MOTOR MOUTH: Pure combat on wheels

MOTOR MOUTH: Pure combat on wheels - Last time I mentioned the Nazis in an article about BMW, the company took exception. When you get a carefully drafted letter of rebuttal from a senior PR, you know you are right. No offence meant, I'd simply said that

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and deseign consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Last time I mentioned the Nazis in an article about BMW, the company took exception. When you get a carefully drafted letter of rebuttal from a senior PR, you know you are right. No offence meant, I'd simply said that the Z3 roadster - as a deliberate take on the classic BMW 328 sportscar of the '30s - had a bit of a Third Reich look about it. I mean, if you happen to be a Bavarian company and you go the historicist route in styling, it's inevitable that associations brought to mind include some stereotypes the Germans might rather forget.

I dare say many customers - especially the large number in Chelsea who like to wear baseball caps - did not find access to this iconography repugnant, but the Z3's American stylist, Chris Bangle, did. Yet far more damaging a criticism of the first (US-built) BMW sportscar for nearly 40 years was that it was, in dynamic terms, suitable only for South Carolina housewives whose idea of driving was on the golf course, not on the road. Early Z3s were underpowered by an over-stretched and under-tuned four-cylinder engine, had lazy steering and were - frankly - a waste of space, although they did do a lovely period shade of eau de nil so it evoked '50s caravanning, thus further damaging BMW's exquisitely wrought self-image.

Like the Porsche Boxster (a more serious proposition), the Z3 was a betrayal of BMW's ethic because it was its first inspired by market rather than technical considerations. Experts debate the metaphors - was the Z3 a wet fart or a small earthquake? - but since its introduction BMW has been implicitly accepting the charge of having got it wrong by trying to get back to what should have been the starting point: a BMW sportscar with credentials. With the M-Coupe (pronounced koop because we are talking American) it is right there and we are right back to the Nazis.

Driving the M-Coupe is not, one imagines, dissimilar to flying a Focke-Wulf 190A (itself equipped with a BMW 801 radial engine), although politely adapted for civilization by factoring in something of the MGB-GT and cutting the wings off. It now has the Motorsport version of BMW's biggest six-cylinder, one of the finest engines you will experience, although the urbane power that the same unit delivers elsewhere in the BMW range has been doctored so as to be cussed and lumpy and very much dive-dive-dive-bandits-at-two-o'clock in feel.

Still, it's a gorgeous engine. At last they have found something to fill the Z3's enormous bonnet. The first edition's four-cylinder was like discovering an acorn in Schwarzenegger's trousers.

Indeed, oddities of proportion characterise this most uncharacteristic BMW: it has glam-rock flares on the wheel arches and enormous wheels, and putting a fixed-head pavilion on the original roadster has produced one of the most curious-looking cars of all time, either sexily muscular and dramatic or embarrassingly engorged, depending on your taste. I'll just say that my wife, an otherwise brave woman who has raced yachts around southern Ireland, refused to use it on aesthetic grounds.

You clamber aboard - in fact, you insert yourself, almost expecting to have someone lean in and do up the belts - and the environment is very old-fashioned, for all BMW's classy modern details and finishes. You sit on the car rather than in it, although the cabin has that intimacy of old sportscars, thus conveying a sense of adventure even while stationary.

This car made me want to do journeys: the interior would look great with lots of Michelin 1/200,000 maps scattered about.

There's an entire carrier deck of sheet metal in front, while you are hunched in the back. Once it's chocks away these expectations are confirmed: the M-Coupe is pure combat. Ferociously fast with brakes like maritime anchors and a whole schmeer of roar and whoofle about it. Not a particularly comfortable car, nor a particularly intelligent one, but amazingly characterful.

Best of all, it simply doesn't feel like a BMW; more - as I said - like a second world war fighter or a tyre-melting hot-rod. I loved it.

At about the same price, BMW's own M3 offers similar performance, much more space, more smoothness and better looks, and people will not automatically assume you have a psycho-sexual disorder if you buy one. But the M-Coupe is more of a rarity because it is so odd, and that makes it rather wonderful.

I mean wunderbar.

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