Contemporary car review originally published in Road & Track Sports & GT Cars 1999
Good thing no one was coming the other way. The driver of the Cougar – old style, with the “formal roof” – spun his head around like a Linda Blair wannabe as he passed me and drifted into the oncoming lane. Had there been oncoming traffic, there would have been a head-on, and the M Coupe I was driving most likely would have been at fault. And all I was doing was waiting at a stop sign.
It was a typical reaction. The BMW M Coupe was new and most likely the first one Mr. Cougar had seen. But with all the good looks of a bulldog, the sawed-off two-seater caused turned heads, craned necks and dropped jaws no matter where it went. Pumping gas, parked in the high school lot, or out on the road, everyone wanted to know what it was, how fast it would go and how it went around corners. Everyone. From teenage boys to the old ladies at church. So I told them something like this: The M Coupe is a fixed roof version of the BMW M Roadster which, in turn, is a special high performance version BMW’s open 2-seater. The BMW M cars are conceived and developed by BMW M, a separate division of the company in Garching, Germany, charged with parenting special high performance versions of BMW products which are then built elsewhere.
So in addition to the M Coupe, there’s a “lesser” version, the Z3 Coupe 2.8, which is powered by an in-line six that produces a mere 193 bhp. The M Coupe, like the M Roadster as well as the M3 sedan and convertible, are powered by the big 3.2-liter six that cranks out a healthy 240 bhp at 6000 rpm and 236 lb-ft of torque.
As in the Roadster, the big six gives the 3100-lb M Coupe push-you-back-in-the-seat straight-line performance and all the anti-squat in the world can’t prevent the nose from rising just a bit when the right pedal is pushed. Unlike the 2.8, the M Coupe is available only with a manual transmission. The stubby lever in the center console works like a good waiter, serving up the next gear with no muss or fuss and just as quick as you need it. The engine dominates the car, filling the engine compartment from the radiator to cowl. With the nose of the big six over the front axle line, the M Coupe almost qualifies as a front mid-engine chassis. The weight distribution is 50/50 front to rear and the driving position is in close proximity to the rear axle.
There’s a prodigious amount of rubber under the M coupe, the offset of the wheels emphasizing the width of the wheels, 7½ in. in front and a full 9.0 in. wide at the rear. The tires are sized appropriately, 225/45ZR-17 in front and a geranium-flattening 245/40ZR-17 at the rear. The Dunlop SP Sport stick well enough for quarter-mile times well under fifteen seconds with a trap speed knocking at the door of 100 mph. A Corvette and even a Camaro SS will out-accelerate the M Coupe, as will every F-car from Italy and those German cars with the same name as the number you call for the police. But not much else, and precious few cars can top both the M Coupe’s skidpad and slalom numbers.
Numbers be damned, the M Coupe’s handling could be said to make a driver cocky were it not for the car’s ability to deliver, with precision, just was requested. BMW claims the M Coupe is the stiffest car the company has ever made, with none of the roadster’s chassis stiffening being removed when the roof was added. It makes a strong base for the strut-type front and semi-trailing arm rear suspension. BMW accommodated the changes by increasing front caster for more straight-line stability and making the rear springs firmer and the rear anti-roll bar slightly larger.
Pour on the coal exiting a curve and the pocket Bimmer tightens the line, rather than running wider than an more ordinary car would. BMW’s All Season Traction, plus a limited-slip differential, get credit for the confidence a driver can have with the throttle. It’s one of the few traction control systems that I didn’t reflexively turn off every time I started the car, allowing as it does just the modicum of rear wheel slip for ideal cornering, clamping down hard only in really slippery situations, such as loose gravel. It takes the worry out of a short wheelbase combined with oodles of torque.
But more than just performance, BMW claims to have reinvented, or at least revived, the GT, as in grand touring, when that meant a great getaway car for two people, with no “+2” compromise of a back seat, and just enough luggage room for a weekend trip. The hatchback will also swallow a couple of golf bags. Seating is ideal for two, the M Coupe equipped with a leather-covered pair of bum-embracing seats that look like they’ve been upholstered in Hide of Batman. Neat. As is the chrome trim around the shifter boot and circling the gauges, adding a faint retro touch to the business-like interior. It’s snug, with pockets in the doors and a small bin in the bulkhead behind the seats. And no cupholders. Need more room? Buy a 740iL.
Just about everything on the M Coupe is standard—power doors, mirrors, seats and so on—and factory-installed options are limited to a deeply-tinted glass moonroof with power tilt (no slide feature) for $300 and a CD Radio for $200. An alarm system, cell phone, navigation system and trunk-mounted CD changer are available from the dealer. Wonderful as all this is, however, it’s not what made the Cougar driver almost lose control of his car if not himself. That was the M Coupe’s eigenwillig, or “determinedly going its own way” shape. Rather than plunking a short coupe bubble top on the roadster or create another clichéd fastback, BMW designers deliberately sought to make something different. It may not be universally admired, but the man-on-the-street response is almost universally thumbs up. There’s certainly no doubt about its somewhat antisocial intentions that the L’il Abneresque shape, too muscular for its little barchetta bodywork, bulging with flares and sills and four tailpipes under the rear bumper that wraps around to those meaty rear tires. “It’s so ugly ya gotta love it,” remarked one observer. That’s a compliment, I think. But be forewarned: Even sitting still, the M Coupe is a safety hazard—at least to one Cougar driver.