Who has two thumbs and loves the ’79 Eldorado? This guy. I’ve spent more time writing about it than I’ve spent writing about Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis … combined. What made the ’79 Eldorado great? Everything. It was styled with a crispness and strength of purpose never again seen on a Cadillac. It had a solid drivetrain as standard, although the optional engines and the later HT4100 tended to misbehave. The packaging was superb inside and out: trim yet spacious, small enough to be hassle-free in a parking lot but big enough to be recognizably Cadillac.
Most importantly, it was the last great coupe from a company that had a reputation for building brilliant luxury two-doors. (The CTS-V Coupe had pace but possessed neither space nor grace.) As a statement of personal wealth, taste, and maturity, no automobile truly satisfies like a full-sized luxury coo-pay. The man behind the wheel of an S-Class sedan or Cadillac XTS always risks being mistaken for a chauffeur, while the driver of a luxury SUV always risks being correctly identified as an imbecile. No, in order to convey the correct image to everyone from valets to unattached society ladies, it’s critical to drive a coupe.
Which leads me to this BMW 640i Convertible, rented by me this past weekend for the purpose of escaping Winter Catastrophe Jonas and relaxing in central Florida … but why am I talking about Eldorados in a review of what is intended to be a German sports coupe? And am I likely to quote Marcus Aurelius after the jump, seemingly to no purpose? You probably know the answer to both of these questions, dear reader.
This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature [or form]? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?
So sayeth Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king of Rome. You probably know at least part of that quote from “The Silence Of The Lambs.” To be honest that’s where I heard it first. I didn’t get around to reading the “Meditations” until my late 20s.
Still, just because it’s in a movie doesn’t make it not true. So, what is the 640i, in itself? It’s a 4,255-pound convertible four-seater powered by BMW’s venerable, on-the-way-out, 3-liter single-turbo six. (This engine in a 4-series is badged a 435i, while the new B58 three-liter turbo in the 3-series is badged a 340i. Go figure.) You get 315 horsepower through an eight-speed torque-converter automatic to the rear wheels only. If you really feel the need to have an AWD convertible, however, xDrive is available. Base price is $87,400 without it.
I’d like to take a moment to voice my nontrivial displeasure with the name of the thing. This car could be legitimately called 630CSi, which would pay tribute to that brilliant and gorgeous coupe brought here by BMW in 1977. It could also be called 635CSi, in line with the “335i” and “435i’ badging used elsewhere and previously. That, too, would be a nice touch. Instead, it’s just a 640i. Oh well.
Truly, it’s just as well that it’s not called a 630CSi. That old E24 Bimmer was an utterly stunning automobile, whether you encountered it in chrome-bumper Euro form or bespoiled M6 trim. Even the worst of all possible E24s, the impact-bumper, luxed-up L6, was a handsome and visually striking car. This one, by contrast, fades from my memory the minute I’m not looking at it. I understand that the company is trying to walk it back a bit from that ungainly Bangle 6-Series. Even I, Chris Bangle’s biggest fan, can’t bring myself to love that porky, round-shouldered Six. Still, a little visual drama wouldn’t go amiss. As it sits, this is an undifferentiated slab of a car that, once shorn of the Hofmeister kink that its coupe and
sedan four-door coupe brethren have, looks like nothing so much as a fourth-gen LS1 Firebird Formula droptop.
The interior is pleasant and laid out reasonably well, but a base Audi S5 does a better job of communicating an upscale ambiance. There’s a lot of plastic in here and much of it is rock-hard.
Yet it’s the interior where this car truly begins to reveal its purpose and intent. “What is its substance and material?” asks Aurelius, and the answer is found once you open the 640i’s door and start experiencing its myriad of genuinely admirable features. The seats: handsome and comfortable, with heating elements that reach all the way up the driver’s back. The climate control offers the driver and passenger individual choices of air direction as well as temperature. This is a marriage-saving feature, assuming you’re married to a woman who is always cold but who also can’t stand hot air blowing in her face. This describes every woman I have ever met.
As is almost always the case with Bimmers, even in this degraded present day, the relative positioning of the seat, steering wheel, shift lever, and associated controls is more or less beyond reproach. If you cannot get comfortable in this car, the problem is most likely yours. I have nothing kind to say about the entirely electronic console shifter, which adds buttons and complexity where none is required, but few of BMW’s competitors are any better in this regard now.
Truthfully, the company’s electronic shifter was at its most honest and admirable when it was a little column stalk on the E65 Siebener lo these fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, the company’s marketing department has polluted that original idea’s purity because the average moron in the street cannot be content until he can ride around with his hand on the shifter for no purpose, like an awkward four-year-old holding his wee-wee in public because he’s frightened. So now there’s a console shifter for you to hold between shifts. But if you do that, you’re doing it wrong. Real racing drivers don’t touch the shifter unless they’re shifting. To do it any other way is to be a douchebag. STAHHHHP IT.
