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Something to be ashamed of

Road test: BMW 640d Gran Coupé (2012)

12/08/2013 08:33 | Comments: 

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Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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Luxury certainly has to be a little bit in your face, otherwise it won’t upset anybody.

Last year I got a taste of the hotel Tfeila in Nouakchott. Shag pile carpets on the corridors, contemporary art on the walls, fresh fruits on the tables. Soft jazz music played from the speakers, while an elegant, courteous concierge showed deep interest in our desires, although we just wanted a slice of WiFi. Only the snail-paced serving of the tea, which we only ordered so as not to be kicked out, reminded us of the world behind the glass door. There, the most valuable property of a middle-class family was the goat that waded through the roadside litter, living mostly on plastic bags thrown out of taxis.

That's how absurd the Gran Coupé looks in Budapest. The Mauritanians already got used to the Tfeila, they don't even make a face to the ugly guests living in luxury when they are walking by, although they almost certainly detest them. I guess we will get used to the Gran Coupé as well, it's just a question of time. But right now the passers-by are turning round and you can read “WTF” from their lips. That's the raison d'être of this car. That's why they stepped on the 5-series so heavily that the dough almost bursts out, then they put the nose of the 6-series on it, pulled a bit here and there, hung some bijou on it and voila: here's your slightly spoilt swagger limousine.

The problem is that they didn't spoil it badly enough. Yeah, it's chic and sophisticated, I could imagine the conductor of the Munich philharmonic orchestra –who is carried away by the great design and doesn't care about function – in the driver's seat,. You can feast your eyes on it, no question. But trust me: a savage, barbaric, truly boasting four-door coupé would be a much bigger blast around here.

Oh, that would be a stolen idea? Can't do too much about that, can you? The nonsense of four-door coupés was invented by Mercedes-Benz, and they were happy to serve their clients as the only provider for about seven years. The clients, who loved the universally comprehensible I don't give a fuck, shitheads statement engraved in their cars. No wonder why the competitors followed only cautiously. First came Audi: they gave it a try with the A7, but to avoid plagiarism, they took it easy and pulled a practical five-door fastback out of the hat. BMW was late, they had to be bolder, they went for the mucked-up flattened limousine. However, I don't feel the smashing power in this concept.

The idea behind this thing was already clear when Hooydonk's company showed us the concept study. A family car for individualists: that was the fable, if I got it right, but this explanation only works in an environment where the 5-series is awfully plebeian. Apart from some microscopic spots on this planet – for example around here – the outspoken rudeness of the CLS is spot-on. There's no need for sympathetic looks, raw power is the name of the game.

And look at this foolish name. Unbelievable that they couldn't come up with something other than this, it seems as if they scraped it into the clay model after two schnapps. It's nearly as bad as Audi's mistake with the Sportback, the stupid name they now have to use on every five-door model, without any sense. Does anybody understand why the five-door A3 Sportback should be sportier than the three-door A3? Anyway, since BMW had used up the GT nameplate for the awkward 5GT, they had to squeeze out something else: Gran Coupe. Great! Clearly, those blurred concepts don't fit into the long-established logic of BMW-numbers.

While the GT is at least practical, the GC only cares for the looks. To be perfectly honest, it would be extremely difficult to write down anything meaningful about the design. It looks like a flattened 5-series with the nose of the 6-series, plus a bit of extra chrome. If we stick to the French terminology, pressé would be more appropriate than coupé. But that doesn't sound good, does it?

I'm convinced that without the matte finish it would lose half of its appeal, but I can't prove that theory. While more than ten matte colours are available through BMW's Individual program, for the sake of individualism, the cars at the press launch were accidentally of the same brown colour as this one. Also the press photos show only matte brown, and the obsession for individualism goes even further: the interior of this test car matches exactly the pictures seen by now. Here you are, Individual!

