The 2006 BMW 650i's purchase price includes complimentary high-performance driving instruction at the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina. We can't think of a better way to get to know this machine. Some reviewers have complained about BMW's latest high-tech control systems mucking up the purity and driving satisfaction that have long characterized the brand, but we have no such gripes with the 6 Series. This car immediately becomes an extension of the driver, flawlessly executing his or her wishes.
Put simply, the BMW 650i is smooth and precise. It's easy to drive, always poised, and satisfying to drive at a brisk pace. The ride is taut but not harsh. It's easy to modulate the brakes and throttle and the steering is sharp. All the important controls work cohesively, making for a smooth driving experience.
The engine is silky smooth and tractable for easy going around town or in stop-and-go traffic. Yet you're rewarded with immediate response whenever you press down on the accelerator, and the reward is a bit more lavish for 2006. BMW has bumped displacement in the 6 Series engine from 4.4 to 4.8 liters, increasing the output to 360 horsepower and 360 pound feet of torque. The 32-valve V8 benefits from Valvetronic variable valve timing and variable lift, which allows an impressive combination of low-rev, off-the-line acceleration and free-breathing, high-rev horsepower. The V8's breathing is controlled entirely by the valves. (Technically, there is no throttle, so the pedal on the right is more accurately called an accelerator.) It's a fascinating engine for engineers and car buffs, but the bottom line is that there's loads of power throughout the rev range, so the 650i responds immediately in any situation. It's also an efficient engine, so energy is channeled into fuel-efficient power. The engine sounds great, emitting a guttural roar under hard acceleration through its nicely tuned exhaust system. Response is impressive in either the coupe or convertible, though convertible drivers enjoy those sweet engine sounds a little more intimately.
Of the three transmissions available, we recommend the six-speed automatic, unless you're a serious enthusiast, in which case we recommend the six-speed manual. We're not big fans of the SMG. The automatic is smooth around town and very responsive for spirited driving. In fact, a 650i with the automatic is nearly as quick as a well-driven 650i with the manual. As with all BMW automatics, it offers a Sport setting that moves shift points to higher revs for increased response. The Steptronic manual mode allows the driver to shift manually, imparting some of the same involvement as a manual. We found little need to shift into the manual mode, however, because the transmission always selected the right gear in automatic mode. The manual gearbox is smooth, precise and easy to shift, with easy clutch pedal effort. It's an excellent choice, unless a driver spends hours daily in stop-and-go traffic. The sequential manual gearbox, or SMG, is the essentially same transmission as the manual, but it operates the clutch electronically, eliminating the clutch pedal. Though we've enjoyed the SMG in the M3, the version in the 650i shifts too slowly and takes away some of the joy of driving this car.
The 650i offers a nice balance of ride and handling. Though taut, it doesn't beat up your passenger on rippled highways. The springs and shocks are firmer than those in the standard 5 Series sedans, and the 6 Series cars ride lower. A 650i is absolutely joyful on a winding highway, as we discovered on some mountain roads near Santa Barbara. Handling is precise, with a superb self-centering feel to the steering. The 6 can be driven very hard into tight corners, and it tracks through high-speed turns like it's on rails. The suspension is tuned to minimize undesirable behavior when braking hard, accelerating hard, or lifting off the