interior photos by Grant Yoxon
October 31, 2006
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the original BMW M Coupe because I liked the story of its gestation. Unlike most new cars, it wasn’t the result of marketing research or a search for more money; indeed, the Z3 on which it was based was never designed to have a hardtop version. It was created by a small group of engineers at BMW almost as a skunk-works project that was then presented to upper management; they liked it and put it into production.
The M coupe was unlike most BMWs of its time – it was raw and edgy when the rest of the company’s line-up was being refined to the point of perfection. It was fast, its tail would slide out if you got too hard into the throttle and the styling, in the years before Chris Bangle’s "flame surfacing" surfaced, was challenging to say the least. The roofline reminded one more of a bread van than a sports coupe; the rear haunches flared dramatically over huge rear tires and four exhaust pipes; the side window was even lacking BMW’s trademark "Hofmeister kink," the reversed angle at the rear that gives BMWs such a distinctive look.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was enthusiastic about the M Coupe. Now, many years after its original introduction, the car has a serious cult following. There are groups of M Coupe enthusiasts all over the world and the car’s resale value has remained surprisingly high – much more so than other Z3 models and even the M Roadster which shared its drivetrain. So it’s only natural that BMW build a successor, this time on the Z4 platform and sporting the same 330-hp M Power inline-six and six-speed transmission from the new M Roadster. Priced at $68,900, it costs barely $10,000 more than a loaded-up Z4 3.0si and is also $1,000 less than the M Roadster, which itself looked like a bit of a deal the first time I drove it.
As such, it’s a bit more of a mainstream car than the old M Coupe was. For one thing, the styling is less strange and is instead just beautiful. Instead of the old car’s roofline – which was more akin to a Honda Civic hatchback than anything else – the new car’s roof curves gracefully from the windshield into an abbreviated boat-tail. The hatchback tucks in dramatically from the sides and frames a tiny rear window; the side glass now has rear-quarter windows that feature the recognizable kink. Time, I think, has helped us grow familiar with the curved slashes in the side of the Z4 body; decorated with M badges, BMW logos that also house the side turn-signal repeaters and four bazooka exhaust pipes under the rear bumper, the M Coupe oozes a restrained menace that turned way more heads than I thought it would. I even got e-mails from a couple of readers who saw me driving through downtown in it.
Unlike the original M Coupe, the new version’s body doesn’t flare outwards at all, but the rear tires are still huge; they’re just packed even more tightly underneath the body than ever before. They’re hooked up to the magnificent 3.2-litre engine by BMW’s trick M differential and a six-speed manual transmission with super-short (but also super-notchy) throws. Perhaps in recognition of the original car’s hooligan attitude, there is no SMG sequential gearbox available like in the M3 – and when you switch off the stability control, it is well and truly off instead of merely having a raised threshold for intervention. The electrohydraulic steering of the regular Z4 has been replaced with a more conventional (and better-feeling) hydraulically-assisted setup; you can still use the "sport" button on the centre console to reduce the level of assistance for aggressive driving while simultaneously increasing the sensitivity of the throttle for sharper, angrier responses to your right foot.
This is not a car that particularly wants to be driven slowly. Try to putter through downtown traffic (especially with sport mode engaged) and the M Coupe bucks and hiccups, willing you to get out onto the open road and go faster. At low speeds, the ride is pretty stiff and the gearbox and clutch – unlike most BMWs – aren’t flattering to less-than-perfect shifts; the first-second shift in particular can be touchy to execute at part-throttle. Additionally, visibility out of the surprisingly roomy cabin is quite poor; the rear-quarter windows are almost useless and the rear window is much smaller than its outside outline would lead you to expect; the abbreviated view cuts off the top of even low sports cars lurking behind you.
But find some curves, snap open the M Power engine’s six individual throttle butterflies, drop a couple of gears and the raspy-sounding M Coupe is a car transformed. It leaps forward at the touch of the ultra-sensitive gas pedal, the smoothness of the clutch ceases to matter as you bang home shifts fast and hard and the steering and chassis just come alive. Thanks to its ultra-quick steering, short gears and sharp brakes, the Coupe is never really seamless to drive in the same way, say, a Porsche Cayman is. What it is, if you’re in the mood to throw a car around with whole-body motions rather than guide it precisely with your fingers, is a whole lot more hooligan fun. Switch off the DSC and you can squeal the tires away from every stoplight; you can slide sideways around corners thanks to the workings of the limited-slip differential; you can be sweaty-palmed from just five minutes behind the wheel. On the right road and on the right kind of day, the M Coupe is awesome; it twitches around like a Honda S2000 with a whole lot more power and torque (and, thanks to that hardtop, an even stiffer body shell).
If that all makes it sound like the M Coupe is only a fair-weathered friend, it’s not: indeed, there are a couple of major surprises. First is the ride quality at everything but very low speeds – it’s not only far better than the original M Coupe (as confirmed by a ride-along with Bruce Shaver, the owner of the silver original you see in the photos) but also better than the Z4 roadster. Credit BMW’s M division for dropping the run-flat tires which have become the bane of some of the other vehicles in BMW’s line-up; on conventional Continentals and with a can of sealant in the trunk, the new Coupe rides remarkably well given its impressive cornering capability. The other major surprise is the car’s practicality; while there’s obviously not quite as much cargo space as in the original bread van (especially if you were tempted to pile stuff up to the roof), the floor area in the trunk is large and well-shaped and will accommodate a surprising amount of stuff; I hauled home a whole pile of computer equipment in the M Coupe and was still able to close the sliding tonneau cover over it all.
The M Coupe isn’t a perfect car, but it does feel special in a way that most other BMW models don’t. It’s not as well-balanced and it’s a bit more difficult to do the morning commute in. But it’s also great to look at (some special colour choices help), awesome to drive and practical enough that you’d put up with its flaws. It is also quite a deal: cheaper than Porsche’s base Cayman but with 35 more horsepower than the $83,900 Cayman S. While it’s not quite the all-rounder the Cayman is – the Porsche, amazingly enough, has more trunk space and is a fantastic winter car – it also has more attitude and a raw edge that more than a few drivers will really respond to.
Right now, the M Coupe is my favourite car in BMW’s current line-up, and given the brand’s consistent strength across the board, that’s really saying something.
At a glance: 2006 BMW M Coupe
Base price $68,900
Options $ 2,700 (premium package with power-fold auto dimming mirrors, electric seats, DSP sound system)
Price as tested $71,600
Engine 3.2-litre inline-6
Power 330 hp
Torque 262 lb-ft
Fuel consumption (city/highway): NA
Manufacturer’s web site