Depending on your response, the new BMW M coupe is either a tribute to George
Barris, the hot-rod-custom king who made cars out of bathtubs and other unlikely
stuff, or a fearless expression of contemporary cool. There doesn't seem to be
much middle ground.
Whatever your aesthetic reaction, there are two undeniable truths. Based on
the Z3 chassis, the M coupe, along with the less potent Z3 coupe 2.8, looks like
nothing else on the road today, even allowing for the few Volvo 1800ES sport
wagons and MGB GTs still in service. And it demonstrates that BMW is willing to
take some chances, something that's been absent in the cautious updates of its
3-, 5-, and 7-series cars.
BMW's press materials describe the M coupe's core trait as eigenwillig,
German for "determinedly going its own way," and admit that the design
"is bound to generate discussion." Well, no kidding, guys.
Discussion notwithstanding, there's more to the M coupe than meets the eye.
In particular, it has much more chassis rigidity than its roadster relative.
Adding a roof to the roadster recipe yields a vast increase in torsional
stiffness, 2.6 times that of the M roadster, according to BMW. Although the
suspension is the same -- struts with twin-tube gas shocks and an anti-roll bar
up front, and at the rear, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, twin-tube gas
shocks, and an anti-roll bar -- the far stiffer body shell allowed higher spring
and damping rates all around.
According to BMW, the M coupe is 47 pounds heavier than the M roadster.
According to the C/D scales, however, the coupe is 31 pounds lighter than the
most recent M roadster we tested (C/D, March). It's also a hefty 199 pounds
lighter than the M3 two-door we tested in August 1997.
That means the familiar 240-horsepower, 3.2-liter engine that powers all
three of these M variants enjoyed its best power-to-weight ratio in our M coupe
test car. Hustling to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, it was 0.1 second quicker than the
roadster, and 0.2 second quicker than the M3. And the coupe held its lead as the
speedo needle advanced. The M coupe hit 120 mph in 22.0 seconds, 0.2 second
ahead of the roadster and 0.8 up on the M3.
Conclusion: Although you can get from A to B even faster in a Corvette, for
about the same money, it's clear that the M coupe is one of the quicker
offerings in its class.
And even though we were mildly surprised at our test car's relatively modest
0.86-g skidpad performance -- our M3 and M roadster scored 0.87 and 0.88 g,
respectively -- we remain convinced that this roofed-over roadster would leave
its stablemates behind on a demanding road circuit.
The basis for this conviction is a day of touring mountain roads near BMW's
factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and another day on one of the infield
road circuits at North Carolina's Charlotte Motor Speedway. On these surfaces,
the new coupe emerged as a driving instrument of nearly surgical precision, with
bulldog grip, plenty of hustle from BMW's stout straight-six, crisp shifting,
superb brakes, and an endearing willingness to forgive errors of the
We have one small proviso to the foregoing. The handling of the coupes BMW
trotted out at Charlotte ranged from medium understeer to nearly neutral,
although power oversteer could be induced in all of them, provided the traction
control was switched off. Back in Michigan, our test-track results noted
understeer as the car's "dominant mode."
Despite its meaty contact patches -- 225/45ZR-17s in front, 245/40ZR-17s at
the rear -- we suspect the car is more sensitive than most to tire pressures,
and a little tuning with a good gauge will yield significant changes in
In any case, Scott Doniger, BMW's North American M brand manager, thinks this
two-seat Z3 variant is "arguably the most responsive BMW the company has
ever produced," and we agree.
This hardtop is also quieter than the ragtop in ordinary operation -- no
surprise there -- and a bit more slippery, with a drag coefficient of 0.38,
which is bricklike by contemporary standards but better than the roadster's
Although the M coupe driving experience is almost undiluted exhilaration, we
do have a couple of small quibbles with the interior, complaints that are direct
carry-overs from the roadster.
Perhaps the most irritating under this heading is the fixed steering wheel.
Although a little fiddling with the seat height effectively alters the driver's
relationship to the wheel, a number of drivers would prefer a little less rake.
We'd also prefer a little less assist in the steering, although it's all but
impossible to criticize its accuracy.
