You've got to love Los Angeles. It's swimming pools and movie stars, just like they say. The sun hangs in a bright blue sky, and the light is magic. It gives everything a kind of supernatural clarity, as if things had just come to life a few seconds ago. It's no wonder that L.A. is obsessed with looks. If something can look good here, it can look good anywhere. That's why there's a car wash on every corner in this town, and it's also why every major car manufacturer in the world has a design studio here.
We walked out of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the wide red carpet, down the steps to valet parking, and there we were introduced to the BMW 645Ci convertible. Make no mistake, this car looks good. It's got a big ego; it's ready for the red carpet. Any car in this category has to be, because when you ask for the key to a $76,995 convertible, that's the treatment you've signed up for.
Like all the latest-generation BMWs styled under the design leadership of Chris Bangle, the 6-series convertible is a shock to the system at first. The crisply defined, rectilinear shapes that have marked the past three generations of BMWs have been erased. Instead of static, streamlined speed lines from a designer's pen, there are wild, turbulent, three-dimensional forms, as if the wind itself had whipped the car into shape.
Beverly Hills isn't a bad neighborhood in which to drive this car. People keep their distance, and you never feel as if you're attracting undue attention. This car's unique buttress-style convertible top utilizes the wind blocker as its rear window, so you can keep the top in place, retract all the windows, including the one at the rear, and enjoy the breeze through the cockpit while warding off skin cancer.
This car is at home in Beverly Hills, but so are the Cadillac XLR, the Jaguar XK8, the Lexus SC430, and the Mercedes-Benz SL500. The question is, does it make it in the rest of L.A.? Does it make it on the freeway and in the parking structures? Does it make it in front of restaurants and music clubs? Does it make it as a BMW, or is it simply another convertible?
We decided to ask around. We first went right to the people who deal with looking good on a daily basis: the women who cut hair at the Ce' La Luna Salon. As Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly (hey, it's L.A.), and Elyse eyed the BMW as if it were a prospective boyfriend, they liked the newness of its look. But they would have chosen a bolder color from BMW's extensive palette than this particular car's champagne gold, which made it look like an old lady's car. Kim DiLeva provided insightful advice to car designers everywhere: "When you're driving a $77,000 convertible, you want it to look like a short skirt, not a long one."
But is this a car that appeals only to women? Michael Huddlestun, John Sadler, and Scott Shelton sell advertising for ABC Television, which makes them serious players on the L.A. scene. Each confessed to being deeply troubled by the look of the latest 7-series BMW and completely despising the appearance of the new 5-series sedan. Nevertheless, the familiar form of the 6-series interested them. Its big tires meant business, they said, and its twin-kidney grille would still scare the little fish out of the fast lane on the freeway.
At the same time, these three car guys were wary of so much pure style. The 6-series convertible tries so hard to be stylish that it blurs the line between function and ostentation, like one of those cookie-sized wristwatches with too many dials and too many numbers. And shouldn't a BMW be more than just the fashionable wristwatch of the moment?
We needed some advice from serious design professionals, so we jumped on the freeway to the Art Center College of Design in nearby Pasadena. This convertible is terrific on the freeway, solid and shake-free. The 325-horsepower, 4.4-liter V-8 has been engineered for quick throttle response, and its lively personality makes it far more exciting than the V-8s from Cadillac, Jaguar, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz. The six-speed automatic transmission suits the car perfectly in L.A., as both the available six-speed manual and the six-speed sequential manual gearbox are senseless affectations in a car that spends any time in traffic.
Richard Pietruska's transportation design class poured out of the Art Center to greet us, and we were soon joined by Nate Young, the school's chief academic officer (and former Caterham owner), and instructors Fritz Haeg and Geoff Wardle. So much style in one place really energized the students. One remarked, "You would have to wash this car by hand to understand it, so you could feel the way all the surfaces interact." Another noted that the car had the long hood and the short rear deck that so clearly communicate the rear-wheel-drive stance of a BMW, plus BMW's signature oversize wheels pushed out so wide that they look as if they're bulging against a taut sheet of cloth.
But there was skepticism, too. The multiplicity of lines at the top of the rear quarter-panels, among other details, leave the car looking a little unresolved and unrefined. It's almost as if it has too many details, from the clever shape of the headlights to the graphic spear on the front quarter-panels. At night, this car's form makes it instantly recognizable as a BMW, but when daylight comes, it's wearing just a little too much jewelry. "We still like the 3.0CSL better," one student said.
