Can a classic car still cut it against its modern successor?


Can a classic car still cut it against its modern successor?

Alex Robbins

IT would be stretching the truth somewhat to describe the family resemblance between these two as being instantly obvious.

Each is a BMW 6-series, of course. But one is brand new, BMW’s freshly face-lifted version of its latest grand tourer, while the other dates from 1988.

Look closer, though, and the similarities start to emerge. View both cars in profile, and they share the same dramatic long nose, backward-canted cockpit, and short boot. The new car’s tail is higher and less defined than the old one’s, but the proportions are the same.

At the rear, each has a pair of long, horizontal tail lights, and up front, the echo of the older car’s twin headlamp setup is still visible in the newer one’s light clusters.

And of course, there’s the famous ‘Hoffmeister kink’ – that bend towards the front of the car at the back of the rear window-line, a traditional design cue no self-respecting modern BMW would be without.

The question is, will it be the same story throughout? Each of these cars represents the best-selling 6-series of its time, which makes this comparison the ideal way to find out how much grand tourers have changed in the intervening years.

Before we start, though, I should own up to a certain amount of inherent bias. The classic BMW in the pictures, after all, is my own, and I’m rather attached to it. That said, I’ve always liked the new 6-series too, and will be keen to see how it compares to my old-stager.

With that out of the way, it’s time to drive both cars and see what similarities – if any – we can find.

First up, it’s the new car. BMW’s latest 6-series is one of the most accomplished grand tourers out there, and this one’s no different.

Of course, if you’d tried putting a diesel engine into a car like this in the ’80s, your customers would have laughed, and then run promptly in the direction of your rival’s showroom. But today the 640d is the most popular 6-series, and you can see why – this torquey, surprisingly sonorous engine suits the 6-series no end.

It handles well, too, cornering quickly and accurately, with a remarkable resistance to body lean – thanks in part to the optional adaptive suspension system fitted to this example.

There is, however, a fractional delay to the steering and a lack of feel that makes you wish you were involved in the process just a little more. But despite this, it’s still an impressively quick way to cover ground.
If there’s a flaw with the new Six, though, it’s in the way it rides – as you might have guessed from the 20-inch wheels fitted to this M-Sport example, which cause it to crash heavily and noisily through potholes and ruts. This one does have adaptive dampers, but they barely make a difference.

It’s a flaw that’s shown up especially when you drive the new 6-series back to back with its 27-year-old forebear.

In fact, a drive in the 635CSi is enough to make you wonder whether car manufacturers of today have forgotten how to build a smooth-riding car.

What’s even more entertaining is the fact that contemporary road tests berated it for its firm ride. Yet compared with today’s 6-series, it wafts along in a very relaxing way. True, there’s the occasional minor jiggle from a larger bump, but even with the non-standard 18-inch wheels fitted to this example, the ride is miles better.

The payoff, of course, comes when you tip the older car into a corner. The old 6-series was a big, heavy car, and the soft suspension means it wallows and leans more than is comfortable.

Despite this, there’s actually still a good deal grip on offer, and the chassis pivots gently on the suspension, allowing you to feel through the seat what the car’s doing – something sadly lacking in most modern cars, with their stiff bushes.

Meanwhile, the steering is slow and deliberate, and a little too imprecise to be fun on a niggly B-road – but its weighting is nigh-on perfect, and it’s predictable, beautifully linear and laden with feedback.

Then there’s the way the engine gets into its stride as you wind up the revs, backed by that hard-edged, metallic noise that only a BMW straight six could make.

The gearbox – funnily enough, a ZF 4HP, the four-speed grandfather of that fitted to the 640d – is great, too, still rather sluggish to respond by modern standards but snappy with its changes when it does. And there’s the option to lock the ’box properly into gear, so that it steadfastly won’t change up or down – even if you try and pull away in 3rd.

The whole thing feels more delicate than the newer car. The latter bludgeons its way along the road, all thumping power and big grip, demolishing corners and straights equally with abandon.

By contrast, the 635CSi leans around bends and bounds over crests as you eke out that perfect combination of power, steering angle and attitude where it feels happiest, threading the big, skinny wheel through your fingertips.

In short, the newer car is fast no matter what you do in the newer car thanks to the mammoth torque and prodigious grip – but because that sweet spot is harder to find it in the older car, it’s more of a joy when you do.

This, handily, is a good example of the way the majority of modern performance cars have changed since the time of the original 6-series.

Back then, the joy in driving a car was in learning it, understanding it, and finding that sweet spot, and then honing your abilities and your familiarity with the car so that you found it more often.

Today’s performance cars, by contrast, are more accessible. With many, you can jump in, drive them quickly and enjoy them straight away. And that, by any measure, is progress.

And yet… even if I didn’t own the older car here, it’d still be the one that’d tug at my heartstrings. In making modern cars feel more accessible, I fear, manufacturers have lost some of the sensation, some of the magic – and that’s what’s making classic cars so sought after these days.

This is not a comparison that can have a definitive conclusion. As you’d expect, the new car feels like a new car; the old car feels like an old car. But though there are superficially similarities, they are not cut from the same cloth, and whether you prefer one or the other will depend largely on what you value in a car.

The new 6-series prioritises efficiency, safety, power and capability. It’s an accomplished coupé, and for many people its mod cons, accessibility and effortlessness will make it the preferable car.

But the older car is infinitely more glamorous – and with its more comfortable ride and a reasonable smattering of toys of its own, it’s just as good a grand tourer as its progeny.

There are so many reasons why you wouldn’t pick it instead – but the ones for which you would are very compelling indeed. –