The new M Coupé is the fastest; the original M3 arguably the greatest. Both wear the evocative M badge with pride, but as Richard Meaden discovers during two wintery days at Spa-Francorchamps, only one of these BMW M-cars is true to its motorsport colour.
The letter M, writ large in chrome and preceded by three diagonal stripes of blue, violet and red. A simple, discreet symbol reserved for BMW’s most potent products. It’s a letter that has graced some memorable driver’s cars, including the mid-engined M1, the four-door M5 and the original, four-cylinder E30 M3. The only M car that was actually a direct product of racing, the M3′s huge abilities and bulging trophy cabinet were the building blocks on which the reputation of all subsequent M-cars has been built.
There’s no knocking the M legend but, since the demise of the four-pot M3, the tricolour stripes have been stuck on some less than satisfying cars. The first six-cylinder E36 M3s were rightly criticised for having poor steering and an unforgiving nature. The later M3 Evo partly addressed these problems but, rather than occupying a place in the all-time greats’ Hall of Fame, it was more likely to be found filling your Managing Director’s parking space. It all seemed to suggest that the M badge had become the property of BMW’s marketing men, not the hallowed Motorsport department. In truth the E36 M3 was probably more suited to BMW’s old CSi tag, but with the M badge having such a strong brand image, the temptation was just too great to resist.
If the original and best M3 had no immediate successor, then the wild M Coupé has the potential to be its spiritual offspring. A development of the M Roadster, the vibrant, violent incarnation of the over-rated Z3, the M Coupé offers the same 321bhp straight-six engine but with the added benefits of increased stiffness, handling precision and even more blistering performance. It’s actually being touted as the most accelerative production BMW ever.
Impressive credentials undoubtedly, but there’s a question that’s been nagging away at us since we placed the M Coupé 8th out of ten in our recent Car of the year feature. Put simply, is the M Coupé an M-car worthy of the badge?
To find out, we’ve brought it head-to-head, with an original M3, perhaps the purest, most focussed M car of all. Our destination is Spa-Francorchamps, scene of the M3′s finest competition victories in two 24 hour endurance races, and home to one of the greatest motor racing circuits in the world. Better still, when there’s no racing much of the circuit is public road, and those sections that aren’t can still be driven on – if you know the right people.
But first we’ve got to get there. Our first rendezvous point is the Chunnel terminal in Folkestone. Photographer Dom Fraser and I are in evo’s long-term Volvo C70 and as we near the tunnel junction off the M20 we can see two small blobs, one red and the other dark blue, loping along ahead of us. It doesn’t take long to work out which is which. The distended haunches of the M Coupé never fail to shock, and with four stubby tail-pipes jutting from beneath the rear valence and huge chrome alloys filling the silicon-enhanced wheelarches, it’s a crazy sight. Whether it looks good is the sort of debate that will rage forever more. Don’t ask me. I fluctuate wildly between loving and hating it in the same sentence. Let’s just say I’m glad it exists, even though I’m still not quite sure why it exists.
The M3 couldn’t be more different. Based on the boxy E30 saloon bodyshell, it blends into the traffic remarkably well, which is one of the things that endears it to owner Chris Metcalfe (no relation to our beloved leader). The dark hue (Macau blue, in case you’re interested) helps, but whatever the shade you can pretty much guarantee that if you get gawped at driving an M3 you’ve either got Caprice sat in the passenger seat or the gawpers are hardcore petrolheads sussing whether it’s an Evo II, as our car is 2.3litres, 220bhp, 16in alloy, more pronounced front and rear wings, thinner side glass and a lighter bootlid.
It’s the M3′s air purpose rather than pomp that I find reassuring. The Quattro-style boxed arches accommodate race-scale wheels and slicks; the front and rear wings are there to keep you glued through Eau Rouge, and the re-profiled rear windows lies at a shallower angle to regular E30s to tidy the airflow. The whole car is peppered with trick homologation tweaks; mods that add unnecessary work and cost to the road car but build-in the potential to shave vital tenths from a race car’s lap times.
Hailed as one of the best front-engined rear-drive cars of all time, the M3 is a car I’ve always wanted to drive, but until now the chance has eluded me. Once the cars are parked nose-to-tail on the train, I’ve got a scant 35 minutes to decide when and where I want to lose my M3 cherry. If I let enthusiasm get the better of me, and it stands a good chance after reading ten years’ worth of road tests and features, I’ll jump straight in, nose out of Calais and spend the next three hours or so in fifth gear, regretting my impatience while charting a dead-straight line for Belgium. In a rare demonstration of willpower, I plump for the M Coupé, fire up the zingy, crackling engine and fall instantly in love. Damn, I think. This feature’s just got a whole lot more complicated.
We head up the French coast in convoy – smoky, gritty industry to our right, murky English Channel to our left. It’s not the most testing road, but it does give me an excuse to stretch the Coupé’s legs. It might look like a joke to some, but place any doubter in the driver’s seat and the seriousness of the M Coupé’s performance will ensure the laugh sticks in their throat.
