I have been known to make a typo or too, but I was very surprised to see BMW put one on the back of one of its cars. Clearly, the 550i GT was meant to be called the 550i TG - as in ‘tailgate’ – but, rather than fix the error, I guess the marketing folks decided to roll with it.
On the surface, the all-new 550i GT is the complete opposite of what we’ve come to know as a Gran Turismo, those sexy, 2+2 sports cars that carry the elite from hotspot to transcontinental hotspot in high style at high speeds. No, the 550i GT is – and there’s no other way to say it - a hatchback. Not a crossover, or an SUV, but a good old fashioned hatchback.
Well, maybe not old fashioned. Five-door vehicles rarely get this big without squaring off the back end like a truck, or angling them sharply in an effort to emulate the flavor of the moment four-door coupe profile, in the way that the Porsche Panamera or BMW’s own X6 do (and, yes, the existence of five-door, four-door coupes takes the word ‘oxymoronic’ to new levels.)
The 550i GT is neither of these. With a tall, arching roofline and stumpy tail, it looks exactly like what it is, only on a larger scale than we are accustomed too. But appearances can be deceiving.
Hidden in the lower, vertical section of the hatch is a unique second door that allows you to access the luggage compartment in a trunk-like fashion vaguely reminiscent of my best friend’s 1966 Plymouth Barracuda. When used in conjunction with a rigid cargo cover that stores under the floor, this 15.5 cubic foot space is completely sealed off from the passengers, protecting them from the elements when you don’t need to use the hatchback’s full capabilities. If you do, the second row seats fold down to open up a 60 cubic foot cavern, but there’s a much better use for them.
Since the 550i GT is based on the platform of the 7-series sedan, rear passengers are pampered. Legroom lives up to the name, and the seats can be moved fore and aft a couple of inches to increase the size of the cargo area by as much as 5 cubic feet. The car is available with a traditional three across bench, or a pair of reclining buckets with a console in between, a layout that gives it a private jet feel. And while it doesn’t actually fly, an optional all-glass roof brings the sky into the cabin.
As an Ultimate Driving Machine, the person behind the wheel of the 550i GT is particularly well taken care of. The seat adjusts in so many directions that it probably qualifies as an invertebrate, and you sit a lot lower in the saddle than the lofty roof would otherwise suggest, though still higher than in a typical 5-series.
Check enough options boxes and you can fill what is easily BMW’s best-looking dashboard with so many electronic aids that you may get a knock on your door from Homeland Security. Available items include adaptive radar cruise control, blind spot detection, parking cameras front and rear, head-up display, a painfully comprehensive infotainment system, and heat-seeking night vision.
Although billed as a safety feature, that last one may be the most distracting thing you’ll ever come across in an automobile. Optional on a number of BMWs, it uses an infrared camera mounted in the grille to pick up the heat signatures of people and animals in front of the car. It’s so advanced that it can actually tell the difference between a human on a bicycle and a stray elephant, warning you appropriately. Automobiles radiate a lot of heat too, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the different parts of other vehicles glowing at varying levels. Hoods are hotter than doors, front brakes brighter than rears, and when a car pulls away from a stop on a freezing day there’s a black spot where the tires touched the road and transferred heat to the cold surface while stationary. It’s cool, literally.
Now, if you’ve actually read this far you may be one of a handful of people in the United States that BMW actually expects to be interested in this traditionally unpopular type of car. Your consideration is about to be rewarded.
Eyes forward, bulbous posterior far from your mind, the 550i GT is as much of a driver’s car as anything wearing the BMW roundel. The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 produces 400 hp, more than enough to move the two-and-a-half ton beast with authority, and delivers it to the rear wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission that almost seems like overkill, but is seamless in its operation. Surprisingly absent are paddles behind the steering wheel to change gears manually – the console-mounted shifter is the only way to do that - but with so many to choose from, who really has the time?
In stop and go traffic, a unique Auto Hold feature is like hill hold control for flat surfaces, allowing you to take your foot off the brake when you come to a stop without the car creeping forward. Variable ratio power steering delivers perfect weight and feedback under all conditions, and an available four-wheel steering system tightens the turning circle to a compact car-like dime at low speeds, while helping maintain stability at the blistering velocities the 550i GT is capable of.
Despite its appearance, this is a car that always begs you to drive it a little harder than you are. The optional Driving Dynamics Control allows you to fine tune the suspension, engine response, and stability control to suit your mood, but even in the Comfort setting there’s only so much it can do with the low-profile tires fitted to the 20-inch wheels on my test car. If you’re more interested in the luxury side of things, stick with standard 18s and their taller rubber.
On the other hand, if fuel economy is a concern, you may want to wait a few months until the less powerful 535i GT goes on sale. Even with a system that uses hybrid-like brake regeneration to recharge the battery when slowing down to increase efficiency by up to 5%, the 550i GT gets an EPA rating of just 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway, earning it a $1000 gas guzzler fee.
Dynamically, then, the 550i GT delivers much of what a true Gran Turismo does, just without the haute couture style usually associated with the name. Of course, there’s another way to look at it. Priced at $63,900, the 550i GT is nearly twenty grand less than the 750i sedan, with which it shares so much. That kind of makes it an economy car, doesn’t it? Just like a good little hatchback is supposed to be. Even a big one like this.
2011 BMW 550i GT
Base Price: $63,900
Type: 4- or 5-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Engine: 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8
Power: 400 hp, 450 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
MPG: 15 city/21 hwy
What do you think of the GT?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.