July 20, 2006
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By Laurance Yap
Photos by Grant Yoxon and Laurance Yap
How badly do you want to drive a Formula 1 car?
If you’re like me, badly. But if you’re like me – or, indeed, about 99.5 per cent of the population – that dream is destined to remain a dream. It’s not because you’d not be able to handle an F1 car (though that’s probably true, too); it’s just that the darn things are so small and tight. On the track, F1 cars look big, powerful, and dominant; in person they’re unimaginably small and delicate-looking. And F1 drivers are no different: Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve (who are driving for BMW this year) may have big presence, but they’re tiny bundles of muscle and nerves in person – small enough that even stubby little me doesn’t have to look up at them.
Well, BMW may just have found a way for you to play at F1 stardom on your daily commute. It’s the new M6 coupe, and it’s stuffed full of race-car styling, race-car materials, and race-car technology.
Here, carbon-fibre is used not just as an interior trim accent (where it graces the dashboard, centre console, and door armrests) but also as a structural element: the roof is made of carbon instead of steel, making it much lighter and simultaneously helping to lower the car’s centre of gravity.
An M Drive button on the steering wheel lets you access your favourite out of almost two hundred possible combinations of engine power (400 or 500), throttle response (regular or slow), stability control threshold, gearshift speed, and suspension stiffness (comfort, regular, and sport). There’s a heads-up display that shows you the gear you’re in, a graphical representation of engine revs, and a digital speedometer readout; you barely ever need to look down.
While the M6 retains the 650i’s basic shape, the aerodynamic modifications you see are actually functional. The deeper front bumper feeds more air into the V10 engine. It, along with the side skirts and an intricately-sculpted rear bumper with an integrated splitter, help to reduce lift at high speeds.
The sequential manual gearbox which comes standard on the M6 has seven speeds, just like BMW’s modern F1 cars, and it’s a cinch to use. You can leave it in automatic mode if you’re not in the mood (shifts are not nearly as smooth as a regular automatic, but they’re much improved over BMW’s earlier SMG gearboxes), or you can use the shift lever or steering-wheel-mounted paddles to swap cogs.
It actually works best in the fastest of the various settings, and once you get used to lifting off the gas just a bit as you change gear, is acceptably smooth. There’s also a really cool launch control feature that, if you disable the stability-control system, crank the shift speed up to 6, and have the engine in “P500 sport” mode, performs perfect F1-style standing starts, complete with a flourish of wheelspin. Pointless? Kind of – but really good fun nonetheless.
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Of course, when BMW was developing the M6, its Formula 1 cars were powered by V10 engines, which is why this car and the M5 feature a 5.0-litre V10. The company’s new Formula 1 cars are, of course, powered by V8s, which ironically means that an M6 sounds more like an F1 car than an F1 car now does. It has a deep, almost burpy idle, but the noise gradually hardens into a full-on wall of sound if you stay in the gas to the 8,000-rpm limiter.
Despite the engine’s high-revving nature – and an eagerness of character that has you driving it more aggressively than you probably should – it’s also very flexible, as happy to putter around town below 2,000 rpm as it is charging for the redline along a deserted stretch of highway. The price you pay for the immense power (507 horses) and flexibility is near-catastrophic levels of fuel consumption:
in four days, I managed no better than 22.0 L/100 km, which is even worse than I did in the Dodge Viper, and even manages to be worse than I averaged in a Cadillac Escalade.
Why so thirsty? Well, despite its carbon roof and other weight-saving measures, the M6 is still a big, heavy car – much bigger than, say, a Corvette Z06 or a Porsche 911. Its 450-litre trunk is big enough to hold several golf bags, and the wheelbase is quite long for a sports car: enough so that rear-seat riders have reasonable legroom, if not headroom (the Vette is a strictly two-seater while the 911′s rear seats are habitable only by small children).
The M6 is also laden down with a luxurious GT-car cabin, replete with full leather dashboard, high-end stereo system, a second instrument binnacle housing the iDrive system and its DVD-based navigation, and all of the other goodies you would expect to find in a high-end luxury sedan. Indeed, the only indication that you’re in a supercar is the M6′s lack of a sunroof (the space where it would be in a 650i is covered over with an Alcantara panel) and the gorgeous noises coming from the engine bay. Build quality is as you would expect of a $135,000 car: the materials, including the thick carbon panels on the console and doors, are first-rate, and everything fits perfectly. The special seats’ manual headrests (they have power assists for everything from rake and reach to side bolster width and thigh-support length) are the only cheap touch.
Indeed, all of this luxury is kind of at odds with the high-tech aggression that the M6 radiates. Is this supposed to be a continent-crushing tourer, or is it supposed to be an extreme sports car? BMW would argue that, given the various set-up options you have for the engine, gearbox, and suspension, that it’s both of those things and much more too. But in trying to be all things to all people the M6 ends up being just a bit compromised as a sports car – even though objectively, it’s better on that front than some competitors.
The M6 may have the requisite massive-attack acceleration and leech-like cornering grip to be an extreme sports car, but it lacks the subtlety and delicacy of something a bit smaller, lighter, and nimbler. The steering – which thankfully is a conventional system in the M car without BMW’s variable-ratio Active Steering – has an artificial heft to it, and doesn’t really give you that much road feel. When you switch to “P400″ mode, it gets lighter, but also has less feel. Check out BMW Canada’s Web site, and you also notice that the M6′s weight distribution has migrated marginally away from the company’s 50/50 ideal; 53.5% of the car’s mass now rests on the front axle despite a lightweight aluminum front structure.
The suspension, which maintains an admirably flat cornering posture even on its softer settings, can sometimes get crashy over bigger bumps. The cross-drilled brakes (much larger than the 650′s and unique to the M6) have incredible stopping power and terrific pedal feel, but where are the mono-block calipers that would help better dissipate heat during a track day? And while the SMG gearbox’s shifts are perfect most of the time, including a throttle blip to smooth out the transitions on downshifts, it sometimes lurches between cogs when you – or it – are not paying full attention.
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Ultimately, the M6′s best feature – its multiple personalities and its ability to be just about any car you want it to be – might also be its biggest drawback for drivers looking for big-speed thrills. A Porsche GT3 is in the same ballpark as the M6 for price; it’s significantly less powerful (the new version out this fall will produce 415 hp) but is much lighter, and its lack of sound insulation, its adjustable suspension and its rear-engined layout make it a more exciting drive, and it’s just as fast in a straight line. A Corvette Z06 is actually about as well-rounded in terms of its overall abilities as the M6, and its $30,000-cheaper list price will help ease the pain of its less-luxurious interior.
Some competition comes from within BMW’s own product line-up, too. While the M6 is lightning fast (4.6 seconds to 100 km/h) and impressively agile for its size, the smaller M3 coupe is arguably more fun, and doesn’t actually feel much less roomy; it too offers the option of an SMG gearbox, and has a sexy engine note that’s all its own. If you’re out for a less extreme experience, the M5 sedan offers the same thundering drivetrain in a more practical package, with easy-access rear seats, more trunk space, and barely diminished speed.
Then again, while the M3 might feature some of the same technology as the M6, its connection to Formula 1 for true fanatics isn’t as great: there’s no carbon roof, no seven-speed transmission, and no 90-degree V10. If having a tangible link to the cars you see racing around your TV screen on Sunday mornings is important to you, there are few cars this side of a twice-as-much Ferrari that’ll give you the same buzz the $135,000 2007 BMW M6 does.
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