There is nothing like a BMW for keeping you guessing. Behind the wheel, it’s a constant interplay between the practical and the aesthetic, and you’re never quite sure whether you’re experiencing a quirk of fashion or a stroke of engineering genius. Shepherding the blue and white roundel through town can be an equally mysterious experience for the BMW driver, constantly guessing whether that was a friendly wave from a passer-by, or another British gesture of greeting altogether.
Whatever the case may be, BMWs provoke strong reactions from both the driving public and the automotive press. It’s also a question of trust. With a stable of legendary models behind it, BMW can bank on the luxury of mysterious, brooding competence to sell cars and impress people; but when you feel that trust is being abused, it cuts deep.
Take BMW’s recent innovations in grille-ology. On pinnacle cars like the 7-Series, BMW’s enlargement of front ends has resulted in a unique aesthetic; namely that of the angry neighbour with a handlebar moustache who was always deflating your footballs and threatening to call your dad. The innovation has continued on the latest X6, whose monster grille can now be illuminated by internal LEDs for anyone who missed it the first time round. I know it’s 2020 and that Nigel Mansell at a day rave is a look, sure, but just close your eyes and imagine yourself flashing away in a Sainsbury’s car park on a rainy Monday night. It’s somewhat troubling. Same goes for the origami-like panel creasing which is now de rigueur on new models; it may be exciting and dynamic in press photos, but placed in nature certain designs strike you as angular and inorganic. What makes it worse is knowing that underneath it all is a sound piece of German engineering.
Because if there’s a company which knows how to make a well-judged and memorable car, it’s BMW. Just look at the last 20-odd years. The E30/E36/46/90 M3, the E60 M5, the Z3, the Z8. All great machines. And for those of us who remember the 1990s, there’s the E31 8 Series, a car which has lost little of its futuristic appeal since release in 1989.
The original E31 850csi was known primarily for being a fusion of technical innovation and traditional performance. It was BMW’s first car designed in CAD, with a ground-breaking drive-by-wire throttle and speed sensitive steering. Under the bonnet, German muscle: a 5.0l V12 linked to a manual transmission. Sales had died by 1999, but even today the E31 looks good. It has exotic pop-up headlights. It is fast. It has a tiny grille. What more could you want? Given past history, therefore, BMW’s recent resurrection of the 8 Series name for a line of cars stretching from a coupe all the way to a new M8 is a big statement. You can imagine how I felt getting behind the wheel of a new BMW 840i Gran Coupe for the first time.
So it’s just an 8 Series Coupe but with four doors, right? Well, that’s not strictly true. Most of the panels on the 840i GC from the windscreen backwards are new, and the added length in the wheelbase and height in the roof to accommodate passengers in comfort gives the car more measured proportions than the base coupe. It has also escaped the grille treatment, and cuts quite a dash when parked up. On the inside, you don’t get the grandeur of a Bentley or the everyman functionality of a Volkswagen. It’s something in between, done with the minimum of fuss and as much luxury as BMW can get away with without inflating the price beyond that of competitors. It’s clear the 840i Gran Coupe isn’t quite a continent-hopping German GT, and it’s not quite a super saloon (although there is a throaty and absurd M850i available). BMW actually seems to want a pleasing combination of the two, with a sprinkling of some of that 8-series fairy dust.
When the fog rolls in over frosty roads, it’s natural to be unnerved. Especially if you are behind the wheel of a new launch vehicle, pelting along in unfamiliar territory. The 840i won my trust very quickly however, with no fanfare. The combination of practical HUD and cleverly designed readouts means you feel fully informed. The car feels secure and supple even on dubious surfaces, with predictable performance and more than enough grunt from its turbocharged 3.0l six cylinder engine. With the radio off, the cockpit is serenely quiet. The suspension absorbs body roll and road vibrations very well; you get the impression that under you a thousand BMW systems are doing the hard work so that you don’t have to.
Lane assist, traction control, smart navigation, smart air conditioning – this car asks for a relaxed driving style, and a relaxed driver. The steering could be livelier, admittedly; maybe that’s part of the trade-off as the machine spirit works away under you. Slicing across open countryside, my overwhelming impression of the BMW 840i was that of the contrast between chaotic nature outside, and a warm cocoon of faultless order inside, a result of the patient and deliberate work of BMW engineers.
There are some drivers who will be thoroughly charmed by this machine spirit. Others will feel a bit haunted. I found the constant cosseting slightly trying. Characteristic of the 840i, and perhaps the modern driving experience, is endless – some might say divine – intervention. The steering assistance nudges you to stay in your lane if it thinks you’re straying, even if you’re going deliberately wide. While you wait at the lights, the car starts the engine upon sensing traffic ahead moving off. Teacher’s pet. I drove down twisting country lanes, my fragile ego bouncing around in the passenger seat, daring my car to explain to me what exactly I was doing wrong. More chimes. Speed limits. Helpful suggestions. I waved my hand at the console. The volume of the stereo shot up. I gave it the traditional British one-handed greeting. A smug pause. In four hundred metres, turn left…
Pulling onto the A-road back to the test base, I felt like a muddled mensch whose inadequacies had to be engineered away by the patient men from Munich. I suppose there is something in that. Don’t get me wrong – the 840i Gran Coupe is a very good car, and our world is full of very bad drivers. It will take four passengers in comfort, at great speed, to their chosen destination and make it feel like a far more luxurious experience than you would expect. But I prefer a certain lustiness to my machines, and in this car it feels like that has been refined away into something purer, and consequently less thrilling.
Those of us who want the steeliness and engagement of BMW sports cars of the past won’t find that here. The 840i is more refined. It’s sporty enough on paper to merit the romantic marketing (just about), but don’t kid yourselves: it’s more at home on the motorway than in the twisties and sits somewhere between the pugilism of an Audi A7 and the preen of a Mercedes CLS. If you’re looking for a confident executive performance machine for 2020, this should be near the top of your list. If you’re looking for a car which will make you tingle with raw lust, keep searching.