2004 BMW 645Ci

BMW decided that there were too few willfully impractical cars in its lineup. True, just about any car with the propeller badge feels like a guilty pleasure, but save for models like the M3 and Z4 any one of them could conceivably be used for family transportation. And so 15 years after the retirement of the original 6 Series (1977-1989), BMW will once again sell a high-dollar coupe that combines all the best the company has to offer in performance, luxury and style — and defies all attempts to wedge a baby seat in its 2+2 occupant compartment.

Chief rival Mercedes-Benz has made plenty of money off well-to-do buyers who want vehicles that fit this profile, and it’s no coincidence that BMW’s new 645Ci coupe slots just about halfway between the much desired CLK500 and the upper-crust CL500 in length, width, wheelbase, curb weight and MSRP. This tells you plenty about the overall dimensions of the 645Ci — about the same size as the 5 Series sedan — and what it will take to get one — upwards of $70,000.

More interesting is what this casual comparison doesn’t tell you. Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes have conditioned upscale coupe buyers to expect potent V8s and a smooth ride quality in this price bracket. But like other BMWs, the 645Ci immediately establishes itself as the athlete of its segment. We don’t mean to speak for hard-core enthusiasts, who will prefer the Porsche 911 or, as one of our editors suggested, the Maserati Coupe. Rather, the 6 is for those seeking a gifted touring car that eagerly and deftly takes on a twisty road when given the chance, while dutifully swallowing up mile after mile of freeway pavement without complaint. Does this supreme balance of attributes give the BMW an edge over its softer competition? If you like to drive as much as we do, yes.

The 645Ci’s styling sparked debate amongst our staff. Scrutinizing the car’s profile, some editors said they saw a plus-size 911 coupe. They took this not unpleasant image with them as they settled into the cockpit, and naturally the driving experience only increased the 645Ci’s standing in their minds. These were the proponents of the 645Ci’s styling. Other editors couldn’t help but cringe at the coupe’s odd cosmetic details: the drooping headlights, the prominent cutline on the hood, the trunk lid that seems to be a separate appendage — all signature motifs of BMW’s current design philosophy. These were the detractors of the coupe’s styling, and for some of them, the 645’s sheet metal was a deal breaker. We’ll leave you to decide which camp you’d like to join.

Sounds like mixed praise for what we said was the best BMW had to offer in styling, doesn’t it? Well, the view is much better from inside the car. Our Silver Grey test car had a matching gray and black interior constructed of top-quality materials under the direction of an exacting hand. A few of our editors said they disliked the abundance of cool tones in the cockpit, particularly compared to the 645Ci Convertible that arrived the following week with a light interior and warmer Birch wood trim. In contrast, our author thrived in this chilly environment — to her, it felt both sporty and elegant. She was particularly fond of the marbled gray inlays that took the place of the usual wood; BMW calls this “Ruthenium pearl-gloss.” Not only was it unique, but it also seemed a good match for the personality of our coupe, which had both the Sport Package and a six-speed manual transmission. No need to fret, though, if you prefer a more traditional look: Both light and dark Birch trim are no-cost options on the 645Ci.

Lest you think your author is a vampire given her taste for dark hues, know that there is no escape from the light in the 6 Series coupe. A large section of glass covers most of the roof and gives the cockpit an airy feel. It’s too large to slide open, but you can tilt it up slightly for ventilation. Of course, you can also slide a cover over it should you ever feel the need.

Even with the presence of the 21st-century iDrive vehicle management system, the 645Ci’s cockpit retains a remarkably simple, driver-oriented feel that establishes its place in the BMW family tree (before it branched off to form the current 7 Series). Everything — from the way the human body fits so perfectly into the sport seats to the ease with which you can read the analog gauges to the way the manual transmission’s shifter falls so readily to hand — gives the coupe a timeless quality that all the software in the world can’t take away.

While other manufacturers have experimented with various ways of illuminating the cabin, BMW continues to stick with bright orange backlighting for the gauges and controls. It’s easy on the eyes and establishes an immediate link between a 2004 645Ci and previous BMWs that customers might have owned and loved. There are no roots to trace when it comes to the layout of the automatic climate control system, but this is the simplest setup the company has ever offered. Able to function independently of the iDrive interface, the system features dual temperature dials for the driver and passenger and a real “off” button.

Not all of the controls merit such effusive praise, though. As in the 5 and 7 Series cars, the stereo controls are buried in the iDrive menus. Although we can see the wisdom of housing the myriad of equalizer adjustments here, the process of finding and adding a radio station to your primary presets is needlessly complex. Certainly, it can be done with careful study of the owner’s manual, but if you’re expecting to have everything down pat from Day One, you’ll probably be disappointed.

