In BMW's 2006 M Coupe, it's all about the steering wheel.
As anyone who's ever driven a BMW knows, the steering wheel represents a crucial element in cars wearing the blue-and-white roundel. In other automobiles the steering wheel merely serves as a directional control device. But in BMW automobiles it's more like an ergonomically shaped syringe — injecting the car's soul directly into the driver's cerebellum.
In the new M Coupe, the strikingly large diameter of the rim is wrapped in supple leather, providing a sumptuous yet brawny place to land your grip. That same luxuriant, meaty feel is maintained throughout every aspect of the car — from its hefty steering effort and shifter action to its heavily bolstered leather seats to its love-it-or-leave-it styling.
Brewed with a 'tude This overtly edgy character is paired to one of the world's preeminent engines. As an heir to BMW Motorsports' magnificent 3.2-liter, inline-six drivetrain, the M Coupe could rightly be described as the M3's little brother. This choice power plant makes the M Coupe transition with 330 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque intact. And it continues to provide unrestrained gyrations up to the 8,000-rpm redline, along with a broad torque band that thrusts the car forward with the immediacy of a 1960s muscle car.
But where the M3 went to finishing school on a full-ride scholarship, the M Coupe dropped out early, told his guidance counselor to pound sand and hooked up with a traveling blues band. This attitude is apparent the moment you fire up the engine. A low-frequency rumble, more in line with Milwaukee V-twins than Munich straight-sixes, has supplanted the M3's high-pitched exhaust squeal. Burly shifter action has long been an M3 hallmark, but the M3's optional SMG tranny is not lurking on the M Coupe's option list to rescue wannabe Villeneuves from the task of actually driving this feisty two-seater.
A track-tive design We were fortunate enough to do just that around the 4 miles and 14 turns that make up the Road America race circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. With an aluminum chassis as rigid as Republican legislation riding on 18-inch M Double-Spoke alloy wheels, the M Coupe offers the kind of instant response and at-the-limit confidence normally associated with track-ready models like the Lotus Exige. Numerous tweaks to the base Z4 coupe, including a wider front track, stronger rear subframe and hydraulic power steering (the Z4's is electric) conspire with M-specific suspension calibrations to create an incredibly tossable, leather-lined go-kart wearing BMW badges.
Total vehicle weight is 3,230 pounds, with an aluminum hood and upgraded aluminum front suspension pieces contributing to the car's svelte nature and 50.2/49.8 weight distribution. Slowing the M Coupe is accomplished via the same brake system offered on the M3 Competition Package. That means dual-compound, cross-drilled and ventilated rotors at each corner, with 13.7-inch discs up front and 12.9-inch units in back. Tire specifications are yet another point of deviation between the M Coupe and lesser models, with the base Z4 Coupe's run-flats replaced by traditional Z-rated Continental tires sized 225/45-18 (front) and 255/40-18 (rear).
Techno-savvy Like many M products the M Coupe features two throttle-response programs. The default "Normal" setting is in use whenever the car is started, but pushing a console-mounted button easily accesses the "Sport" mode. This mode increases the ratio of throttle opening to pedal movement and, in conjunction with BMW's double VANOS variable valve technology, provides nearly instantaneous access to the engine's highest performance levels.
There's a potential dark side to this much power and torque in a lightweight, short-wheelbase coupe, but BMW has tried to ensure those 330 horses cause more joy than sorrow. A mechanical limited-slip differential uses viscous fluid to balance power between the rear wheels, and Dynamic Stability Control can do everything from reducing engine torque to applying individual brake pressure when it senses abnormal understeer or oversteer. Of course the latter feature can be deactivated for those times when you want to experience oversteer, a circumstance the M Coupe seems rather well suited to.
Can't escape its roots Despite the M Coupe's somewhat gangsta attitude — at least in comparison to the rest of the BMW family tree — there remains a wealth of premium features on both the standard and optional equipment lists. Every car, for instance, comes with automatic xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, heated outside mirrors and automatic climate control. For buyers who like their iron fists in a fully lined velvet glove, there are fat-cat items ranging from DVD navigation to three-stage heated seats to walnut interior trim. There's even a premium THX-certified audio system with eight speakers and dual subwoofers. Pricing starts at $49,995, which includes the $695 destination charge.
But don't let the Nappa leather fool you; the 2006 BMW Z4 M Coupe isn't a car for posers. Ride quality is about as stiff as any BMW we've driven and, as stated, steering and shifter action require a firm hand — make that a firm hand, arm and shoulder. But if you actually buy ultimate driving machines because you enjoy driving, the car will not disappoint.
In fact, while we know that guidance counselor won't admit to it, little M has made him proud.