Blu-ray DVDs. Plasma flat-screen displays. Michael Jackson's face.
Like most of the world, we at Inside Line feel that technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil. Instead, we must look to the application of said technology to discern where it lands on the benevolence-malevolence spectrum. The technological pedigree of BMW's 2006 M6 is as vast and impressive as any vehicle currently on the market. And after a thorough road test, we have a solid understanding of where the M6 offers cutting-edge driving dynamics — and where it feels like a rhinoplasty gone bad.
Revised from rubber to roof
Starting with its carbon-fiber roof and ending at the 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in sticky Continental Z-rated rubber, BMW's Motorsport Division has performed a top-to-bottom revamp of the 6 Series coupe in creating the M6. At just over 3,900 pounds, the M6 is not exactly a featherweight contender, but that carbon-fiber roof both enhances the coupe's appearance and lowers its center of gravity. Powered by a 500-horsepower V10 and hooked to a seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) transmission, this nearly 2 tons of Munich machinations can sprint to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and blast through the quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 117.4 mph. Coincidentally, 12.8 was also the mpg we averaged during the course of the M6's road test.
High-performance engine, high-maintenance tranny
As with the high-grade plastic roof, the M6's 5.0-liter aluminum V10 engine could serve as the centerpiece in a Wired magazine article on the future of automotive technology. Designed as a high-revving homage to BMW's own F1 engine design, its maximum horsepower is achieved at an ear-pleasing 7,750 rpm (redline occurs at 8,250 rpm). Another common characteristic associated with high-rpm engine designs (à la Honda's S2000) is a maximum torque figure that is markedly lower than the maximum horsepower figure. With 383 pound-feet available at 6,100 rpm, this V10 doesn't pull like the one found in the Dodge Viper. However, advanced features like Double VANOS variable valve technology, a 12:1 compression ratio and 10 individual throttle bodies (one for each cylinder) give the V10 an addictive combination of smooth and flexible power delivery — despite its high-revving nature.
Complementing the V10's broad power band is the same seven-speed SMG transmission found in BMW's M5 sedan. But where the V10 is an unmitigated success in using modern technology to enhance the driving experience, SMG is well, mitigated. It's another bit of F1 technology passed down from BMW's race team, and it offers the usual promise of rapid-fire, rev-matched downshifts, crisp upshifts and even a computer-modulated "Launch Control" mode that can maximize throttle and clutch activity for near flawless acceleration runs. All of these features occur with the SMG in "Sequential" (or fully manual) mode, and it's under these circumstances that cutting-edge technology is the driver's friend.
But the SMG also holds out the promise of "Automated" shifting, meaning fully automatic gear swaps with no driver interaction required. Technically the promise is fulfilled, as selecting "D" does free the driver from using either the steering wheel paddles or the shifter to initiate gearchanges. Yet the reality is closer to Michael Jackson's nose — it works, but nobody likes it. Beyond the obligatory head toss that all of these systems cause (Audi's DSG being the sole exception), we were often disappointed by the SMG's indecisive nature when rolling into the throttle at low to medium speeds.
In one specific case we were trying to turn across oncoming traffic. When our opening came, we stomped on the throttle only to have several panic-stricken moments of nothingness occur before SMG finally picked a gear and sent power to the rear wheels. One might question the use of "Automated" mode when trying to cross a busy street, but if the automatic mode can't be depended upon in heavy traffic, what's the point? Several additional functions, like "Start-Off Assist" to keep the car from rolling back on inclines and "Overspeed protection" to prohibit gear choices that would damage the engine, are welcome features. But most editors would have gladly traded them all for an old-fashioned clutch pedal. Thankfully, BMW will offer a traditional manual transmission on both the M5 and the M6 by fall of '06.
A car that begs to have its buttons pushed
After several SMG misfires the crotchety old man in us was almost ready to trade in the M6's keys for a Matlock season-three DVD boxed set. But then we started playing with the MDrive system. This is a menu within the iDrive system that allows the driver to pick from the three engine power settings, 11 SMG tranny settings, three suspension settings and three dynamic stability control settings. Because not every setting is available with every other setting, the total number of driving mode combinations comes out to 279. The MDrive menu can also be used to configure the M head-up display, creating a virtual tachometer and gear indicator at the base of the windshield. If it all sounds like too much to keep track of, just remember that, once you configure the "M" button on the steering wheel, you can put the M6 into your preferred driving mode by simply hitting said button.