We also took issue with the “light-effort” turn signals, a convenience item that first appeared in the 7 Series that allows the driver to exert less strength when flipping the signal stalk on or off. Naturally, we can’t imagine anyone complaining about regular turn signals being too hard to use, but that notwithstanding, our author wasn’t able to master the light-effort variety in the course of a week: Most of the time she got it right, but too often she found herself driving down the road with the signal stuck on or, worse, making a lane change without signaling long enough. We’re sure that most 6 Series owners are a little more on the ball, but why offer a fluffy feature like this in a coupe that distills the driving experience to one of its purest, tastiest forms?

How tasty? Well, the sophisticated 4.4-liter V8 under the hood is a meal by itself. Also found in the 5 and 7 Series lines, this engine is one of the most advanced eight-cylinder motors currently offered in a production vehicle. Continuously variable valve lift (called Valvetronic) eliminates the need for a conventional throttle and, together with infinitely variable valve timing (double VANOS) and a fully variable intake manifold, maximizes power and torque across the rpm band. The result on paper is 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. Numbers like these are almost commonplace among luxury vehicles these days, and it’s not until you experience the engine for yourself that it seems like something special.

Paired with the standard six-speed manual gearbox, the 645Ci moves out quickly, and power builds and builds as the tachometer’s needle climbs unwaveringly to redline. We could split hairs by making the observation that the Mercedes’ 5.0-liter V8 offers a bit more thrust off the line (it has a lower torque peak), but the Benz motor isn’t as exciting overall. Indeed it’s potent, as power is distributed evenly across its power band, but there’s no compelling reason to take a CLK500, SL500 or CL500 to redline on a typical workday. In the 645Ci, however, going to redline seems like a perfectly natural course of action, especially if your car has the manual gearbox. A carefully tuned exhaust note assures a glorious soundtrack in these moments of revelry. Even if you’re not one to throw your driving record to the wind, you’ll still enjoy the effortless passing maneuvers made possible by the V8, not to mention its quiet cruising demeanor.

BMW claims a 5.5-second 0-to-60-mph time for 645s equipped with either the manual transmission or the Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). We came very close to that in our instrumented testing, as our coupe made the run in 5.6 seconds and breezed through the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 99.5 mph. Fuel mileage ratings are encouraging for a V8-powered vehicle. Coupes equipped with the six-speed automatic fare the best with an 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway rating. Manual-shift 645s come in at 17 city/25 highway, while SMGs get the lowest rating at 16/24. That said, during a week of fervent driving (with much time spent in lower gears), we didn’t quite make our 17/25 rating, averaging just 15.7 mpg.

The manual gearbox isn’t perfect, as more than one editor noted that the throws between gears were a bit long, considering the 645’s athletic personality. Additionally, the clutch pedal stroke is longer than some, and the clutch itself has a very specific engagement point that requires a little extra concentration. It’s all old hat for BMW enthusiasts, but if you’re new to the brand, you may need to give yourself a little time to adjust. Once you’ve acclimated to its minor idiosyncrasies, the gearbox is a rewarding companion, as your connection to the driving experience is much more intimate than it ever could be with the automatic or SMG. The shifter slots solidly into each gate. The pedals are spaced perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting, if you’re so inclined — and with so much torque at your disposal, minimal effort is required for throttle blips.

The mostly aluminum 6 Series chassis provides the perfect complement to the excellent drivetrain. Suspension parts are shared with the 5 Series, but the 6 gets a lowered ride height, a slightly wider rear track and greater negative camber in back. The front springs and shock absorbers are firmer than the standard 545i settings but not as taut as the sport suspension calibrations on the manual-shift 545i (an optional sport suspension is not available on the 6). BMW’s Active Roll Stabilization (ARS) is standard, and in simple terms, that means that our 645Ci had “active” front and rear anti-roll bars — with distinct left and right sections that twist in opposite directions to suppress body roll when going around corners. Besides improving performance on twisty roads, BMW product literature notes that “there is a psychological component: Drivers and passengers alike marvel at the resulting ‘flat cornering.'”

And marvel we did at the 645’s handling. After a day on some of our favorite two-lane highways, we came away impressed by the coupe’s superb grip and balance in turns of all varieties. High-speed sweepers, tight washes, you name it — the 6 is unflappable. Although the coupe is too big to impart the extension-of-my-own-body sensation of a 3 Series, it certainly does right by high-dollar coupe buyers. The suspension transmits plenty of information through the driver seat — such that the driver feels like he’s in on everything that’s happening. At the same time, the ride quality is smooth and refined over all but the roughest pavement. Various Mercedes models may be able to keep up with the 645Ci when it comes to refinement, but not one of them can duplicate its entertainment potential.

What little ride harshness we did experience in our test car likely had to do with the aggressive 19-inch tire set that comes with the Sport Package. Our 645Ci wore 245/40 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires in front and wider 275/35 meats in back. In order to make way for the coupe’s generous 13-cubic-foot trunk, BMW nixed the spare tire. Accordingly, both these tires and the 645’s standard 18-inchers are of the run-flat variety, allowing an owner to drive up to 50 miles in the event of a flat. In order to maintain their structural integrity under a loss of pressure, run-flats are constructed of harder-compound rubber, which typically results in a firmer ride. We noted that our 645Ci’s tires tramlined a bit on grooved freeway pavement — also characteristic of run-flats.