Far from insulting you from the acceleration, the Coupé’s long, van-like roof seems to amplify the sensation of speed, the lack of wind noise allowing you to hear the magnificent engine at work. It’s a sensational powerplant. Every one of its 321 rampant horses has a sharp, steely, precision-machines edge to it. In fact few motors deliver such a sustained torrent of power. As if to underline the point, twinkle-toes Harry Metcalfe drove the Coupé to 60mph in a searing 4.3secs at the MIRA test track. In this class, only TVR can provide similar ballistics on a £40k budget.
One thing that does surprise me about the M Coupé is that it’s a frantic cruiser. Sat at around 90mph, there’s a good 4000rpm on the tacho, which makes it a noisy long distance car. Unfortunately, due to the Z3′s dimensions, both the M Roadster and M Coupé are too short to accommodate the M3′s six-speed gearbox. Thus hamstrung, you have to get used to the vocal engine, not to mention the dent in the fuel consumption and the puny range from the 11 gallon tank. Don’t expect to go more than 200 miles between refills.
We’re taking big bites out of France now, but as we slip across the unmannered boarder into Belgium the weather starts to deteriorate. Thin spray whisps up from the M3′s newly fitted Goodyear Eagle F1s. It’s getting colder too, with the ambient temperature hovering around 2 degrees C. The M Coupé feels stable enough, but with well over 300bhp, wide gumball tyres at the back and no traction control, my grip on the steering wheel tightens ever so slightly.
They’re the sort of conditions that make normal people back-off, but after miles of slipstreaming inches from my quadruple tailpipes, an elderly madame finally intimidates me into letting her through. I glance up to see her draught past, hunched over the steering wheel and peering quizzically into the murk, her red Peugeor 106 1.1XN absolutely flat to the boards at 100mph. I have visions of her piling Schumacher-like into the back of the M3, and am mighty relieved when I see both BMW and Volvo dive out of her way.
Mildly deflated at having been comprehensively toasted by an octogenarian grandmother, the rest of the journey passes without incident. Oh, except for the snow. As we close-in on Spa-Francorchamps there’s at least two feet of snow piled at the side of the roads and the pine trees have a distinctly Christmassy look. Bugger.
Spirits rise a little as we realise we’re actually on the road section of the GP circuit, but as we plunge down towards Eau Rouge we can see more snow settling across the famous corner. We head gingerly up the hill and along the straight to Les Combes, the point at which the public road continues straight on and the purpose-built part of the circuit spears to the right. We peel off to the right and notice that the barriers to prevent people like us from sneaking a full lap are open. Well, what would you do? I found it quite comforting to see that just as some blokes never grow out of finding amusement in blowing-off, when you have access to a rear-wheel-drive car, snow and a deserted road, much pratting around tends to ensue. Hell, even Harry starts doing handbrake turns in the Volvo. Only the sight of Chris narrowly avoiding topping and tailing his M3 along the Armco makes us see sense, and so we head to our hotel.
After a comfortable night in the Hotel le Roannay, retreat for Mr B Ecclestone, M Moseley, M Schumacher et al during the GP weekend, we emerge to the pleasing sight of snow rapidly melting. Now, I decide, is the time to drive the M3. Climbing into the left-hand driver’s seat, the immediate impression is of an old car. The dash is shallow, your face close to the windscreen. The driving position is good, though, with firm, supportive seats placing you within perfect reach of the big steering wheel and well-spaced pedals. It’s a five-speed box with a dog-leg first just to keep me on my toes, but it kind of adds to the race-rep feel. The first few miles are easy. The M3 feels small and agile, the controls slick and well-weighted. Crucially, I feel at home, comfortable and, above all, confident.
Photographer Fraser asks us to drive up and down the start/finish straight, me in the M3, Chris in the M Coupé. Once all the fluids are warmed through, it seems right to rev the M3 a bit harder. It feels strong and gutsy, responding cleanly from low revs and pulling sweetly through the mid-range. Of course, it doesn’t feel limp and peaky either. Powering past the pits, working up to 7000rpm in second and third, the M3 really digs deep, though partly because of the hard-working engine note, I don’t expect it to stand a chance against the beefy M Coupé…..
Inevitably the pace picks up until we are wringing every last rev out of our respective steeds. From a standing start I know the M3 is dead meat, but from a slow rolling start in second gear, right the way through the 80 or 90mph the little M3 keeps its nose ahead. And through the M Coupé really starts to charge at the top end, the lighter, keener M3 gets that marginal advantage early on and won’t give it up without a fight or a long straight. Both Chris and I are amazed, and the M3 goes up another notch in our personal esteem.
There’s always a classic moment in any great photo-shoot, and mine comes at a most unexpected moment. I’d like to say it was whilst grappling my way through a 130mph corner, manfully balancing a knife-edge slide with the unflappable control of Michael Schumacher. Actually it’s while waiting patiently in Spa-Francorchamps’ famous Bus Stop chicane. The M Coupé’s long, bulbous bonnet is pointing back down the fast public road section of the GP circuit, against the true racing direction and facing the exit of the heart-stopping Blachimont kink. Chris has somehow managed to wrestle his M3 from my sticky mits and guns it away from our resting place, heading in the direction of Mr Fraser’s Nikon. Instinctively I drop the windows.
