Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin Cruelly sprawling over eleven different halles, the Frankfurt auto show can sap the energy of even the most wild-eyed car geek. Last fall, at the end of my final day there, I was slogging toward the street, walking gingerly on blistered feet. Only about a dozen city blocks separated me from my hotel room, where I could shed my ill-fitting suit, toss aside the painful dress shoes, and peel off my sticky shirt. The BMW hall was right near the exit, and I almost skipped it. BMW was showing a coupe version of the Z4, but the Z4's crumpled styling, too-plastic interior, and electric power steering had it way down on my roadster hit parade. How good could the coupe be? Still, I ducked in for a look--and was blown away.
As much as I dislike the roadster's styling, to me, the coupe's sloped roofline and reworked rear end utterly transform the Z4. The little fastback seems to squat on its haunches, poised for takeoff. It looks completely badass. Now, having seen and driven the production Z4 M Coupe on the road, its impact is undiminished.
There's something intrinsically cool about a small, hatchback sports car. It's reminiscent of an era when a serious sports car dude might have a car like this as his only ride. The Z4 M Coupe picks up that vaguely retro vibe with its cab-rearward proportions, although the design does not attempt to re-create anything.
The new M Coupe's shape certainly is more successful than the previous-generation car's (although I will confess to being a fan of that one, too). BMW expects the new coupe to account for one-quarter of Z4 M sales, whereas last time, four M Roadsters were sold for every M Coupe that found a home.
As was the case previously, the new coupe is offered in M and standard Z4 strength. The latter is sold with the 255-hp, 3.0-liter engine only and not the 215-hp 3.0-liter that is also available in the Z4 droptop.
Our drive was confined to the M Coupe, which, like the M Roadster, uses the 3.2-liter straight six from the current M3. This is a whole lot of engine for the 3309-pound M Coupe. (0 to 60 mph happens in 5.1 seconds.) Get on it, and a mechanical rasp fills the cabin. The spec sheet will tell you that peak outputs of 330 hp and 262 lb-ft are reached at a lofty 7900 rpm and 4900 rpm, respectively, but the reality is that the iron-block six's long stroke fattens the torque curve while the six individual throttles and free-flowing intake and exhaust systems keep the party going all the way to the 8000-rpm redline. The potent six completely sets the tone for this car: it's amped up and always ready to break into a run.
But it's more than just the engine that makes the M Coupe as wired as the pale guy in the corner at the party who never takes off his sunglasses. The steering is very quick off-center, and that, combined with a stiff, busy ride, made this a nervous car to push quickly--oh, so quickly--along the mottled two-lanes around Elkhart Lake. On smooth freeways, though, you do adjust to making smaller inputs, and the hydraulic assist delivers far more natural effort levels than the electric power steering that's such a bummer in the Z4. The six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission offered (no SMG!), and it has short, positive throws.
On the four-mile Road America race course--soaked by a passing downpour--the M Coupe was sometimes a handful. This is a car that wants, and needs, traction and stability control. BMW boasts of the M Coupe's 50/50 weight distribution, but this is still a car that wears its rear-wheel drive on its sleeve, and anything more than very gentle throttle movements had us calling in the electronic helpers. At lower speeds, though, the M Coupe is primarily an understeerer. The brakes are upgraded to cross-drilled, ventilated rotors (13.7 inches in diameter in front and 12.9 inches at the rear), but they groan in protest at hard stops from high speeds.
In calmer moments, we had a chance to take stock of the driver's cave, and it's largely a pleasant one, except for some ergonomic oddities. Typical of BMWs, the seating position is superb, and the pedals are perfectly placed for heel-and-toe downshifting. The seats themselves are firmly and aggressively bolstered enough to hold you in place for anything short of a Joie Chitwood thrill show. Puffed up to the point of absurdity, the kielbasalike steering wheel rim blocks the cruise-control stalk. The materials are a major upgrade over those of the regular Z4 and the controls require no learning curve, but the tiny numbers on the deep-set speedo don't make for a quick read. In the old M Coupe, with its low beltline and tall greenhouse, the panoramic view was one of its charms. In the new car, you gaze over the long, creased hood, which is cool, but you have to peer into the rearview mirror as if you're looking through a mail slot, and you see only what's immediately behind you.
The M Coupe is a much different car than the Z4 roadster from which it sprang. A high-strung, hard-core machine, it's not as fluid as a Porsche Boxster S or Cayman, but it's more intense. Although its $50,995 base price is right on top of the $49,400 Porsche will ask for the upcoming, 245-hp base Cayman, Porsche's wallet-emptying options pricing undoubtedly will make the BMW far cheaper on the showroom floor. Fast and furious, the M Coupe wants a buyer who prizes speed over finesse. If you're really hard-core, you'll make it your only car.