Review and road test of the BMW M - Coupe (1998 - 2003)
O CAROLINA JUMP AND PRANCE
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Few cars polarise opinion as much as the BMW M coupe. Its admirers would argue that it has unparalleled visual impact, whilst its critics would point out that same could be said of a three legged man with his mouth on the wrong way up. Whether you find it beautiful or freakishly ugly, the M coupe doesn't create too much argument when it comes to the driving experience. As one of the finest BMW's of recent years, it could well be earmarked for future classic status. With used examples now looking a bit more affordable, can you resist being absolutely corrupted by M-Power?
(3dr coupe, 3.2 petrol)
BMW has traditionally been reliant on its M-Power division based in Garching, north of Munich to add the necessary sporting spice to its range. With some legendary vehicles, such as the M1, early M3 and M5 on its CV, the Garching plant found the cupboard surprisingly bare in 1998. With no M5 model on the market and the M-built 850CSi similarly deceased, engine production concentrated on the 3.2-litre unit destined for the ageing M3 and the new Z3 based M roadster being assembled at BMW's Spartanburg plant in South Carolina. Neither of these two models were welcomed by BMW enthusiasts as 'proper' M-cars. The M3 was compared unfavourably with the old shape E30 M3 and denigrated by the motoring press as little more than a CSi, BMW's traditional designation for a sports touring coupe. The M roadster was viewed as having too much power for the slightly wobbly open-top body to handle with any conviction; the Z3 brand struggling to escape from its early 1.9-litre 'hairdresser' origins.
The M coupe's development history is interesting. A team of hardcore driving enthusiasts at BMW's Research and Development Centre felt that the M roadster wasn't extreme enough for their liking. Working after hours, they stripped the wings off a Z3 roadster and sculpted a coupe body. It's tempting to imagine that they neglected to adequately ventilate the studio and lost all power of reason due to the aerosol effects of the sculpting foam, but that's not the case. The design they came up with was shocking, challenging and quite unlike anything BMW had ever produced.
The M coupe redressed a lot of the failings of the roadster. Although mechanically identical, the fixed roof served to stiffen the chassis, and the almost wilfully ugly looks ensured that the M coupe wouldn't be bought by extravagantly-coiffured posers. Introduced in September 1998, the hard top car found immediate favour with traditional BMW M-buyers, outselling the identically-priced M roadster by nearly three to one. In spring 2001 the M coupe and M roadster received the engine from the latest (and some would say greatest) M3, although power has been knocked back slightly to preserve the M3's traditional hegemony. Now packing a thunderous 325bhp, new standard features for the updated and M coupe include DSC III (Dynamic Stability Control III), chrome shadow finish alloy wheels and grey instrument dials with a light system on the rev counter to suggest reduced maximum engine speeds before the optimum oil temperature is reached. BMW's Tyre Defect Indicator system is also fitted as standard. Two new colours, Phoenix Yellow and Laguna Seca Blue have been introduced and the M coupe looks set to carry on being the established choice for those who like their M cars just that little bit wild.
What You Get
If one were to design a credible and desirable coupe, the Z3 body would be a great place not to start. In its early incarnation few liked the mismatch between the aggressive front and timid rear end. The M coupe remedied this. Huge wheel arches sprout from its flanks, arcing up to a short roof that looks over that long bonnet. No, it doesn't sit easily on the eye, and it definitely works better in some colours than others, but it's certainly striking. Big seventeen-inch alloy wheels lurk within the arches, shod with monstrous low-profile tyres.
Inside, the story is similar. BMWs are usually renowned for their design restraint and low-key interiors. Not so the M coupe. Trimmed in a variety of colour schemes which are extrovert to say the least, the M coupe doesn't feel old-money BMW. Chrome ringed dials dot the fascia and the overall effect is of exuberant gaudiness. The only discreet thing about the car is the tiny 'M coupe' legend picked out in the speedometer dial, lest you forget why passers-by are walking into lamp-posts.
The M coupe is a strict two-seater, but with more luggage capacity than the roadster upon which it's based. Despite this, it's a tight squeeze once inside. Drivers over six feet should not specify the sunroof, robbing two inches of headroom as it does. Despite being fully trimmed in leather, the narrow seats grip the body well and the chunky leather-trimmed wheel feels purposeful. 'Old-school' BMW design cues such as the 'organ-stop' light switch remain, as does the peerless instrument clarity. The huge rear-view mirror impedes forward visibility in left-hand corners however, and another demerit point is for the lack of the M3's six-speed gearbox. Apparently this wouldn't fit in the Z3-based body shell.
