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Video | The BMW 850CSi Was the $175,000 Flagship BMW of the 1990s

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author photo by Doug DeMuro February 2018

I recently had the chance to drive a BMW 850CSi, which was the ultimate BMW of the 1990s. It was the top-level version of the 8 Series, which itself was the sporty luxury coupe that stood above even the 7 Series luxury sedan in BMW's lineup. It was powered by a V12 engine mated a manual transmission. It's absolutely gorgeous, and it's very rare.

Very, very rare, in fact. When the 850CSi was offered new in the mid-1990s, BMW only managed to sell about 1,500 in the entire world -- and only 225 examples came to North America. I drove one of the 225, a brilliantly well-kept 1995 model owned by a BMW enthusiast in New Jersey. And it was much better than I expected.

The styling is one reason it was a lot better than I thought it would be. You rarely see the 8 Series on the road anymore; it was rare even when it was new, and it was largely considered a flop throughout the 1990s for being too large, too heavy and too un-BMW. But as cars have gotten larger, the 8 Series' styling, shape and size has gotten more acceptable; at 188 inches in length, the 8 Series is only six inches longer than today's 3 Series sedan. Spending the day with the 850CSi really convinced me that its simple, handsome style and its moderate sizing is perfect for today's world -- even if it was a bit too big and too bloated at the time.

Move beyond the styling and we have to cover the engine. The "regular" 8 Series was sold in two variants: There was the 840, which used a V8 that made about 280 horsepower, and the 850, which used a V12 that had a little more power but a lot more torque. The 850CSi boasted a big power jump -- 375 hp, which was no small figure at the time. More importantly, the 850CSi's engine served as the basis for the powerplant in the famed McLaren F1 supercar, though the F1's engine underwent substantial changes (including variable valve timing) and a raucous 618 hp.

Still, the "F1-related" engine is a pretty cool story for the 850CSi. And here's another cool story: the 850CSi is a secret BMW M Car. It has M badges on the door sills and M markings on the steering wheel and gear lever. Its VIN starts with "WBS," like M cars, rather than "WBA," like normal BMW models. And its internal engine code starts with "S," like M cars, and unlike regular BMWs. Why BMW decided not to call it the M8 is unknown -- but aside from the badging, this was basically an "M" BMW.

And you can feel that on the road. Power delivery is excellent, with tons of power from a stop and just as much in the mid-range -- the car feels fast, even by today's standards, and requires no time "spooling up" like VANOS-equipped BMW models and modern turbocharged vehicles. It just goes, and goes, and goes, delivering exactly as much power as you request despite its heft (and despite its age). Power delivery is also tremendously smooth and linear, with no surprises and no smash forward at a certain RPM. It's great fun just to jam the throttle down when you're going 40 and feel yourself rocket ahead.

It's also great fun to shift the gears. How often do you have the chance to drive a vehicle with a V12 powerplant … and a manual transmission? Very infrequently, of course -- most V12s are mated to smooth, comfortable automatics, and the mere thought of rev matching a V12 had me giggling while I was driving the 850CSi -- especially because doing so is about as easy as in a 325i from the same era. The clutch is smooth and the gear lever is easy. Going through the gears in this car was a total joy.

If there was any letdown, it came during the corners. The 850CSi is no back-roads attack weapon, which you'll probably say makes sense due to its size. But, truthfully, a modern M5 feels far more composed, almost sports car-like, while the 850CSi is just outclassed. It isn't size that's the problem with the 850CSi; it's age -- in 1995, automakers just didn't know how to make a big car turn like a small one. They've overcome that issue now.

Then again, corner carving wasn't really the point of the 850CSi. While I was a little disappointed in the handling, I was pleasantly surprised by just how comfortable the thing was -- the seat is soft and supportive, the ride is compliant and there's a lot of room in the front seats. The 850CSi wasn't supposed to go fast around corners, although it can do that reasonably well. It was supposed to go fast over long distances -- and it can do that better than virtually any car from the era. You just have the benefit of shifting gears when you want.

The 850CSi really impressed me: A grand tourer that still feels fast today; an aging "failure" that suddenly doesn't seem like such an automotive mistake anymore. These are getting valuable now, and it's easy to see why -- and I loved the time I spent around the 850CSi, checking out its quirks and getting behind the wheel. And someday, years from now, I suspect people will ask me what I thought of this car -- and why I didn't buy one when it was "only" $75,000.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Video | The BMW 850CSi Was the $175,000 Flagship BMW of the 1990s - Autotrader