But let us step back from the leather orgy of the interior, the matte finish is worth one more thought. The worksome Bavarians have been experimenting with this fashionable technique for years - in fact, the pimp-my-ride guys will be bored with it tomorrow. They had to face quite some customer complaints after the first shineless paint jobs, but they claim, the teething problems are over. When they handed out the test car to me, they only said that machine washing was forbidden, and clear water was the best choice when washing by hand. If the dirt was too resistant, I should only use wax-free shampoo, otherwise I'll fuck it up. Hey, I don't want to mess around with a 100k Euro car, but how should I know if they had mixed in a shot of harmless glossy powder at the car wash?

Suddenly I realised that the GC is a car for people who enjoy anxiety. Dread is too strong an expression, but fear is always present. What happens if I smudge the flyspeck while washing with clear water? Does it contain wax? And the palish white leather seats: Will my jeans stain it? Yeah, I know, I should wear trousers.

Obviously, I shouldn't blame the car for its paint job and the foolish colour choice of the interior. Even if BMW tries to push all this, you can order a normal finish, and possibly a more practical interior, too, although I'm not quite sure about the second one. As standard you get the leather interior nick-named dakota, and you won't get anything less classy. Maybe you can bribe the guys at Individual to put some neat fabric on the seats, otherwise you'll have to consult your local upholstery shop.

Honestly, what they laid out in the cabin is worse than the basic version of the Micra, and I really don't want to insult the Nissan guys. For one thing, it's a necessity to have absolutely clean clothes at all times if you want to avoid spots on the seats; a drive-in at McDonald's is unthinkable, not to mention other naughty things. But you should also stop the perspiration of your skin – you quickly come to the conclusion that ventilated seats are a must for those who have to suffer in white leather seats.

I'd prefer not to judge the combination of Bailey's-coloured leather and Alcantara around the seats – you can make up your mind looking at the image gallery. But the sheer amount of leather packed into the small cabin produces such an intensive smell which can be a torture for the passengers. I truly enjoy the sweet bouquet of Conolly leather, but this is something else. It reminds you of how many cows have to be slaughtered for all the Gran Coupés coming with leather seats as standard.

All right, let's quit the disgusting thoughts, a BMW should be a driving machine, right? Well, cruising with the Gran Coupé is quite entertaining. You can demonstrate anytime that all the others are outnumbered: 313 horsepower and 630 newtonmeter is enough, even if it comes from a relatively small, 3-litre diesel. It's not necessary to fiddle around with the program selector, and you can leave the gear stick in peace as well, just move your ankle. If you find yourself snoozing in sixth gear, gazing at the Louis Vuitton collection on the high street and suddenly have to change lanes quickly, with one roar the beast will jump to the spot you wish. The worst that can happen is that you get frightened, because the rear wheels are squeaking.

It's not lost in the city, but not feeling well, either. You don't notice that 1.8 tons have to be moved with lots of power from the engine-room, but you definitely have to get used to commanding the five-metre ship from the basement. It's like lying flat in the bath and looking for the dropped shampoo bottle. The panorama is not really visible, you can barely see a thin line in the mirror and the windscreen seems to be as high as a shop window to a five-year-old.

Don't even think about ordering it without the surround view system, otherwise you won't dare to park it into spaces smaller than a football field. This one, however, provides a wonderful top view on the gargantuan screen fixed on top of the dashboard. The camera's image is nearly perfect, even in the dark, when the CCDs have to work hard. You'll only scratch the truly beautiful rims, the matte paint will stay untouched.

After getting used to the hunched driving under an umbrella, I thought I'd try how to drive bad boy-style with the gangsta car. While the comfort/sport switch on the arty-farty centre console only tunes the accelerator-gearbox-steering trio to different driving modes, if you didn't pay for adjustable dampers, in sport+ you can get rid of your guardian angel. There, ESP is switched off and you can do whatever you want with the 630 newtonmetres. The rubber will not only squeak, but smoke, too. At least, that's what I thought.

Fact is, the GC clings to the asphalt, no matter how hard you try to upset it. It's easier to push the Reichstag aside than to get sideways in the GC. And if you succeed, the reactions will be as friendly as after the aforementioned building was set to fire. There's no room for playfulness in the character of the GC, it's definitely not the right vehicle for a drift around the Brandenburg Gate.

