For 2006, BMW is fielding a total of six "M-Cars." Two of the most spectacular among them debuted in May-the aforementioned M6 coupe and the riveting (in terms of both appearance and performance) Z4 M Coupe.
The current M5 sedan and Z4 M Roadster were introduced last year as 2006 models; and a pair of M3s (both a coupe and a cabriolet seating four) derive from BMW's ubiquitous 3-Series platform.
It is important to understand about BMW's "M" program that this is not just an in-house hot-roddery for a line of status cars. Unlike the "tuner" divisions of certain other elite, typically European, luxury automakers, BMW M derives from a proprietary "Motorsport" racing effort dating to 1972.
In the 34 years since the debut of the 200-hp 3.0 CSL which campaigned fervently in European Touring Car and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) championships on both sides of the Atlantic, BMW's racing efforts have projected superior brand recognition whose "M-halo" irradiates every vehicle wearing a BMW badge.
Only a rare combination of unswerving determination and wink-wink impishness can make sense of what BMW M's American regional manager Oliver Rademacher has to say about his new 2006 M6 coupe: "Ten cylinders are hard to restrain," he deadpans, "but we managed to do it anyway."
This about a car whose twin-cam V10 employs an innocuous, console-mounted pushbutton to "tame" its 500-horsepower output to a mere 400-hp-ostensibly for calmer around-town road manners.
It's hard to know where to start in describing the new M6. Tossing out its $96,795 base price (which includes a $3,000 "gas-guzzler" surcharge) hardly seems fair. It may not even be relevant. Folks who wind up behind the wheel of an M6 don't typically fret a lot about the zeros that follow dollar signs.
Beyond a doubt, the experience of driving an M6 is like no other. Although leather-lined and gadget-plentiful, the M6 cockpit is in essence a high-tech space capsule predicated upon keeping a driver's attention focused upon the task at hand: namely, contending with 500 raging horsepower. It is not a burdensome responsibility, but it is daunting, thrilling and unforgiving all at once.
For starters, BMW's magnificent V10 is an engineering marvel invested, possibly, with a soul-a soul that only wants to be set free. It is a motor that makes power at unabashedly high rpms.
To do that it exploits double-VANOS variable valve timing and-you can believe it-a separate, individual throttle for each cylinder. That's 10 different throttles, each electronically controlled. Power maxes to a round 500 hp at 7,750 rpm. Peak torque is 383 foot-pounds at 6,100 rpm.
If those sound like lofty rpm figures, they are and they aren't. Mash the accelerator, and you'll reach redline in microseconds. But you won't notice. You'll be trying to make out where you've just wound up after this incautious burst of warp-speed travel.
You'll also be concentrating, hard, on managing the seven-speed sequential manual gearbox, or SMG. It's the only transmission currently available with the M6, and it's a handful no matter how sophisticated it is. Essentially, it's a high-output manual transmission that shifts without a clutch pedal.
For "a hundred, large" you're right to expect automatic shifting; and the M6, begrudgingly, will comply with that expectation. But auto shifts are neither smooth nor particularly predictable; so you're better off playing along and changing gears manually, via console stick shift or steering wheel paddles.
In time, you find a rhythm, and a little shift-control button helps you dial in the automatic clutch action you most prefer. But don't for one minute think you're merely going along for the ride. Driving an M6 means working in-lieu-of-fare all the way to your destination. It's fun, and you are allowed to whistle while you work. But it is work.
The M6 handles like a rock-solid champ-it's a racecar, really, with luxury trappings. Accordingly, BMW elected to debut the M6 at Road America raceway in Wisconsin, where the performance was flawless. In the rain, yet.
A perfect balance between steering, cornering stiffness and rear-wheel-drive contributes to an almost balletic performance at speed. And when the corner-exit is a bit too hot, there is the subtlety of Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) to tuck a sliding rear end gently back onto line.
There's no getting around the realization, however, that the M6 is scary. It wears a scary price tag and harbors a scary potential for scary speed. But there's a pushbutton for lopping off 100 hp in traffic, you say? So what's that do except produce a 400-hp commuter car? If you think that makes an M6 tame, well, you're scary too.
After a racecourse thrash behind the wheel of an M6, it is with a considerable unjangling of the nerves that one slides over into the cockpit of the newly resurrected Z4 M Coupe. Fans of that gorgeous, abandoned oddity, the Z3 M Coupe, now have a new target for their affections.
It is easy to become enthralled with only so much as a look. Behold, sensuousness-on-wheels. Technically, the Z4 M coupe is not so much about breakthroughs, as is the M6. Instead, it is about exquisite packaging.
A 3.2-liter, twin-cam straight-six makes 330 hp at sky-high 7,900 rpm, and 262 foot-pounds of torque peak at 4,900 rpm. A six-speed manual-a traditional manual, that is-perfects the powertrain. The result is a lightweight (3,230 pounds), tossable, airtight barrel-of-fun.
The Z4 M coupe costs $49,995, and its devotés will admit that it's worth that price as sculpture alone. Let their more extrovert contemporaries opt for the pop-top Z4 M Roadster to show-off rats-nest hair-dos and scalded shoulders. For those who really know how to get up to some mischief behind the wheel, it's better to drive a gorgeous Pandora's Box whose lid won't come off.
4-pass., 2-door; RWD, 5.0-liter DOHC V10 w/ vvt, 7-sp. SMG auto w/ DriveLogic; 500 hp/383 ft.-lbs.; 12 mpg/city, 18 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 13 cu. ft.; base price, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 19-in. wheels, auto-HVAC, AM/FM/CD, front/front-side/front-head airbag, rain-sensing wipers: $96,795
2-pass., 2-door; RWD, 3.2-liter DOHC inline-6 w/ vvt, 6-sp. manual; 330 hp/262 ft.-lbs.; 16 mpg/city, 24 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; hatch: est. 12 cu. ft.; base price, incl. 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 18-in. wheels, auto-HVAC, AM/FM/CD, front/side airbag, rain-sensing wipers: $49,995