We boogie with BMW's finest M cars on road and track
M140i, M2 Pure coupe , M3 30 Year, M4 GTS, M5, M6 coupe and X6 M
Weíve got a backstage pass to the biggest one-make automotive party of the year and the smorgasbord of stars on this red carpet will have you salivating.
Only BMWs are invited and then itís only the A-listers, include the M140i, M2 Pure, M3 30 Year, M4 GTS, M5, M6 Coupe and X6 M! Yes, itís a star-studded celebrity guest list and with this much pulling power, it will be an unforgettable performance.
The dance floor for our soiree is the Driver Education Centre of Australia (DECA) test track at Wodonga which, together with some interesting surrounding roads, provides these motorsport-inspired M-cars the perfect medium on which to strut their substantial stuff.
But which M model on the guest list is the most entertaining, which is the life of the party and with which one would we most like to go home?
No doubt youíre all thinking itís a no-brainer. After all, the M4 GTS Coupe is the Ďrace car for the roadí, but the judging criteria is not all about speed. Of course, it will be a consideration but do these cars all have the ĎX factorí and are they truly worthy vessels of the ĎMí badge?
Alongside me holding up the score cards are senior motoring.com.au scribes Mike Sinclair, Marton Pettendy and Andrea Matthews, providing a good cross-section of experience and input. Truth be known, theyíre also there to make sure I donít spend two days just lapping in the M4 GTS!
The first car to roll onto the runway is the M5. When I think of BMW M cars, this has to be one that immediately springs to mind. A sledgehammer in a silk suit, the M5 has an enviable reputation of being the fastest sedan in the world at various times through its storied history.
The recipe is simple: plug a huge horsepower engine into a somewhat understated big, four-door chassis and you have a 280km/h-plus Ďsleeperí that can bruise the ego of most sport cars.
The current car is no exception and it can be summed up with one word: brawn! With 423kW and 680Nm on hand, itís no surprise that this car is seriously fast.
I donít think too many vehicles can accelerate as rapidly as this weapon ó particularly in the 150-250km/h rangeÖ So thereís absolutely no criticism of its straight-line performance.
But add a few corners into the equation and the car feels a fraction less responsive, a bit soft and its steering inputs are a little higher than expected. However, it must be said that these minor grievances would probably escape note if the M5 was driven in isolation and not back-to-back with the other more nimble M revellers.
On the circuit and trying to apply that amount of twisting power through the rear wheels with stability control off, our test track dance floor feels like an ice rink and I do everything I can to channel my inner ĎTorvill and Deaní to master the extreme opposite lock ballet.
Budding drifters, forget your S14s and R32s, because the M5 is the drift machine for you! You can fry the rear tyres in any corner, in any gear. Putting a clean lap together is somewhat of a challenge, but man, the M5 is FUN!
What isnít so much fun is the brake fade that creeps in after a very short time, so I was reluctant to push hard for more than two laps at a time.
Luxury autobahn stormer? Yes. Track-day swinger? Not so much, but the M5 did achieve an impressive 58.47sec lap time.
For a quick reference, the HSV GTS has lapped the same circuit in 59.10 seconds.
Does the M140i have something to prove or is it genuinely here on merit and so deserving of the prestigious M badge?
Itís got impressive figures on paper: 250kW and a staggering 500Nm of torque from its turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder heart. Thatís 35Nm more than the sizzling fast M2, to which it gives away 22kW. And being the lightest car on the scales, this baby M-car should have giant-killing performance.
One might expect that shoe-horning a big powerplant into such a small car will produce very nose-heavy, lazy dynamics, but the M140i is quite the contrary. Demonstrating all the attributes of the M2 but with rounded edges, itís just a fraction slower in a straight line and lacks the ultimate grip of its bigger siblings.
By no means embarrassed by the big boys, the M140i shares an identical balance to the M2 and youíre hard pressed to feel any significant power deficit ó around the tricky DECA layout anyway.
At $65K, this entry-level M-car is fantastic value for money. Feeling like it could lap our circuit all day without raising a sweat, itís perhaps the perfect pick for a track-day car with four-door family practicality?
Our verdict is quickly that the M140i is well-deserving of the hallowed M It delivers near-M2/M3 performance in a (slightly) more practical, cheaper package.
It might have produced the slowest lap time of 58.62, but thatís still extremely rapid and not even two-10ths shy of the tyre-shredding M5, which costs well over three times as much.
The M140i was the big surprise packet for me and certainly delivers Ďunder the radarí performance that has now got my attention.
Macho M6 Coupe
With comments on the M5 ranging from ďa bit old fashionedĒ and ďan exhausting experienceĒ to ďepic responseĒ and ďhell, itís fastĒ, it was reasonable to think the M6 would be just a two-door clone of BMWís fiercest sedan.
With much of the big sedanís underpinnings shared, albeit with even more power and a higher pricetag, will the M6 feel more sophisticated? With its four-door counterpart struggling with traction and agility, itís hard to imagine a 29kW/20Nm increase for the M6 being a good thing, but thatís how it turns out.
