What comes to mind when you’re told about the launch of a new ‘GT’ car? The concept’s origins are thought to be in Europe, specifically Italy, standing for Gran Turismo, latterly translated into English as Gran Tourer, but often just simply referred to as a GT. Regardless of country, it was generally accepted that a GT was a high-end model with performance to spare, allied to a chassis that could keep the car’s occupants comfortable over long distances. Today, the GT letters are bandied about willy-nilly, found on the back of mildly sporting hatchbacks on one end of the scale and defining a whole sector of motorsport on the other. BMW itself has GT versions of the 3 Series and 6 Series, but, even they don’t seem to quite fit with the original definition. Cue the launch of its newest car, the 8 Series.
That badge is a bit of a throwback, too, as BMW used it once before (from 1989 to 1999). But that is about all that’s retro about the new 8 Series. It effectively replaces the 6 Series (other than, ironically, the GT model — there will be an 8 Series Coupe, Convertible and four-door Gran Coupe), but BMW reckons it has taken such a big step forward that it warranted a new name and position in its rankings. It describes the new 8 Series as a dream car, prioritising performance, design and luxury. And how does it back that up? Well, by kicking things off with seriously high-performance variants. An all-singing, all-dancing M8 will arrive next year (as previewed by the GTE racer that has been competing for about a year already), but a glance at the technical make-up of its understudy, the M850i xDrive, should be enough to convince even the most cynical that BMW means business with this car.
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Under the sharply contoured bonnet up front is a twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre V8, which is the same specification as the engine in the current BMW M5, but this one is, despite the same capacity, quite different. More or less all aspects of it, from the inlet to the exhaust, the turbos, the injection system and the cylinder liners are all new, as is, crucially, the crankcase. Why? On one side, to enhance efficiency and reduce weight, but speaking to BMW’s engineers at the international launch, we also discovered that the mechanicals of this unit will allow for much higher outputs in the future. Yes, even higher than the M5 manages.
For now, the M850i ‘makes do’ with 523bhp and 750Nm of torque, enough to propel the big two-door coupe to 100kph from rest in just 3.7 seconds. Plentiful use of aluminium and BMW’s ‘Carbon Core’ has kept the weight down to a certain extent, but it still weighs nearly 2,000kg, so it’s no featherweight. Still, with all that grunt divided between all four wheels using the latest-generation xDrive four-wheel-drive system, it gets off the line incredibly rapidly. BMW doesn’t like to call it an all-wheel-drive car, incidentally, instead saying it’s a rear-drive coupe with extra traction when needs be. And in truth, that’s how it handles, too, the front wheels only coming into play when the rear end has started to lose traction. The set-up is a polished one, as well, making the transition from fully rear-drive to four-wheel drive smoothly and almost undetectable. It just gets on with the business of blasting through corners and firing you out the other side in a fury of powerful V8 noise.
There’s a lot more happening under the skin to help the 8 Series belie its size and feel like a genuine sports coupe when you show it an interesting road. Adaptive damping you’d assume, correctly, is standard, and it works wonderfully, offering genuine comfort on one end of the scale and firmer body control on the other. Just as important, however, is the inclusion of four-wheel steering (Integral Active Steer) and an electronically controlled active rear differential (tuned by BMW M of course). These conspire to give the 8 Series a more agile manner than you could possibly imagine. The rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds, which is hugely useful in tight parking manoeuvres, it also effectively shortens the wheelbase in the turns. This is allied with a more direct front steering rack, which wouldn’t be feasible if it wasn’t for the extra stability afforded by the rear wheels turning in the same direction as the fronts at higher speeds. And, like the xDrive, the best thing is that you don’t really sense this system in operation; the car just gets on with it.
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That active differential plays more than a small part in proceedings, especially if you switch the car into Sport Plus mode. The difference between this and the Comfort setting (and indeed, just ‘Sport’) has been emphasised like never before in a BMW, meaning a much louder exhaust (it has active flap control), a seriously aggressive map for the throttle and (newly developed) eight-speed automatic gearbox and firmer damping. Meanwhile, the differential makes the car feel seriously pointy on the entry to a corner.
So it’s a blast to drive, on the open road and even on a serious race track (as we discovered at Estoril in Portugal), but does it do all that at the expense of the other side of the GT remit? Not a bit of it. Switch it into Comfort mode, settle back into the gorgeously supple leather seats (consider the back seats as luggage space only), run your fingers over the beautifully tactile materials coating every mm of the cabin and immerse yourself in the effortless performance on tap little above idle, while the suspension isolates you from the road underneath, allowing you pass hundreds of kilometres at a time without ever wanting to get out.
You will eventually reach your destination, which will give you a good excuse to disembark and look back and admire the car. BMW has undoubtedly nailed the GT brief, and the GT of 2019 looks to be a contemporary twist on the good ol’ days of motoring. Long live the GT.