Returning to my hotel in Las Vegas one night this summer, I discovered that the parking garage was completely full. Not sure what else to do -- and with time running out before a show I had tickets to -- I drove my BMW 650i Coupe up to the hotel's valet. "That's a really nice car," the guy said. "Do you mind if we keep it out in front?"
He was right. The 650i -- which I was road-testing as part of Road Trip 2012 -- is a really nice car, and now I understood for the first time why all those fancy vehicles are always parked prominently in front of Vegas' hot spots.
Tackling the roads of the West in style in BMW's 650i (pictures) See full gallery
For six weeks, I drove the 650i 4,658 miles all over California, Arizona, and Nevada as I sought out some of the region's most interesting destinations to write about. And all along the way, no matter how hot it got -- think 115 degrees on some days -- or how far I had to go, I always knew I could get where I was going in comfort and style.
I've been lucky over the last few years. Since 2007, I've gotten a chance to drive a bunch of cars well out of my price range as I've hit the highways of the United States and Europe on my annual Road Trips. Those vehicles have included Infinit's QX56, Audi's Q7, A6 3.0 TFSI, and RS 5, Porsche's Panamera, and this summer, the BMW. Each has been special in their own way, but the 650i may have had the best combination of features -- power, fuel efficiency, styling, trunk space, and drivability.
For a car that weighs in at more than 4,275 pounds, the 650i had an impressive amount of oomph. One of the most fun things about driving it was passing people. Although the car often felt a little slow off the blocks, if I even thought about going around someone, the car was pressing me back against my seat and I was almost flying by them. There was no waiting for acceleration. It just happened.
Similarly, I learned that hills don't have to be something that slows a car down. In my own 2001 Subaru Outback, I'm happy if I can get up to 60 or 65 miles an hour when going up a steep hill. In the 650i, there were no limits. It was if the car treated inclines and flat roads the same. In other words, as launching pads.
It should come as no surprise, though. With a 4.4-liter BMW TwinPower Turbo V-8, 32-valve 445 horsepower engine, the 650i was built for performance on the highway. Yet the car was also incredibly nimble, with a sports suspension available at the push of a button that made it seem like going around hairpin turns, or avoiding obstacles, is something it was built for.
As I've written each summer after my time with my Road Trip car, I'm no expert reviewer, and so while you can read my colleague Wayne Cunningham'sto find out all the detailed particulars of the vehicle, my job is to share my impressions after those 4,658 miles on the roads of the American West.
In short, there's no denying that this is a beast of a car, a V8 machine engineered for anything from a comfortable ride in the country to a pulse-raising attack on the curvy roads of the Pacific Coast Highway. Built low to the ground with sleek lines that made me think of a jet plane -- well, a little bit, at least -- the 650i fits in anywhere.
It could even fit in in San Francisco, where parking is notoriously difficult. That's because the 650i has a parking assist system that, when activated, allows you to meander up a street and when it spots a space big enough for the car, helps you park. All you have to do is apply the brakes (and possibly a little bit of gas) as the automatic system does all the steering for you.
It took me a few tries to figure out how to get the parking assist system to work, and I can't say that it was infallible. But once I got the hang of it and realized that it couldn't really handle parking spaces with no curb, I came to happily rely on it whenever I needed to parallel park. I can't say, however, that I ever tried parking backwards on one of San Francisco's steep hills. That kind of thing taxes even the most accomplished driver, let alone an automated system.
My 650i was loaded with features, but I was too busy doing my Road Trip work to ever get to use most of them. Still, there were some I learned to lean on. One, of course, was the navigation system. Though it wasn't 100 perfect, I'd say that it was one of the most reliable in-car systems I've come across.
On the other hand, to use it required mastering BMW's IDrive system, a feature that has generated more than its share of grumbling. And I can see why. Turning a wheel to spell things out and clicking the round button in the center console to make choices, or to go back to a previous menu, well, that's not super intuitive. But, after using it for a few days, I got the hang of it. It's not something I would choose for myself, but I don't think it's as bad as many argue.
The Bang & Olufsen sound system was great, and music, even played at high volume, consistently came out clear and crisp and not overloaded with bass. Cruise control was simple and easily accessible, and phone integration via Bluetooth was easy -- once I figured out a slightly confusing user interface instruction.
Unfortunately, I never got a chance to try out the BMW apps that let you make Facebook or Twitter posts through the vehicle's information screen. Still, I liked the idea. Similarly, I never got around to mastering the different suspension choices that were available -- sport, comfort, and comfort plus. But it was a lot of fun to drive.
In short, this was a $100,000 car (with all its options, up from a base price of about $83,000) that I thoroughly enjoyed driving, and which was hard to hand over at the end of the project. It's not perfect, but if I had the chance to take it out for another six weeks, I would do so happily.