The air is cold and crisp. Icy mist hangs in the pine forest lining the road. There’s no other car to be seen and as the bluff, boxy little M3 blats into the middle distance, all I can hear is the fruity, urgent, racerish blare of its four-cylinder engine. By some strange acoustic trick, the noise level remains almost constant while the M3 shrinks to a small blue blob, slices through the curve and on out of sight. Five gearchanges punctuate the sound and I can even heat Chris shuffle on the throttle as he tackles Blanchimont before the noise hardens once more. Put some of it down to the magic of Spa if you like, but that one small soundbite from two days encapsulates the charisma of that unassuming car and its hand-built 2.3 litre, four-cylinder engine. It’s a very special thing, for sure.
A truly great car revels in all condition. Come rain or shine it’s on it. Bang on it. As faithful and progressive on wet Tarmac as it is in dry, still as able to feed you every subtle nuance of available traction, shift of camber and change of road surface. No surprise, then, that the M3 is inspirational in the wet. I don’t think I’ve driven another car that offers so many options in the same corner. You can shift from mild understeer as you peel into the curve, through all-of-a-piece neutrality at the apex to a deft whisker of oversteer as you sight your exit. No unseemly twitches, no unnecessary correction, just fast, fluid and massively satisfying progress. If you do encounter more of the former or latter there’s feel and poise to spare. Consequently you learn to push beyond its initial limits, revelling in its adjustability and progressive nature. If a well dispatched corner doesn’t leave you tingling all over, I suggest you take up knitting.
Contrast this with the M Coupé through the through the same corner and you come straight to the nub of its chassis’ shortcomings. There’s more grip on offer, which is good, and the Coupé can carry more speed, which is even better, but where the M3 is sublime on the limit the M Coupé is snatchy and spiteful.
The steering responds more keenly, sending the long, gill-straked snout darting for the apex more briskly than you expect given the conditions, but there’s less information flowing through the wheel. Consequently you’re not quite sure whether the front tyres have bitten. Steady, manageable understeer is the M Coupé’s preferred angle of attack, but if you find yourself pushing beyond its normal third-of-a-turn of understeer, front-end grip falls away quite sharply. What feel there was fades away too, compounding the problem of defining where the limit is and ultimately leaving you with less options as a driver.
Try and shift the balance mid-corner as you would in the M3 and you’re rewarded with a wicked snap from unwieldy understeer to grabby oversteer. You’d better have your wits about you when it happens too, for the rear tyres’ transition from grip to slip is not for the faint-hearted. True you’re traveling perhaps 10mph faster when it happens, but if this added pace comes at the expense of progression and feel, then perhaps the point has been missed.
There just doesn’t seem to be a happy medium, a sweet spot where you can power your way from gentle understeer to gentle oversteer without having to work at the steering. It’s a slightly different story in the dry, mainly because you are unlikely to stray into the rear tyre’s twilight zone through fast corners. Basically, it’s planted whatever you do. But again, what should a qualify driver’s car be giving you? Lots of grip is all well and good, but if you can’t feel it, take hold of it between your fingers and s-q-u-e-e-z-e it out of the chassis then you’re missing out on one of driving’s great pleasures. Surely it’s better to have a marginally lower but infinitely more malleable limit than one that offers sky-high cornering speeds but low-rise tactility?
Think we’re being too hard on the M Coupé? Then ask yourself this question. If you gain ultimate satisfaction from that delicate turn-in/apex/exit balancing act, does the M Coupé deliver? I say not, but if you derive a similar buzz from the relatively simple pleasures of Velcro grip and lots of grunt, then the M Coupé is an exceptional car. It’s certainly a million miles from being a bad car, it’s just that in this book it’s feel and character that count, the kind of attributes you can only measure with the seat of your pants, not a scientific instrument. The only area where it genuinely does steal a tangible advantage is under braking, the floating discs taken from the six-cylinder M3 ensuring fade-free stopping power of the head-on collision variety all day long. Not that the old M3′s stoppers are weak. They’re progressive, strong and well-matched to the car’s performance, but ten years is an awfully long time, especially when it comes to brake technology.
If the M Coupé truly is the brainchild of BMW M’s engineering arm, and not the crayon-wielding designers or fast buck-making marketers, then this, in my opinion at any rate, is conclusive proof of a collective genius with far too little to do. Perhaps it’s an indictment of motorsport rule makers. Perhaps BMW just can’t be bothered. Whatever the reason, it’s a crying shame these guys should be longer be burning the midnight oil searching for that elusive technical loophole, hand-building engines, homologating front wheelarches with 1mm of additional clearance, fitting solid front wishbone bushes. Dammit, they should be sweating blood creating the ultimate road-going basis for the ultimate racing car, not building sensationally fast but ultimately flawed freaks.
History is the only arbiter in matters like this. Look back and you’ll find the great road cars we put on pedestals are the products of the all-consuming quest for competition success. Quattro, Integrale, Cosworth, original M3; all owe their finesse, tactility and downright desirability to motorsport. Perhaps BMW would do well to remember what M stands for.