CARMEL, CA – No auto maker can afford to ignore the proliferation of electronic gadgets in everyday life.

Smartphones, iPads and MP3 players have become appendages. If people had to choose between losing toes or unlimited access to their devices, many likely would pick the former.

This strange new man-machine interface poses particular challenges for German auto makers, such as BMW, that have built their reputations around the notion driving, itself, is a sacred act and the automobile a holy object.

So along comes BMW’s ’12 650i coupe, a wickedly fast beast of a sports car whose 400-hp twin-turbo reverse-flow 4.4L V-8 treats asphalt as if it were an appetizer.

But the 650i’s road-carving prowess is not the primary pitch at the media launch of the vehicle here.

Instead, the conversation centers on the Bang & Olufsen surround-sound audio system and the “ConnectedDrive” mobility package that includes automatic high beams, lane-departure warning, a color head-up display, night vision and adaptive cruise control.

And there is a completely separate presentation about BMW’s partnership with music-provider MOG to certify a “smartphone app,” so customers can have on-demand streaming music in the cabin.

All this stuff is cool – and might even make driving safer and more enjoyable for some – but is it central to the experience behind the wheel of the Ultimate Driving Machine? Years ago, Bavarian loyalists would have said, “Heck no!”

They’d rather hear that this third-generation 6-Series is the latest BMW to receive ZF’s 8-speed automatic transmission, with its rapid gear changes and low-rev cruising for better fuel efficiency.

They certainly would want to know, despite being 419 lbs. (190 kg) heavier than its predecessor, that the ’12 650i actually is faster and can reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.9 seconds.

And that it feels quite nimble and agile, thanks to front and rear suspensions made predominantly from aluminum, optional Active Roll Stabilization that makes for flat cornering and electronically controlled shocks that adapt to any road surface.

BMW purists would be thrilled to hear the new 650i comes available with a 6-speed manual transmission. Surprisingly, that option is not offered in the home market of Germany.

The take rate for the manual is expected to be as high as 13%.

Another tech tidbit: The 6-Series is the first car in its class offering Integral Active Steering, a $1,750 option that turns the rear wheels to improve low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability (although it is not available with xDrive all-wheel drive).

Combining electric power steering with such variability could result in a system that feels over-assisted. But in the 650i coupe, the balance is just right, feeling firm on the highway and permitting a lighter touch on twisty roads through the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near here.

’12 BMW 650i
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger coupe
Engine 4.4L DOHC twin-turbo all-aluminum V-8
Power (SAE net) 400 hp @ 5,500-6,400 rpm
Torque 450 lb.-ft. (610 Nm) @ 1,750-4,500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 112.4 ins. (286 cm)
Overall length 192.8 ins. (490 cm)
Overall width 74.6 ins. (189 cm)
Overall height 53.9 ins. (137 cm)
Curb weight 4,233 lbs. (1,920 kg)
Base price $83,875
Fuel economy 15/22 mpg (15.6-10.6 L/100 km)
Competition Porsche 911, Jaguar XK, Mercedes SL
Pros Cons
Feels, sounds like BMW Enough with all the apps
Comfortable, inviting, predictable Interior isn’t raising the bar
EPS, Active Steering integrated well Declining market discouraging

But these vital facts seem secondary to the breathless excitement about car buyers’ ability to be connected at all times with friends, family and even their music.

Rob Filipovic, advanced planning and strategy manager for BMW of North America, takes this quandary in stride, saying customers buy BMWs for many reasons.

“Some people who are really interested in driving also are interested in technology and audio systems,” Filipovic says. “You don’t find people with a singular focus on driving dynamics.”

Not long ago, BMW drivers would scoff at such distractions.

In the auto maker’s defense, the 650i coupe follows to market its convertible sibling, which arrived in May. With the exception of the roof, the vehicles are carbon copies, which means BMW didn’t have much product news on the mechanical side beyond what was shared at the convertible launch.

All-wheel drive is available with the coupe and convertible 650i, making it the auto maker’s first AWD cabriolet.

In comparing the two vehicles, the convertible is 264 lbs. (120 kg) heavier but benefits from a weight distribution that is more evenly balanced front to rear. The drop-top also has marginally more headroom, but the coupe has an extra 2 cu.-ft. (57 L) of trunk space.

Another key differentiator is price, which starts at $83,875 for the coupe, including destination and handling charges, which undercuts the convertible by $7,500.

If price is a factor, consider the 640i coupe and convertible, equipped with BMW’s all-new N55 3.0L twin-scroll turbocharged inline-6, which won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award in 2011.

The 640i, going on sale this fall, was not available to drive at the media event, but pricing begins at $74,475.

The 315-hp 6-cyl. will not be available with a manual transmission or AWD.

Fuel-economy ratings are not yet available for the 640i, but the numbers are the same for the 650i convertible and coupe: 15/22 mpg (15.6-10.6 L/100 km) city/highway with the manual and 15/23 mpg (15.6-10.2 L/100 km) with the automatic.

On a meandering 68-mile (109-km) route from here to Santa Cruz, the 650i performs as billed, achieving 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) in mixed driving, much of it aggressive.

Compared with the previous second-generation 6-Series, sprung from BMW’s E63 platform, the new 6 sits lower and is wider and longer.

Although the complex, shapely headlamps of the old model were dazzling, the front end overall was horizontal and straightforward.

The new model, thanks to its power-dome hood and optional light-emitting-diode adaptive headlamps positioned higher, is more dramatic and upright. In this sporty application, the twin-kidney grille resembles flared nostrils on an angry bull.

The profile benefits from more crimps in the sheet metal, but at the rear end the new 6-Series may be less esthetically pleasing than its predecessor. The oddly configured taillamps on the new model are distracting compared with the spot-on proportions of old.

Sales expectations will have to be tempered for the new 6. In 2010, BMW sold 2,418 6-Series cars in the U.S., down 32% from like-2009 and a far cry from the 10,000 units delivered in its best year of 2005.

Inside, the new 6-Series carries forward the familiar BMW design cues, with an emphasis on brushed aluminum and white stitching to provide brilliant contrast on the soft-touch black instrument panel.

The iDrive controller integrates with a 10.2-in. (26-cm) color display screen, which will be appreciated by customers who embrace side-view camera vision, Internet radio, video playback and all the connectivity the 6-Series can deliver.

You get what you pay for. And if you pay more than $80,000 for a car, you should get bells, whistles and Bang & Olufsen “acoustic lens” technology designed so music reaches your ear before it reflects off a surface and loses its luster.

It’s not that the availability of this optional equipment is objectionable, but that these offerings threaten to overshadow the core dynamics-centered strategy that has guided BMW brilliantly for decades.