The M6 is brutally fast in a straight line (441kW in a road car is just insane) but the clever thing is this uber-coupe manages to feel sharp and nimble in the twisty stuff. Although it shares the same steering ratio as the M5, its response feels somewhat faster and overall it gives the impression youíre piloting a much smaller car.
The gearbox is an absolute ripper with every shift heard but not felt, leaving the memory of head-butting shifts of the old SMG gearbox in its tyre-chirping wake.
Brake fade again is an issue and traction very much the Achillesí heel on track, but its handling poise gives the M6 a significant 0.8sec lap time advantage over the M5.
Producing a stunning 57.47sec lap around the tight and twisty layout, itís not hard to imagine times a second or so faster with even a slight improvement in traction. If any platform is crying out for AWD, itís the M5/M6!
Watch this spaceÖ
Clone of the sedan? No way. The M6 has very much its own identity and its level of sophistication is unquestioned. Itís everything the M5 isnít but should/could be.
Mega X6 M
Surely the X6 M is not in the same league as the other M invitees? Perhaps the kind of vehicle the paparazzi would arrive to the party in, but not to be photographed?
Well, any car with 423kW and 750Nm of torque has to be taken seriously and with all four paws clawing at the ground, it has the potential to throw a cat among the pigeons.
It did indeed do just that!
The most accurate way to sum this car up is to think of it as a big Mitsubishi Evo X.
I can hear you all saying ĎLuke, youíve taken too many party pillsí, but itís absolutely true.
Iíll throw a lap time at you before I proceed: 58.41. Yep, faster than the M140i and M5! This car is unbelievable and seemingly defies physics. Itís supposed to be too big, too heavy and too unresponsive in this companyÖ
Surely, this is just a token M-truck to please the SUV-driving masses? No way! This is a genuine sports car and the major difference is not prowess but rather that you sit a foot higher in the air!
I expected an armful of understeer around each corner, but the X6 M is the complete opposite and turns in like a rocket. So much so that it displays turn-in oversteer and where its rear-drive counterparts require a reset of the gas pedal, the X6 M wants more and more! Balancing the oversteer with a boot-full of throttle as you glide through turns in a glorious four-wheel drift may be a little tricky for some, but I was pushing at 11/10thsÖ And grinning like the Cheshire cat.
Drive the X6M conventionally and fast lap times will effortlessly appear. There wasnít even a hint of brake fade, suggesting the M5 and M6 need to raid the X6 Mís parts bin.
The biggest weakness in the sedans is the biggest strength in the SUV ó traction! Point the steering wheel in the direction you want to go, mash the throttle and none of the available torque is wasted.
Next time youíre at a track day and someone rocks up in one of these things, pause your instinctive reaction and give it the respect it deserves. I certainly will.
Manic M2 Pure
After winning motoring.com.auís Australiaís Best Driversí Car for 2016, itís no surprise that the M2 commands attention. This is an unbelievably well credentialed car in every facet of performance.
From its aggressive stance, big power and agile handling, BMW has seemingly crammed its best performance components into its smallest chassis. It all absolutely works and is very difficult to find fault with, full stop. Okay, so maybe the interiorís slightly lacklustre.
Priced just under $90K and with 272kW and 465Nm onboard from its turbocharged six, this M carís bang for your bucks value has to be almost unrivalled.
It goes, it stops, it turns and with a lap time of 56.94, itís just plain fast. On a twisty road, pluck fourth gear in the manual variant and forget ó the engine has so much torque across the rev range and the gearing is near-perfect.
The logbook quote from one of our judges sums it up perfectly: ďSo involving, so engaging, so well sorted, so liveable, so forgiving and so foolproofĒ.
The thought of an M2 GTS is spine-tingling given how accomplished the base M2 has been proven. Indeed, maybe thatís its only problem: it does everything so well and so effortlessly it lacks the visceral appeal of some of Mís finest.
Unlucky not to be the life of the party, perhaps the M2 Pure is just too good?
Menacing M4 GTS
The M4 GTS is the twinkle toes of the group and if it was solely up to me, it would be the pick of this M bunch. But not everyone (as Iíve tried to explain unsuccessfully to Sinkers several times) is cut out to be a racecar driver.
Thatís not to say you have to be a racer to enjoy the GTS, but the wildest M4 ever is perhaps a little intimidating to get the most from if youíre not.
BMW claims this is the fastest road car it has ever produced and thereís no doubt about its track focus. This truly is a road-legal race car and it doesnít hide the fact in any form.
With a big, purposeful wing at the back and an extendable front splitter, its aerodynamics are as in-your-face as the acid-orange highlights.
The fascinating list of performance add-ons ó and in some cases omissions ó are too numerous to mention. The philosophy from BMW is to fully showcase whatís possible with a road-legal vehicle when racetrack performance is the priority.
Weight-saving is everywhere, from the carbon fibre-reinforced body panels, titanium exhaust, ceramic brakes and carbon seats, to the omission of the rear seats and sound deadening. Officially, the GTS is 30kg lighter than the standard M4. Option the carbon-fibre wheels and you can almost double that numberÖ
Power is up too and in a (claimed) world first for a production car, the GTS incorporates water injection. Lowering intake temperatures to allow more boost and more advanced timing, it ups power to 368kW and torque to 600Nm ó impressive numbers for a six-cylinder.
