The sun is shining but Portgual’s Autódromo do Estoril racetrack is still wet from heavy rain the night before. Jörg Weidinger, test driver for the M Division, racer, and all round good guy doesn’t seem to have noticed. We’re in a prototype of the coming 2020 BMW M8 and it is flying—cutting shapes on the way into some corners where Weidinger wants to demonstrate the fun side of the M xDrive all-wheel drive system, hooked-up and driving hard out of others to showcase the excellent traction it affords.
The sheer speed is impressive, but mostly I’m surprised by just how much more aggressive and responsive it feels compared to the M5 Competition Package I was in just a few minutes earlier. The M8, which will be launched in the second quarter of 2019, might be a hard car for us to define. It’s bigger, heavier, and more capacious than cars like the Porsche 911 or AMG GT, but more overtly sporting than other big four-seat coupes like the S-Class Coupe or Bentley Continental GT. But for the M Division the ambition of the M8 is easier to grasp: It wanted to create a proper super sportscar.
Much of what’s beneath the coupe bodywork is similar to that of the latest M5. It shares the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 and 8-speed automatic gearbox combo, and the aforementioned M xDrive system with 4WD, 4WD Sport, and 2WD modes. The rear axle also has the now familiar M Differential electronically-controlled limited slip that can run completely open or lockup to 100 percent. It weighs virtually the same in coupe form as the M5 (there will also be convertible and four-door Gran Coupe versions to follow) and while BMW isn’t ready to release final performance figures, officials tell us that the engine produces “over 600 hp.” That comes as no surprise given the M5 Competition Pack is endowed with 616 horses. Chances are it won’t be much quicker than an M5 either, then.
But it feels different, at least from the passenger seat. “Yes … on paper it looks similar to the M5,” begins Weidinger, “But the center of gravity is lower (24mm), it has a shorter wheelbase, the chassis is stiffer, and we’ve tuned the car to be much more of a sportscar.” This mule car has elements of the M8 Competition Package fitted (it will follow soon after the M8’s launch) plus optional carbon-ceramic brakes, but it seems remarkably fast, composed, and adjustable around a slick Estoril. Of course, Weidinger is a hell of a driver and knows the car inside out, but you can sense his excitement. We’re told that already the M8’s Nürburgring lap time is beyond any other M product to date … including the M4 GTS, which managed a 7 minute, 28 second lap back in 2015.
The M Division has done a typically thorough job in transforming the M850i xDrive into M8. It remains a double-wishbone front, five-link axle rear setup but the M8 benefits from a wider front track and the rear axle is beefed up with bespoke toe links, stiffer rubber mounts, thicker anti-roll bars, and stiffer wishbones all designed to aid precision. In the engine bay there’s also a new strut tower-to-bulkhead brace, plus the front structure is strengthened with a new shear panel that runs from sill to sill on the underside of the car.
As with the M5, the dampers can be configured into Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings, with similar settings for throttle response, gearbox, and steering effort. An Individual mode allows you to mix and match settings. Brakes are six-piston at the front with 15.5-inch discs, a single-caliper setup at the rear with 15.0-inch discs. Opt for ceramics and the diameter increases to 15.7 inches for the front axle. The brakes are not lifted straight from the M5 but feature new hardware and should offer even better resistance to fade.
Final specs and prices for the M8 should emerge soon, but expect to pay a hefty premium over the M5, so our guess is around $130,000. Big money, but the M Division describes the M8 as a Mercedes AMG GT S and Aston Martin Vantage rival, so it’s not shying away from strong competition. Previous M6s or even the 850 CSi have never quite managed to find the balance between hardcore sportscar and refined GT and they’ve struggled to find an audience. BMW has stayed true to the concept of a car that can fulfill GT and sportscar roles, but seems to have tweaked the balance more towards fun than comfort. The signs are certainly there that the new M8 might just have hit upon a more compelling solution. Let’s hope it can finally stand toe-to-toe with the likes of the Porsche 911 when we get to drive it.