Flash forward to present day, and the new 2019 BMW M850i xDrive offers a future-forward translation of the shark-nosed 2+2 from yesteryear, but little else carries over. Sure, it’s still got a curb weight in excess of two tons (4,478 pounds, to be precise), but it also benefits from a considerably stiffer chassis and the thrust of a twin-turbo 4.4-liter producing 523 horsepower and a wheel-spinning 553 lb-ft of torque. Those 20-inch hoops are less likely to slide due to BMW’s standard xDrive all-wheel drive system.
I’ve traveled to the 2.6-mile Autódromo do Estoril near the west coast of Portugal to track test the new BMW 8 Series, which initially might seem a mismatch to the circuit’s tight esses and bends. Decked out in a generally harmonious blend of graceful lines and aggressive bits (including some disappointingly non-functional vents and ducts), the new 8 Series, at least in non-M form, appears to lean more towards luxe than lightweight. Though the $124,500 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe takes the cake for lavish interiors, the $111,900 BMW counters with a more austere, modern overall treatment that still sports some cushy bits, like the Merino leather seats and generous swaths of cowhide across the dashboard and door panels.
In other words, the Mercedes is more lavish, but this BMW features a more functional aesthetic and a more focused sense of performance. The M850i was developed alongside BMW’s M8 GTE race car; though the street car can’t compete with its track counterpart’s wispy 2,689-pound curb weight, it does manage an eye-opening 0-to-60 mph acceleration time of 3.6 seconds. That sprint bests Benz’s S 560 4MATIC’s time of 4.5 seconds, and feels rather feisty as it launches onto Estoril’s freshly repaved surface.
The 8’s rear-steering system is a bit perceptible during sharp turn-ins below 45 mph, when it countersteers to aid maneuverability. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it manages to change direction better than any two-ton-plus car has any right to. There’s lots of grip from the 245 mm front/275 mm rear Bridgestone rubber, and though the 8’s weight is perceptible on the track, once you get over the initial shift in mass it manages to find enough sure-footedness to hang on to corners rather tenaciously.
Much of this stability comes from a concert of aids including a rear electronic differential, electronic roll stabilization, and individually applied brake intervention. Aiding corner exit is BMW’s all-wheel drive system, which essentially works as a rear-drive configuration that only applies power to the front wheels when necessary. The resulting distribution lends the 8 Series a balanced, hunkered down feeling in corners that avoids understeer-prone tendencies of most all-wheel-drive setups.
Sure, it’s ponderousness compared to significantly smaller, lighter cars like the Z4 I drove earlier in the day, but the M850i’s chassis solidity and composure encouraged elevated speeds — which I savored while chasing BMW Works driver Nicky Catsburg, who was piloting an M5 Competition as a pace car. The M Sport package (differentiated by blue calipers) comes equipped with cast aluminum wheels and four-piston front, single-piston rear steel rotors that provide plenty of stopping power. On track, however, brake pedal feel was suboptimal. Expect carbon ceramic brakes when the M8 bows next spring.
Driving on public roads, where the vast majority of 8 Series will undoubtedly spend the entirety of their time, reveals a composed, purposeful ride and a sporting spirit that prevails over the ultra-cushy isolationism of the S-Class Coupe. The 8’s center stack is dominated by a 10.25-inch touchscreen that features customizable layouts. The system is managed by an iDrive controller that plays well with its new haptic controls. Though there’s a mild learning curve when it comes to finding functions and maneuvering through menus, the system is easy to master after some acclimatization.
Less successful, in my view, is the execution of the 12.3-inch instrument cluster display. Though the layout changes slightly based on driving mode, the general setup isn’t as easily readable as it should be, with digitally rendered speedometer and tachometer images pushed to the edge while the center offers navigation or multimedia information. The latest generation of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit system is a more efficient and intuitive way to toggle between clear navigation imagery and easy to read speedo/tach renditions.
Though I didn’t have the opportunity to test it on the forest-lined roads where I piloted the 8 Series, the optional Driving Assistant Professional package offers a lane-keeping assistance system that works in conjunction with adaptive cruise control, which BMW says can be operated at speeds up to 130 mph, and which will resume operation from a standstill in traffic after being stationary for as long as 30 seconds. As for the rear-seating situation, there’s not a lot of space for full-size adults, though kids should be able to manage back there while being shuttled to and from their after-school activities.
While it’s tempting to contextualize the new 8 Series against its starkly different predecessors, more interesting is how neatly it finds its niche within this tiny but pricey segment. If you crave ultimate comfort and vault-like isolation, Mercedes-Benz’s S 560 is the likelier choice, while the amped-up AMG S 63 ($167,700) or swooshy AMG S 65 ($238,900) add bite while retaining a prevailing sense of luxury over track-ready tossability. While we’re escalating the scope of our übercoupe comparison, it’s safe to say the cost-is-no-object drivers will draw to the Bentley Continental GT ($214,600). And the Maserati GranTurismo ($134,300) might attract the less rational, more emotionally motivated crowd.
The BMW 8 Series’ win lies in its focus on performance, which will become even more pronounced when the M8 version hits showrooms next year. With the thin competition in this rarified segment rounding out the spectrum of sportiness versus luxury, the M850i finally revives BMW’s tradition of adhering to its goals of building so-called ultimate driving machines. It may not be a race car wrapped in road car clothes, but the 8 Series edges a lot closer to satisfying both drivers and boulevard cruisers.