The default power setting for the engine is "P400" and, as you might guess, it supplies 400 peak horsepower. You can also pick "P500" by pressing a center console button to access all 500 hp the V10 is capable of producing. However, if you want maximum horsepower and maximum throttle response, then you want "P500 Sport" — a setting you can only access using the MDrive menu and the M button on the steering wheel.
As for the suspension and stability control settings, these are also adjustable via buttons on the center console. We were particularly impressed by the M6's Electronic Damping Control because, unlike so many "adjustable suspension" vehicles we've driven, the M6's ride and handling characteristics really do change at the push of a button. The "Comfort" setting is indeed comfortable for everyday driving without feeling overly flaccid, and the "Normal" setting is well suited to attacking canyon roads or cloverleaf entrance ramps. We tried the "Sport" setting and felt it was generally too stiff for public road use. In this mode, midcorner bumps would actually upset the car's balance, and we found ourselves switching back to "Normal" mode on all but the smoothest pavement. But for track purposes — or instrumented testing on our slalom course — "Sport" proved ideal, and allowed the 3,900-pound M6 to slither through the cones at 67.1 mph.
Braking maneuvers are similarly well managed by ventilated and cross-drilled rotors, sized 14.7 inches in front and 14.6 inches in back. Yet more high-tech features come in the form of "Brake Standby," a system that senses rapid throttle lift and immediately snugs the brake pads up against the rotors in anticipation of emergency braking. A similar function, dubbed "Brake Drying," brings the pads in contact with the rotors on a periodic basis whenever the windshield wipers' rain sensor is activated. This keeps the pads dry and ensures maximum braking, even during inclement weather. If all that is too much to take in, just remember that our 60-0 brake testing showed no sign of fade after five panic stops, and it had the M6 halting in a confident 111 feet.
Luxury remains a primary ingredient
Beyond its undeniable performance capabilities, BMW imbues the M6 with a palatial cabin featuring a multitude of luxury items. Our test car was outfitted with the optional "Full Leather" package that lays down supple Merino leather on everything that isn't already wood or metal. The 10-way, power-adjustable seats remain comfortable after several hours and hundreds of miles behind the wheel and the high-quality switchgear lives up to the six-figure price of entry. The technology theme continues inside with standard DVD navigation, voice command, a 13-speaker Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system and a built-in Bluetooth cell phone interface.
It's certainly true that, from an advanced circuitry standpoint, the M6 is on the bleeding edge.
Now call us when there's a third pedal in the driver footwell.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The M6 comes standard with the same Harman Kardon sound system that's optional on other BMW models. It's a 315-watt, 13-speaker Logic 7 sound system with a six-CD changer mounted in the glovebox. The Logic 7 system is made by Lexicon, a premium division of Harman International (Harman is also the parent company of better-known brands like Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL and Mark Levinson). This stereo aims to provide a "surround sound" experience by routing two-channel sound (think normal, stereo CDs) through a "seven-channel playback matrix."
Speakers are liberally distributed throughout the cabin, and included in the array are tweeter/midbass driver combos in all four corners, a center-fill speaker on the dash and a pair of subwoofers.
The controls are all routed through the iDrive interface that consists of a central screen and a controller knob mounted on the console. Tuning and storing radio stations is still a needlessly complex procedure, but steering wheel buttons make it possible to take care of basic functions without diverting your attention from the road. In addition to the usual tonal adjustments and Digital Sound Processing (DSP) settings (theater versus concert hall), there are seven separate equalizer adjustments that allow owners to fine-tune the listening experience across the sound spectrum, plus the usual bass and treble controls.
Our M6 did have a notable audio option, HD radio. BMW is the first automaker to offer HD radio, and while HD radio is still relatively new it is expected to grow over the next few years. The option costs $500.
Performance: Even though it doesn't offer a true surround-sound experience, this Logic 7 system makes for a sensational listening experience and the average person would be hard-pressed to hear the difference. No matter what type of music you like to listen to, be it metal, rock, hip-hop or classical, your favorite songs become part of a glorious soundstage with deep bass, warm highs, a lively midrange and no distortion, even at very high volumes. The multiple equalizer settings are particularly useful if you have older albums that were originally recorded on analog equipment — 1980s tracks that sound a bit flat on most stereos sound fresh and clear thanks to the Logic 7 system.
However, when listening to those older CDs, this stereo is so good you may hear some surface noise (a little background hissing) from the original taped recordings on certain tracks.