Active Steering, a bit of technology that debuted on the 5 Series, is also part of the 645’s Sport Package. It differs from the standard variable-assistance steering in that a small electrically controlled gearbox mounted near the bottom of the steering column increases the amount of rotation that occurs when the driver turns the wheel. The idea is basically to reduce the amount of effort the driver has to supply during low- and midspeed maneuvers, and the system is able to take into account vehicle stability and uneven road surfaces, in addition to speed. The extra assistance is gradually reduced as vehicle speed increases, until the ratio becomes “conventional” at about 75 mph, according to BMW.

Although it might sound like BMW has taken a portion of the driving experience out of the hands of the human driver and put it into the algorithms of a computer, Active Steering actually works quite well on the 645Ci. For starters, you don’t have to turn the wheel nearly as much in a parking lot. At higher speeds, our test car’s steering felt quick, accurate and highly communicative, requiring only subtle inputs in the turns. Of course, this could easily be a description of any BMW’s behavior on twisty roads, and lacking a non-Sport 645Ci for a side-by-side comparison, we can’t say that Active Steering is an absolute must-have item. It is worth noting, though, that engineers were able to incorporate additional functionality without taking away any of the world-class steering feel that sets BMWs apart from their peers. Editors’ descriptions of the 645’s steering ranged from “natural” to “nearly perfect.”

Braking is easy to overlook when discussing the more glamorous aspects of the vehicle, but like other BMWs, the 6 is near the top of its class in this category as well. Brake pedal feel is straightforward, progressive and considerably more natural in feel than that of Benz models with electronic setups. Braking distances are plenty short in everyday traffic, and the 3,800-pound 645Ci consistently stopped right around 120 feet in the 60-0 deceleration test at the track. This is a good number, of course, but consider that despite its subpar pedal feel, the 4,000-pound SL500 can haul down in an otherworldly 109 feet in the same test.

Back inside the cockpit, the Sport Package provides excellent sport seats that hold you in place during hard cornering without feeling too confining when you’re just driving to the grocery store. We spent three hours in the driver seat with no discomfort. There’s plenty of room to adjust the seat in all directions; longer-legged drivers will particularly like the manually extendable seat bottom, which provides additional thigh support.

Visibility from the driver seat isn’t bad for a coupe, and all three of the mirrors have an auto-dimming feature. More than one editor noted that the mirrors could stand to be larger, but we expect that company designers feared larger mirrors would ruin the coupe’s sleek silhouette. Ordering the Park Distance Control option should help you avoid any low-speed mishaps, as the front and rear sensors provide both audible warnings and a graphic display on the iDrive screen. Bi-xenon headlights are standard for maximum visibility at night.

All cars with a dramatically curving roofline require those of taller stature to take extra care when getting in, but the 6 demands a little more concentration due to its high lower door sills. The sills can easily trip up an inattentive passenger the first time he gets into the coupe, and anyone with arthritis should check this out during a test-drive before placing an order.

Getting into the backseat is even trickier for these same reasons. What’s more, the rear seats aren’t a place for adults or bulky child-safety seats. The seat-bottom cushion is comfortable enough, but the back cushion is much too upright for long-term comfort. Sitting behind tall front occupants is out of the question, and even with the front seats moved forward, there’s not much in the way of leg- or foot room. Although you might expect a coupe based on the 5 Series platform to have a larger backseat, the 645’s wheelbase is over four inches shorter, thus reducing the available dimensions. More importantly, the backseat is likely small by design — this is a personal luxury coupe intended for those who want to pamper themselves, not haul their relatives around.

As you’d expect, occupants are well taken care of in the 645Ci in terms of safety. Airbags are standing by to protect everyone’s head and torso in the event of a collision, and an advanced stability control system is onboard to help you avoid an accident in the first place. If you’re just looking for a place to set a beverage, you might be disappointed as the provisions are limited to a clip-on holder that intrudes on the front passenger’s personal space and another that requires a hinged center console compartment to be left open. Storage space for cell phones and CDs is surprisingly generous, though, as a large center console container is ready to swallow up most odds and ends.

By this point, it should be obvious that we thought highly of the 645Ci Coupe that passed through our offices. It may not be the sexiest coupe on the market, but get behind the wheel and it will make you feel on top of the world. All the while, you’ll get to enjoy a luxurious cockpit that conveniently doesn’t have room for any annoying friends or in-laws. And if you like technology, the 6 Series has plenty of it, but for the most part, it doesn’t get in the way of the most important activity of all: Driving.

Scribbled on September 28th 2008 in BMW, BMW 645Ci, BMW M6
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