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BMW M Coupe


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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 enthusiastic variety.

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 behavior.

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 0.42.

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 team.

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 tallied 5444.

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 internal polarity.

Assistant art director Dan Winter said, "It looks like a Civic hatchback." Associate art director Tom Cosgrove dismissed it as "Pinto-esque."

But the head aesthete, art director Jeff Dworin, had a different opinion. "I really like it," he said. "There's a certain tension to it."

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.

The Verdict

Highs: Surgically precise steering, right-now responses, unique styling.

Lows: Unique styling, nonadjustable steering wheel, limited seat travel.

The Verdict: Appearances notwithstanding, a delightful pocket rocket best appreciated from the driver's seat.

Counterpoint

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." -- Bradley Nevin

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

Specifications

Vehicle type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 3-door coupe

Price as tested: $42,816

Price and option breakdown: base BMW M coupe (includes $570 freight and $446 luxury tax), $42,816

Major standard accessories: power steering, windows, seats, and locks; A/C; cruise control; rear defroster and wiper

Sound system: BMW/Harman/Kardon AM/FM-stereo radio/cassette, 9 speakers

ENGINE

Type

6-in-line, iron block and aluminum head

Bore x stroke

3.40 x 3.53 in, 86.4 x 89.6mm

Displacement

192 cu in, 3152cc

Compression ratio

10.5:1

Engine-control system

Siemens MS 41.1 with port fuel injection

Emissions controls

3-way catalytic converter, feedback air-fuel-ratio control

Valve gear

chain-driven double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters, variable intake-valve timing

Power (SAE net)

240 bhp @ 6000 rpm

Torque (SAE net)

236 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm

Redline

6500 rpm


DRIVETRAIN

Transmission

5-speed manual

Final-drive ratio

3.23:1, limited slip


Gear

Ratio

Mph/1000 rpm

Max. test speed

I

4.21

5.2

34 mph (6500 rpm)

II

2.49

8.8

57 mph (6500 rpm)

III

1.66

13.2

86 mph (6500 rpm)

IV

1.24

17.7

115 mph (6500 rpm)

V

1.00

22.0

138 mph (6300 rpm)


DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES

Wheelbase

96.8 in

Track, F/R

56.0/58.7 in

Length

158.5 in

Width

68.5 in

Height

50.4 in

Ground clearance

3.8 in

Curb weight

3049 lb

Weight distribution, F/R

50.4/49.6%

Fuel capacity

13.5 gal

Oil capacity

5.8 qt

Water capacity

11.4 qt


CHASSIS/BODY

Type

unit construction

Body material

welded steel stampings


INTERIOR

SAE volume

front seat

46 cu ft

luggage space

9 cu ft

Front seats

bucket

Seat adjustments

fore and aft, seatback angle, height

Restraint systems, front

manual 3-point belts, driver and passenger front and side airbags

General comfort

EXCELLENT

Fore-and-aft support

GOOD

Lateral support

GOOD


SUSPENSION

Front

ind, strut located by a control arm, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Rear

ind, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar


STEERING

Type

rack-and-pinion, power-assisted

Turns lock-to-lock

3.2

Turning circle curb-to-curb

34.1 ft


BRAKES

Front

12.4 x 1.1-in vented disc

Rear

12.3 x 0.8-in vented disc

Power assist

vacuum with anti-lock control


WHEELS AND TIRES

Wheel size

F: 7.5 x 17 in
R: 9.0 x 17 in

Wheel type

cast aluminum

Tires

Dunlop SP Sport 8080E; 
F: 225/45ZR-17, 
R: 245/40ZR-17

Test inflation pressures, F/R

32/32 psi


ACCELERATION

Seconds

Zero to

 

30 mph

1.8

40 mph

2.8

50 mph

3.9

60 mph

5.3

70 mph

6.9

80 mph

8.8

90 mph

11.1

100 mph

13.9

110 mph

17.2

120 mph

22.0

130 mph

28.3

Street start

 

5-60 mph

6.1

Top-gear acceleration

 

30-50 mph

7.0

50-70 mph

6.9

Standing 1/4-mile

13.9 sec @ 100 mph

Top speed (governor limited)

138 mph


BRAKING

70-0 mph @ impending lockup

168 ft

Fade

LIGHT


HANDLING

Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad

0.86 g

Understeer

MODERATE


FUEL ECONOMY

EPA city driving

19 mpg

EPA highway driving

26 mpg

C/D-observed fuel economy

22 mpg


INTERIOR SOUND LEVEL

Idle

53 dBA

Full-throttle acceleration

80 dBA

70-mph cruising

74 dBA

70-mph coasting

74 dBA

By Tony Swan

 


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