The dashboard is a uniquely convincing video screen that imitates conventional BMW instrumentation. At night, it changes to a faux-orange-lit scheme, echoing what the driver of a 1984 325e might have seen.
A remarkable amount of thought has been put into the presentation of the fake gauges, right down to the fact that the nearest number to the indicator “needle” swells a bit. It’s usable and readable in all lighting conditions. Good, also, is the center-stack multi-purpose display. BMW’s five-year headstart over its competitors with iDrive is fairly obvious from the ease with which one can navigate through the various features of the navigation and stereo system.
The convertible top operates quickly and without fuss. There’s a nice additional feature in the form of a rear window that can be raised and lowered with a button on the driver’s door. When the top is up, lowering this window allows a bit of engine noise and wind to enter the cabin; when the top is down, raising the window acts as a windstop, permitting this car to be driven top-down in 40-degree weather without turbulence or excessive cockpit heat loss.
How’s it drive? Well, your humble author has some experience with the mega-powered versions of this car, having been unimpressed with the M6 Comp Pack at the Motown Mile but charmed by a six-speed manual M6 Gran Coupe at Nelson Ledges. This ain’t either of those. Thrown into sport mode, the combination of the turbo six and the automatic is alert, briefly “brapping” between shifts like a DSG-equipped Volkswagen GTI, but it’s not particularly rapid. My impression was that it was no faster than my Accord coupe, an impression reinforced by C/D‘s instrumented testing which gives the Honda a 0.3-second edge in the quarter-mile.
The same impression, that of general competence without excitement, applies to this convertible’s handling. Cowl shake simply doesn’t happen, at least not on Florida roads, and the 640i can grip to well past twice the posted speed limit around any offramp you happen to encounter, but there’s not much joy in the proceedings. Steering feel is muted, to put it mildly. The ride, on the other hand, is simply outstanding. Admittedly, I might have been biased by the fact that my other vehicle for the weekend was an Indian Roadmaster touring motorcycle, a 100-mph paint-shaker for two that can outrun the 640i but not come close to outhandling it, but I was rather amazed by the BMW’s ability to smother bumps.
Let’s consider the last two questions given to us by Marcus Aurelius. “What is it doing in the world?” Well, it’s not doing sports-car things. If you charge nearly ninety thousand bucks for something that can’t outrun an Accord, it’s not a sports car. Sorry. No, I’m afraid this is a luxury car. This is a good thing, mind you. BMW used to make a habit out of charging luxury-car prices for vehicles that didn’t function well as either sporting or luxury cars. The Bangle Sixer was an example of that: it rode like a dogsled, accelerated like a sick dog, and looked like a dog’s ass. This 640i, by contrast, is pleasant and composed. It’s a brilliant Florida car, offering a smooth ride and thoughtful features galore.
That’s the kind of thing that Cadillac did so well with the Eldorado. There’s something bizarre about the fact that the current Cadillac ATS-V is a sort of E46 M3 imitator while this big convertible channels the best of the droptop American luxury cars. Everything an Eldorado could do, this BMW does as well or better. Even the market positioning is the same; BMW in 2016 is much like Cadillac was in 1979, setting sales records while at the same time disappointing many of its traditional customers.
So this is a BMW Eldorado. I’m glad. If Cadillac doesn’t have the guts to build one, I’ll take one from Bavaria. There’s just one little thing, and that is the final question of Aurelius: And how long does it subsist?
Just ninety miles into my weekend, the driver’s side seatbelt system, a rather complicated affair that “pre-tensions” at the beginning of every drive, gave up and vomited its belt onto the floor. I didn’t do anything unusual to it; the motor that pulls it tight just died. I ended up feeding as much of the belt as I could back into the seat and hoping that I didn’t crash into anything. While I understand the rationale behind a motorized belt system located in the seat — it allows you to fold the seat forward and allow passengers into the (somewhat cramped) rear seats free of interference from a B-pillar-mounted belt — there are times I think that technical adventurism can be taken too far, even in service of an admirable idea.
The ’79 Eldorados, too, were creatures of the moment. Most of them were pretty well worn-out before they reached their 10th birthday. That’s part and parcel of being a mass-market luxury car. They’re great to own when they’re new and under warranty. So too will this 640i be. I wouldn’t look for them on the lawn of your local BMW Club show two decades from now. It’s an indulgence, a smooth-riding speedboat for good weather and good times. Marcus Aurelius would not agree with it; he famously wrote that “He who pursues pleasure as good, and avoids pain as evil, is guilty of impiety.” This two-thumbed Eldorado fan, on the other hand, can dig it.