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km : First Drive

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30 July 2012

evo·lu·tion  n :  the gradual development of something, esp. from a simple to a more complex form (see BMW Motorsport)

Once upon a time, BMW sprouted a motorsport division for the sole sake of winning races. It built high-strung, high-performance machines based on the tweaked components of its production-line coupes and sedans. Races were won, trophies were collected and the little racing division advanced forward. It started building entire cars, not just for the race track but also the road. BMW Motorsport gave way to BMW M. Evolution ran wild, success bred even more success, and now yesterday’s race-bred M1s and M3s have paved the way for high-profile, high-profit vehicles like today’s X6M/X5M monster trucks, whose only duties on the track involve holding back the real racers as the safety car. And progress marches on…

If those first BMW Motorsport racers seem like dinosaurs, then M’s latest model, the M6 convertible, is certainly the Australian Cane Toad, evolving at an unheard of pace. Based on the latest BMW 6-series – a model line which itself is a bit of a genetic oddity, more or less morphing into the 8-series, then eliminating itself from the foodchain for a generation or two before reemerging as a shocking mutation of its former self – the new M6 has taken the evolutionary fast-track by arriving on the market first as a convertible, the proper coupe version hobbling several months behind. No surprise, really, since BMW hatched the regular 6-series lineup in the same manner last year. It’s as if Darwin himself were in charge of product planning, pointing out that the stronger variant of this particular species is actually the one with the soft shell.

As performance enthusiasts and disciples of the purity of such cars as the E30 M3, we should decry the new M6 – particularly in convertible form – as an imposter of sorts, a traitor to its lineage, right? But we can’t. Because we’ve driven it. And once you’ve driven it you get past the unholy reality that no new M car from here on out will ever again be naturally aspirated, let alone breathe through individual throttle bodies at each cylinder or be blessed with the precise communication of unassisted steering, and it becomes easier to accept the new M6 for what it is: a highly-evolved performance car, albeit for a modern world.

That “modern world” disclaimer means that it must behave like a responsible citizen as well as play hell like a miscreant, depending on what’s tolerable to the audience at hand. And that starts under the hood. Unlike the Formula 1-derived V10 of the last M6, which made little in the torque department and demanded that you use every bit of its 8250-rpm-redline tach to extract meaningful power from it, the new M6’s 4.4-liter V8 (wearing a pair of top-mounted turbos in the valley between the heads) dishes out its goods almost as soon as the needle springs off idle. All of its 500 lb-ft is available between 1500 and 5750 rpm, and peak power delivery – 560 horsepower worth –arrives at a more affable 5750 revs and runs out to 7000 rpm, just 200 short of the rev limiter’s intervention. That means you don’t have to conjure up your inner hooligan just to enjoy the drive. You can actually fly under the radar a bit. If that’s your thing.

Or not. Click the M Dynamic Mode button and the free-flowing exhaust clears its lungs and exhales loudly, among other things. Those other things hardly matter right now, since the whole personality of the car can be altered when the right combination of all the buttons are pushed, but that sound is intoxicating. Its deep snarl is your sensory reward for obediently burying the right pedal, like a junkie lab rat that learns which button to push for a hit of cocaine. In fact, the exhaust note alone may be the single best reason to own the convertible M6 over the coupe, as the folded roof ensures more decibels make it to the passengers’ ears.

Managing the power is a standard 7-speed M-DCT gearbox, BMW’s high-performance dual-clutch self-shifter. A 6-speed manual will eventually make its way to the M6 as a no-cost option, but really, the DCT is the proper setup for such a big GT. Not only is it exceptionally robust for when you’re pounding on it, it’s also beyond civilized when you’re not. Which, in reality, is most of the time. Automatic shifts are virtually seamless in standard (S1) mode, quicker and more authoritative in S2. Should you decide to do your own shifting, either with the lever or the steering wheel-mounted paddles (right for upshifts, left for down), you’ll likely be rewarded with a completed shift before your ears can register the click of the input. Making use of the launch control feature in the most aggressive program (S3), the M6 convertible can shoot to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and to 124 mph in just 13.1, onward to a top speed of 155 mph.

Getting that prodigious force to the road requires considerable help from the digital wizards, who work overtime to keep the 4500-pound cruise missile going where it’s pointed. The M6 lacks two distinct traction advantages of the X6M/X5M wundertwins that share its basic drivetrain – namely all-wheel drive and a thousand pounds of ballast. A standard M Active differential distributes torque to the two rear tires as evenly as it can, but it’s hard not to notice the ever-present flicker of the traction control light on the instrument panel. As with the M5 we first drove last fall, the M6 feels as though its mission in this world is to separate asphalt from its roadbed, constantly clawing away at the surface whenever the throttle is down. Engaging the Sport+ mode disarms the traction control, allowing for smoky straight-line burnouts and a few entertaining degrees of opposite lock when exiting corners before saving your ass from yourself. Fully defeating the stability control – and we mean fully – is a fool’s game on the street with such a bi-polar engine/chassis relationship.