Standard equipment is predictably good and includes the 'M' aerodynamic mirrors, with probably the noisiest electric adjustment of any production car. There's also ABS, twin airbags a BMW RDS stereo system, central locking, heated seats and transponder immobiliser. The M coupe's standards of fit and finish fall slightly short of what we have come to expect from German-built BMWs, with some of the plastics not bearing that indestructible feel. Owners attest to the fact that whilst the M-coupe's reliability is good, the car is not immune to the odd squeak and rattle. Later models have tighter quality control.
What to Look For
The early M coupe's standards of fit and finish fall slightly short of what we have come to expect from German-built BMWs, with some of the plastics not bearing that indestructible feel. Owners attest to the fact that whilst the M-coupe's reliability is good, the car is not immune to the odd squeak and rattle. As the workers at the Spartanburg factory tightened up their quality control procedures, later cars felt palpably better screwed together, a process which is evident in the impeccably-built X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, built alongside the M coupe in South Carolina.
What many customers forget when buying into the M-Power image is that to all intents and purposes, this is a handbuilt engine. To extract 321bhp from 3.2 litres without recourse to turbocharging, a number of rather clever Germans have spent many hours polishing, balancing and calibrating the internal workings of the engine, and as a result, no two engines are ever exactly the same. This results in many M coupes feeling and sounding slightly different. Likewise, the engine responds well to frequent attention, easily dropping out of tune if used mercilessly. It's a beautiful thing and like most such possessions is inevitably high-maintenance and demanding.
You'll need to have a good look at tyres, bodywork and wheel alignment. Take it as read that the majority of M coupe owners will know what they are talking about, and be wary if you find mismatched or badly worn tyres. The front spoiler is quite low, and may have had unhappy altercations with sleeping policemen or kerbs. Check the wheels for kerbing and also make sure that the rear cargo nets haven't torn the fixing lugs from the floor.
(approx based on a 1999 M coupe) BMW spares aren't especially expensive, although parts for the M cars are notably pricier. A set of front brake pads for the M coupe will cost around £60, a replacement headlamp unit is around £170, and a starter motor retails at around £110. Rear silencers are £315 per side, while the front exhaust system (minus the catalyst) will set you back around £850. An alternator is over £300, a front shock absorber is £190 and a fuel filter should see change from £20.
On the Road
Glance down at that M-badge staring back from the steering wheel and you know this is going to be no ordinary drive. Twist the key and you get the full-strength 321bhp in-line six-cylinder engine that we've come to know and love from the M3 and M roadster. Spare a thought for our American counterparts who have to make do with 240bhp. Despite the fact that the M coupe is built in Spartanburg, North Carolina, its good to know that not everything is bigger in the States. Sure enough, when the engine is fired up you're greeted by that creamy tone which BMW calls 'mellifluous'.
Rest to 60mph in 5.4 seconds on its way to its 155mph top speed guarantee the M coupe's performance credentials. It reaches these speeds on a seamless stream of power, the long-travel throttle pedal firming up as you eke the last few horsepower out of the engine. It lacks the drama of a turbocharged unit, but power is available seemingly anywhere, in any gear. No wonder McLaren turned to BMW when they wanted the ultimate engine for their F1 supercar. The fun is tempered by the M coupe's feeble range. The minuscule 51-litre tank means that spirited driving can see the overall range drop to just over 100 miles. Therefore an hour's fun in a thirsty M-coupe can easily cost £40 in petrol.
The M coupe's handling is not what you might expect. With all that power deployed through the rear wheels, surely it would be one long white-knuckle ride. Well no, at least not in the dry. The handling bias is set up for safety, and only severe provocation will unsettle the car. The basic rear suspension set up dates right back to the first generation BMW M3, which first saw light of day in 1987 and has changed little since. Compared to a current 3 Series, the ride is more fidgety, with the back end hopping and skipping somewhat as the speeds build and the surface deteriorates. The fixed-head body has given some benefits in structural rigidity over the M roadster though. That said, the lively roadholding adds to the exuberant, quirky character of the car.
If you're in the market for a used TVR, Lotus or Nissan Skyline, take a drive in the BMW M coupe. With used examples reaching little more than Subaru Impreza money, it's a great opportunity to get behind one of the all-time great engines, although anybody expecting a syrupy smooth ride and a fuddy-duddy image may need resuscitation. It's certainly not cheap to run, but you'd have to say it's worth it. Extrovert, impractical and cranky it may be, but it's that rare beast - a German car you can lose your heart to.
BMW M - Coupe (1998 - 2003) review by ANDY ENRIGHT