Versus the competiton:
BMW Z3 M COUPE
It’s an ugly car — a snouty thing with a humped back, a motorized cartoon on fat, 17-inch rear wheels.
It’s uglier than the Gremlin and the Pacer, metallic abominations produced in the waning years of the now-defunct American Motors Corp. It’s so ugly, people howl and point at it. It’s the 1999 BMW M Coupe.
But it’s a curious form of derision. People condemn it at first sight. Then they walk around it, touch it, sit in it and ask for a ride. Bolder types beg to get behind the wheel, which they are reluctant to relinquish after short drives.
They are transformed by the experience, and some are transfixed as well. Suddenly, the M Coupe becomes hip, cool, phat (pretty, hot and tempting), different.
True story: A Northern Virginia police officer pulled me over. I was not speeding or doing anything illegal. I was beginning to get huffy when the officer approached the M Coupe laughing.
“What do you think? How does it drive? How do you like it?” the officer asked. He had read about the M Coupe in an auto magazine. “This is the first one I’ve seen on the road. It’s nice — but it’s ugly,” the officer said.
BMW wanted a standout car in the development of the M Coupe, and it got what it wanted. Despite its looks, or, perhaps, because of them, the car was an attention magnet. But driving it . . . ahhh.
There are moments behind the wheel when you know you’re driving something special. The sublime tightness of it, the quickness, the way it turns corners, moves into curves. You shift gears, press the accelerator. And if the car is talented, obedient, it responds precisely, rhythmically, turning your drive into a dance along the road, which is what happened in the M Coupe.
Was it my imagination? Or was the M Coupe superior in ride and feel to the BMW Z3 roadster, from which the M Coupe is derived? Both are front-engine, rear-wheel-drive cars. Both are two-seaters equipped with in-line six-cylinder engines. Both come with five-speed manual transmissions.
The essential difference is the fixed hardtop roof on the M Coupe and its small, station-wagon-type rear cabin, which is equipped with a net to keep rear cargo from moving forward.
Fixed-roof cars offer certain advantages over their ragtop counterparts, and the most distinctive advantage is rigidity. The more rigid a car, the better its handling. Coupled with that rigidity is a wonderful lightness of being — the M Coupe weighs 3,131 pounds, 133 pounds more than the Z3 roadster. But that’s relatively light weight, considering the power chosen to move it. The M Coupe’s 3.2-liter, 24-valve in-line six-cylinder engine is designed to produce 240 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 236 pound-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm. It’s like piloting a rocket-powered pencil.
I ended the week vowing never again to make appearance-based judgments. I mean, hey, if ugly feels this good, I want more of it.
1999 BMW Z3 M Coupe
Complaints: On the one hand, I commend BMW for in troducing some practicality into the Z3 roadster line via the M Coupe. It’s nice to be able to carry more than a lunch bag and briefcase on a two-day trip. On the other hand, that humped back rear is so oddly shaped, it completely destroys the lines of the car. Not to mention that rear cargo in the little car tends to ride high, obscuring rear vision.
Praise: The term “driver’s car” has been used so much, it has lost all meaning. But the M Coupe goes a long way toward restoring the definition. It is a car so single-minded in purpose and design, so dedicated to pleasing whoever is behind the wheel, it is a true driver’s car. One passenger can go along for the ride, but that poor soul will likely exit the car overwhelmed by jealousy.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride. Rocket acceleration, zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds. Superior handling. The M Coupe practically sticks to curves. Four-wheel independent suspension system with arc-shaped lower arms, coil springs, twin-tu be ga s-pressure shocks andanti-roll bar up front; semi-trailing arms, coil springs, twin-tube shocks and anti-roll bar in the rear. Excellent braking. Brakes include power four-wheel discs with antilocks.
Head-turning quotient: How many ways can you say “ugly”?
Capacities: Two passengers; nine cubic feet of cargo volume; 16.4 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.
Safety: Side-impact air bags included along with usual driver/front-passenger bags. But, hey, folks, this is a little car. Those bags, when used with seat belts, provide a reasonable margin of safety. But it’s unreasonable to believe that the M Coupe or any other small car will come out ahead in a crash with something substantially larger.
Sound system: Eight-speaker AM-FM stereo radio and cassette with compact disc player. A Harman Kardon job. Excellent.
Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Estimated range 365 miles on usable volume of fuel.
Price: Base price is $41,800. Dealer invoice on base model is $36,795. Add $570 for the destination charge. Estimate $42,370, excluding taxes and fees.
Purse-strings note: Compare with Porsche Boxster and Chevrolet Corvette.