First Drive: 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet

This is one quick, comfortable shark.

by on May.16, 2011

BMW introduces a more classically aggressive design with the 2012 650i Cabriolet.

Heading up a steep grade, we squeeze the throttle of the new BMW 650i Cabriolet and its twin turbo V8 is only too happy to respond, the roar echoing through the canyons of stone bleached white by the relentless sun.  Mile after mile, we tear through blind switchbacks that wend their way up and back down the hills, finally emerging onto a long flat stretch, the Sea of Cortez suddenly emerging into view, where we can push the new convertible to triple digit speed.

We’ve come to the Southwest tip of the continent to get our first sense of what BMW has delivered with the latest iteration of the legendary 6-Series.  The new line will be rolled out in phases, starting with the 650i Cabriolet’s arrival, well- timed for warm weather.  The 6- Coupe will make its debut later in the year followed by the M6.

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For BMW aficionados the design of the 2+2 should seen familiar, though in some ways, the 2012 650i Cabriolet harkens back to an earlier version of the 6-Series, rather than the model it immediately replaces.  There’s the classic shark’s nose, its lower twin-kidney grille framed by new LED headlamps.  The 2012 remake feels sculpted, rather than stamped of sheet metal, capturing the rippled muscles of an athlete.  Low and wide, the new convertible is the visual definition of aggressiveness.

The 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet's top can be lowered in 19 seconds and raised in 24.

With the debut of the 3-Series Cabriolet, a few years back, many observers expected BMW to make a broad migration to foldaway hardtop technology.  The technology is impressive but often requires compromises in styling – never mind weight as well as cargo and cabin space.  For the 650i Cabriolet, BMW has wisely opted for a more traditional canvas roof.

According to BMW, coupe and cabrio were developed as two distinct bodies.  That helped ensure the convertible was as rigid as possible without resorting to the sort of afterthought bracing that is often required when a hardtop roof is sliced off.

Taking a break along the route.

Nonetheless, top up, the Cabriolet maintains the familial taut lines of the 650i coupe, a static version of which BMW conveniently provided for comparison.  There’s none of the hungry-horse ribbing that spoil so many soft-top designs.  The reality is, you’ll likely put the top down  as often as possible, a process that takes just 19 seconds.  By late in the afternoon, however, when we’d baked to a nuclear red under the cloudless Cabo sky, we were pleased to see it only takes a single touch – and 24 seconds – to put the top back up.

The New TwinTurbo V8 is a big improvement over the last-generation 6-er's naturally-aspirated engine.

Even with the canvas top, the new 650i Cabriolet has put on some weight, jumping about 200 pounds, to a hefty 4500 lbs – despite the extensive use of aluminum and plastic in the body.  BMW officials admit they will need to trim some weight going forward, if for no other reason than to accept the mounting demand for fuel efficiency.  And, yes, when it comes to mileage, these days, those rich enough to afford this $91,375 grand tourer aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

Nonetheless, the maker defends the added mass noting that there are new safety regulations to meet, among other things, and plenty of new features to surprise and delight customers.

Refined and elegant, the interior of the new 650i Cabriolet is crowned by a 10.2-inch video display.

The new, super-high-resolution video display  features a new Transreflective technology to improve visibility in bright light.  It also uses the latest mapping software – first introduced on the newest version of the 5-Series, to reveal a relatively real-world picture of what’s all around you.  No, in Cabo, it doesn’t quite get down to the granular details of rocks, sand and saguaro cactus, but in a city like New York or Chicago, you’ll have a very real representation of the buildings along your route, rather than just an abstract set of lines and curves.

The system is mated to a new head-up display BMW is offering on the 2012 6-Series.  As opposed to early HUD systems that offered little real value the new version projects a mix of useful  information into the corner of the windshield, making it easy, among other things, to read turn-by-turn directions without taking your eyes off the road.

As with most BMW models, the 650i Cabriolet offers a number of options - and can be heavily customized through the BMW Individual program.

