Four decades after its launch, BMW’s 6-series is now an affordable coupé. We pitch it against the Jaguar XJ-S to find out which rules the roost.
Words: David Simister
Pictures: Stuart Collins
What a cruel birthday party this has turned out to be. We could have congratulated the 6-series on reaching the ripe old age of 40 by treating it to a few glasses of Director’s bitter at a nearby pub, or sent it on a genteel weekend lolloping around the Cotswolds.
But instead we’ve lined up BMW’s coupé masterstroke against its old foe from across the North Sea – Jaguar’s XJ-S. During the late Eighties this Anglo-German battle played out in reserved parking spaces and outside golf clubs the world over, not to mention the top lane of the motorway, as well-heeled managing directors toyed over which two-door slice of lavishly equipped grand tourer was best at gobbling up long stretches of motorway and twisty country roads in equal measure.
The great news is that what were flights of fantasy for most motorists when new are fantastic value for money today, with 10 grand being all it takes to secure a first class ticket at the helm of a BMW 6-Series or a Jaguar XJ-S.
Each is still capable of turning a long journey into a leather-lined adventure, but the big Brit and the German ’bahnstormer tackle the task in very different ways. Obviously we’ve given both contenders a fighting chance – the 6-series we’ve picked is the range-topping M635 CSi, while Coventry’s finest comes with the full-fat V12.
Many happy returns, BMW – but we’re still about to let battle commence.
On the Road
It might be the BMW’s birthday bash, but you know even before you twist its ignition key that you – as the driver – are its guest of honour.
The centre console leans out from the rest of the dashboard and virtually hands its Blaupunkt cassette player and heater controls to you, and not to whomsoever landed the passenger spot. Not that they’ll be complaining much. Both seats are firm but lavishly trimmed, and go about their business on electrically guided motors, and there’s plenty of space behind for two of your more amply proportioned pals.
Once you’ve finished playing with the seat motors you’ll discover the driving position’s spot on; you sit low, but the visibility’s superb, the pedals ideally placed and you’re afforded a clear view of the white-on-black speedometer and rev counter through the thin-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel.
It’s all very logically laid out with a minimum of visual clutter to distract you from the job in hand, although the Connect Four-esque panel of warning lights to the right hand side hasn’t dated as well as the rest of the cabin. Buy an ailing 6-series and you’ll be forever staring at it. Far more intriguing is the tiny swoosh of M-Power stripes at the bottom of the steering wheel – the only real dash of colour in a sea of grey and cream, which along with the miniscule ‘M’ logo on the gearknob is the only initial clue that this is no ordinary 6-series.
Until you fire up the M1-derived straight six, that is. From the off it delivers a smooth but urgent bark that lets you know it means business, and when you’re on the move it quickly becomes apparent it wants to be a sort of roadgoing PA; it’ll do great things, but on the strict understanding you’re the boss.
Ask it to deliver some straight-line shove and it’ll gently remind you that you need to stir its beautifully accurate five-speeder into action so you can unwrap the middle reaches of the rev range, where the real torque resides. Pin your right foot into the BMW’s carpet at just above 3000rpm and you’re treated to a delightful burst of brisk of acceleration, but it’s another 1000rpm north of that when the straight six really wakes up. Stick with it and change up and the surge just keeps coming, giving no indication that its relentlessness will abate anywhere on the car’s journey well into three-figure speeds.
Nor is it a machine that attempts to channel out the important information by smothering you in layer after layer of ride comfort. Sure, its Bilstein gas dampers do a commendable job of ensuring the potholes and bumps don’t spoil your afternoon, but there’s no way around the fact the springs are 15% stiffer than they are in the M-free 635CSi and that the ride height is half an inch lower.
As a result you feel the truly nasty stints of the terra firma outside as subtle jolts through the seat of your pants, but the trade-off is superbly composed handling. Team it up with steering that’s power assisted but still more than happy to throw plenty of feedback to your palms and you end up with a GT car that you can place happily into corners knowing where the doublekidney grille and blue and white propeller are going to be pointing on the way out. It’s an M-car created with comfort in mind, but with a supercar’s heart and suspension to match.
But the XJ-S begs to differ. The trick it’s made its shtick is to shrink long journeys into brief blasts and to wave any unnerving bends with one wave of its supple suspension wand – but it’s firmly of the belief that discomfort, even of the minor variety, shouldn’t be part of the act.
Stepping into it from the CSi is like swapping a Canary Wharf boardroom for the sort of drawing room the National Trust would be proud of. The plump leather throne up front actively encourages you to slouch, and the narrower window apertures make the Jaguar’s cabin feel like a more cocooned and somehow safer environment. Once you’ve pulled the sumptuously padded door behind you the outside world might as well be in a different county, not a few feet away.
It’s an impression carried on by the V12 beyond that vast bonnet, which you can hear gently rumble into life but then virtually disappear as soon as you’ve started it up. It only re-emerges when you prod the accelerator to ask it for some more torque, and even then it’s only a soft, delicate note to remind you it’s there.
The two have virtually the same power but the Jaguar uses its extra six cylinders and 1.8 litres – think of it as having an entire Mazda MX-3 above and beyond the BMW’s engine – to make life easier rather than add outright thump.
The torque is lower down the rev range and more instantly available when you’re looking for an overtake, and it’s accessed via a three-speed auto operated by a spindly shifter that actively discourages hurried changes. Yes, the XJ-S might have been available with a five-speed manual, but it’s hard to imagine being able to make progress any more smoothly with it.
You’ll notice the biggest difference when the countryside plants a bend or two between you and the XJ-S’s destination. While the BMW is happy to let you feel a few bumps in exchange for its handling, the Jaguar’s insistence on being the comfiest cruiser in town means it’ll wallow through the same corners. And while there are messages being delivered to your fingertips through the steering they’re smothered by a system that majors on lightness and ease.
The wafty Jaguar offers smooth, silent comfort while the sportier BMW actively involves you in the experience. Each is a great grand tourer, but there has to be a winner here.
I’ll take the Jaguar home. Um, happy 40th BMW...