Flex. To you and me, it's just a harmless word. To the engineering team charged with producing a convertible, the very mention of flex, flexible or flexibility can cause apoplectic fits and an enraged lawn-toss of their CAD monitors.
So with apologies to the blood pressure of those at BMW who designed the all-new 2012 650i convertible, I declare this to be one flexible drop-top.
I mean this as a compliment.
This BMW is flexible, figuratively, because its character is widely amenable to the driver's whims or mood, be they manic or mild. This malleable personality means the four-seat 650i convertible can go toe-to-toe with a variety of competitors, namely the Jaguar XK convertible but also riffs on the $100,000 topless theme like the Mercedes-Benz SL550 and, at times, the Porsche 911 Cabriolet.
What's more, this ability to parry with such formidable company is aided by a lack of the flexibility, in the literal sense, that convertible engineers loathe.
Removing a car's roof or making it retractable deletes a fundamental element of the car's stiffness. Structural rigidity is essential to maintaining a vehicle's control, especially on one that's as inclined to hit high speeds as this 650i.
Yet the slide-rule sultans at BMW managed to make a convertible that the company says is almost 50% stiffer than the previous 6-series convertible. Usually, automakers' claims about stiffness are as dubious as those on certain late-night TV ads. This car lived up to the sell.
Paying the bill for this rigidity is an increase in the car's weight. This new 650i convertible tips the scales at a hefty 4,531 pounds, a 250-pound increase over its predecessor. This gain manifests itself most clearly around tight corners, where oversteer becomes noticeable and the car's rear end is eager to shake itself loose from the grips of traction.
Reining in this tendency is a system that's at the core of the 650i's broad applicability. Called Dynamic Driving Control, and seen on numerous other BMWs, this standard system provides drivers with four levels of electronic aid. Toggling up from Comfort to Normal, Sport and finally Sport Plus progressively dials the traction control, steering, suspension, throttle and engine into their more aggressive modes.
Also tunable is the eight-speed automatic transmission's shifting characteristics. In addition to manual shifting and paddle shifters, the tranny has a Normal and Sport mode. (A six-speed manual, a divine rarity on cars of this caliber, will be available later this year.)
This lengthy menu of characteristics means the 650i convertible is as suited to the passive driver looking for a comfortable and demure grand touring car as to the aggressive driver looking to raise some pulses and cause some mayhem.
Yet pilots falling into the latter category should take note that not all is flawless with the 650i's strenuous nature. As you dial up the Dynamic Driving Control, the steering becomes more weighted, yes, but it also loses a lot of the road feedback that an assertive driver appreciates. As with BMW's Z4 35is I tested last year, there seem to be too many layers of over-engineering between the driver's hands and the road.
The Sport Plus setting also makes the 650i's suspension a threat to your dental work. When combined with the 20-inch rims and tires my tester had as a $1,300 option, potholes and the like were jarring experiences.
Powering the 650i through, at or around such obstacles is an all-new, twin-turbocharged V-8. This 4.4-liter unit is good for 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. BMW says the car will get from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and I have no trouble considering this number conservative. This car can scoot. And a wide torque band, courtesy of die turbos, allows for said scooting at a wide range of speeds.
This robust power plant and newfound rigidity are ensconced in a completely redesigned shell that is much more palatable than the previous car.
That 6-series had a front end that looked like a Klingon after a Botox mishap. It had style, yes, but in the way Homer Simpson has masculinity — in a less-than-appealing fashion.
This new version makes half the effort, and with the exception of the nebulous front, extracts twice the result. The rear end is the car's best angle, with a horizontally oriented design highlighted by wide and narrow LED taillamps. The rear-view camera pops out from behind the BMW logo in the center of the trunk lid.
The 2012 car is several inches longer and wider, and overall it has a more elongated, sleeker profile. The handsome proportions add some much-needed sophistication to the 650i's presence.
The multilayer convertible top looks good up or down, and the driver can operate it at speeds of up to 25 mph. A nifty feature carried over from the previous 650i is the glass rear window that can be operated independently of the roof's position. What isn't nifty is the frustrating dearth of visibility when the top is up.
The stylish interior of this BMW balances the company's historically sporty disposition with an appreciable degree of refinement. Drivers now feel like they're getting their money's worth from a car with a base price of $91,375. A navigation system with a massive 10.2-inch screen, 20-way power front seats, an adaptive cruise-control, nappa-leather seats and a rear-view camera are all standard.
My tester, with a sticker of $103,525, added options such as a lane-departure warning system, blind-spot monitoring, side-view cameras for pulling out of driveways, a stitched leather instrument panel and heated seats (they should be cooled too on a $100,000-plus convertible).
Rear seat room is tight for adults but manageable on shorter trips. Trunk space is compromised as well, but not egregiously; there is certainly enough room for a weekend's worth of luggage.
Fans of the 6-series coupe have only a few more months to wait before the mechanically identical, fixed-roof version hits dealerships. And the online rumor mill is abuzz about a possible four-door 6-series going on sale for the 2013 model year. I'd bet yes on that one.
BMW has worked itself into an enviable paradox with the 2012 650i convertible. It's figuratively flexible in its appeal to a variety of drivers. Yet in the literal sense, this car is an engineer's stiff-arm to the demon that has so plagued other rag-tops.
No apoplexy required.