The seats are typical of BMW M cars -- plenty of thigh and torso bolstering
to keep driver and passenger from thrashing around during zealous maneuvers --
but taller drivers will probably find themselves adjusting the seatback angle
toward vertical to maximize legroom. A little more seat travel would be helpful,
and the absence of a rear decklid would seem to make this possible, although it
would probably increase manufacturing costs.
On the other hand, there's more room overhead than in the roadster, as well
as more storage space behind the front seats. As for the two-tone dashboard --
it's black, with a second color chosen to match the exterior paint -- some like
it, some don't.
The gestation of this bullet disguised as a breadbox is almost as intriguing
as its appearance. The paint was barely dry on the production-final Z3 prototype
back in 1993 when a small group gathered in BMW's Munich-based Forschungs und
Ingenieurs Zentrum ("development and engineering center") to explore
the possibilities of a coupe conversion.
Nominally under the baton of Yankee wunderkind Chris Bangle, BMW's design
boss, the coupe group was chaired by Z3 platform chief Dr. Burkhard Goschel, who
has since gone on to head BMW's Sports Activity Vehicle (read: SUV) development
Gathering in their spare time after hours, the coupe group initially had no
official sanction for the clandestine cutting and pasting that ensued. When
Goschel and his henchmen were through, they sold the idea to BMW management, and
here it is, with a price tag of $42,816 ($36,824 for the milder 2.8-liter
version), which is $429 less than the '98 M roadster, a distinction that's
expected to grow to about $900 when the '99 ragtops roll into showrooms.
Now all the company has to do is sell it to customers. How hard will that be?
BMW is optimistic, although its 1999 sales expectations are modest: 600 M
coupes, 850 Z3 coupe 2.8s. In contrast, the M roadster sold 1505 copies in its
first three months on the market, and sales of the Z3 2.8 through June of '98
Be that as it may, judging by an informal poll at the C/D home office, where
reaction to the styling ran about three-to-one negative, it's gonna be a tough
sell. Responses of our resident aesthetic experts on the art staff sum up this
Assistant art director Dan Winter said, "It looks like a Civic
hatchback." Associate art director Tom Cosgrove dismissed it as
But the head aesthete, art director Jeff Dworin, had a different opinion.
"I really like it," he said. "There's a certain tension to
Tension or no, it's fair to say that appearance alone isn't going to attract
buyers. BMW sales consultants will have to get some backsides into those leather
buckets for serious test drives.
If and when they do, they may very well create converts. Thus, the M coupe is
more proof that beauty is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder. In this
case, the centers of appreciation are likely to be well south, specifically, the
visceral and gluteal regions.
And it tickles those regions plenty.
Drive this little bugger down the main drag in any college town, and you're
sure to get something along the lines of, "Awesome, baby! Awesome!"
This is the new benchmark in the loosely defined category of personal sports
coupe. This M coupe is fabulous. With its low stance, muscular fender flares,
and curvy shape, it has all the character and style of a Z3 or Porsche Boxster,
and the body rigidity and stiffness of a 5-series. Something about this car
seems to scream to its owner, "Hurt me! Hurt me! Make me work for it. Throw
me into that curve in the road like the dirty little car that I am!" To
which an obliging driver replies with a grin, "My pleasure." --
I think the M coupe looks great. The bulging fenders and squat shape evoke an
aggressiveness that screams, "Whaddya lookin' at, punk?" Exit the car
glancing to the rear, and you're graced with the sight of a muscular bulge
covering a wide tire. If that's not cool, what is? Even better, the M coupe
isn't a polished, polite, gentlemanly back-road driver. It's untamed, thanks to
a rear suspension that tends to toss the car around a bit. Tossing around may
not be the fastest way through a set of twisties, but on the thrill meter, the M
coupe ranks up there with the best roller coaster. Sure, a Vette is quicker, but
in a sports car, I want excitement and there's more to it than outright speed.
-- Larry Webster
The M coupe's roofline is a little weird. It also squats too much under
acceleration, and its handling isn't precise. Yet I find myself smitten by this
little beast, from its spicy interior style to its powerful six that yanks your
head rearward with each climb to the redline. I also like what this car says --
that there are still automakers bold enough to bring out quirky, passionate
sports cars that don't fit easily into an existing market niche. The M coupe may
have limited appeal to the mass market, much like BMW's 540i with a six-speed.
It's odd but enticing cars like these, though, that feed BMW's gilded, almost
mystical performance image. -- Don Schroeder