In 2009 BMW replaced its wagon with the Gran Turismo. How's that working out?
If you listen to the motivational speakers who use his plight to bolster their stories, Thomas Edison is famous for two things: being one of the world’s greatest inventors and failing thousands of times along the way to each of his inventions. Anyone who’s put skin into the game of life knows that getting ahead means trying new things and many times, failing at them. The auto industry is no exception.
Ford took a risk when it built the first Mustang and shook up the world of performance, but that came after the Blue Oval had landed hard on its face when it tried and failed to turn Edsel into a household name. Back in 2009, BMW took a similar risk by taking the 5-Series wagon, called the Touring, off the American market and replacing it with the 5-Series Gran Turismo. The results were not ideal.
By 2011, it was reported that 5-Series Touring buyers, whom BMW had expected would switch into Gran Turismos when it came time to upgrade, had instead migrated to the competition. Rather than be left on dealership lots where style critics could rip into the design team that let such an ugly rear end leave the drawing board, the GT was bought by ex 7-Series owners who ended up forking over less cash to BMW than if they had just replaced their range-topping Bimmers with a newer 7.
Evidently, that wasn’t enough to get BMW to pull the plug on the Gran Turismo because now the GT is back. We’ve dug into BMW for the Gran Turismo before—partially because the GT line doesn’t offer the caliber of styling we’ve come to expect from BMW, and partially because it’s not the wagon we so badly want—but in either case BMW sent us a Bluestone Metallic 2018 640i xDrive Gran Turismo so we could settle the score.
Having been caught up in BMW’s naming shuffle, the 5-Series GT now runs under the 6-Series line where it’s sold as the Gran Coupe’s not-so-handsome counterpart. Until now, the 6-Series has been more geared towards luxury and status than utility, so BMW had to smoothen out some of the Gran Turismo’s rough edges to justify the “640i” badges. It started in the area that needed the most help, the trunk lid/hatch on which those GT badges reside.
With a license to fill a 6-Series’ shoes, the 640i GT grows longer by 3.4-inches while maintaining its width and even shrinking by 0.8-inches on the horizontal plane for a sportier aesthetic. That extra length gives designers room to end the trunk more gradually and avoid making it look like the 5-Series GT's brick-shaped back. Alas, even with a prettier rear end than the last GT, it’s not executed well enough to justify axing the Touring. Thankfully the front end is another matter.
It looks sharp, adopting the look of the 7-Series and making big promises the midsection just barely fails to make good on due to an awkward roofline and still-too-abrupt drop off at the rear. It's not that the roof or the rear themselves are poorly shaped, it's that they looks better suited on one of BMW's X SUVs than on a sedan. Squint properly and you can see that BMW approached the Gran Turismo line with crossover-induced moneybags in their eyes.
The sales pitch probably went something like this: "If the Touring isn't a volume seller and crossovers are, why not merge a sedan with a crossover?" Fortunately, the designers did realize their mistake and tried to remedy it by reducing visual weight at the rear. Smoothening out the lines, aiming the swoop of the rear hatch downwards, and giving the rear-facing portion of the hatch a crease, all help make the 640i GT more palatable on the eyes. Problem is, the 5-Series Gran Turismo had so much visual weight at the rear that the changes made to the 6-Series' aren't enough.
Much more fun to think about is the 640i xDrive’s powertrain, which consists of a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 that sends 335 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque to an all-wheel drive system that’s capable of launching the Gran Turismo to 60 mph from standstill in 5.1 seconds. With an eight-speed automatic manipulating torque and an Eco Mode to go with Adaptive, Sport, Comfort, and Comfort + (only on models with adaptive dampers), the Gran Turismo drinks fuel at a rate of 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. We saw no such numbers during our weeklong fling with the Gran Turismo in San Francisco’s stop-and-go traffic.
Thanks to BMW’s smooth inline-6 engines that never seem to get upset whether high or low in the rev range, the 640i Gran Turismo has a natural inclination to stretch its legs and get up to highway speeds. That tendency makes it feel out of place in a city with stop signs a hundred feet from the one we’d just left.
It’s almost as if the engine is out to show how smooth and quiet the ride is at speed. In fact, if the Gran Turismo’s unusual dimensions are an indication of anything, it’s that its driver prioritizes comfort over style. In that arena, the Gran Turismo excels.
