Replacing the BMW 6 Series range (for the most part) with a new 8 Series was a clear statement of intent by the German company. Its targets were high and its claims bullish: the 8 Series has the ability to be ultra-luxurious, refined and comfortable on one side, but also extremely sporty when required. If any model has a chance of doing all that it's the dramatic M850i xDrive, which we've tested on road and track.
In the metal
While there's no getting away from the scale of the BMW 8 Series, it is a really striking car in the metal. Images don't quite convey its presence and stance from most angles. Saying that, even the standard 20-inch wheels look a little small at times. There's plenty more to distract the eyes though, such as the super-slim headlights (upgraded to laser technology on the test cars), the spiky new wide, one-piece kidney grille (it's usually Cerium Grey on the M850i as standard, not black as pictured) and the wonderfully extravagant slope of the roof and rear window. LEDs form the distinctively sculpted rear lights, which emphasise the muscularity of the haunches. Visually, the lower half of the back is quite 'heavy', but it reeks of sportiness, so we'll forgive it. Look closely at the pictures and you'll see the optional carbon fibre finish for the rear diffuser and small boot spoiler, along with a carbon roof - the first time that's been offered on a car outside the core BMW M line-up. That roof, incidentally (carbon fibre or not), has a central cut-out, giving it the look of a double-bubble design.
Unfortunately, as gorgeous as the roofline is, it means restricted space in the rear of the cabin. Anyone over five-foot-eight will struggle with headroom and, unless the driver and front seat passenger have their seats very far forward, kneeroom is very restricted too. The rear seat backs do at least fold down flat, increasing luggage space from the standard 420 litres. That's accessed via an automatic boot lid, which seems a little unnecessary, especially as it's slower in operation than a manual system would be...
Back inside the cabin, BMW has ramped up the material selection and finish for the 8 Series, so it feels worthy of its badge. There's also plenty of storage. That's helped somewhat by the design of the new climate controls. Where Audi installs a massive second touchscreen in the middle, BMW has slimmed down the interface, but retains physical buttons that are far easier to use without taking your eye off the road. It mightn't look as sexy, but it works better in reality, while taking up a lot less space. The infotainment system itself is the same as that used in the new BMW X5, which is to say that it stops short of breaking new ground, but it looks great and operates slickly. Picking nits, it's not very easy to see at a glance where the digitally rendered 'needles' are on the instruments, though I'll concede that this information is better viewed on the excellent head-up display in any case.
Our first taste of the M850i was on track at Estoril in Portugal, where we did a handful of fast laps with a BMW M5 'pace car' up front. Now, BMW itself admits that very few 8 Series buyers are likely to bring their purchase to a race track, but it made for an interesting exercise in that we could safely push beyond the limits of grip and test the car at high speed. To make things interesting, the track was drying after a wet morning, so grip levels varied from corner to corner.
And the M850i applied itself brilliantly, with great balance, keen responses, predictable behaviour and rock-solid stability. The brakes were unfazed, offering a firm, confidence-inspiring pedal and plenty of stopping power. What's more, it was easy to modulate the pedal to maximise deceleration without summoning up the anti-lock system. On a few of the wet and tighter off-camber corners, it was necessary to moderate the entry speed to avoid the front tyres losing grip (understeer), but under power, it's clear that most of the engine's drive is going to the rear axle. Push harder on the exit of a corner and, with the stability control in its mid setting, a little rear axle slip is allowed before the system lends a helping hand, and some of the power will be sent to the front axle of course, helping the car slingshot out of the corner up the next straight. It's neat and capable without removing the driver from the equation completely.
It turns out that the test cars were fitted with the optional active roll control system, though you don't sense it at work; it just feels as if body lean is kept neatly in check by the suspension. There is adaptive damping as standard, as you'd hope, along with an active rear differential, which has a massive effect on how the 8 Series drives.
Perhaps just as importantly, Integral Active Steer (four-wheel steering) is included as standard. We've mentioned this system before, but by way of reminder, it turns the rear wheels in the same direction as the fronts at higher speeds and in the opposite direction at lower speeds. This allows the fitment of a more direct front steering rack (as high-speed nervousness is eradicated by the steering rear wheels) and it also makes the 8 Series feel remarkably agile and manoeuvrable in tight corners or, indeed, while parking. All owners will appreciate that.
Out on narrow country roads, it's impossible to disguise the width of the 8 Series, though, which is pretty much its only limiting factor. In Comfort mode, the exhaust quietens down, the suspension softens up and it subtly rumbles along at high speeds. Bump absorption is good, even on the standard 20-inch rims, and the seats are great.
There's a very big step from Comfort mode to the full-on Sport Plus setting. The latter is surprisingly aggressive, with the exhaust histrionics ramped up to 'anti-social' levels on the overrun and a gearbox strategy (for the sublime new eight-speed automatic) that means a down-change every time you decelerate, even if a lower gear was not strictly needed. It's perhaps a little too keen in that regard, though of course you can take control using the paddles behind the (still too-thick with padding for our liking) steering wheel and if you slot the gear lever to the left into the Sport setting, the gearbox will allow you full control (other than protecting the engine against silly down-changes and too high a gear for the speed). The Sport Plus mode also means a razor-sharp throttle, which can be a little much when you're ambling along in busy traffic. Thankfully, the regular Sport setting offers a happy medium, while the driver can also customise the driving mode to suit their own preference.
Under the bonnet is a twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine, which BMW says is all-new and not based on that of the BMW M5. Who cares when there are numbers like 530hp, 750Nm and 0-100km/h in 3.7 seconds, right? It feels as fast as those figures suggest it will, too, though always controlled, never quite as unhinged as perhaps a full-blooded M car would be. That's no bad thing, as its performance is usable and the M850i is perfectly suited to everyday use. I'd certainly drive it every day if I owned it.
What you get for your money
Prices for the 8 Series start at €115,310. That's for the 840d xDrive model, powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six diesel (320hp, 680Nm, as low as 160g/km). The standard specification is lavish to say the least. An entry-level 840i petrol model is expected, without xDrive four-wheel drive, while a full-on BMW M8 will also be launched in 2019. On that score, BMW has confirmed that the M8 model will be offered in the three body styles - Coupe, Convertible and four-door Gran Coupe.
The BMW M850i is a breath-taking creation. It looks stunning inside and out, feels of high quality and has a drool-worthy technical specification. All that might be enough to garner sales from the well-heeled, but BMW's engineers also took the time to give the big coupe dynamics worthy of the M badge on the rear, married with long-distance comfort and refinement. Saying that, BMW M has a challenge on its hands to make the forthcoming M8 proper even more special, as this is a memorable GT car by any measure.