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NEW CAR REVIEW
BMW 650i forces driver to adopt cool-driving attitude
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

MILWAUKEE, Wis., (SNS) Ė

Driving a BMW 650i from Minneapolis to Milwaukee a couple weeks back was for the specific reason of attending the national collegiate hockey tournament, but there were other good reasons.

One was that there was so much construction going on downtown that the sheer beauty of the car stood out even more dramatically against the rugged geometric bits of rubble where buildings once stood.

Another good reason is that it gave me time to get to know the "Nav Lady" voice, and coexist with the outrageous iDrive control system she was trying to interpret.

But perhaps the best was to spend a full five hours behind the wheel of a BMW 650 with no interruptions.

When it comes to engineering excellence, any BMW vehicle deserves scrutiny. When it comes to styling, some BMWs run the gamut from exotic to controversial. But when it comes to sheer, stunning beauty, the BMW 650i leaves no room for controversy.

So there I was, just me, with time to appreciate one of the worldís great cars, collaborating with the Nav Lady while switching the Sirius satellite radio back and forth from the comedy stations to Margaritaville, with various stops between them.

There are Mercedes and Cadillac competitors on the market now for the 6-Series coupe and convertible, and they are excellent in their own way, and meet specific objectives known best to each company. But the BMW 645i is sleek and classy, and also fierce-looking and aggressive. And it is loaded up for power to put either of those extremes on display. Start with the looks, which are impossible to overlook.

The BMW 7-Series sedans drew criticism for the tacky, add-on look of the trunklid and its spoiler. The 5-Series midsize sedans did it much better, and the 7s have been altered by now. But the 6-Series came out later, and got it right from the start, as the 645i.

With a rear end that looks built for speed in a smooth swath wrapping from side to side and encompassing the taillights, the carís sleek silhouette starts with a front end with fierce-looking headlight eyes, which look like a little like a crazed raptor about to pounce, while the rest of traffic is transformed to a collection of scurrying rodents.

One of my favorite touches is the outer ring around the quad headlights, which glow as the parking lights, and left me finding all sorts of reasons to turn on my parking lights.

The 650i might throw you off for a bit. I kept calling it a 645, because thatís what it used to be. It also used to be that every digit in a BMWís numerical name meant something Ė the 530 was a 5-Series sedan with a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine, for example.

Well, the 645 has moved up to become the 650i, and the V8 engine displacement is measured at 4.8 liters.

 

For some reason, BMW chose to round it off to 50, rather than stay precise with a 648.

The engine has dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, with BMWís Double Vanos variable valve-timing. The smooth-running V8 delivers 360 horsepower at 6,300 RPMs, and 360 foot-pounds of torque at 3,400 RPMs. Thatís enough oomph to cover 0-60 sprints in about 5.3 seconds, which is not bad for a 3,814-pound vehicle.

That weight, incidentally, is a surprise, because its look and its feel indicate light and lean, rather than hefty. Itís possible that having a six-speed manual transmission further added to the light-on-your-wheels feeling, but the car was pretty much a pleasure to drive in every moment of the trip down and back on I94.

With a coefficient of drag of a mere 0.30, the wind-cheating 650i attained 22-24 miles per gallon, although the EPA estimates are only 16 city and 22 highway.

Naturally, the technology and exotic image are costly. Base price is $72,495, with sport suspension and the six-speed stick, and such subtle upgrades as aluminum front end structure, hood and doors. Add in Active Roll Stabilization, 18-inch wheels, active cruise, heads-up display, the audio upgrade with satellite radio,and you're up to $76,695, and you could go higher with the splendid active steering option.

Cruising along the freeway, a couple of the newest features on the feature-laden car made the trip more pleasurable. A heads-up display allows you to keep track of your speed, other vitals, and an arrow indicating any upcoming turns you might need to prepare for, all transposed unobtrusively on the windshield. Itís easy to look right past it, or through it, but itís also simple to train your consciousness to pay attention to your speed and other important items.

Naturally, I never advocate speeding, but sometimes on a freeway trip it might be safer to blend with the traffic flow, even if itís a tad over the limit. I found a nice rhythm at 75 miles per hour for certain stretches, letting the carís active cruise control maintain a preset interval.