As you’d likely expect, the broad array of electric and electronic features, from seat heating to navigation, are controlled by the latest-generation BMW iDrive system.  To our satisfaction, iDrive has evolved, over the years, into a reasonably accessible device, unlike the early, often counterintuitive controller we critics loved to take pot shots at.  (Or, perhaps, we have simply grown comfortable with such systems, which now appear in all but the rarest luxury models.)

High-tech features aside, the 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet boasts a decidedly upgraded cabin, our test vehicle’s interior featuring an elegant two-tone color scheme with contrast stitching.  The seats, meanwhile, are lush and comfortable yet manage to hold you firmly in place.  And that’s a very good thing considering what this car is capable of.

BMW claims a 0 to 60 time of 4.9 seconds.

The TwinTurbo 4.4-liter V8, which readily pours out its 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, is a welcome replacement for the prior generation’s naturally-aspirated 4.8-liter 8-banger.  Blasting through the Baja desert, it would literally leave the old car in the dust.  According to BMW, the new Cabriolet will hit 60 in 4.9 seconds, a number that our informal test suggests is actually a bit conservative.  Surprisingly, for an Autobahn cruiser, BMW has limited top speed to “just” 130 mph, a figure we routinely nudged whenever we had the chance – Mexican speed limit signs usually serving as just a largely-ignored suggestion.

A look at the coupe and cabrio versions of the new 2012 BMW 6-Series.

We were initially disappointed when our BMW hosts handed over the keys to the 650i Cabriolet because the maker had brought along a car equipped with the new 8-speed automatic, rather than the classic 6-speed manual.  Now, we’re as fond of sticks as any of our media colleagues, but after spending a day with the new automatic we have to wonder why anyone would choose anything else – especially as they’re both offered for the same price.  Though the term is becoming something of a cliché, gearshifts are smooth, quick and intuitive, and the paddle shifters respond instantaneously should you demand more manual control – as we did during our mountain runs.

BMW offers a new version of its active steering system on the 2012 650i Cabriolet.

That’s where we quickly came to appreciate the 650i’s front and rear multilink suspension – which offers driver-selectable electronically-controlled damping.  Despite the added heft of the new model it maintains an easy poise seemingly no matter what you ask of it – and no matter how rough the roads, a blessing on the uneven Mexican pavement.  Should you press just a little too hard, the electronic stability control system will kick in.  You can largely disable ESC by switching to Sport Plus Mode, but you should you seriously overcook a corner it will briefly come back to life.

The 650i Cabriolet's stability control system will kick in, even in Sport+ Mode should you overcook a corner.

With the new 6-Series BMW has introduced Integral Active Steering, which pulls together the previous generation’s active steering system with a steerable rear axle.  The goal is to deliver more precise turns.  It’s an impressive concept, though it can feel a slight bit numb.  Nonetheless, the new 650i is one of the most responsive, fun-to-drive cabriolets we have ever driven.

When you ease off the throttle, the interior is surprisingly quiet – it’s possible to hold a conversation without shouting, even at 80 mph.  There’s also pleasantly little turbulence inside the cabin, especially if you keep the front windows up.  Of course, you can always put the top itself up and add almost two additional cubic feet of trunk space, though even with the canvas top down there’s more room — 10.6 cubic feet — than you’d expect.

For those who believe mileage matters, despite a vehicle’s price, the 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet is delivering 16 mpg in the City, 24 on the Highway.  Those aren’t great numbers, but they’re nonetheless up 2 mpg from the old 6-Series.

For those who’d like even better fuel economy, rumor suggests BMW may eventually offer a downsized engine package in the U.S., something that’s definitely on tap in Europe – along with a turbo-diesel.  For the moment, at least, there appears to be no consideration of a U.S. diesel, nor any plan to drop in the hybrid powertrain recently launched in the BMW 7-Series flagship.

The 6-Series has never been a huge seller for BMW.  Buyers have a tendency to stick with the brand’s sedans or Sport-Activity Vehicles, and practicality underscores why. But for those who crave al fresco driving, the new 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet will likely have a siren’s call.  It’s handsome, quick and more functional than you might expect.  The ultimate open-air driving machine is, to our eyes, better than ever.

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