Mission to civilize 

The new 645Ci defines BMW's future while defying company critics

The new 645Ci defines BMW's future while defying company critics

Because they are rare, because they are striking, because they attract buyers at an inverse rate to which they attract admirers, I interpret luxury performance coupes as sheetmetal mission statements promulgated by their manufacturers.

Certainly this is the case with BMW's controversial 645Ci. Available as both coupe and convertible models, the 645Ci is nothing short of a fist of defiance shot into the air by a BMW management and design team that will not cow to a self-righteous public.

"Whoa! Wait a minute," you say. "What's all this about BMW defying the public?"

Apparently, dear reader, you have allowed the tempest-in-a-teapot of dismay concerning BMW's adoption of new styling standards to become obscured by certain other international contretemps, national political rivalries and disagreements over the noxiousness of reality television.

Several years ago with the Z4 roadster, BMW began toying with adventuresome design techniques for its cars. Chris Bangle, BMW's now-notorious head designer, is today credited with the tradition-shattering decisions to streamline, crease and carve BMW's new-car dimensions despite howls of anguish from loyalists. With the appearance of a re-designed 7-Series flagship sedan two years ago, Bangle was deemed a bungler. Last year's makeover of the 5-Series midsize sedan dashed traditionalists' hopes that the "Bangle butt" tendency to enlarge rear fender and trunk dimensions was an aberration. With the 2004 6-Series coupe, that makes three strikes; and the loyalists are out!

After 14 years of dormancy, the 2004 645Ci has germinated into a worthy successor to BMW's '80s-era luxo-coupe that drove like and resembled no other car of its time. With its resurrected 6-Series, BMW is declaring—loud and clear—its freedom to shock, to titillate, to experiment, to gamble and to evolve free of fetters to the past.

The 6-Series, in other words, consolidates all that 21st-century BMWs will now stand for. Despite its lofty price of $75,995 (as-tested); despite meager annual sales projections of only 8,000 to 9,000 coupes and convertibles, this pure indulgence of an "image car" signifies BMW's determination to delineate the cutting edge.

There is something disturbing about the 645's silhouette, and that's a quite good thing. It disturbs a genuine enthusiast out the torpor and complacency that commuter-infested driving has engendered. Gentle curves conspire with aggressive dimensions to confound the eyes. From the front, the 645 looks demure; from the rear, brutal. It's no fey Sleeping Beauty who has awakened from her 14-year slumber; it's a warrior queen.

Large fender wells showcase optional 19-in. wheels with massive disc brakes glaring between the spokes. Rear fender flanks stretch wide to embrace fat, low-profile tires (275/35R-19s), whereas the front fenders (harboring 245/40R-19s) crest over feline headlamps that squint with steely dispassion.

A personality of self-assurance derives from the 325 horsepower and 330 ft.-lbs. of torque that lurk under a broad, smooth hood. For all the fuss over the 645's iconoclastic styling, its powertrain is staunchly traditional: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 6-speed manual transmission, 50:50 weight distribution. If you know how to drive fast, here is an ideal vessel for your desires.

If you don't know how to drive fast, you may have your hands full. The six-speed shifter requires deft touch with the left foot yet solid thigh strength to counteract a heavy clutch-pedal spring. Accordingly, BMW makes concessions along the way: There are two other six-speed transmission options, for example; a true automatic and a sequential manual gearbox (SMG) for clutchless manual shifting via paddles on the steering wheel.

As for handling, the 645Ci's agility belies its 3,900 lbs. Equal weight balance front-to-rear bestows unruffled neutrality while cornering; and rear-wheel-drive preserves an ability to throttle-steer with your "Bangle butt" hanging out. And yet if, in the middle of that fast right-hander, you discover you're really not as tail-happy as you thought you were, all manner of computerized traction, stability and roll controls will orchestrate to save you from an untimely crescendo.

With optional Active Steering, steering action at speed is firm and precise; but when it comes to darting into tight parking spaces at a walking pace, it's as if an invisible helmsman had spun the wheel in your stead. And that's not all of the steering wheel's tricks. Optional adaptive headlamps pivot in concert with steering inputs, the better to illuminate where you're heading in the dark.

As befits a halo car like the 6-Series, its interior is a cocoon of creature comfort. But even BMW's bold, new design philosophy cannot quite eliminate certain quirks inherent to two-door coupes. The back seats are really just over-upholstered shopping bag bins. Don't risk losing a friendship by inviting another couple to sit there. A glorious panorama roof window is standard with the 645, and it floods the interior with expansive light. It does not, however, open.

Then, there's infamous iDrive. This ill-conceived telematics scheme integrating audio, navigation, telephone—and whatever else—is hated and hateable. BMW stands behind it, nonetheless; and the company vows, in high Teutonic dudgeon, to teach drivers how to use it. That won't happen until drivers can touch what they want to control without looking. Otherwise, a tutorial in iDrive is the equivalent of learning to sight-read music merely to make sense of tunes on the radio.

The freedom to experiment and to evolve also implies, of course, the freedom to fail. This is what the controversial 645Ci stands for. If iDrive is a blemish, it's a blemish that pales within the context of this coupe's overall, stunning success. This is BMW's image-maker. It's a public manifesto in support of no turning back. If iDrive is a nuisance for now, it too will evolve. Meanwhile, a bold, new 6-Series is waiting to be savored.

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