However, the suspension would be up to the job, since the Gran Coupé's settings are spot-on for the motorway. I mean, the German motorway. The springs are unforgiving, like over-hardened steel and no matter how strong the dampers hold the heavy run-flat tyres and the 19-inch rims, they tremble at every pothole. It's exactly the same as in the 5-series, if I may remark, only the smoother-running 7-series can get away without that.

Don't think of this as sitting on a see-saw with a mad cow jumping around on the other end. It's rather like relaxing in a brown, or rather dark green club chair in central London on the third floor of a building from the beginning of the 20th century, and every few minutes the Tube is going by. You don't feel too much, but that little bit is disturbing. And sometimes, one of the ten thousand leather-wrapped parts in the interior makes a snipping noise. Which is not a tragedy, but in this environment, it's - well, it's a bit disturbing.

Disturbing not, however, is the noise of the six-cylinder diesel engine. While we're sitting laid-back in the leather chair, the seamstresses are working somewhere in the basement. We're not completely certain, where, since the noise comes from far away, but in fact we don't care. All that matters is that they turn out enough profit at the end of the month. And they do: considering the 313 horsepower, the consumption between 7 and 17 litres on 100 kilometres, depending on driving style, is okay. While I was driving mostly in town, it turned out to be 12. But to be honest, in a 100-grand car, I wouldn't give a shit. I'd gladly feed 20 into a proper petrol engine for a more pleasant sound.

Talking about acoustics, the hi-fi system will put you into a similar situation. In a pimped Corsa you'd be happy to have some earth-shaking bass at any cost, but in a sophisticated ride like the GC, you wouldn't expect the bass guitar to tear off your ears with double volume at the end of a half-octave run. I suspect, the Bang and Olufsen system for about 5000 Euros would sound much better - don't be stingy, the standard radio isn't appropriate for this kind of car.

The active steering almost killed me. Theoretically it's an intelligent system: it turns the rear wheels with two electric motors in the right direction according to the situation you're in, plus it tweaks the steering ratio. But you end up with an over-assisted kart steering wheel in your hand, while trying to go straight with a monster truck. At least that's what I felt like when I intuitively turned the steering wheel for the first time. With the extremely quick ratio you'll unintentionally change lanes when trying to avoid a pothole.

If one doesn't tick this rather unfortunate extra, the GC won't let its owner down. The eight-speed gearbox can switch down four gears at a time, if necessary, and the six-cylinder delivers enough power in every imaginable situation. It doesn't matter if you're on a B-road or on the motorway, with one mean look you can demoralise anybody around you. And when you have parked and crawled out of the car, the soft-close mechanism will politely complete the closing procedure if you didn't slam the door properly. This is an extra you shouldn't forget to tick.

The head-up display is obligatory, too. Having this useful extra on board, you'll have to face the insane speeds you're driving at, whether you want it or not. As a bonus, it'll display the instructions of the satnav, too, so there's absolutely nothing that would distract your attention from driving. You can take this for granted, because you'll need a military telescope to discover the cute thighs on the passenger side beyond the intercontinental centre console.

If you fall for the looks of the GC, you won't mind those minor things, anyway. If the ungracefully outstanding, frameless rear window stabs your passengers in the stomach, you just don't care. It's equally unimportant that the satnav's map doesn't belong to the best available models, the only thing that matters is the erotic female voice that gives the instructions. The simple text display that you have to look at when listening to mp3-files is more of a problem. But those who complain are narrow-minded, because the Gran Coupé is a lifestyle product.

At least, I can't think of a better explanation. Of course, if you want to sell it, you can say, this is the more useful 6-series, because it has four doors. Undeniable. But if you're down-to-earth like me, you'll struggle to find out why it should be better than a simple 5-series. On the other hand, I could tell you at least five reasons, why it's worse.

Maybe if I lived in Munich or South Brooklyn, where every common bully has a 5er and I wanted to be an extraordinary bully, I'd know that style is everything. But here in Budapest it's hard to get over the meaninglessness of the Gran Coupé.

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