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Past masters: BMW 8 Series review

Autocar logo Autocar 16/07/2017 Alex Robbins

The arrival of the new 8 Series might just rekindle some uncomfortable memories for the higher-ups at BMW. Not for nothing has the name been absent from the company’s portfolio for almost 20 years; indeed, the company has stayed away entirely from the super-luxury coupé segment and watched on while Mercedes-Benz and Bentley made it their own.

No more, though, because BMW has summoned up the courage to have another crack. There will be a new 8 Series – and BMW will be taking care to avoid repeating the mistakes it made last time out.

The biggest problem with the original 8 Series was that nobody really knew what it was meant to be. Some saw it as a superlative replacement for the shark-nosed 6 Series; others thought it a spiritual successor to the M1 supercar.

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With a 296bhp V12 under the bonnet and a six-speed manual gearbox, you’d be forgiven for thinking the latter. But in fact, BMW intended the E31 8 Series to be a luxurious grand tourer. More than that, though, it was a technological showcase and an attempt to show the world that anything Mercedes could do, BMW could do better.

This, of course, brought fearsome complexity and, together with BMW’s requirement for ultimate luxury, extra weight. The 850i tipped the scales at around 1800kg – 300kg or so more than the old 635CSi. That the 8 Series was never much cop in the handling department should, therefore, come as no surprise.

Those expecting the crispness of the 6 Series or a supercar successor to the M1 instead found a sluggish electronic throttle, a lolloping automatic option and soft suspension that did little to control the car’s flab.

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What was more, as the 8 Series was launched in 1989, the world went into recession, and the idea of a 5.0-litre GT that weighed almost as much as HMS Ark Royal rather lost its appeal. Sales withered on the vine and BMW realised it had the makings of a failure on its hands. 

Fortunately, it acted quickly. Plans for a range-topping M8 were promptly shelved; instead, M division was tasked with fettling the 850i to enhance the driving experience.

The sharper 850CSi was the result, and it was joined in the range by a more frugal, 4.0-litre V8-powered 840Ci – no longer a technological tour de force, but instead a burbling, square-jawed grand tourer. The 8 Series had, belatedly, found its place in the world. In 1995 the range was revised.

The V12 was expanded to 5.4 litres and 322bhp, while the V8 was switched out for a new 4.4-litre unit with the same 282bhp as its predecessor, but more torque and better fuel economy. And an 840Ci Sport version was added, taking the 850CSi’s bodykit and stiffer suspension and applying it to the less powerful model.

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The 840Ci Sport is arguably the best-resolved 8 Series of all. Driving it today, it’s easy to see how BMW fought valiantly to solve the 8 Series’ problems.

The wider tyres and stiffer suspension all but eliminate body roll, giving enormous amounts of grip and allowing the 8 Series to gather and maintain speed well through flowing bends. On such roads, it really is good fun.

But in tighter stuff, the 840Ci still comes unstuck, grinding its nose wide as the momentum of all that weight takes effect. To get it to handle competently, the ride is stiff, so much so that potholes and ruts send crashes through the structure in a manner most unbecoming of a big GT.

Even in this form, then, the 8 Series is still a car of compromises.

Flawed as it is, the 8 Series is still an easy car to love. Nothing detracts from its pin-sharp looks, nor the sweeping, enveloping interior, nor the way the V8 in this 840Ci gurgles to itself even on a light throttle, nor the pillarless doors and vast sunroof, which all but turn it into a convertible when the weather is kind.

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BMW is unlikely to take as many chances with its range-topper this time around, so while both cars will share a name and a bodystyle, don’t expect many more similarities. Rather than being a ground-breaker, the new 8 Series will slot into a class that already exists.

That should make it ultimately more competent, even if it is also less ambitious.

Is the E31 a car BMW would rather forget? Perhaps. Yet for all its failings, the technological advances should not be forgotten. Nor, indeed, the high-end image its suave looks and moneyed status imparted by association on the rest of the BMW range.

It was, and remained throughout its life, a desirable car that doubtless helped seal the deal in terms of BMW’s prestige status.

What’s more, there is an argument to say the 8 Series was a car that showed BMW’s mettle: that 10-year lifespan was remarkable given the challenges it faced. This was a model with the potential to turn into an unmitigated failure.

Instead, thanks to some impressive corporate agility, the 8 Series became a qualified success – if not quite a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

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