German prestige brands just love filling niches – yet, as nice as the 6-Series Gran Turismo is, does it stand as anything more than an expressive statement of 'just because' can-do?
BULLISH BMW has a pipeline brimming with intriguing product – the 6-Series Gran Turismo isn’t as technologically interesting as the spotlight-hogging present and future electric fare, yet it certainly holds fascination.
For the past 15 years Germany’s car makers have been up to the elbows pumping out sedans that look like coupes. I’d suggest that what we see here is one of the better examples of this breed: Clearly a response to the Audi A7 and Mercedes’ CLS, which kicked off this trend, yet arguably with an even more affluent air.
As a slinky interpretation of the latest BMW styling language, created atop a Five Series platform and implementing a Seven Series interior, it’s aiming for an optimal score on the ‘wow’ scale.
Emotional buy-in is good for any brand, not least one that takes pride in being a prestige choice. Yet, for all that, there is a price, in that these are cars the designers love to create and company accountants must hate to see go into production. Industry lore suggests that even when sited toward the premium-priced end of the semi-premium market -as this one is in its 640i xDrive format ($155,600, plus $1650 for a Comfort pack enhancement) – they never earn so much as a cent in profit. Just too niche, basically.
It’s hardly this type of car alone; outright sports cars also hardly ever earn their keep; perhaps the only modern exception being the Mazda MX-5, albeit only in its original, world-dominating form of 1989-95.
But, anyway, if success is measured purely by spreadsheet performance, the 6-Series GT stands to become a folly, and while BMW has always been able to build such products in the past without flinching, you wonder how long it can keep doing so, for two reasons.
One is that the global market taste for SUVs is now so strong and showing no sign of slackening; the hardest hit victims of the change of scene have been sedans. Their segment is shrinking rapidly. You have to think that, if the mainstream editions of four-door cars are not selling, what chance for the niche spinoffs.
Also, while SUVS- or SAVs, for sports activity vehicles, in BMW-speak – are on the up now, Munich is also now at full speed delivering vehicles to meet the next chapter of motoring; those wholly or mainly powered by electricity. That project demands a huge engineering effort and an even more massive budget. You have to wonder if they have the time, money or manpower to keep creating stuff like the GT which, with no obvious EV potential, is very much a car of the now. And a very fleeting ‘now’ at that.
So, if you’re still set on enjoying a pseudo-coupe, it would probably pay not to hang about mulling up the pros and cons for too long. If the car already suffers for lacking an immediately identifiable target audience now, you can only imagine it will have even more of an uphill battle to getting bums on seats going forward.
To be fair, at least this time around the design team has attempted to implement more practicality to go with the obvious panache, insofar that is has significantly more interior room than the 5-Series GT which, despite what the different numerical nomenclature, this car actually replaces.
Going to the new Five/Seven platform allows the ‘Six’ to become 87mm longer and that, in turn, frees up more legroom front and rear; roughly about the same as for a Five Series sedan.
The difference comes in headroom: The mainstream car has enough, the Six, with a headlining 21mm closer to the floor, is more challenged, not so much in the front as the back. That’s where truncated oligarchs will be more comfortable than tall ones.
But BMW says never mind that, look at the boot space: Almost on par with the capacity offered by the current X5. True, the capacity is good, from 610 litres up to 1800 with the back seats folded away. But the boot dimension not as friendly. The X5 offers a big square space; the Six’s is deeper, more oblong and shallower.
Still, I’d readily agree that while the Six is not be-all for capacity, the interior does lend a pretty impressive line in visual cachet. It’s right up to speed, surely, for meeting the expectations of the affluent and influential; the entire dashboard is much like that in the Seven Series. So, all the electronic assists you will want, some beautiful materials and extremely good build quality.
You get digital dials, the new iDrive system, a Harmon-Kardon stereo as standard or the even more elite Bowers and Wilkins setup in our car as a cost-extra, a heads-up display and four-zone air conditioning.
On the safety front, the model is bristling with sensors, and comes with active cruise control, lane-keeping steering, various collision warning and evasion systems and an automated parking system.
