Stumping TTAC’s Best And Brightest is never an easy task, even with a relatively obscure picture clue. But if ever there was a car to do it, it’s the BMW M Coupe. Hell, three weeks ago, I had forgotten it existed… and now I own one.
The M Coupe’s ability to evade memory is simultaneously totally understandable and wholly mystifying. On the surface, it’s a completely distinctive model: the only true shooting brake-style sportscar to be built in my lifetime. It also generated a fair amount of controversy when it debuted. I can vividly recall seeing pictures of the weird be-hatched Z3 in my father’s Auto Motor und Sport, and thinking why on earth did BMW let a Z3 mate with a Civic hatchback? Then I saw one on the road, and was struck by how bizarrely good-looking it was. Before I ever got behind the wheel of one, I had already enjoyed a complex emotional relationship with the model, hating it, loving it, and ultimately respecting the balls it took to put it into production.
So how did I forget about it? Perhaps because the M3 has loomed so large in the minds of all automotive enthusiasts for so long. Possibly because it was only produced for four short years. More likely though is the fact that it got lost in my dislike for its sister model, the Z3 convertible. Having seen the Z3 appear in the Bond film Goldeneye, I instantly loved it. But in an inversion of my relationship to the Z3 Coupe, I quickly came to loath the Roadster. The appeal of its styling wore off extremely rapidly, and left behind only a stinging distaste for the car’s image. Middle-age Bond wannabes, Cougars (though the term had not yet been coined) and hairdressers dominated my perception of Z3 drivers.
Then, several weeks ago, I was on an evening walk with my significant other, when I caught sight of a long, low, shoe-like shape peeking out from under a carport. Even with a textile cover, the shape was unmistakable. Having wallowed in the shame of being an auto writer with no car of my own, my partner and I had been discussing several possible options for an editorial chariot, to which I tentatively added the Z3 Coupe. Being a young lady of extremely refined taste, I fully expected her to dismiss the Coupe on the grounds of its looks. When she expressed her enthusiasm for the model, I knew it was the one for me. Just weeks later, I tracked down a ’99 M Coupe with 89k miles, and didn’t think twice about plunking down my entire savings on it.
For the 1999 and 2000 model year, M Coupes came with BMW’s S52 3.2 liter inline six with “only” 240 HP and 236 ft-lbs of torque, and as a result cars from these two years are relatively affordable. Emphasis on relatively. The 2001-2002 models, which boast BMW’s 315 HP S54 engine can easily cost upwards of $40k. This is explained by the other reason M Coupes tend not to stick in the automotive memory banks: BMW only built a tiny number of the cars. Just over 2,000 US-market S52 models were built, while a mere 690 North American M Coupes were made with the more powerful S54. The former BMW-dealer broker who sold me my M Coupe off his tiny showroom in South East Portland said that when the model first debuted, he wished they had made fewer.
Luckily they didn’t, because the S52 M Coupe is a rare, distinctive, and some might say even exotic car, that can be had for the price of a new mass-market midsize sedan. And though buying an 11 year-old BMW with nearly 90k miles and no warranty is a bit like playing Russian Roulette, the S52 engine has a far better reliability record than its more powerful, but more-stressed S54 cousin. Besides, you aren’t really an enthusiast until you’ve spent you car’s purchase price on maintenance, right?
In any case, the M Coupe in question feels extremely well taken-care-of. Slide and fold yourself into the low-slung driver’s seat, and the rich smell of real leather fills the nostrils. Though the frameless doors judder slightly when closed, the only real indication of heavy use anywhere is the well-loved steering wheel, worn down with the exertion of eleven years of spirited driving. Interior styling is refreshingly old-school, with a delicate dash, and a big chrome-ringed clock, Volt-meter and oil temperature gauge. The firm seats grab your sides with Germanic strength, and reinforce the message sent by the tiny audio head unit and general lack of toys, buttons, knobs and switches: this car was made to be driven.
Well then: with a twist of the old-fashioned key, the 3.2 liter engine fires to life with a sonorous whoofle. The short-throw shifter demands a firm hand, as it slots heavily into gear with only a hint of vagueness and some satisfying crunch. At low speeds, the heavy shifter is matched by equally heavy steering, giving the car an old-school, analogue feel. As you gaze down the softly-bulging hood, you realize that old-school-ness is truly the defining characteristic of this car. It demands strong arms, strong hands, and the willingness to grab it by the nape of the neck and forcefully extract its true potential.
Luckily, the creamy series-six engine subscribes to a kinder, gentler class of the old school. And why not? This is, after all, a BMW. Smooth and eminently tractable at low speeds, the S52 has allowed this car’s clutch to age with grace, and it allows the driver to focus on wrestling with the wheel at parking lot speeds. On the go, it’s a bit boomy at low speeds, but it revs with remarkable strength, its noise sharpening into a fierce, raspy howl. Unlike so many modern engines, which appear to have been tuned for a maximum number at one discrete point on the rev counter, the S52 is shockingly elastic, making good power across the range, and never feeling like it’s only building up to the real fun.
And with only five gears on offer, it’s a good thing the smooth-spinning engine has such long legs. In cut-and-parry driving, the close ratios and satisfying shifts make the manual box a fine partner. At “Autobahn speeds,” however, there’s far less to work with. The M Coupe will doddle along at 50 MPH in fifth gear, and triple-digit speeds are just a flex of the right foot away, but as the engine screams towards the rev limiter, it’s clear that Mr M won’t be setting any top-speed records. Don’t get it wrong: I like driving over 130 MPH as much as the next lunatic, but in the real world that’s about all you ever get a chance at anyway.
Besides, there’s plenty of fun to be had in that speed envelope. Lean into the M Coupe’s heavy tiller, and it corners sharp and flat, with loads of feedback from the front end. The grip is better than you might think (although it’s as ggod as the ride suggests), but the real fun starts when you overcome it with healthy applications of throttle. I haven’t owned the M Coupe long enough to come close to fully exploring its throttle-steering potential, but it should come as no surprise that the rear of this car is exceptionally steerable. And thanks to its “mere” 240 HP, pushing the limit of rear-end grip takes real subtlety rather than simple pedal mashing. And speaking of pedal mashing, it’s far easier to explore the M’s handling knowing that insistently strong (if somewhat numb) brakes are but a quick mash away.
In short, the 240 HP M Coupe is a minor automotive miracle: the extremely rare, stunningly unique, immensely capable, and (yes) supremely practical sports coupe. That controversial rear hatch may not be long enough to fit your shotguns (the traditional payload of the shooting brake), but it beats the alternatives hollow. Overnight bags for two? Check. A crate of apples from the fruit stand on the side of your favorite driving road? Grab a couple. But the most significant attribute of the hatch is that it exists at all. It made a preening, twee roadster into a purposeful yet practical coupe. Most of all, it grants the M Coupe the power to be forgotten and rediscovered. And what more can an enthusiast ask for?