Faster but Not So Furious, M Cars Slide Into Maturity

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BAVARIA'S BMW was not the first automaker to stuff a pyrotechnic engine into an otherwise mainstream car just to revel in the fireworks. For that spectacle we mainly thank Detroit, where a swinging-'60s John DeLorean helped kick off the muscle-car craze by packing carburetors and cubic inches into the Pontiac Tempest, birthing the GTO.

In the decades that followed, though, it was BMW -- specifically its performance-obsessed M division, recently turned 40 -- that established a dynasty of factory-built sport sedans that could hurtle, handle and stop as well as many sports cars.

Now an expanding list of companies -- including Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Audi, even Jaguar and Volvo -- is tag-teaming BMW with their own oiled-up challengers. No longer is the supremacy of a new BMW M car a given; a wealth of well-bred competitors lets shoppers run their compare-and-contrast drills before they reflexively hand over huge sums to BMW.

With the new, mechanically related M5 sedan, M6 coupe and convertible, BMW is making the case that enthusiast's dollars should continue flowing waist-deep into its vaults. This autobahn threesome, especially the low and flowing M6 coupe, makes a dazzling street-corner come-on. These M cars are stars in the mold of the "Six Million Dollar Man."

Or six figures at least: all are radically altered and upgraded from their mortal donor models, even in places you might not expect. And while the bionic Steve Austin sprinted at 60 m.p.h. in that '70s sci-fi show, I'll bet he couldn't get there in 3.7 seconds, as magazine tests have recorded for the M's.

Such ruthless urge, in cars as stout as German butchers (these Ms range from about 4,250 to 4,500 pounds), is supplied by a 4.4-liter V-8 of NASA-level intricacy. With its pair of Honeywell turbochargers, the novel reverse-layout TwinPower engine -- the exhaust pulses that spin the turbos come from inside the V of the cylinder banks, while air enters from the outer sides -- dials up a lusty 560 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque, sending the V-10 of the last M5 shrieking to the dustbin.

Yet as with some recent BMWs, these cars have familiar issues, starting with their gasp-inducing window stickers: $123,345 for my option-rich M6 coupe test car (base price was $108,295, including the $1,300 gas guzzler tax); $127,095 for an M6 convertible (starting at $115,295); and $103,195 for the M5 ($91,695 base). Technological headaches include a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that stumbles like a wino in low-speed city maneuvers (though the M5 is available with a 6-speed manual).

And regrettably for the brand that virtually patented the man-machine connection, there's a sense that technical proficiency has upstaged old-time BMW fun. As they devour the road, taming every difficult passage, these M's are tuxedo-clad prodigies in a hushed concert hall. The performance amazes, but you find yourself craving the raw, rude fire of the Beastie Boys.

Given that the M6 convertible drives much like the hardtop -- a little heavier, a little draftier -- I'll focus here on the M6 coupe and M5 sedan. (That said, the soft-top M6 is one of the tightest convertibles I've ever experienced and one of the quietest in top-down drives).

With their rippling bodies, predatory air inlets and sported-up interiors, the cars of this M brigade visibly outrank the non-M models. Of the three machines, I took an instant shine to the M6 coupe for its looks, performance and gran turismo bearing.

At these prices, the M5 seems to be outgrowing its 28-year mission as the do-it-all sport sedan. If you must drop $100,000 to go fast, is a midsize 4-door really the goal? Buy a $60,000 528i and a sports car for weekends.

The M6 drops all the pretense, combining decadence and brutality in a way the sedan can't match. It's a propulsive German warhead, engineered to shatter your gated subdivision, though tastefully. And it looks best in black.

The sedan's interior is excellent, but the coupe gets more padded leather than a Berlin nightclub. Likewise, the more prominent seat bolsters of the M6, along with the fat-grip, slim-spoke steering wheel, make a stronger ode to high velocity.

