February 04 2011   Story: Bryan Joslin

Just in time for summer sunshine, BMW will roll out an all-new 6-series. Only this time around it won’t be the graceful big coupe that we’ve come to know. Instead, the third-generation 6er will bow first as a convertible — the venerable coupe will actually arrive a few months later. We’ll have a chance to drive the new model in the springtime, but we recently sat down with Alanna Tracey-Bahri, BMW North America’s 6-series Product Manager, and Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group Design Chief, to get a better idea of what’s coming.

As we recently chronicled in a look at the evolution of the 6-series, the big coupe made a comeback in 2004 after a fifteen-year absence from the lineup. In the decade-and-a-half between the first and second generations, BMW attempted to fill the gap with the 8-series, but it lacked the emotional appeal necessary to succeed as BMW’s flagship coupe. The last 6er came on the scene with gravitas to spare, and despite a controversial new look, went on to sales success neither the previous 6 nor the 8 ever saw. Part of its success was the addition of a soft-top variant, which opened its appeal considerably. In the last generation, BMW claims the convertible accounted for roughly sixty percent of 6-series sales worldwide, which is why the convertible, not the traditional coupe, will be the first version out of the gate this time around. The coupe will naturally follow in short order — bowing before this year finishes out — and most of what applies to the convertible will hold up for the coupe as well.

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The most striking characteristic about the new 6-series compared to the last is how conventional it seems. Where the last model shocked us with its unusual lines and unique surfaces, the newest iteration takes a now familiar shape — that of the newest 5- and 7-series — and reinterprets it into a two-door arrangement informed by the spirit of the original 6er coupe. Certain themes are consistent, like the long hood, classic Hofmeister greenhouse and the short deck. There’s even a slight reverse-cant to the grille, a hint of the old “shark nose” of the first 6.

All of the contentious surfaces of the last model have been replaced with a more graceful, more subdued veneer. As Adrian van Hooydonk, who penned the exterior of the last 6-series, explained to us, “Graphic design is all about lines, but car design should be sculpture.” In the case of the new 6, the sculpture’s main attraction is the taught, muscular contours highlighted by a sharp shoulder line that runs the length of the car. It’s this signature line that ties the big coupe and its convertible twin to the sedan siblings with which they also share most of their major components.

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If eyes are the windows to our souls, the new 6’s headlamps surely serve the same purpose. Van Hooydonk describes the headlights as the car’s “jewelry,” and assigned a separate team just to work on them. The resulting assembly is made up of 60 individual pieces that help define the face of the car. Look inside the clear lens and you’ll see a multitude of shapes and details. What you won’t see, according to the proud design chief, is rows of individual LEDs; make no mistake, they’re used throughout, but not in the way that BMW’s competitors line them up to be counted. Instead they’re used to light the corona rings, the so-called “angel eyes” on the standard bi-xenon lamps, as well as the attitude-evoking glowing brow treatment. After the initial launch, BMW will also introduce an all-LED lighting system, which we’re told will look exactly like the units on the Concept 6 Coupe.

The body of the new 6-series is not just a piece of automotive sculpture; it’s also a bit of an engineering triumph, rendering that complex skin in numerous materials while holding the shape so precisely was no easy task. The front fenders, for instance, are molded of composite plastics, while the door skins are pressed from aluminum, and the rear fenders are formed from stamped steel. The hood is also aluminum, and the rear deck is made of the same composite as the front fenders. While it would have been far easier to build the whole body out of steel, this unusual material cocktail helps not only reduce overall weight, but also maintain the near-perfect balance of weight over each axle.

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To that end, the 6-series convertible will once again wear a canvas top. If weight weren’t the only consideration, the sheer size of the roof would have made a folding hardtop virtually impossible to store within the graceful silhouette that defines this car. As BMW’s Tracey-Bahri further explains, the 6-series tends not to be an owner’s only car; they have other options when the weather goes bad and they don’t have to rely on the 6 for every function. Retaining the soft top means BMW can also carry over the unique buttressed C-pillar of the last 6, another signature element that blends a conventional coupe roofline with the benefits of an upright backlight that doubles as a windblocker when the roof is down. To draw attention to this, the baseline of the roof platform is accented in chrome trim, lending an almost yacht-like air to the overall design. Those who choose the coupe will also have the option of a large panoramic roof, as seen on the concept car.

Inside, the new 6 returns to a more driver-focused cockpit environment, with the center stack leaning six degrees toward the command seat. The front compartment is also asymmetrically designed, with separate environments for the driver and passenger. Rear seat passengers are treated to a more reclined seating position thanks to additional wheelbase in the new design. But what most will notice is the large flat-screen display in the center console. At 10.2 inches, it’s the largest such display BMW has ever used, and it was intended to resemble the kind of flatscreen monitor you might see at home or on your desktop. Taking interior design even further, BMW will offer an optional Nappa leather-clad dashboard with contrasting stitching, a detail typically seen on more exclusive competitors.

Befitting its position at the top of the food chain — BMW considers the 6-series on par with the 7-series in terms of flagship status — technology features will abound in the new model, including a full-color 3-D heads-up display, a rear-view camera that pops out of the trunklid’s roundel emblem, night vision, blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, and more.

So far we’ve talked about the new 6-series as if it were just one model, but that’s far from the truth. The first version that will be available will be the 650i convertible, which will use the same 400-horsepower, twin-turbo 4.8-liter V8 that powers the 750i, the 550i GT and the 550i (not to mention X5 and X6 models). Surprisingly, BMW will offer either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic; regardless of transmission choice — and an unexpected number of Americans choose the manual historically — it will feed the rear wheels in traditional fashion. The 650i coupe will arrive later in the year with the same hardware. BMW’s product manager couldn’t confirm that other powertrain variants will be offered, but other sources within BMW indicate that the US will also get a 300-horsepower 640i, powered by the corporate 3.0-liter single-turbo “TwinPower” inline-six, in both coupe and convertible, perhaps around the same time the coupe comes to market. The same sources also hint that all-wheel drive will be offered in coupe and convertible with both engines, a major factor in the northeast section of the country.

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Naturally, an M6 is also in development. We know it will abandon the naturally aspirated V10 in favor of a twin-turbo V8. Power will likely come from the 550-horsepower engine found in the X5M and X6M, and we suspect the only gearbox option will be an automatic, given the 500 lb-ft of torque it must manage.

Pricing for the 650i Convertible was announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month. It will start at $91,375 when it goes on sale in the spring.