Photos: BMW.Click image to enlarge
By Jil McIntosh
There is no finer experience than top-down motoring, in any car. On a sunny summer day, on a beautiful road, even a Yugo would do if it was a convertible.
Unfortunately, my week with the 2004 BMW 645ci Cabriolet wasn’t like that; between rainy days and bone-chilling temperatures, I only got one chance to even see how the top worked (relatively quickly, actually, considering that the tonneau panel lifts up, the top makes two separate movements to clear the rear headrests, and then the panel comes down to form a flat rear surface). But it is to the 645’s credit that it’s a stunner even with its roof in place, in its road feel, performance and handling, with only a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way.
Of course, it should be, for the price: the cabriolet bases at $108,500. My tester stickered at $116,900 before freight or taxes, with its $1,800 extended leather upholstery (but heavens, does it ever smell wonderful) and a $6,600 “Executive Package” that includes active steering, sport seats, park distance control, 19-inch alloy wheels, and 6-disc CD changer with Harman/Kardon Logic sound system.
Styling comes courtesy of Chris Bangle. Dropping that name into a gaggle of automotive journalists can just about bring the two sides to blows, but for the most part I like Bangle’s controversial designs. The 645 works from its signature kidney grill to its angular trunk lid, in a flawlessly fluid motion greater than the sum of its parts. It looks like it’s doing its electronically-limited 250 km/hr top speed when it’s standing still.
The soft roof leads back to a pair of elegant sail panels that give the car its long, low, sleek appearance. I also discovered maple leaves trapped under them after the car sat – top-up only – under a tree. I have no idea how they got there, but then, the roof also leaked at both windshield corners when I took it through the touch-free car wash (yes, I know you’re not really supposed to, but I took a Ford Thunderbird through the day before and it didn’t leak a drop).
The fit-and-finish and interior materials quality are outstanding, from the heated steering wheel to the 12-way seats with power lumbar support. But I stand only 5-foot-4, and it is immediately obvious that the 645 is designed by men, for men, and well-sized ones at that. In order to find a driving position that didn’t put my chest on the air bag, I ended up pushing the clutch with my toe. There are three transmissions available – my car’s 6-speed manual, a 6-speed automatic with Steptronic, and the F-1 SMG Sequential Manual Gearbox with wheel-mounted shift buttons. Smaller drivers may find the two-pedal models a better fit.
The 645 is a 2+2 – my young nephew was able to sandwich into the back seat, but full-size passengers won’t relish the idea of a long drive back there, even though the seats themselves are extremely comfortable and a full-length console offers a place to rest their coffee cups. This is a car for front-seat passengers, who enjoy stretch-out comfort at the expense of rear-seat legroom.
Right after I picked it up, my tester developed a problem in its tire pressure sensor system, and it insisted that I had a run-flat tire that was, indeed, run flat. The mistaken but persistent warning message overrode the iDrive screen, but that really wasn’t much of a hardship. I know BMW loves this little gizmo, but I don’t. I like reaching over momentarily to adjust a button or a knob when I’m doing triple-digit speeds, instead of paging through computer screens. At least the voice activation system let me perform a few functions by talking to it (it’s actually a pretty sophisticated system that responds to any voice; you don’t have to “train” it to yours) – until my final day with the car, when the electrical gremlins shut the stereo system down as well.
Of course, once you turn the key and the engine whooshes to life, the only thing on the dash that matters is the speedometer anyway. Under that long hood is a 4.4-litre, 32-valve V8 that makes 325 horsepower at 6100 rpm, and 330 ft-lbs of torque at 3600 rpm. As the old-time evangelists used to say, “Feel the power!” BMW reports that with a manual transmission, the 645 will go from 0-100 km/hr in 6.1 seconds. It’s seductively smooth muscle at that, with instantaneous throttle response and the confident feeling that, even when you’re pushing it, you’ve got plenty in reserve.
A “sport” button below the shifter instantly activates the Driving Dynamic, changing the drivetrain and steering to provide more rapid acceleration and a stiffer, sportier feel from the wheel through to the clutch.
It turns the already delicious 645 into an even more enticing road machine, but I desperately longed for a short-throw shifter. The 645 straddles the line between luxury and performance, and while the car can be tightened up for sport, the shifter has been designed for opulence. With that much machine under me, I wanted to run through the gears with just a flick of my wrist.
Even at speed, the 645 is incredibly quiet for a convertible; I would put this car up against any hardtop for sound. It’s also almost as stiff, with none of the vibration or cowl shake predominant in many other cars when the roof is cut off. The dual exhaust is calm at idle, but responds with an enticing rumble once the engine is asked to strut its stuff.
Numerous factors go into the 645’s handling capabilities. One is weight: there is a lot of structural aluminum in this car. It tips the scale at only 1,615 kg and has a weight distribution that’s all but 50/50 on the front and rear axles.
The optional Active Steering, a step motor on the steering box, provides precise response for various conditions; it cuts back the steering angle and power assistance at higher speeds, while reducing the effort needed at low speeds, such as in parking lots.
Of course there are also the usual safety features to keep one on the straight and narrow – ABS, dynamic stability control, dynamic brake control, dynamic traction control, cornering braking control, and active roll stabilization. And all of those are just high-falutin’ words until you take it around a corner way too fast on a wet road, as I did one night (deliberately, mind you). I got a proper scolding from the traction warning light on the dash, but that big Bimmer stuck to the road like those tires were glued down, with only the slightest hint of a fishtail before it all settled in.
Of course, this being an upper-line BMW, there is a long list of standard and optional features – adaptive swivelling xenon headlights to illuminate corners, with automatic control and headlamp washers; adaptive LED brake lights (more of the rear lamp illuminates during hard braking); rain-sensitive wipers with heated washer nozzles; self-charging remote (its battery recharges through the ignition when the key is on); auto-dimming exterior and interior mirrors; and active cruise control, which monitors cars in front and modulates the cruise to keep a safe distance.
The 645Ci’s price is going to keep it exclusive, and that will be part of its many charms; you can’t drive this automobile without feeling very satisfied about it, and you can’t deny the many glances – or in some cases, long lingering looks – that it elicits from other drivers. I even had someone come up to me as I was looking for a parking spot at the mall, to tell me that he was leaving – “And I’d give up my spot any day for a 6-series,” he said. Buddy, you weren’t behind the wheel. You didn’t know the half of it.
|Options||$8,400 (Executive Package $6,600; Pearl extended leather $1,800)|
|Price as tested||$118,995|
|Type||2-door, 4-passenger mid-sized convertible|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||4.4 litre V8, DOHC, 32 valves, Valvetronic|
|Horsepower||325 @ 6100 rpm|
|Torque||330 @ 3600 rpm|
|Curb weight||1715 kg (3781 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2780 mm (109.4 in.)|
|Length||4831 mm (190.2 in.)|
|Width||1855 mm ( 73.0 in.)|
|Height||1373 mm ( 54.0 in.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.4 l/100 km (20 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Hwy: 8.6 l/100 km (33 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|