Naturally, these specialized M's are subject to fuel economy and emissions standards. So like the tuner-shop entries from competing automakers -- the Audi S6 and Mercedes E63 AMG, for example -- BMW switched to a downsized V-8 that gains 60 horsepower, with a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy, over the old M5's 8,700-r.p.m. V-10.

This TwinPower is the first M engine with BMW's Valvetronic system, which improves breathing, response and economy by electronically adjusting the 16 air-intake valves to throttle the engine. Direct fuel injection made it possible for the compression ratio to be increased to 10:1, and the turbochargers operate at an urgent 21.7 pounds per square inch of boost pressure.

The M engineers devised a clever plumbing arrangement to assure a steady flow of exhaust gases feeding the turbochargers nestled in the engine's V. The short path from the exhaust valves to the turbos also minimizes heat loss.

The result: nearly zero turbo lag, and a power curve that looks more like an flatlined EKG. Torque peaks at 1,500 r.p.m. and holds there until 5,750 r.p.m. Press the gas and the BMWs practically blow a hole in the atmosphere.

These M's also add an engine stop-start function and an alternator that recoups energy while coasting and saves it in the battery. Fuel economy benefits, but it's all relative: 14 m.p.g. in the city and 20 on the highway is no threat to hybrid sales.

The 7-speed paddle-shifted dual-clutch transmission is now fast and seamless -- that is, once you get it into gear. At parking-lot speeds, though, this has to be the most obnoxious transmission in any performance car, resisting commands and rolling on grades even when first gear is engaged. Its stubby console lever is awkward, and carving a three-point turn is an exercise in frustration; when parallel parking, the M's slipped or lurched, threatening to cream innocent cars ahead and behind.

The M5's odd brake feel is another mystery. Around town, the pedal was almost hybridlike, with a spongy feel that suddenly turned grabby. There's ample stopping power, but it doesn't transmit many clues to your right foot. That iffy feeling was mostly absent from the M6 coupe, in part a benefit of its $8,700 carbon-ceramic brakes.

I had the good fortune to drive the M5 on the racetrack at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. Blasting around the 1.5-mile course, its power and grip were apparent, but so were its bulk and isolation -- especially when I moved straight into the sprightly, and far more engaging, M3. 

The M's, following BMW practice, bow to the gods of electrons, with adjustable systems for steering, suspension, transmission and stability control. There's a Rubik's Cube of possible combinations, but fortunately BMW provides two programmable buttons on the steering wheel to recall favorite settings. They are handy: in another fussbudget move, these M cars revert to the slowest, cushiest settings when you shut off the car.

On the other hand, the dual-clutch transmission incorporates an automated launch control for brutally quick getaways. BMW's active differential analyzes engine and stability control data to divide power between the rear wheels in fractions of a second. Interestingly, BMW chose hydraulic power steering, rather than the electric systems of the standard 5 and 6 Series cars, a decision that would bring improved feel.

Relaxing in the first-class cabins of these designer yachts, the driver barely feels a ripple. There's discreet feedback through the steering wheel and chassis, minimal body roll and almost no clue to the titanic forces whipsawing this ship -- more Champagne, sir? Apparently, that's just how BMW likes it.

I won't deny a certain video-game entertainment value to such capable cars, but they also seem designed for an illusory Grand Theft Auto world. Perhaps it's unfair to single out BMW, but these M's seem to approach the outer limits of usable -- especially when they only intermittently engage their driver.

One thing I never thought I'd say in my lifetime: a Mercedes, specifically the E63 AMG, whose outlaw attitude would seem well matched to a young billionaire soccer club owner, is a charming, fried-rubber yahoo compared with these BMWs.

Viewed in a vacuum, these M's still rock the road. But in an expanding performance universe, BMW ought to question its course of making warp-speeders that shorten trips between planets but leave the drivers in suspended animation. People don't buy fast cars to make better time, but to make their time better.

INSIDE TRACK: BMW's private-label vintages, mellowing after 40 years.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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