The level of assists is such that the model can, like the Five in top-fitout, basically drive itself, at least over short distances and generally only on open road motorway conditions. Even if this hands-off capability was enhanced, you would be silly to let it go all autonomous, though, because this platform delivers significant dynamic charm.
In saying that, the ride-handling tune does seem more Seven-like than outright sporting; it has a demeanour which, those far from laidback, is just a touch languid.
Given it is so low-slung and, in this instance, was packing M-Sport gear and was riding on 20-inch rims (with run-flat tyres), that did come as a bit of a surprise. This tendency to prioritise comfort does not make it a soft-riding car per se. You can still show it a decent set of bends, and it retains its composure in terms of cornering capability, sitting flat and with negligible body wobble. But you get impression they’ve traded away some of the Five’s incisiveness in order to emulate, to some degree, the Seven’s supremely supple ride.
This might not simply be due to the suspension tuning, all the same. Even though this GT is whopping 150kg lighter than the last, it is still not insubstantial. The revised kerb weight is still around 75kg greater than that for a Five Series Touring wagon, so it’s not exactly the trimmest car. I’d be surprised if this didn’t impact on the driving feel and could well explain why its reactions are a little slower, a touch gentler than the Five’s.
Not that it’s afraid of a challenging road; you can be assured the all-wheel-drive element and a walloping twin-turbo six-cylinder petrol, creating a generous 250kW and 450Nm, re ingredients that make it quite the car quick and confident travel on secondary routes. But, fact is, while it acquits well enough in that scenario, with the xDrive system adding to the surefooted feeling, it actually feels even better as a main highway cruiser. The fact that the adjustable drive modes include not only several Sports settings but also two dedicated to comfort – one called Comfort Plus – tends to suggest that it’s primarily role is as a long-distance, high-speed cruiser.
Driving it that way is no hassle; when settled into a steady 100kmh pace – which way short of its true potential, but still - the car settles into a high state of refinement. While some snarl can be drawn out of it when pushing hard, generally speaking the engine is very suave – at lower speeds you can barely notice it running - and so too the shift changes from the eight-speed automatic.
This kind of driving also offers the best scenario for trying out the ‘eco’ modes though, realistically, most owners surely won’t bother, on the grounds that if they can afford to own the car, they can certainly afford to feed it. For the record, though, I did use Eco for a while and found it delivers all the expected pros and cons: The fuel burn does diminish, but so too the engine’s edge. It gets quite leaden, as though the parking brake has been left engaged. Good news is that you needn’t go to such extremes to get the car into reasonably economical state. The claimed optimal 8.5 litres per 100km was never held, but I was happy enough to see it sipping in the sub-10s for the greater part of our drive.
The one thing about the GT is that it feels like a big experience; not least when driving in town where you will want to utilise all the assists to ensure hassle-free parking, because some angles of visibility are quite restricted.
The car is smart enough to self-park – albeit only in parallel or 90 degree sports, as neither BMW nor anyone else has sorted how to egress angle parks (which makes this function a bit of a toy, since the latter are most common here) - indeed, you can even achieve this from outside the cabin when using the BMW display key, another cost extra.
It’s a cool device that in addition to setting up the car to put itself into a carpark also provides opportunity to set up the in-cabin temperature, lights-on and so on. The drawback is that it’s not small or light; it fills your hand. It requires frequent recharging, either by USB cable or laying on the induction pad otherwise there for a phone that enable this, and you’d not want to misplace it; the cost and inconvenience would be migraine-inducing.
The Grand Tourer tag is met with this package: It’s so refined and such is the level of sound insulation that you can sometimes feel gloriously cocooned from the outside world. Even though it is a touch restricted in vertical height – something BMW tries to disguise by setting the seats so low that you tend to fall into them and have to lever your way out - the cabin has an aura of craftsmanship and expense. The styling, too.
All in all, though, you’re left wondering what the exact point is. Agreed, it’s less odd than its predecessor. And yet it still remains something of an oddball. German precision without any particular purpose.