While the M6 may attempt to kill you if you let your guard down, its default nature is gentler than that. Its sheer size and mass don’t initially encourage raging back-road exploits, but once you’ve spent some time pushing the needles ever higher, you come to realize that – at least with some of the basic nannies left engaged – the car has higher limits than you’d expect. With the help of dynamic dampers, it’s easy to hustle the M6 through tight canyons and winding coastal roads at speeds that seem surreal. That surreality is partly because of the thick layer of digital insulation between your inputs and the car’s responses, delivering more or less what you ask of it, even if the feedback loop isn’t as sharp as you’d like under such conditions. The steering in particular lacks the linearity and precision of a traditional hydraulic rack-and-pinion, feeling as if there’s one too many bushings in the linkage regardless of its pre-selected attitude.

As with the last-generation M6, virtually every dynamic parameter of the vehicle can be tailored to the driver’s taste. Throttle, transmission, steering and suspension all have numerous stops between mild and wild, and once you’ve figured out the perfect recipe to suit your personal appetite, simply program one of the two “M” buttons in the steering wheel. The second such toggle was added this time around to accommodate, say, both street and track settings, or perhaps more likely, his and hers.

Brakes are about the only component not selectable with the push of a button, but that’s not to say there aren’t options in this department. BMW’s first-ever carbon-ceramic brakes will be offered as an option on the M6 convertible for 2013 (they’ll also be available on the M6 coupe and the M5 when they arrive later this year). These will be recognizable by their gold-painted calipers, though if you’re really sharp you may notice they’re also slightly larger than the iron and alloy compound-construction hardware that comes standard. Rotors measure 15.7 inches in front and 15.6 inches in back for the standard setup, squeezed by six-piston and single-piston calipers, respectively. Rotor dimensions jump to 16.1 inches up front, though rear disc size and piston counts remain unchanged, when the (several-thousand-dollar, final-price-TBD) option box is checked for the more exotic hardware. What your money buys, other than prestige among the cognoscenti, is decreased stopping distances, plus the heat-absorbing capacity to make them over and over again.

Nineteen-inch forged alloy wheels are the norm for the new M6, but twenty-inchers are available out of the box as an option (and will be required with the brake upgrade). Tires are 265/40-19 up front and 295/35-19 in back, or 265/35-20 and 295/30-20 if you dare. Either way, BMW has seen fit to mount up Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber in a non-run-flat specification, though no spare tire approaching those sizes will fit in the trunk anyway.

Styling differences between the M6 and a civilian-issue 6er consist of the usual M-designed exterior and interior enhancements, most of which are functional and all of which employ a clean and fairly modest aesthetic. On the outside, a new front bumper with larger intakes and more ducting leads into wider front fenders, while more sculpted rocker panels draw the profile closer to the ground. In back, two pairs of exhaust pipes exit the recontoured rear bumper.

The new M6’s convertible top retains the last generation’s basic construction and design. The buttressed roof line –which gives the 6-series convertible its distinctive top-up silhouette – allows the rear window to double as a windblocker when the multi-layer cloth top is folded away. Retaining a soft top leaves behind a more sizable trunk than a folding hardtop would allow.

Inside, the M brand logo propigates itself across most visible surfaces, including the door sills, the fat three-spoke steering wheel, the seating, the shift knob and the gauge faces. A nod to racing technology, genuine carbon fiber finds its way into the cockpit as dash and door trim. Multi-contour M sport seats are standard, offering 20-way adjustment, including motorized thigh extensions and lumbar bolsters. Solar-resistant Merino leather is standard on the M6 convertible (including full coverage of the dash and center console) to keep the seating surfaces as cool as possible when parked in the sun.

Cockpit options are few but appropriate for a car that starts at a fin less that $114 grand. Notable are the M head-up display, available individually or as part of an executive package that also includes full LED exterior lighting, and the 12-speaker Bang&Olufsen sound system whose aluminum-finished speaker grilles and acoustic lenses blend in perfectly with the standard iPad-like 10.2-inch infotainment screen.

Clearly this latest M6 is a distant, distant cousin to those stripped-down, beefed up racing coupes that dominated road racing in the early ‘70s and beyond. But does that really matter? Not once you’re behind the wheel. After all, the species evolves with its changing environment, and the new M6 is exactly the right beast for the times. 


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