- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

BMW has enjoyed such success in the U.S. market in recent years that you’d hardly think the company would need another new model.

But they keep coming, and no doubt the calculated onslaught is what helps keep the German manufacturer in the vanguard of the brigades of performance/luxury cars advancing on unsuspecting buyers. In 2003, for example, BMW sold 240,859 cars and trucks — if you can call its sizzling SUVs trucks.

That was up from 232,032 in 2002.

For BMW, the 2004 model year has been characterized both by new versions of existing models — most recently the redesigned 5-Series sedans — but also by completely new vehicles: The X3 sport activity vehicle and the subject here, the new 6-Series.

BMW has produced expensive coupes and cabriolets under a variety of designations since before World War II. But it has not marketed one since the 840 and 850 series of V-8 and V-12 coupes in 1997.

The new 6 is the latest iteration in this long, if occasionally interrupted, parade of toys for the wealthy.

There are two models: The 645Ci Coupe, at $69,995, and the 645Ci convertible, with a sticker price of $76,995.

Neither price includes the inescapable $1,300 “gas guzzler” tax.

Nor do they include options, which are few but bump the price considerably.

Standard equipment includes such expected luxury/performance items as stability and traction control, antilock brakes with electronic brake proportioning, xenon headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic climate control, remote central locking, programmable cruise control, leather upholstery, BMW’s IDrive system with a navigation system, and power everything.

The tested convertible, with a couple of options that included a sport package (active steering, sport seats and 19-inch wheels with performance run-flat tires), heated seats and a premium audio system with a six-disc CD changer, came to $84,745.

That’s a load of bucks for what amounts to a large two-seat sports car.

Both 645Ci models have back seats, but carry the “plus two” designation, which is merely a euphemism for a back seat in which most humans cannot survive.

In this execution, an average-sized person, with some contortions, can actually scrunch in back there, but only if the folks in the front seats move their seats way forward.

But hey. People who shop for this class of car don’t care. If they need to go out on a double date, there’s always the S-Class Mercedes, Jaguar Vanden Plas or BMW 7-Series parked in the garage. The 6 is for boulevard cruising and placing oneself on display.

That’s especially true of the convertible, which to most eyes is a beauty, despite its adherence to the current BMW styling theme of a puffed-up trunk lid. It’s been controversial on the big 7-Series cars and, more recently, on the new 5-Series, but it stands out far less on the new 6 coupes and convertibles, where it appears to flow naturally from the overall lines.

In expected BMW fashion, the rear-drive 645Ci is oriented toward performance. The engine is a 4.4-liter V-8 that punches out a robust 325 horsepower.

For no extra cost, a buyer can specify a six-speed manual transmission — rare on a car in this class — or a six-speed automatic. A sequential manual gearbox (SMG), similar to those on some race cars, is a $1,500 option.

The SMG allows automatic or driver-controlled shifts of what is basically a manual transmission. There’s no clutch pedal, and the driver can choose to let the gearbox shift itself or control it manually with the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel.

Without a good deal of practice, it tends to be a jerky affair, likely to be avoided by all but hard-core enthusiasts.

With either the SMG or the stick shift, the 645Ci coupe can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, with the automatic at 5.7 seconds, according to BMW. On the heavier convertible, the times are 6 seconds for the SMG and manual, and 6.1 seconds for the automatic, which has a manual shift mode as well.

With its handling-biased suspension system and stiffer run-flat tires, the 645Ci tracks superbly on snaky roads. But it does not deliver what anyone would regard as a plush ride. On rough surfaces, sharp jolts are felt and heard, especially in the coupe. The heavier convertible does a better job of insulating the occupants from the rough stuff.

But the run-flat tires — there’s no spare tire — do provide a bonus of trunk space, a full 13 cubic feet on the coupe, slightly less on the convertible with the top up. With the top down, the convertible’s luggage space drops to less than 11 cubic feet.

The convertible top is made of high-quality fabric, with plenty of upholstery and an interesting wrinkle.

The glass rear window is not part of the top. Instead it is housed in the body structure and raises and lowers independently with the top either up or down. With the top down, it functions as a wind blocker for back-seat passengers, and it can be lowered with the top up for ventilation.

There are a couple of minor complaints. The sun visors, on both the coupe and convertible, look as if they’d been pilfered from an economy car or a K-Mart parts shelf, and they don’t block sun from the side for most drivers. And the glass sun roof on the coupe doesn’t open. It merely tilts up slightly for ventilation.

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