  I tried several different intervals, and all worked very well Ė slowing the car when a slower car was directly ahead in order to maintain the increasing speed to reestablish the proper interval summoned.

The iDrive is brought to life by a knob on the console. You tip it in any of four directions and you engage navigation, audio, climate-control and information, refining it with subsequent clicks to operate everything. The readouts come onto the navigation screen.

You also can induce a voice-control system, whereby a pleasant feminine voice gives you little tips about upcoming turns necessary to reach your pre-established destination.

John Drewitz, an old friend in the auto biz who sells BMWs and Mercedes products at Sears Imports in Wayzata, has prompted me often enough that the iDrive is to be considered a tool to be programmed, rather than a nuisance to be resisted Ė and/or detested.

So I thought Iíd coexist, and overlook the fact that you have to continue to glance at the navigation screen repeatedly whenever you wanted to change radio stations.

I found that if you programmed it right, you could then switch to your preset favorites by merely rocking a switch on the steering wheel. And the pleasing and soothing voice of the Nav Lady prodded me if I was going to miss a turn.

There is one odd thing about BMWs. Itís not that you feel superior driving one, but there seems to be a prevailing attitude among other drivers that you must be a smug son of a gun because you have such a fine car.

So you find other drivers speeding up, maybe stealing a glance at your ride, and then acting almost rude, as if they are achieving something by getting ahead of a Beemer. So you have to take on a bit of an attitude yourself. You may not be better than those in the other cars, but the BMW may make you a better driver, so youíd better pay attention.

With everything in place, I cruised in on 94 to reach Milwaukee, and a few signs tipped me off to impending difficulties. Road construction ahead, the signs said. I wasnít worried, although I had left just barely enough time to cruise on in and get to Bradley Center for the drop of the first semifinal puck. Once I got to Milwaukee, however, I had more reason to be concerned.

t appears that the kind of nuisance road construction Iím used to in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was not in force. What was in force was an all-out assault on every exit that might allow you to get off I94 anywhere remotely close to downtown Milwaukee.

The Nav Lady said, "Take the next exit." Hmmmm, the next exit was also closed. "ÖTake the next exit,í the Nav Lady said again, and then again, and again.

 

If I wasnít sure, I thought I detected some frustration, if not impatience, from that sweet computerized voice.

But there was nothing I could do. The Nav Lady was giving me good advice, but the only vehicle I could think of that could take the "next exit" was a helicopter, and I didnít have one handy. Pretty soon, I was through town, past the tall buildings near Lake Michigan, and heading north, as if I was headed for Sheboygan, or Green Bay.

Finally, amid the gathering rubble, I found an exit, and veered off the freeway. As soon as I got up to the stop sign, the Nav Lady got busy saving me. "Take the first left," she said, and as I did, she added, hastilyÖ"prepare to take the next left turn."

Soon I was headed back down a quite messy street that was something of a frontage road that led to 6th Street, and on the navigation screen, I could see a group of buildings that included Bradley Center. I kept heading toward it, and when I got close, I pulled over and parked, locking up the car and walking six blocks to the arena.

Good game, too, although North Dakota lost to Boston College 6-5, and I wanted the Fighting Sioux to win. Two days later, Wisconsin beat Boston College 2-1 for the NCAA title. I had predicted beforehand that Wisconsin would win both the menís and womenís NCAA titles, and that final made my hunch look prophetic.

I gave a friend a ride further downtown to catch a quick and late dinner on the night between games, and later dropped him at his hotel. The next day he mentioned that the group of cool-looking folks inside waited until I was driving away, then went, "Wow! Did you see that BMW?í"

It is that special, although passers-by prefer to withhold such impressions if you might witness them.

As a driver, I am reminded of Gene Wilder in the movie Silver Streak, where he blackens his face and tries to strut with his buddy, Richard Pryor, but has a bit of a problem walking cool. Naturally, he overplays his part to hilarity, but in a way, you have to drive cool in a BMW.

Sunday morning, time to hit I94 westbound, cruising effortlessly. Of course, I wasnít alone. The Nav Lady was with me, and she was the perfect companion. She didnít ever complain about my choice of satellite radio music or humor, as I cruise-controlled my way across Wisconsin.

The miles melted away, and I was sure to drive cool, all the way.

In a BMW 650i, it would be impossible to NOT drive cool.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.