The time-space continuum seems to compress as the 2014 BMW M6 Gran Coupe thunders down the long back straight at Circuit of the Americas. With all of the twin-turbo V-8's 560 horses in full lather, I see rapidly rising miles-per-hour numbers winking on the heads-up display -- 139, 143, 147, 150. Meanwhile, the numbers on the brake markers to my right are dwindling at an even-more-disconcerting pace -- 300 feet, 250, 200.
Discretion overwhelms valor, and I bury the whoa pedal. Priced at $9,250, the carbon ceramic brakes -- featuring gargantuan rotors that look like the world's most expensive thick-crust pizzas -- had seemed like an outrageous upgrade when I'd scanned the options list, but they sure come in handy now. The car pitches forward and squirms violently as the brakes bleed off about 100 miles per hour in 150 feet. By the time I'm ready to turn into the 2nd-gear left-hander, the space-time continuum has returned to normal.
With a base price of $113,000, the M6 Gran Coupe is the price and performance flagship of the BMW fleet. Despite carrying four seats and 4,430 pounds of bulk, it will lap racetracks faster than any other BMW production car, including the vaunted M3. Even more surprising, BMW says that about 60 percent of M6 owners will occasionally track their babies.
If they're looking for track time, they can't do much better than Circuit of the Americas in Tex-as. Designed by world-renowned racetrack engineer Hermann Tilke and built last year outside of Austin at a cost of $400 million, COTA hosted the Formula 1 extravaganza in November and has since been the site of races featuring Grand-Am, Australian V8 Supercars, and MotoGP. With 20 turns over 3.427 miles, it's the most spectacular racetrack in the Americas.
In designing COTA, Tilke ticked all of the boxes for what drivers and fans want to see in a road circuit. A signature corner with a lot of elevation change? Turn 1 rises 134 feet before a blind hairpin. A long straight that allows cars to hit terminal velocity? F1 cars exceeded 200 mph on the run down to Turn 12. A high-speed sweeper? COTA has the neck-stretching Turn 16-17-18 complex. A challenging technical section? The decreasing-radius corners of the Esses test minds mind as much as car control.
The brawny but luxurious M6 Gran Coupe seemed like a good vehicle to check out the track in style. The car comes in both 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch form. When I started driving the manual, I thought I was executing perfectly seamless heel-and-toe downshifts until I discovered, to my chagrin, that the gearbox automatically matches revs when the Sport mode is selected. (In Sport Plus, drivers are left to their own ham-fisted devices.)
This struck me as an odd driver aid since the pedals in the M6 are perfectly placed for heel and toeing. (Why can't all manufacturers follow BMW's lead?) Also, with the manual expected to account for less than 25 percent of all North America sales, I suspect that most would-be buyers will have perfected this technique. Then again, automatic rev-matching will probably extend the lives of clutches and synchros, and it's hard to argue with that.
Still, if you're looking for a track-day weapon, the DCT model is a no-brainer since it produces mindlessly perfect shifts that allow you to concentrate on braking. So once I learn the circuit, I switch to the automatic. On the track, the Sport setting is just right. (Shifts in the Comfort mode are a bit lazy while those in Sport Plus are so abrupt that a BMW engineer joked that the setting was meant to honor the neck-snapping SMG transmission of yore.) As it turns out, Sport is equally good for the dampers and the steering, though Comfort and Sport Plus were available for them as well.
My first impression is that the M6 Gran Coupe is an unstoppable force. The 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 makes 560 hp and generates 500 lb-ft of torque from 1500 to 5750 rpm, which translates in-to 0-60 times a tick more than 4 seconds. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Power delivery seems linear, with no trace of turbo lag. If I didn't know better, I would have thought the engine was normally aspirated while being endowed with turbine-like performance.
Climbing the hill to Turn 1 is a rush, though not quite as dramatic as I'd expected, probably because I'm focusing on finding the apex rather than appreciating the roller-coaster aspect of the experience. The engine is near the top of 4th gear when I hammer the brake -- much later than I'd originally imagined. (The steep incline helps slow the car.) I grab 2nd for the hairpin and then plummet downhill toward the Esses like a surfer dropping into a wave.
The first part of the Esses pays tribute to the Senna Curves at Interlagos in Brazil. Flat in 3rd, short-shift to 4th, the M6 gathers momentum like a business jet on its takeoff roll. Then the Esses progressively tighten up. Turns 3, 4, and 5 form a high-speed slalom that doesn't flatter the heft of the car, and bending around the 90-degree right of Turn 6 causes the Michelin Pilot Sports -- 265/35ZR-20 at the front and 295/30ZR-20 at the rear -- to howl like mortally wounded animals. (Race-spec tires would make a huge difference.)
Next comes a nice rhythm section that ends in a brief 4th-gear jaunt downhill to Turn 11. This 2nd-gear left-hander leads onto the back straight -- the longest on the track -- so getting a good launch is critical. The electronically controlled Active M Differential, which can continuously vary the lockup ratio between 0 and 100 percent, keeps the car from plowing. Still, some under-steer is inevitable with so much weight on the nose. But with the stability control turned off, you can exit the corner with a satisfying blast of power oversteer. Yeehaw!
The M6 Gran Coupe accelerates effortlessly into triple digits on the back straight, and it's not hard to imagine cruising along the Autobahn at 150 mph for hours on end. The approach to Turn 12 is one of the most violent brake zones in American racing. Although the suspension tracks straight and true under heavy braking, the car's body corkscrews before settling down.
The next section of the circuit is a series of super-tight corners that look Mickey Mouse on a course map. But, in fact, this has proved to be a prime passing zone, so there's lots of time to be made -- or lost -- here. Then comes a trio of right-handers that form a horseshoe taken at an intim-idating clip. (Note to self: Don't throw the car off the track here.) Then I slice through a moder-ate-speed left-hander, drive down to the lowest point of the course, and arc around the 2nd-gear corner -- Turn 20 -- that leads back onto the front straight.
Awesome track. Impressive car. All that power, coupled with the immense ceramic brakes, produce wicked-fast lap times. Still, I was always aware that I was driving a street car on the track. Which helps explain why BMW just announced an M5/M6 Competition Package that will improve racetrack performance. Sounds like another visit to COTA may be warranted.
2014 BMW M6 Gran Coupe
|Base Price:||$113,925 (including destination)|
|Engine:||4.4L twin-turbo V-8|
|Horsepower:||560 hp @ 6000-7000 rpm|
|Torque:||502 lb-ft @ 1500-5750 lb-ft|
|Curb Weight:||4430 lb|
|Fuel Economy:||15/22 mpg (manual), 14/20 mpg (automatic)|