On a foggy, wet morning, less then a week after they were testing at the Nürburgring, we met with BMW's engineers somewhere in Northern Wales. But neither parties where there to talk about the versatility of the 2-Series Active Tourer, a front-wheel drive product Americans don't even need to know about. Other topics like how the 8-Series has the latest in gesture control, semi-autonomous drive, or the largest cupholder in the segment were also off the table. Next time, perhaps. We were there to drive. Fast, where only sheep dare.
BMW doesn't need to explain what the 8-Series is. It's obvious even if you don't remember the first one. In short, it's the biggest dog. The sporty, comfy, yet fast and easy one. The luxury car that can eat continents, yet also work on a race track, no matter your driving skills. And no version of the new 8 is more to the point than the M850i xDrive, complete with a new 4.4 twin-turbo V8 for all your blasting pleasure.
In the last few months, some barely marked B-roads just east of Snowdonia were loud from BMW's upgraded twin-turbo. Camouflaged prototypes were doing their rounds, with V8s that now have bigger turbos, and a new ignition system operating at 350 bar, which requires 40 percent more energy and the ignition voltage to be raised by 30 percent. This evolved 4.4 liter "hot V" also has a new crankshaft, bearing shells and pistons made of a stronger alloy, with a graphite coating to cope with the stress and reduce friction. Its cylinder surface is treated with LDS, which is BMW language for an iron coating. Then, there's the typical trio of Valvetronic (variable valve timing), Vanos (variable cam timing), and direct injection. Two smaller fuel pumps feed the high-pressure ignition, one for each bank. They are faster, more powerful, and help with emissions too by shifting petrol in a more efficient manner. Of course more fuel needs more air, so the intake system has been redesigned as well.
The result is more power at 530 hp, but perhaps more importantly, all 553 foot pounds of the torque at your service from 1800rpm. That guarantees an impressive punch at pretty much every angle of the gas pedal.
ZF's 8-speed auto has been sped up as well, with the gear spread made wider to improve emissions further. The faster shifts are paired with a computer that knows exactly what you're doing, being connected to an army of sensors, as well as the brake pedal to predict when to downshift in an instant.
The power goes to a rear-biased all-wheel drive system with a standard electric locking differential. And while this 8-Series-specific xDrive can send all the juice to the rear wheels, the M850i won't have a rear-wheel drive only mode like the M5 does. That's something they will keep for the M8, a car that will learn a lot from the GTE racing machine, no doubt.
But the list of active systems doesn't stop there. The exhaust uses flaps to please both you and your neighbors. Four-wheel steering helps with cornering and high-speed stability, while the suspension is running on 24 Volts, with twin-tube shocks and active stabilizer bars reacting in a fraction of a second.
Sitting in the car with a laptop plugged in, BMW demonstrated how much the chassis can change from a push of a button. It's ridiculous, but this is how cars work now. Plug-n-play.
In its softest settings, the M850i's large body moves around a lot more, taking it easy, swallowing bumps and urging you to cruise smoothly. Dial up the pressure however, and the car instantly turns into a much sharper tool than the previous generation of the big M cars. It's not about being stiff or soft. It's about maximizing the patch while minimizing impacts, with the suspension adjusting compression and rebound, having a program ready for every scenario, including jumps. It's a lot of data going through the chips every second, and a lot of hours BMW put into making sure those chips will make the right choices. But with all the chassis systems communicating to each other while sporting such a wide range of operation, there's a real difference in driving behavior between each of the usual driving modes.
The engineering team behind the M850i says the goal was to create a car that feels rear-wheel drive, but with unlimited traction. They also argue that although there are indeed more computers involved than ever, no system should stand out, leaving you to enjoy a well sorted drivers' car. When talking about M cars, the 8 Team feels that while they sure can get you a lot of excitement, you also really need to know what you are doing. Otherwise, they just won't be fast. With the 8-Series, however, most people should be. It just makes it that easy.
When not on the Nürburgring with prototypes, BMW's engineers are around the 'Ring, enjoying the best roads surrounding the Nürburg Castle. Yet when it's time to leave Germany, BMW goes to Wales. There, tight roads in the middle of nowhere combine technical twists with tarmac that's both bumpy and often wet. This is where 8-Series prototypes go flying, and this is where they let me have a crack at it.
You know you're in for a good one when you have 530 horsepower for roads intended for tractors, you happen to drive on the wrong side and Wales welcomes you with the thickest fog the local sheep have seen all week. Sheep that inevitably find their ways through the fence, increasing the chance of you writing off one of BMW's four super expensive prototypes. On a Tuesday morning, realizing these factors not long after clicking the belt wakes you up faster than a triple ristretto thrown in your face.
Out of the village, no sheep in sight, it's time for Sport+. The first thing you notice is power. One could argue that the M850i has enough of it. Simply put, with this V8 and ZF's eight-speed being smarter than ever, you just can't be in the wrong gear. There is no such thing. Those 530 horses may only peak at 5500 revs, but the torque curve is almost electric. Short shifting in traffic, letting it breath once the road opens up. Flaps open, sounds good.
But power is no news in 2018. The secret is in the chassis tuning and the integration of all the features, including the all-wheel drive, active suspension, four-wheel steering and the dedicated tires.
The xDrive with the electronic locking differential is a fairly straightforward affair. It's tuned to feel like rear-wheel drive, and it does. But grip is further enhanced by the tires, which were cooked up by Bridgestone for the 8-Series, with wider rubber at the rear and higher camber values on all wheels to increase cornering speeds before the DSC would cut in.
Then, there's the four-wheel steering, with a variable ratio rack up front. At low speeds, the rear axle is turning in the opposite direction to reduce your turning circle, while at a higher pace, the same to increase stability. From the driver's seat, that just makes the car feel smaller on the road, which is always the sign of some clever engineering. The 8-Series is easy to position exactly where you want to, which is a rather important attribute for such a wide machine.
But the steering and tires can only work if the wheel stays planted most of the time. On the M850i Coupe, they do, thanks to those electronically controlled twin-tube dampers working with the active sway bars. Yes, a lot is going on under your feet, but do you notice it? Hardly. What you notice is how fast it makes you, all the time. No slip, no hesitation, just one fast corner after the other, and straights that never seem to be long enough for the car.
Markus Flasch, the head of the BMW 8-Series program told me that they wanted to make this car "less perfect" than what's usually expected by the board at BMW. All that means is that the engineers wanted a louder, livelier, more involving luxury car that can really show its teeth if you step on it. In terms of performance, their window was narrow, because only the M people will have the privilege to push the 8 to its absolute limit. But as far as getting the most out of 530 horses and making us forget the late 6 Series ever existed, BMW has nailed it.