International first drive
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We've been here before, and it didn't end well. Back in 1989, BMW replaced the 'E24' 6 Series Coupe with a sleek-looking tech-laden leviathan in the futuristic shape of the 'E31' 8 Series – a car that was meant to act as a halo for the whole brand, but which struggled in the market, selling just over 30,000 globally during its 10-year lifespan.

Three decades on and history repeats, with another 8 Series arriving to usurp a 6 Series, and also to act as flagship for the wider brand.

The medium-term plan is for a whole clan of Achte Klasse, with cabrio and four-door GranCoupe versions following shortly behind the Coupe, plus a fully fledged M8. But the first off the rank will be the car you see here, the new BMW M850i xDrive Coupe.

While not unambiguously handsome, it’s certainly not short on presence.

Overall dimensions are actually fractionally down on the outgoing 6 Series: at 4851mm, the M850i is 40mm shorter overall and its 2822mm wheelbase has lost 33mm, but it looks considerably classier than the slightly under-detailed F13 ever did.

The cabin is great, too, with acres of stitched leather, including both door tops and the steering wheel boss, with other upmarket details including a crystal-style gear selector that looks like it could stopper a decanter.

Much is shared from other top-end Beemers, but the tech is being kept in check. BMW hasn’t given up on buttons yet, and although the central 10.25-inch display is touch-sensitive, every function can also be controlled by the familiar turn and click iDrive controller.

Power comes from a revised version of BMW's 4.4-litre V8 – the one that packs its turbos in the vee between its cylinder banks. This makes 390kW, 60kW more than the old BMW 650i managed, and accompanies this with 750Nm of torque available between 1800rpm and 4600rpm.

Drive heads to each paw through a standard eight-speed ZF auto ’box and what BMW claims is a rear-biased xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Despite a porky 1890kg kerb weight, BMW claims the 8er can blitz the 0–100km/h benchmark in just 3.7 seconds on its way to a limited 250km/h top speed.

But what about that M badge? Sitting beneath the forthcoming M8 means the M850i has to leave something on the table; is it a sporty GT, or a GT-ish sports car?

Let's start with what it's not: a track star. BMW helpfully made the point with a launch event in Portugal, which included the chance of some hot laps at the tight, twisty Estoril circuit near Lisbon.

While it certainly didn't help the M850i's case that this is the same track Lambo' used to introduce the Aventador SVJ, and McLaren chose for the almighty Senna, it wasn’t just my memories of supercar glory that made time in the BMW feel mildly frustrating.

It’s hugely quick and the engine makes some very nice sounds, but it needed to be shepherded carefully around Estoril’s many tight corners. Optimistic throttle applications resulted in understeer – the sensation of the traction control pretty much pulling a choke chain, or both.

The rear bias of the power delivery is rarely in evidence, and even an active rear-steering system didn’t seem to do much to sharpen its enthusiasm for the tighter stuff.

Plenty still impressed, especially the brakes – the 8’s steel rotors resisted fade better than I remember the carbon stoppers of the SVJ managing at the same track (albeit when dealing with higher terminal speeds).

The M850i also sounds great when extended, especially in the dynamic Sport Plus mode that adds some pops and crackles to the exhaust over-run.

But, unsurprisingly, more normal roads are the 8’s forte. It’s a storming cruiser, with refinement staying outstanding even as I used a quiet stretch of Portugal’s Portagen toll road for some almost-autobahn speeds.

The cabin stays tranquil even as the digital speedo heads towards the really naughty. The big engine is turning at just 2250rpm at an indicated 160km/h in top, but still has the low-down brawn to deliver instant response with the transmission’s manual mode holding the ratio.

The seats are comfortable and ride quality is excellent at speed, even over bumps and ridges. Rear seat space is very tight, though – any adults relegated to the back are going to complain vociferously about the lack of head and shoulder room.

BMW’s claims for the 8’s schportiness find less evidence. It handles tidily on twistier roads, and it would take a long time to get bored of the effortless way the V8 gets things done and the muscular noises it makes while doing so. But it also feels big and heavy for the simple, obvious fact that it is: even the clever chassis technology, including the optional active anti-roll on the test car, can only do so much given the limitations of Newtonian physics.

On the plus side, the steering feels better and more natural than in the hotter versions of the 5 Series, if some way removed from the directness of the M5.

The big unknown at present is price, and therefore exactly where the M850i will sit in the market. The steer from BMW Australia is that the M850i will be about $280K when it reaches here early next year; the entry-level 840i that follows later in 2019 being closer to $200K. That’s a chunk of change, but still a substantial discount over blue-chip alternatives like the Aston DB11 V8.

The more awkward question is how well the ’50i will fare in direct comparison with the 911 GTS it is likely to find itself priced hard against.

The M850i is a great car and welcome proof that BMW hasn’t given up on this part of the market, but the full-blooded M8 that will follow is still the one we’re likely to get most excited about.

Specs:

Engine: 4395cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power: 390kW@5500rpm
Torque: 750Nm@1800–4600rpm
0–100km/h: 3.7sec
Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
Weight: 1890kg
Mileage: 6.2L/100km [EUDC]
CO2: 164g/km
Price: $280,000 (est)