Fancy yourself as a bit of race engineer? The GTS is the ultimate tinkererís toy. If you donít quite like the way itís handling, just adjust the plethora of parameters on the suspension and aerodynamics. Ride height, high- and low-speed compression damping, rebound, front splitter and rear wing. Itís all adjustable! Not just a token two clicks either Ė the rebound damper adjustment has 16 clicks!
We didnít have time to explore any set-up changes, so we attacked the track as supplied by BMW with the aerodynamics in low drag mode and the suspension in unknown configuration Ė and it did everything we expected and more.
Itís stiff like a race car, it reacts like a race car, itís loud like a race car and with stability control off, you have to drive it like a race car. Gone is the big, essentially compromised window a normal road car operates in and, unsurprisingly, it obliterated the lap times of the other party goers with a staggering 54.77!
Who knows how much quicker it couldíve gone if we cranked on some downforce and played with the suspension?
But with the dynamics of a race car, we expected ride quality on the road to be teeth-chattering. Thereís no escaping the firm feel but itís easily liveable and much better than expected.
I fully appreciate it wouldnít be everyoneís cup of tea, but all the typical creature comforts still feature and Iíd happily have it as a daily driver.
Perhaps the standard M4 needs to be a bit more like the GTS as there really is only a blanket separating the M2, M3 and M4.
Value? Well at the $300K mark, around the Wodonga track it was $100K per second faster than the M2. Iíll leave that with youÖ
Marvellous M3 30 Year
The M3 30 Year is an M2 after a three vodka Red Bulls ó just that little bit more confident and brash. It picks the best characteristics from each M car and makes them work in harmony.
With 331kW and 550Nm on offer from the raspy six, the engine displays effortless pulling power and never feels like itís turbocharged.
The chassis feels a fraction more settled than the M2 and its cornering prowess is second only to the M4 GTS. It has the right amount of engine power, the right amount of stopping power and the right amount handling.
Itís a tad raw but in a good way, and with a 56.60 lap time itís blindingly quick.
The M3 embodies everything an M car should be, itís as simple as that.
To my amazement and, it has to be said, enjoyment, all these vehicles behave remarkably similarly. Each vehicleís dynamics are so well sorted that, even blindfolded, you could absolutely tell youíre driving a BMW M.
The gearboxes (variously manual, automatic and dual-clutch) are rippers and the one and only disappointing aspect is the unnecessarily conservative traction control systems that spoil the fun far too early.
The entry-level M140i is sharp, nimble and turns in beautifully. Itís packed with power; the rear-drive layout promotes plenty of tyre-smoking action if provoked but loads of grip if driven smoothly.
The very same characteristics are on offer from the others in the line-up, and the differences can be measured in fractions with each progression toward the M4 GTS. Just when you think they canít get any better, the next variant takes it to another level.
Granted, thereís a little less rear grip with the M5/M6 duo and a little more to be had with the X6 M, but without exception every one of these M cars is fun with a capital F.
That dirty word ó understeer ó is amazingly non-existent in all of these models and the motorsport ethos of the M badge is very much alive in these race-bred party-goers. Look out AMG (and others) if the handling characteristics of the X6 M can be replicated in the sedans by the BMW boffins. And we think thatís highly likelyÖ
The lap times are seriously impressive too and, putting them in context, easily beat our previous local track benchmark laid down by HSVís top-shelf GTS.
Intoxicating? Exhilarating? Party-stopping? All of the above. Dare I say it, the BMW marketing pundits have articulated it perfectly with their Ďsheer driving pleasureí slogan.
So which is the life of the M car party?
The M3 by a whisker, but youíll have a ball with any M-car you choose to partner.
Have been in a BMW after several new-model Porsches, Cayman S, 991 Carrera S and more. I LOVE my 2015 M4, I will stay in a BMW!
I have always found BMW's to have absolutely shitty brakes after one or two laps on a track, none of what you say in regards to brakes and brake fade is a surprise. I have Carbon's on my M4 - wow - no more brake fade for me!
A question, and it relates to these fabulous lap times, drives, and traction in these big cars, for instance, the X6M: Where is the 'weak point'? Since the car and the chassis is so capable, does that mean (I'm just guessing here) the (expensive!) tires are the weak link, and will need replaced many times more often versus a smaller car w/less mass, ie: M2 or M3/4?
It's great to extoll the virtues of the engineering feats, but somebody has to pay somewhere, some time. There is no free lunch. Reality check.
As a rule of thumb, R-Comps are worth 1~2 seconds per minute lap.
Agreed, Just puts into perspective the difference the rubber makes for the gains responsible for the extra speed the gts is capable of, not to mention all the other good ness baked into that car.
Edit, also the fact that uhp/summer tires like moss street tires >300 tw and less have gotten so much better too. Back when I was in college auto crossing the snot out of my then newish 202 wry wagon, a set of victoracers were worth 2-3 seconds on a 50 second course,