The BMW M Coupe is a full-blooded sports car – a driving machine in the classical mould, a model of pared-back purity. We had the car, now all we needed was a road sufficiently well stocked with corners. Join us for a test drive to the Concorso d´Eleganza Villa d’Este over one of the most beguiling Alpine routes of them all, the San Bernardino Pass.
The handover of the key to a new car is a magical moment. By the time you settle into your seat, the hit to your finances is already forgotten. Finally, everything is ready: it’s time to drive. Anyone wanting to experience this moment in an M Coupe has most definitely missed the boat. Such is life; at one time or other, every classic car owner will wish they could turn back time.
That’s exactly what happened, however, on my road trip to the Concorso d´Eleganza Villa d’Este in the M Coupe: the years just rolled back before my eyes. Waiting for me in the new yet historical surroundings of BMW Group Classic HQ on Munich’s Moosacher Straße was a pretty much box-fresh M Coupe. A member of the BMW Group Classic staff handed me the key like it was 1998. And no, that wasn’t when I woke up. Instead, I drove away.
Gentleman, start your engine.
The BMW M Coupe is a sports car. Stripped back to its essential components. Low, compact and all guns blazing. You don’t climb into it, you wrap it around you. The seating position ensures you’re not just comfortable, but an integral part of the whole operation. The steering wheel and gear lever are sited at the precise spot where the hand instinctively reaches, and classical circular instruments tell you what you most need to know: the car’s mph and rpm.
Form and function
From the B-pillar back, the Z3 Coupe and its roadster sibling go very separate ways. The Coupe’s distinctive body with long bonnet and short tail is testament to its makers’ boldness. Sales of the BMW Z3 Roadster were buoyant in 1998, but there was no resting on laurels: the soft-top model was to provide the basis for something new, something extraordinary. The car in question was a roadster with the back end of an estate car, and the British had a name for it: “shooting brake”. The term was coined several decades previously, and this was indeed a design with a long tradition. But no one was making shooting brakes anymore, its chances of success as a volume product widely dismissed. It wouldn’t work: too niche.
The Z3 Coupe was only available with a six-cylinder engine. A simple fixed roof, meanwhile, was not enough for the designers, who set out to create a car quite different in character. The Z3 Coupe was broader at the rear, rode on wider tyres and had firmer suspension tuning. German car magazine auto motor und sport described its springs and dampers as being “part of your spine”.
You’ll struggle to find many sports coupes which create such an intrinsic bond between the driver and the road. If the fastest route between two points is a straight line, the most pleasurable route in the M Coupe will take you around a corner or two.
Hitting the heights
The M Coupe will allow you to sit back and go with the flow, if that is what feels right. After all, you’ll always have the exhaust’s sonorous soundtrack for company. It’s such a pleasurable feast of aural pleasure that the radio can become an irritating intrusion. The engine’s broad spread of torque renders gear changes largely superfluous. But if the driver suddenly gets excited – if they clap eyes on a magnificent Alpine pass, say – the Coupe can morph into a very different animal.
As our route changes in nature and course, so too does the expression on the driver’s face. Both the road and the corners of my mouth are now pointing firmly upwards. The M Coupe has transformed into a machine to be taken by the horns and driven, its engine ravenous for revs, orchestrated by the earthy burble from the assertive quartet of tailpipes. 321 or 325 hp at 7,400 rpm, acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds, and a maximum speed of 250 km/h: such are the vital statistics. And let’s not forget brakes that brook no compromise and provide immense reassurance on mountain roads.
Pure driving for DIY enthusiasts
Every corner is different. Brake, change gear, hold a clean line, look ahead, dial in your senses. This is driving as a sport, a challenge, an art. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not about high speeds here. Other people also want a bit of fun and need space to do it – motorcycle riders, cyclists and those valiant souls on their fully laden touring bikes.
A sports car allows greater precision, offers more feedback, does everything a touch better. It makes drivers aim higher. And it allows more mistakes – by that I mean those made by other road users. Few places are more adept at separating the wheat from the chaff than high mountain roads. Corners are taken too tightly, oncoming traffic is spotted too late, and there is far too much gazing at the view rather than the road ahead.
The M Coupe brakes more quickly, executes faster evasive manoeuvres and gets away from situations more nimbly when that situation demands. It is sporty in a very classical way. And it makes every driver’s pulse beat faster. The M Coupe is a car you can’t wait to get into but can’t stand having to get out of.
Outlooks and insights
Numerous are the cars lauded as future classics, mostly by rather hopeful sellers. The BMW M Coupe is not a future classic – but only because it’s a classic of the present. The breathtaking pace of digitalisation in today’s world has rendered it rather exotic. But what greater, more basic pleasure is there than getting behind the wheel and driving wherever the mood takes you?
It probably will not be long now until we find members of a younger generation pointing to an M Coupe and asking, awestruck: “You really know what to do with that?”
A satisfying moment, indeed, for drivers of a certain age who can reply with a confident “yes”.
Find out for yourself behind the wheel
If all this M Coupe talk has whetted your appetite for a drive in a classic BMW (without having to actually buy one), you can now rent a member of our fleet. From the BMW Z1 sports car and smart BMW 3.0 CSL to the classy BMW 2000 sedan, from the cuddly Isetta to an impressive Rolls-Royce convertible, there is a generous selection of models to choose from. And that selection also includes a Z3 Coupe.
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Facts and figures
BMW M Coupe, built from 1998 to 2002
Six-cylinder in-line engine with 321 hp (from 2001: 325 hp) at 7,400 rpm
Top speed: 250 km/h
Kerb weight: 1,445 kg
Number built: 6,291
Price new in 1998: DM 95,000.00