It was supposed to be a supercar. A luxurious grand tourer. A flagship. A technical tour-de-force that would show exactly what its maker could do. The BMW 8 Series, in short, was supposed to be worth waiting for.
And yet, when it arrived in 1990, it did so with a whiff of disappointment. Despite being powered by a 296bhp 5.0-litre V12, the new car – badged 850i – wasn’t fast enough to compete with the supercars of its time. It wasn’t sharp enough in corners to be a world-class sports car, and neither was it comfortable enough to beat the best GTs
The problem was simple: a jack of all trades is usually a master of none. And in this case, BMW had thrown everything at its new range-topper. It was laden with technology, not to mention that thumping great engine. Its weight, therefore, was considerable.
But this is not a tale of what might have been, for throughout its life, the 8 Series slowly began to redeem itself. At the top of the range, the addition of the 380bhp 850CSi in 1992 – an M car in all but name – finally gave the 8 Series the performance cred it should have had from the start.
Meanwhile, the addition of the lighter, less expensive 840Ci, with its 282bhp 4.0-litre V8, brought a more affordable 8 Series that could compete with the luxury coupes of the time. By the time it bowed out in 1999, the 8 Series had gained quite a following, and today it has many admirers – so much so that BMW has just reincarnated the badge for its latest range-topper.
REAPPRAISING THE 8 SERIES
But just how does the first 8 Series feel these days? Does it still seem as confused as it did when it was new, or has the passage of time softened its edges and given it a greater sense of purpose?
To find out, we got hold of what’s widely acknowledged to be one of the best versions of the 8 Series to buy and own. The 840Ci Sport gained a welcome dose of visual heft thanks to the addition of a more aggressive bodykit, but beneath the skin were more changes. As a later model, the car we’re driving has the larger 4.4-litre engine, which didn’t bring with it any extra power but did offer more torque and better throttle response.
It also got firmer suspension, the better to rein in the earlier cars’ slightly leaden handling, as well as grippier seats. In some ways, then, this is the car the 8 Series always should have been.
Climbing aboard, what first strikes you is the raked-back centre console, which slopes downhill toward you, housing the radio and climate controls. Above it, low, wide air vents are canted toward you in traditional, 1990s BMW style, while ahead sit clear, unadorned instruments. The dashboard sweeps into the doors, forming one continuous line that blends down into the electric window controls and door pulls. And in the back, while space is tight, there’s still room enough for two children or – at a push – small adults.
Start the 840 up, and you might expect a roar from that V8, but lest we forget, the 8 Series was intended to be restrained and well-mannered, so the rasp of the starter motor gives way to little more than a subtle baritone rumble.
This car, like so many 8 Series, is fitted with an automatic gearbox – a five-speed made by ZF which holds on to first just a little too long, but otherwise shifts smoothly and crisply. You can opt for the six-speed manual if you like, but for our money, the auto suits the car better.
STILL NO SPORTS CAR
You soon work out why if you try and hustle the 8 Series down a B-road. Even with this lighter engine and the stiffer suspension of the Sport model, its weight still makes itself felt, pushing the nose ahead unless you scrub off lots of speed before you enter the bend. And while the 840 doesn’t lean over and it’s reasonably grippy, the steering is too light and its lack of feel doesn’t inspire confidence.
It’s still not a sports car, then, though the chunky rear tyres at least mean you’ll struggle to get the 8 Series truly out of shape. It’s better on faster, sweeping A-roads, too, where the steering gains a touch of heft, and you can lean on that prodigious grip to get the car flowing from corner to corner. Clearly, as it refined and honed the 8 Series throughout its life, BMW settled on developing it into a grand tourer – and that’s how it feels.
With one exception, and that’s the ride quality. This Sport model is famed for its rock-hard suspension, and even by modern standards it still feels firm. Around town it’s upset by ruts and potholes, which send rather unnerving thumps and shudders through the whole car, though in the 8 Series’s defence it does settle once up to cruising speeds. As such, long distances can be covered with ease, as fits with the car’s grand touring brief.
The 8 Series may yet disappoint you, then. A rip-roaring wild-child of a car it is not, and yes, even in this most recommendable form, it’s still a flawed gem. But as a beautiful, discreet and well-mannered luxury coupe whose trump card is its knee-tremblingly good looks, it succeeds. It also arguably happens to be one of the coolest, most elegant and most rakish cars of the 1990s – and for that, you can forgive it a great many sins.
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