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The BMW M Roadster and Coupe are like Batman to the Z3/Z4's Bruce Wayne. Sure, Bruce is a nifty guy, with his stately Wayne manor, gazillions of dollars and revolving cast of babes. But if it came down to it, we'd much rather hang out with Batman (just as long as he's not played by Val Kilmer) and his car.
Thanks to a powerful engine, communicative steering and sharp handling, the BMW M Roadster and Coupe have long been one of our favorite tools for tackling serpentine roads. And with their exaggerated long front ends and cabin seemingly perched atop the rear wheels, it's about as close as you can actually get to the Batmobile.
The first-generation BMW M was based on the Z3, while the second generation took after the more mature, more mechanically sophisticated Z4. There is no BMW M presently in production based on the current Z4.
Most Recent BMW M
The most recent BMW M Roadster and Coupe were produced for 2006, but BMW officially changed the car's name to Z4 M for the two following years. This Z4-based, second-generation M Coupe and Roadster had their predecessor's crazy wild-child nature replaced with a more mature blend of engine, chassis and design that puts it into the same club as more expensive, elite sports cars.
Power came from a 3.2-liter inline-6 that delivers 330 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. BMW's M division stuck with a "back to basics" approach, forgoing newfangled technologies like SMG automanual transmissions and active steering in favor of a slick-shifting six-speed manual and hydraulic steering system.
There were other performance-minded upgrades as well, such as a sport-tuned suspension, a limited-slip rear differential and more powerful brakes. Inside, you'll find a meaty, small-diameter steering wheel that we'd special order on every sports car if we could. The M Coupe has a fastback roof line, concealing 10.7 cubic feet of cargo space under its hatch. The Roadster holds a decent 7.1 cubic feet with its soft top lowered.
In reviews of the BMW M Coupe and Roadster, we found that its modus operandi was immediacy: quick steering, instant brakes, direct throttle response and caffeinated ride. It felt like the Z4 the BMW engineers and test-drivers originally intended to build before the focus groups electrified its steering, softened its edges and slowed its reflexes to make it less taxing to drive. The M Coupe is much the same story, with a slightly stiffer structure provided by its fixed roof. However, some might find the car's ride quality to be overly stiff for daily use.
Past BMW M Models
The original BMW M was based on the Z3 and sold from 1998-2002. Originally only available in M Roadster form, the controversial M Coupe arrived for 1999 with a structure that was 2.5 times stiffer than the convertible, boosting the M's handling capabilities even further.
Unique styling traits, including a sculpted airdam, chrome side gills and aggressively flared rear fenders, made the M look better than its plebeian progenitor. It was how the Z3 should have always looked. Yet these cars were more than just a cosmetic exercise. The M initially came equipped with a 3.2-liter inline-6 that produced 240 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. The chassis was stiffened and fat 17-inch rubber was added to the Z3 base car. After the redesigned M3 debuted in 2001, BMW shoehorned that car's revised inline-6 into the M Roadster and Coupe, boosting power to 315 hp and 251 lb-ft. Although the M was always a wild child, the new engines put it into Lindsay Lohan territory. A five-speed manual was the only transmission available, which we described as "BMW's best shifter."
A trademark of the M Coupe and Roadster was its selection of eye-catching colors and two-tone leather interiors. The cabin design was largely carried over from the Z3, but a chunky three-spoke M steering wheel and three additional gauges that resided under the manual climate controls differentiated the M model. Legroom was good for even taller drivers, while the non-adjustable steering wheel was lamentable but was at least well placed. The Roadster only came with a plastic rear window, which will cloud, crease and need continual replacement.
In road tests, we gushed about this BMW M Roadster and Coupe, even if we found them to be a little unwieldy in their later, more powerful years. Body roll was almost nil, grip nearly excessive and the steering ultraquick for sharp, split-second transitions. The pedals were perfectly placed for heel-and-toe downshifting and the brakes were easy to modulate and immensely powerful. Aggressive driving was rewarded with harrowing corner speeds, but again, the short wheelbase combined with the massive dose of horsepower to make for some twitchy handling at the limit. Keep it below that limit and you should be able to keep it clear of ditches or the odd mountain precipice. The roadster wasn't the stiffest car on the road and bumps produced a fair amount of cowl shake and body flex -- problems the coupe did not suffer from, which is why it's considered a superior driver's car.
While the Z3 is a classic in the making, the M Roadster is probably even more so. The M Coupe is likely to be the most collectible of them all, though, since it was produced in very limited numbers. But whether you're piloting yours under the sun or under a hatch, the BMW M will be a supremely fun and stylish sports car for years to come.