Monday, 28 May 2012

The BMW 640d Vs Human Emotion

This isn't a review. Far from it. In a review I like to be relevant and objective, making like-for-like comparisons and reporting what I find. This is more of a an essay. A screed. A manifesto on what I like in a car. As such; prepare to go absolutely miles off topic.

So,  let's establish that everything Jeremy Clarkson wrote about the BMW 640d in the Sunday Times is pretty well bang-on. Yeah, it's blisteringly quick, quiet, smooth-riding and technologically accomplished. In terms of being a car, save for the fact that it only has two doors, it's one of the more complete cars I've ever driven. Where the current real-world sliding scale of vehicle adequacy is aligned, the 640 scores heavily in the "as good as it needs to be" sector of the dial. It's not perfect; I'm not sure any car is. But it doesn't fall down in any specific area. It's terrific.

And it's about as far from what I want in a car as I can possibly imagine.

By way of a contrast, having driven the big BMW earlier, tonight I elected to drive my old Audi the nine or so miles from my house to my parents, in a way that I wouldn't have dared driving the Bimmer. Namely; at the limit.

When we talk about limits, we talk about a whole stack of different variables. Firstly, and most importantly, we're talking about the limits of the driver. And, really, honestly, we're all a bit shit, aren't we? What's that? You're not? Oh, right, a bit nifty round the corners, are you? Can hold a slide on a long, unchallenging bend? Can hang the back end out on a roundabout without going into an embarrassing spin? Always find the apex on an 80mph sweeper? Yes, of course you can. That's because we all can. Our skills are substantially beyond those of, say, your local Avon representative, (probably). But compared to an average professional racing driver, we're distinctly average.

But really, this is great news. It means that we can maximise the enjoyment we get out of our own, ordinary cars. Like learning to ride a bike; the first time you cast those stabilizers aside, it didn't matter a jot whether you had a second hand Raleigh Burner or custom carbon-framed bike worth a million quid. You'd get exactly  the same fun out of either. For most people, there's little point in a car with extremely high levels of agility and grip, because there'd be such distance between your own capabilities and those of the car. You and I can probably never reach the handling limits of a Ferrari 458, for example. Not deliberately, anyway. And certainly not on the B1532 from Manningtree to Harwich.

Even the BMW has high limits. It's an immense car, fully filling a supermarket parking bay and stretching from one horizon to the other until you stand at least twenty feet away from it. It weighs at least as much as my beer gut. In the limited period I had behind the wheel, I was able to establish that it remains resolutely unfazed by inappropriate treatment on a roundabout.  I even tried driving like a total bell-end, ramming my foot on the throttle with an armful of lock, expecting some kind of chaos to occur that would see me either lurch uncontrollably kerb-wards or entering into a graceful sliding arc that would impress girls and probably get me fired if my boss saw me. Instead; nothing.

And that's actually good news. OK, there might well be actual, talented drivers out there who will buy one of these cars and drive it every day, who would be frustrated by the machines' impeccable behaviour and docility. And if they so desire, the safety nannies on the BM can be deactivated to a point where they have barely any impact on the rules of physics. 

Among us "normal" drivers of moderate talent, switching the ESP off is a badge of honour, a mark of bravado. Pub-time five-pints bragging rites. Truth of the matter is, it really isn't an especially good idea. The tale circulating when I worked for BMW was that, if you crashed your car and it was found that you had the DTC switched off at the time, you would be immediately dismissed. It's probably true. Some years ago I switched the electronic lifeguards off in a Z4 M Roadster, and thought it'd be clever to grab an armful of opposite lock pulling out of the dealership. Inevitably I immediately ran out of skill, vastly overcooked it and span, bouncing off two kerbs in the process. By incredible good fortune, nobody was watching at the time.

In my venerable Audi, my limits and those of the car are pretty well exactly matched. When I first got the car it was wearing the standard 16" five spoke wheels, wrapped in 205 section rubber. These were fine, the car was relatively nimble and rode well (or as well as a car with Audi's notoriously harsh S-Line suspension can be expected), but grip was by no means infinite. The A4 1.8T Sport was optimised around the 16" wheel because this gave the perfect all-round compromise for the average driver. Those who are in no way interested in exploring the limits. Being the inquisitive type, pretty soon I discovered the awkward truth that Audis, with their heavily nose-biased weight distribution, will understeer to an Olympian standard.

Too hot into a corner, or too rash with the steering, and it will simply ignore you and go just where the hell it wants. Straight on is its usual preference, with a sudden lurch when it regains grip and slingshots back onto your chosen trajectory. Equally, if you have a change of heart before reaching the apex and kick out for the brake pedal to bring things back to sensible velocities, you'll more than likely find yourself being ignored too, but by the rear end this time. Scrub too much momentum off into the bend and the tail will merrily trot along, paying no heed whatsoever to your instruction.

Of course, this all happens at quite high speeds so, for most people, it won't pose any significant concern. And it's not as the A4 is rubbish or dangerous; the behavioural traits manifest themselves at higher speeds than, say, a Mondeo or a Vectra. But you won't be going as fast as in a 3-Series.