More expertise in style was called for, so we drove to San Diego, where the designers at Nissan Design America agreed to walk around the car with us. During the long drive, we came to grips with the 6-series interior. The driving position is perfection itself, but the massive dash structure obstructs your vision. The logic of the iDrive is much improved, and the overall combination of switches, voice-activated controls, and the computerized interface allows you to personalize every aspect of the interior environment. But you pay the price in the need to learn a new set of protocols for virtually everything, right down to the control stalk for the directional signal. Like a dinosaur, you must adapt or die.
Once we arrived at NDA, dozens of designers and craftspeople rushed out of the front door like an unruly preschool class. They were soon playing with all the 645Ci's buttons and making the top go up and down about fifty times. Alfonso Albaisa, NDA's interim design director, joined us, as did design managers Sheldon Payne and Doug Wilson.
From the first, the NDA designers expressed utter admiration for the way in which Bangle persuaded BMW to change its design direction-an amazing accomplishment when you consider that a small, privately owned company like BMW could always be close to financial disaster. They recalled a visit from Bangle and other BMW designers a decade ago, when they realized even then that BMW had reached the limits of its traditional rectilinear look.
Yet the NDA designers also noted that there was a kind of surface aesthetic at work in this car, a clear departure not only in style but also in philosophy. Now that BMW is pursuing a fundamentally different look for each of its car lines, the message from the engineering side of BMW doesn't come through as clearly. Are these the ultimate driving machines or the ultimate style machines?
As we made our way back to Los Angeles, we learned that this car is, however, terrific to drive. There's plenty of grip underneath you, especially with the optional, dry-weather, nineteen-inch tires in place (a run-flat design, just like the standard eighteen-inch tires). BMW's Active Roll Stabilization works so well that it can fool you into underestimating the car's cornering speeds. The 6-series has a wheelbase 4.3 inches shorter than a 5-series sedan's, as well as a lower ride height and a lower center of gravity, so it's responsive, but wide rear tires provide so much grip that the front of the car always lets go first, when the latest-8.0-version of BMW's stability control is engaged. Turn it off, push the car really hard, and you can slide it around, but only the bravest should apply.
This 4189-pound car is as long as a 5-series sedan, so it drives like a big car, not a small one. With the optional Sport package in place, there are three different shift schedules available when the transmission is in drive, in addition to manu-matic, helping the ragtop 6-series get from 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds. The steering is less lively than it should be, as if the engineers had spent too much time on steering action but not enough on steering feel.
Finally, Michael Desmond cleared it all up for us. A young designer just leaving Mitsubishi to do automotive projects for Jesse James's West Coast Choppers, Desmond appreciates the sheer energy of the 6-series. "There are things that might be resolved a bit better," he says, "but I wonder if the car would have the same visual snap if they were."
Desmond says that BMWs have always had a look of amazing stability because they are so wide on their tires and then narrow and become lighter in construction toward the top. A BMW looked like a streamlined brick on wheels, leading with its chin as it went down the highway. In contrast, the body sides of the newest-generation BMWs are virtually upright, and the greenhouses have very little tumblehome, so the cars look large and upright in comparison.
What Desmond likes most about the new BMW look is the way it challenges expectations. "Design is a journey," he reminds us. "And we have to wait to see where this will take us." He also says that the way the car drives is crucial. "What makes me buy into the look is the engineering. As long as this is the ultimate driving machine, then I'm willing to go along for the ride with the style."
The 6-series convertible is a driver's car, but it is also a large car. It reminds us that this is not the company of the BMW 2002 any longer. BMW now has such a large constituency, it is searching for ways to keep everyone in the family.
When you see one of the new BMWs, it's like walking into an art gallery. You feel challenged, as if your personality were being tested. Indeed, it is being tested. These are art cars, not mere consumer products designed to have an appealing appearance. Bangle-designed cars ask whether you have the cojones to be a BMW owner or whether you'd rather have a rolling wristwatch.
And yet, despite the style question, the bottom line for all the new BMWs remains the same as always: driving pleasure. BMW enthusiasts fear that this character has been lost with the heavily styled Bangle cars, but the 6-series convertible gives us a driving experience that Cadillac, Jaguar, Lexus, and even Mercedes-Benz can't match. Maybe we should all stop worrying so much and just drive.