It's not the start BMW are hoping for. “Lost two yesterday,” reports a glum PR minder. “Out at the track.”
This review was originally published in MOTOR’s July 2006 issue
The items ‘lost’ are brand spanking new BMW Z4 M Coupes, the track is the fearsome Circuit de Estoril in Portugal, and the losers of said items are a pair of European journalists who’ve gone out too hard, too early with both, funnily enough, firing off at the same tightish closing-radius left hander. No names, no pack drill, sadly.
It’s a bit of a spooky segue. The original M Coupe from 1999 came complete with an awesome motor, a short wheelbase and a reputation for spitting off those who went out too hard, too early, as well…
From a concept at Frankfurt to a full model in Portugal, it’s been a wild 17-month ride for the M Coupe. Designed from the get-go as a high end complement to the Z4 Roadster, its initial concept included both the M and civilian three litre derivatives. Given the green light from Munich in November 2004, Professor Ulrich Brunkhe, the president of the M division and a car nut if ever there was one.
MOTOR comparison: 2004 Z4 3.0 Roadster v SLK350
“From development this is the fastest car we have ever done,” he notes, “but it’s still an M car. We always want to keep the spirit of an M car clean – they have to have the DNA of an M. We will never just re-label things.”
In many ways, though, the new M Coupe is about as M as M gets. The most accomplished engine in the range is slung into the stiffest chassis structure it’s possible to devise and is matched with serious brakes, a manual six-speed gearbox, one of the best limited slip diffs in the business and proper hydraulic steering.
It’s reasonably light at 1495kg, it sits low to the road, it’s only got two seats, it’s got a tiny wheelbase but a chunky track – and, according to its parents, is designed to go out hunting Porsche 911s. Big call…
Classic MOTOR: Z4 Coupe first look
As with its older sibling, the Z3-based M Coupe, the first topic of conversation is its, ahem, unique visage. Love it? Hate it? It’s almost impossible not to form an opinion one way or the other right from the get-go. Carrying over the Z4 open-top’s distinctive flank scallops, the roof scores a similar treatment right down the centre, blending into the fastback hatch.
Its most flattering angle is revealed from behind and high, accentuating the muscled-up rear guards. It’s an awkward look in side profile, though, with the long, lithe front contrasting markedly with the stubby, aggressive rear end. Our Sepang Bronze example – a hue unique to the M range – looks the goods, setting off the M’s tough front bonnet and lower front bar makeover.
Be warned, though; the splitter’s lower vestiges will cop a hammering over driveways.
Inside, it’s all Z4, and it’s all but identical to the M Roadster we drove last month. Controls fall easily to hand, though storage for odds and sods in the centre console isn’t ideal. The new-design M wheel is a treat, though; small in diameter, generous in rim thickness and a delight to twirl. The seats, too are supportive and adjustable though, as with the M Roadster, lacking the inflatable side bolsters that grace
models like the 130i.
The large hatch access, complete with a cargo cover, means it’s a genuine weekender of a sports car, though its capacity and convenience is compromised somewhat by the inclusion of a large box sitting on the left of the boot floor containing the battery and the car’s tyre repair gubbins. Stashed under the floor of the cooking model Coupe, the M’s four-branch exhaust system is the culprit here, forcing the migration upwards.
Not much to report from the engine room, the legendary six-pot, six-throttle body 3.2-litre straight six screamer sitting low and rearward in the chassis rails to give the little two-door a 50:50 axle weight distribution figure. Looking at the fit under the lid, it’s a lot of engine for a little car.
More progressive and aggressive throttle control is just a tap of the Sport button away, though with the stiffly sprung chassis it’s often easier to tool around town in regular mode.
Gotta be honest with you – it’s really nice to be able to start a sports car on the key for a change. The exhaust is surprisingly vocal inside, adding to the impression that you’re in something a bit different than your average bear. It’s quickly apparent that a decisive yet relaxed hand (and throttle foot) is de rigueur to pilot the M Coupe – and brother, is it stiffly sprung at low speeds.
Begat from the already impressively stiff Z4 open top, the lidded iteration adds a whole other dimension to the concept of torsional and twisting rigidity. Let it off the leash on a linking freeway en route to the back blocks of Lisbon and the M Coupe feels busy and alive, pulsing on its 18-inch rims and straining to have a crack.