If there's any real downside to the stereo overall it would have to be the iDrive interface, as it can present something of a challenge if you don't know exactly what you want. Although improved over the original system, there are still elements of this interface that make day-to-day operation tedious. Once you get the hang of its push-and-play operation, there's a lot of functionality built into it (a full-range equalizer, for example), but for anyone just looking to toss in a CD or grab the local traffic report, the iDrive system is overly complicated.
Best Feature: Flawless overall sound.
Worst Feature: The iDrive interface still isn't straightforward enough for radio listeners.
Conclusion: This is an excellent audio system that easily ranks among the best in any class. It's worth the money when it's an option, but even better when it's included in the price of the car, even if the base price of that car is close to $100,000. — Brian Moody
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
BMW's M6 has motor. The verdict is still out on its styling. Many will question its lack of a "real" transmission. And some will quibble over its slightly awkward, yet capable handling. But no one, from the hardest-core, V8-loving Firebird freak, to the pin-it-at-nine-grand Honda lover will question that it's got motor.
And motor goes a long way in a car like this.
Tap the paddle into 1st gear, plant your right foot to the floor and without hesitation the M6 will vaporize its rear tires. And it will do it until you lift. Or grab 2nd gear. Then the fun starts again. Insert here the image of this Indianapolis Red M6 cocked about 30 degrees to the road with its entire rear end engulfed in white tire smoke: tire speed, 73 mph; actual speed, 15 mph. That's what this car is all about.
Honestly, I'm not really sure what happens after that. When I shifted to 3rd — such is the swiftness and harshness of the SMG gearbox — the tires broke loose again and I had to get out of it before I wet my pants from laughter. It's that good.
Let's face it: This car needs motor. It's only got two doors so you won't be hauling the family around. It's huge and relatively heavy so it's not exactly designed to hammer with smaller cars on mountain roads. So it relies on its engine — perhaps the most strikingly powerful production power plant in existence today — to define itself. In this case, the definition begins and ends with two massive black stripes.
Bottom line, the M6 is a car that will punish your "I can handle the power" ego with massive capability perhaps as much as it will punish your checkbook with the monthly nut. But, if you're lucky enough to be able to afford one of these brilliant Bavarians, you'll remember it a lot more for the smile it put on your face and the rubber it put on the road than for the dent it put in your wallet.
Director of Automotive Testing Dan Edmunds says:
M6. Merely hearing that abbreviated name elicits a Pavlovian drool response.
Indeed the V10 engine is a tire-melting tour de brute force — especially when the push-to-thrash "M" button is engaged, releasing 100 more ponies — and perhaps your bowels. But that's about where the jaw-dropping ends, replaced with head-scratching and why-did-they-do-that rage.
For me, the sequential manual gearbox (SMG) was the deal killer, as its automated upshifts were anything but seamless. With shifting reduced to a PlayStation button push, the lack of direct control of its clutch timing turned every upshift into an unanticipated head-bobbing lurch.
Drivelogic promises relief in the form of 11 different shift "change patterns," allowing the driver to customize the "speed of change." But these are frustratingly buried in the depths of the definitely sucking iDrive system. Ten minutes to set radio station presets is bad enough. Now we must use it to experiment with basic driving functions?
I never did find a single setting that worked for my random weekly driving routine. Give me a manual lever to row and a third pedal to modulate, and I'll decide the speed of gearchanging on the fly, from shift to shift and corner to corner, thank you very much.
In the end the six-figure M6 turned out to be a frustratingly fantastic engine wrapped in an overwrought consumer electronics expo display — making it ultimately not a very good driving machine.
"One of my customers came by to drop off his Range Rover for service and left in his brand-new M6. That is a nice vehicle in every way except the trunk looks like a total afterthought. It is almost like they got to the end of the vehicle and just got tired of drawing." — british_rover, May 30, 2006
"I've tasted all three generations of SMG in various M machines and I must say that the 7-speed unit takes everything to a whole new level. I think it's because it's hooked up to such a fabulous powertrain. I haven't driven the M5 yet, but I've been to hell and back in the M6. I appreciate the SMG at this level of horsepower and speed; helping novices contain supercar levels of horsepower and torque, taking the semi-professional to professionals and allowing them to truly challenge the chassis, and then turning the dial back down to 1 for the long drive home." — ultimatedriver, April 27, 2006
"I read someone saying that BMW thinks that SMG is better than a manual that's simply not true. Yes, it is on the track, but BMW knows that some people prefer a stick; that's why in most BMWs the choice is up to you — both the M6 and M5 will have a stick." — acbrbmw, April 25, 2006