs into action when the time (and market) is right, with the bigger number justifying big tech, big performance, yet hopefully not bigger price.

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As it turns out, the M850i xDrive is expected to be priced under the outgoing M6 Gran Coupe (initial estimates indicate under S$600k before COE), which leaves enough space for a M8, which is already on the horizon in case you’re wondering. In addition to the Coupe we drove, a Convertible and Gran Coupe are also in the works – if you ask us, it’s starting to sound a lot like last gen’s 6 Series line-up.

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The ‘8’ in the name gives the model a loftier position at the top of BMW’s product heap, but it isn’t a 7 Series coupe in the same way the S-Class Coupe is based on Mercedes-Benz’s large lux-limo.

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In fact, the M850i’s 2822mm wheelbase is shorter than the current M5’s 2982mm, as well as last gen M6’s (2851mm). In overall terms, the 8 is longer and lower than the M6, but it’s also wider, so has a nicely aggressive fat stance.

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With its xDrive all-wheel drive hardware, it is heavier than both the outgoing M6 Coupe and Convertible, but thanks to the brand’s Integral Active Steering rear-steer system (that made its debut in the current 7 Series), the 1.9-tonne M850i is a surprisingly nimble beast that can shrug off winding roads with nonchalance.

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For starters, it is a lot less unwieldy than the 6 Series Coupe from before. Our personal benchmark for the previous generation is still the Gran Coupe, which was a brilliant all-rounder, especially in M6 guise.

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The last time a flagship 8 Series appeared was in the 1990s, even as the first generation 6 Series took a ten-plus year breather. The 8’s run would span almost 10 years (this even included a V12-engined stick-shift 850CSi model that had active rear steer on Euro-spec cars), with the second gen 6 only re-entering the picture from early 2000 onwards.

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With this latest 8, as with the original, plenty of new tech and design cues feature prominently (like the super-slim headlights on the new 8), which are meant to set the stage for the other BMWs.

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However, we should qualify that the Z4 that was launched at the same time (also in this issue) gets some of them, including the BMW Live Cockpit Professional hardware and software suite, which made its debut in the new X5 a few months ago.

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Other bling in the car includes the ‘crystal’ elements that can be optioned for starter button, iDrive controller, volume control and gear-shifter, which is distinctive, but not OTT in the same way a superhero puts on his underwear as outerwear to fight crime.

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In the M850i, the high-res digital instrument screen is a massive 12.3-inches (just like the X5), while the centre display is the same 10.25-inches as in the Z4 – the former changes its ‘colour moods’ to suit the different drive programmes be it Comfort or Sport+, presumably since the visual cue will help you get in the mood for a bout of boisterous driving. It’s hard to imagine a car weighing close to two-tonnes as being any fun to drive, but the M850i acquits itself well enough to fall on the side of ‘sport’ instead of ‘tourer’.

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Of course, BMW has packed the M850i with loads of ‘go-lighter’ aluminium chassis bits and carbonfibre parts to keep the weight low and optimise structural rigidity, which helps in the dynamic stakes, especially when you’re attacking the circuit – don’t laugh, that’s exactly what we did the M850i.

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Additionally, the roof and other body components like the wing mirrors, rear diffuser insert and boot-lip can also be optioned in carbonfibre.

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The unpainted carbonfibre roof looks great with the classic racecar-inspired ‘double-bubble’ cut-out (like on the preceding M6 Coupe/Gran Coupe models), especially in contrast to the launch car’s Sunset Orange.

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At the heart of the M850i thumps a newly developed 4.4-litre twin-turbo’d V8, which we’re told isn’t the same as the one in the M5, mated to the excellent 8spd auto. Also, the xDrive drivetrain on the M850i can’t be configured to run in pure rear-drive mode like the M xDrive system in the M5, but that might end up in the M8, so who knows…

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However, the xDrive in the M850i is tuned to be a benign, rear-biased system that lets one safely exploit and put the car’s 530bhp and 750Nm to the ground to storming effect, but it’s not only good for the straights, because it’ll let the car gamely cling on to your cornering line as well, as we discovered around the Estoril circuit.

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It seems a trend for BMW to showcase the performance abilities of its M Performance models on track, because we also enjoyed track time at The Thermal Club in the M760Li xDrive earlier in the year.

(Click HERE to read about the M760Li xDrive)

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This isn’t something a brand would typically do if they weren’t confident of the car’s prowess, because the track exposes a lot of the flaws that wouldn’t otherwise surface on winding road/highway drives. Clearly there’s a mission statement for M Performance models to be able to perform on-track, albeit not in the same raw, uncompromising vein as a full-fat M model, but credible enough nonetheless.

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We like how you don’t feel the M850i’s size, because the Integral Active Steering rear-steer system has the effect of creating a ‘virtual short wheelbase’. It works by turning the rear wheels in an opposite direction (by up to 2.5º) to the front wheels at speeds of up to 72km/h in normal driving modes.

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However, in Sport or Sport+, this threshold increases to 88km/h to improve cornering agility at higher entry speeds, which makes for incisive turn-ins, because when the M850i cuts, it cuts deep for the kill.

Another coupe similar in spirit that we still enjoy is the Lexus LC 500, especially with its keenly honed chassis and a charismatic and very shouty nat-asp 5.0-litre V8. The LC 500’s engaging performance serves as strong reminder that this is the brand that brought the world the LFA, and demonstrates Lexus has not lost the sportscar plot.

(Click HERE to read about our time in the Lexus LC 500)

The M850i’s variable ratio steering becomes even more direct at higher speeds, and works seamlessly with the adaptive M suspension, active roll stabilisation and electronic differential in Sport+ to create a cold-blooded killer that won’t stop until each corner is dispatched… before moving on to the next.

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One only needs to see, stop, steer and go (not necessarily in this order), and the M850i sorts out everything else in-between, with only the very deliberate attempt to unsettle the car slipping through its electronic defences. Driven sensibly, it’ll get you in and around the track swiftly and surely, or any winding road of your choice for that matter, and you’ll never feel any worse for the wear or worn down and defeated... and I guess this is the whole point of heroes like the M850i.

Photos BMW / David Khoo

BMW M850i xDrive
Engine 4395cc, V8, twin-turbo
Power/rpm 530hp/5500-6000rpm
Torque/rpm 750Nm/1800-4600rpm
Transmission 8spd Steptronic auto
Top Speed 250km/h
0-100km/h 3.7secs
Fuel Consumption 9.8l/100km
CO2 223g/km

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.