So, to prevent this from ever happening again, I've fitted stupid wheels and tyres.  The Mercedes AMG wheels on my Audi are shod with silly 215/45 rubber on the front, and absurd 245/40 at the back. This seems daft, really, on a front wheel drive car, but there is method in the madness.  For a start, the 17 inch wheel diameter means less depth of sidewall than before, making for a more direct, less flexible link from tarmac to chassis.  There is also extra grip, but not so much as to ruin the steering. Out back, the 245s are almost indefensible, but that extra width has neutered the old lift-off oversteer tendency. It simply doesn't happen any more.

The handling hasn't honestly changed at all, but the grip level has changed enormously. I've not lowered the ride height or changed the springs, I don't feel that a lower roll moment would do anything to improve things at all; not for me, anyway. As it stands I can take pretty well every corner on my favourite B-Road at speeds that would be daft to try and beat. Certainly quickly enough that I don't want to go faster. My Audi, with its silly wide wheels and tyres, just happens to reach its limits as a car at exactly the same point that I do as a driver. We make a good partnership.

In contrast, the BMW 640d has handling and grip that's way more than the equal of the Audi. In fact, drawing comparisons is probably almost blasphemous. But it feels like its capabilities stem from computer simulation, modelling and hypothesis. Driving the 640d hard doesn't feel like driving at all; it feels like Car Management. A bit like the CD-ROM that used to come with computer game magazines. Sometimes there'd be a playable demo of an upcoming game, but some times there would just be a hi-resolution video of game footage. It would look great, yet give you absolutely no idea what playing the game actually feels like.

That's not to say it isn't pleasurable, this driving by proxy.  Going fast is always fun to some extent, but briving the 640d fast is effortless to the point of sleep-induction. It does everything you ask it to because, frankly, nothing you can possibly ask of it will challenge it even slightly.  And, more than anything else, the key to this total lack of drama is the engine.

The heavily turbocharged (via twin blowers) three-litre straight six diesel belches out 313hp. Being a BMW engine, it sounds good and is remarkably refined. It is probably the most impressive oil-burner I've ever steered behind, potent enough to thrust this island of a car to sixty mph from rest in five and a half seconds. Miraculously, though, that's five and a half seconds of quite surprising tedium.

How so? Well, it's all about the power delivery, and it's exactly the same problem that all diesels suffer from. Time, then, for another tortuous comparison to my ancient, worthless Audi.

The 1.8 litre turbocharged engine in the A4 is not exactly over-imbued with power. Even in chipped and tweaked format it puts out less power and torque than some of today's humdrum saloons do fresh from the factory.  But that power is distributed right the way across a seven thousand rev spectrum. There are peaks and troughs and unevennesses that add character to the process of acceleration. There is a notable step after 3200rpm when you enter The Turbo Zone, where sluggishness fades into sprightliness. It's delicious.

On a country blast in the Audi you take slow corners at high revs in second gear, then kick the clutch and grab third at six thousand a little after the exit, so the clock shows three and a half thousand to propel you along the straight. The revs build, growing higher and higher, and faster and faster, before reaching climax at the point that you lift off to engine brake down to the next second gear corner. Stretching an engine, any engine, is one of the most rewarding aspects of driving.

In a diesel, it doesn't happen. With a heavily turbocharged diesel, it especially doesn't. It's a bit like sex in reverse. You start with the orgasm, a big, warm wave of torque that sweeps you forward in a surge of pleasure, which then ebbs away leaving all the hard work still to do. A diesel engine might rev to five thousand, but the action is all gone by three and a half, after which it's just noise and effort.

Sailing is another nice analogy. Sitting behind a petrol engine is like sailing downriver with the wind astern. Nothing to slow you down; sit anywhere in that broad spread of power and change gear when you like. A diesel engine, with the constant gear-changes and narrow power band is like sailing upriver close-hauled. To make progress up the river you have to keep tacking and gibing from one bank to the other. It's just an awful lot of fuss and bother.

Happily, on the 640d the flaws with the way this ample power is served up are disguised by the eight-speed automatic gearbox, its slightly phallic controller sprouting out of the centre console.  The 'box does its level best to keep you somewhere in the rev-range where there's power to be had, and there's a manual over-ride of near total pointlessness.

I found that the best way to enjoy the 640d was to forget that you're in a car at all. Think of it as a monstrously fast transportation module that acts as a bridge between your house and place of work or recreation. It's like a twenty-first century reinterpretation of the Lincoln MKIV and other examples of the American "Personal Luxury" car; or in other words, a limousine with two of the doors missing. The 640d is essentially a 7-Series Coupe, regardless of what BMW might say. It can be realistically be called a sports coupe because the 7-Series can be called a Sports Saloon. Drive it like a Lotus or drive it like a Lincoln, the choice is yours. Either car can achieve either objective. Due to the sheer competence of the 640d (and the equivalent 7er for that matter) we'll be struggling for a more effortless personal transportation system until molecular beaming machines appear in electronics stores for £Three Nine Nine.

I like the 640D. Think it's awesome, actually. I'd like one. I just wish there was more wrong with it. I wish that a cross-country blast led me to believe I was "taming the beast" in some way, rather than entering into a consultation with it. BMW have been striving for perfection with this car and they've very nearly achieved it. If they could only engineer in a few rough edges, something for people like you and me to relate to, they would have nailed it. The right answer as reached by algorithm isn't often the right answer as determined by the heart.