When I was around seven years old, I recall coming across an advertisement for a new car that stopped me dead in my tracks. A European luxury sedan, with rear-wheel drive, V-8 power, featuring distinctive, elegant styling in an utterly unique four door hatchback body style. I had never seen any car like it before, and I was mesmerized. The car in question was the 1980 Rover 3500, which was just being introduced to the American auto market. The car was an abysmal failure.
Thirty years later, BMW handed me the keys to its latest niche carver, the 550i Gran Turismo. It was tough not to smile, finally getting a crack at a concept that captivated my imagination as a child. While I seriously doubt that BMW drew any inspiration from the Rover, the fact remains this is a formula that has gone untested in a market that tends to thumb its nose at hatchbacks in general, regardless of price. The question then, has BMW done enough for North American buyers to get over the hatchback stigma?
BMW probably doesn’t want me to use the term “hatchback” in describing their car, as they never once refer to it as such in their press release, and in some respects they are correct. You see, BMW engineers came up with a rather clever design to access the trunk. At first glance, you would be correct that the Gran Turismo, with its fastback rear glass, would have a liftgate that reveals the entire loading area, like an X-series BMW. Unlike a crossover or SUV, the Gran Turismo offers the option of a smaller trunklid under the rear window. You still have complete access to the trunk, but one bonus is the ability to open the trunk while leaving your passengers totally insulated from the weather outside.
The Gran Turismo is instantly recognizable as a modern BMW from any angle. From the outside, the car is large, imposing and aggressive, tempered with style and elegance you would expect from a full-size BMW. Unfortunately, this is also a car that looks much better in person than it does in photos. In natural light, the car appears better proportioned, where the unique surface details all come together to form a more balanced, cohesive look. While this is a new shape for the brand, designers successfully maintained the hallmarks of BMW styling-no BMW customer is going to go into shock at the sight of this car.
As handsome as the exterior is, inside the Gran Turismo is where you want to be. Large, supportive and highly adjustable seats coddle and luxuriate, but are well-bolstered enough to remind you this is a BMW with sporting pretensions. BMW is wise to keep a simple gauge cluster, which is easy to read and crystal clear. Materials and quality of craftsmanship are first class, and cannot be faulted. Our test car featured an available (no cost option) Fineline matte wood trim, which was a pleasant departure from the high-gloss wood trim usually seen. The clean look and feel of the wood grain is fresh and contemporary. Kudos to BMW for finding a way to use wood trim in a new and interesting way. While all controls have a quality feel, it’s difficult to resist the optional Ceramic controls option ($650) to complete the look.
The rear seat is a unique 40/20/40 design. I’d call the Gran Turismo more a four seater, though it will seat five. Head and legroom are outstanding, and the seats offer exemplary comfort. Have some fun with the option sheet, and the Gran Turismo turns into a virtual limo. For an extra $3,950, the Luxury Rear Seating Package provides multi-adjustable, vented and heated rear seats with power sunshades for the rear door windows, with individual automatic climate control. Rear seat entertainment ($2,200) offers DVD entertainment with two screens, wireless headphones, and remote.
The Gran Turismo features BMW’s fourth generation iDrive. Thankfully, a lot of the controls you use to operate the Gran Turismo are outside of iDrive-in particular, climate control, and basic CD functions. Simple things like changing the radio station can be exercises in frustration. Syncing an iPod or entering an address in the navigation required time, patience, and the BMW owner’s manual open. For some inconceivable reason, iDrive requires two to three extra steps to accomplish a task than any system I’ve used from say, Lexus.
Once you figure out the nuances of iDrive, it is tolerable at best, but still easy to make a wrong move. My only other complaint would be the laughable cupholders on the center console. A corner at even moderate speed sent my water bottle flying against the passenger door panel, so you can forget about any trip to Starbucks in this car.
The heart of any BMW worth its salt is the drivetrain, and the 550i does not disappoint. Blessed with a powerful 4.4L twin turbo, four cam, direct injected V-8, the Gran Turismo belts out a mighty 400hp Ã‚Â with 450 lb. ft. of torque, coupled to an 8-speed automatic. BMW promises 0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds, with a limited top-speed of 150mph on our Sport Packaged equipped test car. With a curb weight of 4,895lbs, those are some impressive numbers. From a stop, the 550i pulls like a freight train. On highway onramps, full-throttle bursts are fun but short-lived, as 80 mph shows up in a heartbeat. Passing power is exceptional, and the 8-speed automatic is always anticipating your next move, yet at the same time offers the comfort of nearly imperceptible upshifts.
The Gran Turismo does remind the driver this is a BMW for grown-ups. The V-8 comes to life with little fanfare, and most of the time is nearly silent. Only under hard acceleration do you really hear the V-8 up front, and even then the sound is muted. BMW knows its buyers, and if they want some bark to go with the bite, that buyer wants something with an M badge. As usual with larger BMW’s, no manual transmission is available, and there are no shift paddles either. There is a manual mode, but with an automatic that works as well as this, what’s the point?
Any top-spec BMW is expected to offer exhilarating power, but superior handling, steering and braking is also a requirement, and the Gran Turismo delivers. I chose my favorite country roads, which offer tight turns, quick straights, and plenty of elevation changes. The last BMW I drove there was an E36 M3 4-door, and I attacked as fiercely as I did with the M. The Gran Turismo has the uncanny ability to shrink itself. This is simply a car that refuses to let its size and weight slow it down. The Gran Turismo is armed with an army of electronics to help make that happen, most notably Dynamic Damping Control (electronically controlled shock absorbers). Our test car had the optional Integral Active Steering, which varies steering ratios and provides a small amount of rear wheel steer. It is simply remarkable how BMW engineers are able to create a car this size that can handle so well.
Most of the time, this is not a car that is likely to be pushed hard, and around town or on the highway, the BMW provides insulation from the outside world while still keeping the driver a part of the equation with communicative steering and braking. Our car was equipped with optional 20″ alloys, and they look beautiful. Hit a pothole though, and those thin sidewalls can’t absorb all the impact, so the rest of the car does with a firm thud. The great look comes at a price. Living in New England where potholes and patched up road are a given, the available 18″ or 19″ wheels may be a less sexy, but more practical choice.
It should come as no surprise that all this power and luxury come at a price. The 550i Gran Turismo starts at $63,900USD, and our well optioned test car rang in at $77,000, including destination and Gas Guzzler Tax. At this price I had a difficult time accepting that the car was lacking heated seats and satellite radio (both optional), features that are standard equipment on cars costing a fraction of the price.
A large portion of the automotive press is having a tough time with BMW’s so-called “niche” cars, wondering aloud why BMW bothered building them, and who this car is for. We live in an age where nearly every aspect of our lives can be specialized to fit our exact tastes. In the past, it was enough that BMW had a 3, 5, 6, and 7-series. We also accepted that on our radios, we maybe had one jazz station, a classical station, a couple hard rock and some pop music, and that was it. Now, satellite and Internet radio has given us endless choices. Today’s car buyer, especially at this price point, expects the luxury of choice. BMW recognized the trend and has responded.
The BMW 550i Gran Turismo won’t break America’s prejudice against a hatchback, but with its clever two-mode trunk, it should sway some luxury car non-believers. If the BMW 5 or 7 series sedan seems a little too ordinary for your tastes, the Gran Turismo is an opportunity to stand apart from the crowd. It seems the ideal car to pack a suitcase with a loved one and blast away for a weekend in Napa. The fact that the 550i inspires visions of hitting the open road, the name Gran Turismo is definitely well applied.