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First Drive

BMW's M Coupe: Behind You All the Way

October 08, 1998|PAUL DEAN

BMW's fresh and fiery M coupe is a victim of posterior hypertrophy. Less politely, this wonderfully engineered but horribly over-styled two-seater is buns-ugly.

The M is accentuated by a graceful hood that stretches into next Tuesday, but its rear shows less curvature than a steamer trunk. Think slabs, dead ends, tombstones, bulldogs and crueler days when gluteal regions were measured by ax handles. This keister looks as though it has already been rear-ended. Honda embraces the same shape, but for homey vans and the Civic hatchback.

Enough. Some people will love the look because from certain angles--rear three-quarter, from down low, looking up and squinting at dusk was one serious suggestion--there's just a whisper of sumo. Four tailpipes, a serious squat and fender flares that do nothing to conceal the threat of 9-inch-wide Dunlops on 17-inch alloys were never a part of your father's MBGT. Curve against flat and rake versus vertical may also be seen as a very tough styling configuration that defies all rules and brings a ton of novelty to the generally over-safe and over-serious world of automotive design.

And no matter its bustle, this is a coupe doctored heavily by BMW's famed M (for Motorsports) performance upgrades that transform perfectly affable motorcars into restless tigers. Put it all together and the M coupe is Mark McGwire. It may not be the prettiest package out there, but sheesh, does it get the job done.

The coupe began life two years ago as the Z3 sports car, BMW's third of a roadster rage that produced the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK. Frankly, the Z3 with its 1.9-liter four-banger was the 138-horsepower wimp of the litter. It wasn't long before BMW accepted the weakness of its ways and re-equipped the Z3 ragtop with an optional 2.8-liter inline-6 that upped the muscle to 189 horsepower. Prices, unfortunately, also went up.

Then came the Z3 M roadster, next the 2.8-liter coupe, and this month, the $41,800 M coupe with a rev-happy, smooth but torquey 3.2-liter inline-6 borrowed from the M3 four-seater. It delivers 240 horsepower and almost as much torque; but within such a light structure, the M coupe's charm is acceleration without end, amen, and handling that would satisfy Lotus and Ferrari. Which means flat, fast, firm, secure, serious fun and something else for the competition to fret over.

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M treatments, however, are more than a matter of stuffing heavyweight engines into flyweight frames until cops are lifting licenses by the dozen.

For starters, there's that broader, more robust rubber. Wheelbase and track are longer and wider than the Z3 coupe 2.8. Brakes are huge, vented 12-inch discs that allow panic stops until your foot drops off. There are three air scoops for cooling in a front spoiler that is far from cosmetic on a car capable of running out at 137 mph and cornering not much slower.

Chassis strengthening applied to the roadster to reduce body flex has been left intact. Add that to the bracing of a steel-roofed coupe, and you have a car with instantaneous responses that will never lie about balance or what's going on beneath its wheels.

There are delicate reminders of this car's high BMW bloodline in the M badging and blue-and-burgundy stitching around the steering wheel and other leather-covered surfaces. The cabin fits like a loafer, but there's a ton of space in the trunk, where, if BMW had been really dumb, it might have tried installing a pair of miniature and unusable seats. Entering and leaving any car this close to the ground is a bit of a wriggle, and an optional moon roof that only tilts ajar seems to be a large waste of several hundred bucks.

But should you be into raucous yet elegant cars, and are still pursuing some higher bonding between driver and machine, there might be no better way to invest 41,800 clams.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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