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Car Reviews BMW’s 8 Series convertible combines refinement with shockingly agile athleticism

The 2019 BMW 850i Convertible.

photos@daniel-kraus.com/Handout

As with most luxury brands, BMW has expanded by going downmarket in recent decades. With its new 8 Series glamour cars, however, the German automaker is skewing to the luxury segment as an "essential part of our corporate strategy.”

While the 6 Series cars that the 8s are replacing are hardly budget econoboxes, the new coupe, convertible and the sure-to-follow four-door Gran Coupe move up a level in prestige and pricing.

Still, the luxury segment is changing, and the stratum where the 6 Series competes is dying, 8 Series product manager Uwe Greiner told us. “We have to achieve a price target and be profitable, and offer features to justify the price.”

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Like most recent BMWs, the 8 adopts BMW’s modular CLAR architecture. But it’s modified, Greiner says, so it can use parts from the 7 Series sedan and a forthcoming M8 – “the best of the best for the 8.”

The list of options is unusually short for a BMW, because almost everything is standard. In Canada only, a 523-hp 4.4-litre V8 (up from 445 hp on the 650i) is offered and the M850i designation places it in BMW’s “M Lite” M Performance sub-brand, targeting buyers who are expected to prioritize, well, performance. In contrast, says Greiner, 6 Series buyers were more about style than sportiness.

So the M850i convertible is a sports car. And yet, “it’s still a clear Gran Turismo that can do long-distance comfort,” Greiner adds.

As for style, leading independent designer Paul Deutschman calls the 8 Series the most appealing iteration of BMW’s two-door luxury coupe since 2003. “I have long admired BMW coupes going back to the original [1976-1989] 6 Series and its predecessor the 3.0 CS – which I am still in love with.

“[But] since its resurrection in 2003, I have not lusted over the 6 Series as I did with the earlier models.”

Independent designer Paul Deutschman says the 8's rear view is its worst-looking angle.

photos@daniel-kraus.com/Handout

Now that the 6 has morphed into the more expensive 8, “the 850 Cabriolet’s design checks all the boxes for a luxury roadster.”

His designer’s eye sees a “great-looking front end” and “nicely sculpted body sides,” although he notes the air extractor vents aft of the front and rear wheel arches “are not synced stylistically.

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“This brings us to the rear view, which is my least favourite angle,” he adds. “While the taillights are well executed, the lower fascia has more wrinkles than a Shar Pei and the rear surface of the trunk lid … feels heavy and unathletic.”

On the road, the M850i emphatically is athletic. Almost shockingly agile for something that casts a sedan-sized shadow and weighs north of two tonnes, it validates all the technology BMW threw at it: Integral Active Steer (i.e. variable-ratio front steering and rear-wheel steering); rear-biased all-wheel drive; active roll stabilization; and continuously-variable adaptive damping.

And Greiner’s dual-personality shtick is for real on the road. The M850i has multiple drive modes, as do many other cars, but few are as starkly differentiated as here.

Almost every feature is standard on the 8, leaving the list of options rather short.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

In Comfort, the ride remains amiable, the closed soft-top admits less wind noise than many tin-tops, and the engine is a silky hum – all while the long-striding eighth gear keeps the rpm less than 2,000 rpm at legal-ish Canadian speeds. And for all the car’s agility, the steering is never restless on-centre, so holding a steady course is a no-brainer (even without activating the standard “steering and lane control assistant” function).

Gran Turismo? Absolutely.

Sports car? Just poke the Sport button on the centre console and you’ll see. If the engine in comfort mode is the proverbial iron first in a velvet glove, the gloves come off in sport. The savage, ragged blat and blare of the exhaust, and the powertrain’s hunger for high revs and low gears, are more than enough for my Ayrton-Senna-wannabe moments at the wheel. In Sport Plus it’s simply over the top.

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A pop-up windscreen reduces air flow in the front seats when driving with the roof down.

photos@daniel-kraus.com/Handout

Either way, BMW says you’re looking at 0-100 km/h in four seconds flat.

If every tenth counts, the lighter coupe claims 3.7 seconds. You’d probably want the coupe, too, for the ultimate in handling finesse. The Cabrio changes direction like a Quebec moguls skier, stays resolutely flat and grips relentlessly without a squeak from the tires. But steering feel and sharpness just aren’t quite as satisfying as I’ve seen described by colleagues who have driven the coupe.

The finer points of steering tactility won’t likely deter those who like to drive al fresco – an option that adds $8,000 to the 8’s asking price. The outgoing 6 Series started at $92,200 for the six-cylinder 640i Gran Coupe and topped out at $113,000 for the 650i Cabriolet. The M850i asks $123,500 for the coupe and $131,500 for the Cabrio – up $21,500 and $18,500 respectively.

The cars should be available at dealerships now.

photos@daniel-kraus.com/Handout

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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