Soft Cognac Dakota Leather cloaks much of the cabin and meshes with fake wood and aluminum accents, the sheer amount of it giving off the sense of excess. It’s not necessarily the abundance of leather or the fact its shade of color is converted into Anthracite and used as headliner that does the trick. It’s that the 640i GT feels as relaxed and comfortable as a 7-Series, except that it also feels nearly as capable as an X SUV thanks to ample cargo space and a trick air suspension that lifts the body enough to allow it to climb steep slippery hills.
From the driver’s seat, the competent but complex infotainment system can be interacted with using the 10.25-inch touchscreen or with the iDrive roundel, but a driver’s eyes will usually check out the 12.3-inch digital display cluster along with the HUD display for information. These toys work just fine. The ones that could use some refinement are the wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity that sometimes will choose not to connect or randomly disconnect—though we can’t complain much since BMW is one of the only manufacturers that does wireless smartphone integration—and Gesture Control, which doesn't adjust volume as precisely as using the knob.
One thing to note about the old 5-Series GT is that it actually sold well in China, and hints of BMW catering to that market can be seen in the fact that the 640i GT’s focus is on comfort and technology rather than Sheer Driving Pleasure. Rear seat legroom, coming in at 40.4-inches, let our test Bimmer double as a WiFi-equipped office during a coffee break/laundromat visit.
While out to see if the 31 cubic feet of cargo space (65 cu-ft with the rear seats folded down) could handle a long overdue laundry day (it can), we could note how Chinese market demands brought in a light touch to the steering wheel and such a supple ride in Comfort + that freshly folded laundry made it back to base without a hint of getting ruffled over pothole-infested roads.
After nearly a week of driving the 640i in the city and avoiding eye contact with judgy personalities who spent less on their prettier Maseratis, a weekend shakedown on a good road was needed to see if the Gran Turismo upholds BMW’s clout as the brand for drivers. Like just about everything coming from BMW these days, the 640i GT’s chassis is rock solid, transmitting pertinent information through the thickly padded seats while filtering out unnecessarily jarring parts of the ride.
Thick layers of acoustic insulation prevent the 640i GT from letting the heart rate rise too far beyond the norm and though the balanced chassis and xDrive help keep cornering sharp, the Gran Turismo never feels comfortable when it’s playing the slalom game. Blame the light steering (which is still too light in Sport Mode) and the 4,400-pound curb-weight for that, the latter of which starts to come out of the woodwork in the form of tire squeal and long-held breaths when slamming the brakes at speed to see how fast they can stop a party that’s gotten out of hand.
The 640i offers a way out of this unease, though, and it involves slowing down and driving like a mild-mannered person, the type of person the Gran Turismo is designed for. Evidence that BMW targeted this demographic can be found in the pricing.
Despite our loaded tester coming in at $84,010, the 640i xDrive Gran Turismo starts at $71,295, $635 less than a base 7-Series. That’s a bargain considering that it feels as large, in charge, and luxurious as a 7 and offers a huge upgrade in the utility department. No wonder old 7-Series buyers decided to trade.
Getting our tester up to its price involves adding the $4,100 Dynamic Handling Package, which comes with active steering, active air suspension, roll stabilization, and variable dampers, the $2,150 Executive Package that adds a parking assistant, head-up display, gesture control, and soft-close automatic doors among other toys, the $1,700 Driving Assistant Plus suite, and the $1,200 M Sport package that gave our wagon imitator fancy 19-inch M wheels, a SensaTec dash, an aerodynamic kit that includes an auto rear spoiler, and a few extra appearance goodies thrown about the body and cabin for good measure.
Despite being armed to the teeth with an impressive array of luxury features and go-fast appearance packages, there was a defining moment of humiliation that summed up our experience with the 6-Series Gran Turismo. It happened when a Mercedes E-Class Estate pulled up next to us at the light. Despite looking ahead and pretending we didn’t see it, we could feel its driver staring at us with sympathy, thinking, “oh those poor souls.”
With the two cars side by side, BMW's decision to trade out the Touring for the Gran Touring seems like a mistake. The Gran Touring line may eventually find its stylistic groove—BMW’s first X SUVs weren’t exactly pretty at first but seem to have come a long way—but how many more attempts will we see until that happens? Previously, it was only Edison and his peers that knew the struggle of trying again after multiple failures. Now it looks like BMW will join those ranks.