June 1 2004 by Mike Tharp
Powering around, top down, along the central California coast in the new BMW 645Ci, I was struck by how much wide-eyed amazement this silver convertible generated wherever we drove.
How cool was it, while doing the speed limit on Highway 101 south of Santa Barbara, to see some munchkin blue hatchback roaring up on the left in the rearview and decide, just this once, to unleash the 4.4-liter V8′s 325 horses? To relive the same sensation I once felt being slung-shot off the U.S.S. Constellation aboard a Navy jet in the Sea of Japan? To watch the speedometer nudge 90 within a couple seconds and the upstart recede in the “passing” lane? Pretty damned cool, if I may say.
We had decided to test-drive this clutchless 6-speed from Los Angeles to Monterey and back, overnighting at picturesque Cambria six miles south of the famed Hearst Castle. The trip included 100 miles of legendary Highway 1 through Big Sur, the fabled 17-Mile Drive around Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea and some serious straight-line highway mileage.
Escaping L.A. during the Friday morning rush, we felt a little bounce in the car as I lightly tapped the gearshift from first to second to third-nothing bothersome, but a slight judder nonetheless. I negotiated the nation’s busiest freeway junction, the 405 and the 101, at 45 mph, the downshift torquing automatically. Once we got onto open road past Burbank, and the sixth gear seamlessly kicked in, the whole car felt solid, safe and tight. Braking involved a mere toe-touch.
Four hours later, we pulled into a parking lot at Hearst Castle. Wanting to avoid the possibility of any scratches or scrapes, I parked away from other cars, only to notice a man approaching us as we got out. He had driven over from Fresno on his BMW motorcycle with six other BMW bikers. He wore a BMW baseball cap and a white BMW turtleneck. ”I didn’t know the 6 Series had a ragtop,” he enthused. ”This car’s one of a kind! Wanna trade for the afternoon?” Politely, we declined the offer.
His became the standard reaction to the new 645Ci, a reincarnation of a popular BMW series issued from 1977 to ’89. After our castle tour, we drove back to Cambria. At a stoplight a man in a black BMW SUV stuck his head out the window. ”Nice car,” he said. ”I like it a lot.” At a filling station, a motorcyclist in red leathers called the car “gorgeous” and assured us that we’d have “a beautiful ride on a beautiful day.”
Sure enough, we did. Nowhere was the 645′s responsive handling more evident than on the dozens of clothespin curves on Highway 1. Most of them were at 20 mph, and I almost never used the brake because the car did the heavy lifting.
Despite the car’s sleek luxury and awesome power, in our experience, the 645 was compromised somewhat by a fickle array of cockpit controls that, at best, were distracting and, at worst, didn’t work.
Maybe most executives who drive this sports coupe will easily be able to decipher the “comfort functions” and driving controls. Maybe my Luddite DNA prevents me from figuring out the technology. But the bottom line is that neither my co-pilot, Linda, who drives a new Mercedes, nor I could get everything to work right when we wanted it to. For example, we couldn’t get the retractable rear window to go up or down, despite pushing the designated button on my door, and we couldn’t get the turn signal indicators to lock into place, leading to left-right-left arrows that drove me batty. We also struggled with the preset radio stations, no matter which knobs we turned.
Once these kinks can be worked out, perhaps by a more tech-savvy driver, the 645Ci is a truly appealing car. On Highway 1, slower-moving vehicles were advised to use the periodic turnouts, but we didn’t need them. South of Big Sur, we passed the Esalen spiritual center and I wondered whether the Beemer’s primal purr would prove therapeutic to any of the current denizens. It certainly had a calming influence on us.
On the outskirts of Monterey, we veered right to the entrance of 17-Mile Drive. The private toll road snakes its way around the granitic Monterey Peninsula and through the Del Monte Forest’s signature cypress trees, contouring the spectacular wave-lashed coast for several miles.
One of its most famous sites is Pebble Beach Golf Links, and since it was lunchtime, it seemed only fitting to grab a table on the patio above the 18th hole. I sipped an Arnold Palmer and looked at how it all came together: blue sky, white clouds, brown trees, green grass, gray water, and the wind letting you smell it all.
Sated and sunburnished, we headed back to the Fogcatcher Inn in Cambria. Instead of retracing our earlier route, we decided to drive north, then east to catch the 101. For some weird reason, accessing that highway from the 156 meant stopping at a stop sign before gaining the short entry ramp. This is when the car, which carries a price tag of $76,995, paid for itself. Six taps of the gearshift, six speeds, six seconds, 60 mph. Whoooosh. I looked beside me and soon noticed that the all-aluminum suspension had lulled Linda to sleep.