BMW Great Britain is taking a slightly different tack to the launch of its new 6-series model line by launching hardtop coupe and soft top convertible versions simultaneously this month, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

In contrast, European distributors (of left-hand drive cars) have done a staggered launch with the coupes going on sale late last year and the convertibles following this month.

Truth be told, the UK market rollout decision was driven more by right-hand drive production timing than anything else but insiders are quietly pleased that dealers will have both versions to show prospective buyers from Day One.

Mind you, it’s not as if they have to go out and whip up interest from launch day. Virtually all 2004’s allocation of 1,700 coupes was pre-sold months ago and most of the 850 or so convertibles slated to reach the UK this year have also already got a name alongside the allocated production slot.

Unlike the 645Ci coupe, though, which can claim to be at least a spiritual successor to the old 8-series, it’s a very long time since BMW had an entry in the large V8-powered convertible market sector. In fact, you have to go right back to the 1950s to the 502 convertible – built by Baur with V8 power and sold as either a two – or four-seater convertible – and the later, and very pricey, 503 with 140bhp light alloy V8, of which only 139 examples were sold between 1955 and 1959.

Still, BMW GB has no problem pinpointing targets for its 4.4-litre 333bhp express powered by a state-of-the-art variable valve opening alloy V8. The price, starting at £55,355 with six-speed manual transmission (coupes from £49,855) compares directly with the Jaguar XK8 convertible but is lower than that of the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabrio, the Maserati 4200 Spyder GT, the Jaguar XKR Convertible or either the Mercedes SL500 and SL350.

The company claims the 645Ci also has more power than the XK8, the 911and the SL500 while none of those rivals, Maserati included, have bigger boots, and the 6 series convertible is said to be “far and away the best-in-class for rear seat accommodation and soft-top interior acoustics”.
BMW also claims best-in-class torsional stiffness and says the unique fin structure soft-top results in better rear visibility and greater boot space than in rivals and, in particular, those with folding metal roofs.

The soft top is fully automatic (no windscreen top frame catches to secure) and works beautifully. Top down, with side and rear windows raised, you can converse normally at 100mph-plus; top up, it seals so well and feels so solid in response to a prod on the headlining, you’d swear you were in a metal-roof coupe. There is a hint of body flex through the steering wheel on bumpy roads, but it’s no more than that. And the burble-to-snarl range of the V8’s exhaust note with the roof down is just gorgeous…

The UK importer thinks the convertible’s various attributes will draw buyers away from other 2+2s as well as roadsters, performance cars and luxury executive cars and expects younger buyers than for the coupe, in the 40-45 age range with a greater proportion of females.

Traditionally, the UK convertible market attracts more female buyers and this pattern is expected to continue with the 6 series, though the bias remains male. The male:female split for the Convertible will be approximately 75:25 whereas the coupé is nearer 85:15.

BMW GB expects to sell around 1,700 645Ci coupés and approximately 850 convertibles per year; the original 6 series – on sale in the UK from between 1976 and 1989 – sold 8,000 cars in total without a convertible model, peaking in 1985 when 819 cars left dealerships.

According to BMW GB research, the luxury performance coupé/convertible market has increased globally by 50% in the last decade, a figure reflected in UK sales.

Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) figures for the specialist sports car market also show significant growth, with over 60,000 sales in 2002 compared to 23,500 in 1993.

“Considering that BMW predicts further growth of 50% worldwide in the next 10 years for premium cars, a successful future lies ahead for these new models,” the company said.

Many owners are expected to be successful independent businessmen between the ages of 40 to 55 where solid reliability, value for money, brand status, outstanding design and useable performance play key roles in the buying decision.

BMW is including its popular Service Inclusive package with the 6 series coupé and convertible. This Europe-wide service and maintenance package offers drivers five years or 60,000 miles of maintenance for a fixed fee of £750 and the package is fully transferable to subsequent owners.

It covers oil services, inspection services, air filters, air conditioning micro filters, spark plugs, brake fluid, brake discs and pads, clutch wear and even four changes of wiper blades.

Like the coupe, the 6-series has a pretty generous standard equipment list but there are one or two surprises – like a cup holder – on the options list, rather than included in the price.

Equipment highlights include dynamic stability control and brake control, tyre puncture warning system, programmable cruise control, sports suspension, automatic air conditioning, bi-xenon headlights, leather upholstery, windscreen fog sensor, electric seats and steering column adjustment, iDrive controller and display, rain sensor with automatic headlamps, single CD player and park distance control.

Optional equipment includes six-speed automatic gearbox – with ‘Steptronic’ manual ratio selection (£1,350.00); sequential manual gearbox (£880.00); active (variable ratio) steering (£675.00); adaptive (swivelling) headlights (£405.00); dynamic drive (variable anti-roll bush rates) (£1,755.00); sundry stereo, sat-nav, TV, phone and telematics packages; alloy wheels; and active cruise control (£1,180).

We think automatic dimming and folding door mirrors, a cup holder, heated seats (especially in the UK where it just snowed in March) and a set of floor mats, all listed as options, could have been tossed in as standard for the money but presume BMW knows its buyers, and what it can get away with charging more for.