Stir the six-speeder and get motoring down a reasonably B-spec road, though, and the taut suspension tune – in stark contrast to the supple and sinuous M Roadster – sees you on the defensive almost straight away. It’s tough to make it heed your commands to take a set; you’re fighting the springs to keep it settled in its travel and make it stick as it rebounds back at you, exaggerating a hint of lateral roll across the back end to the point of making things a little uncomfortable.
The DSC system has been set with quite a low threshold for loss of grip, retarding spark firmly as soon as slip is sensed. Across a patch of bumpy, dappled tarmac not unlike many of MOTOR’s favourite stretches, the M Coupe bucks, shimmies and kicks your heart right square into your mouth if you stay on the noise.
When the road smooths out and the bends come in rapid succession, the Coupe steps up a notch, with great front-to-rear balance and lots of mechanical grip from its bespoke Continentals. There’s no doubting the underlying strengths of the chassis tune; the CSL-spec brakes are firm, feelsome and immensely capable, the M diff can almost read your mind when it comes time to allocate torque and the
steering, while muted, chips in for a modicum of feel not felt in other Bimmers.
Find the right tyres for the job on WhichTyre
It’s just too stiffly sprung for back roads – and let’s face it, that’s where the chunk of your miles will be spent in a jigger such as this.
Of course, if ’twas mine, I’d have it out on a race track on the odd occasion. BMW seems to think many potential owners would be of the same mindset, too. Circuito Estoril, in Lisbon’s outskirts, is a tricky devil of a thing, and a great car tester; think Winton with a couple of dirty great straights built in.
On the smooth confines of a circuit, the M Coupe is a ripper of a toy, the empathetic, entertaining character that has so endeared me to the M Roadster revealing itself in spades. Turn off the fun police control – as with M Roadster, traction control can be turned all the way off with a single push on the button – and it’s quick, pointy and turny in all the right places.
With a couple of big stops a lap, the two piece rotors and sliding calipers do start to complain, but not before a non-stop 40 minutes of work. And they don’t stop working; they just get noisy and, eventually, grindy, as we discover.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way the Z4 M produces power; stuffing a big old motor into a little car is a surefire recipe for success. With a weight-to-power-ratio of 5.6kg/kW, the M Coupe should be good for a flat five second 0-100km/h. It laps the Nordschliefe quicker than an M3, we’re told, too.
Worthy Watch: 2019 Z4 laps the Nürburgring faster than an M2
Is, as BMW hopes, the M Coupe a 911 beater? Based on its rough road performance on the slippery, streets of Portugal’s capital, no. Is it a thrilling, exhilerating experience that’s worthy of wearing an M badge? No doubt. Next stage is to have a red hot go of the Coupe in local terrain, and against its natural predators.
Might have to see if we can find a 911, too.
2006 BMW Z4 M Coupe
BODY: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
ENGINE: 3.2-litre 24-valve inline six-cylinder
BORE/STROKE: 91.0mm x 87.0mm
POWER: 252kW @ 7900rpm
TORQUE: 365Nm @ 4900rpm
WEIGHT: 1495kg (approx.)
TRANSMISSION: six-speed manual
SUSPENSION: MacPherson strut, coil springs, lower control arms, anti-roll bar (f); multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: 345mm ventilated two-piece discs, sliding calipers (f); 345mm ventilated two-piece discs, sliding calipers (r), ABS
WHEELS: 18 x 8.0-inch (f); 18 x 9.0-inch (r), alloy
TYRES: Continental ContiSports 225/45ZR18 (f); 255/40ZR18 (r)
So, no SMG, eh?
With impressively high take-up rates for BMW’s SMG sequential manual gearboxes why is there no SMG option for the Z4? On one hand it’s a simple matter of size; the smaller transmission casing of the Z4’s six-speed ZF manual tranny simply can’t accommodate the additional servos and hydraulics that are part and parcel of the SMG’s architecture. But there’s another reason, according to the boss of M.
“We have new SMG gearboxes for both M5 and M6, and our customers like the seven speeds and the fantastic short shift time,” says Prof Brunkhe, “but we have no new ’box for the Z4. We won’t offer the last generation of M3 SMG to our customers on a new car.”
He reckons though, that “SMG would suit the Z4 very well.” Watch this space…