Editorial by Steve Carter
Photographs by Dean Grossmith
I think it’s a fairly safe bet that when Primal Scream’s Innes, Gillespie and Young wrote the lyrics for their seminal 90s track, ‘Movin’ on up’, they weren’t thinking of cars. And I think it’s definitely a safe bet that they weren’t thinking about cars from BMW’s M division. A shame really. The opening line, ‘I was blind, now I can see. You made a believer out of me’, just about perfectly sums up my own journey into BMW’s wonderous M machines.
That journey, like most of you I am sure, started out a little more humbly. Back in those early 90s hedonistic days I wasn’t thinking too much about BMWs, day dreaming about them maybe, but for sure my love of cars in general was already firmly cemented. My prized possession then? A burgundy coloured 3 door 1300cc CL VW Golf Mk 2, with its blacked out badges, lowered stance, GTi steel wheels and 1100cc gearbox (better for acceleration of course!). What that 120k miler taught me was that I loved to drive. That joy of simply jumping into my motor for no particular reason other than to head out on to my favourite roads just for the sheer thrill of it.
Now before the editor pulls me up for blasphemy, I am not for one minute comparing the poise, driveability or performance of my well used and slightly knackered VW, to the products of BMW M GmbH.
I dare not. What I want to share with you, is how an M Car makes me feel when I drive it, how it has taken my long-held satisfaction of just going for a drive, and elevated that to a whole new level. And when I say drive it, I’m not talking about whizzing down to the shops or bombing along a motorway. No. I’m talking about finding the right roads, with the right advance sighting, the right corners and variability to test both the car and myself as a driver (albeit an average one).
Finding such perfect driving roads is not so easy, that’s for sure. Living on the south coast, I’m lucky enough to have the beautiful South Downs and Sussex countryside to play with. The challenge of course is that the population density in this part of the country is such that even an early morning sortie won’t leave you wanting for company for too long. Luckily, after a reasonable consumption of VPower and a few hours drive, a whole new part of the United Kingdom opens its driving charms, Wales.
Who exactly is responsible for placing this much tarmac through some of the most spectacular countryside on our planet is not clear? But if they started a new religion tomorrow, I’d be the first to rock up waving my hands in the air, full of song, giving sticky black stuff praise and easing plastic notes out of my wallet for contribution to aid the growing of the flock. All hail the bitumen god!
A three-day route planned through the Brecon Beacons, Cambrian Mountains and up to the Snowdonia National Park is enough to provide a full variety of road surface; through valleys, along hills, and up and down mountains. The one thing in common with the entire route? Corners. Loads of them. Fast ones, slow ones, open ones, tight ones, smooth ones, bumpy off camber ones, far sighted ones, dry ones, damp ones and wet ones. Loads of them. Totally brilliant and presenting a perfect opportunity to discover the depth any M car’s talents.
My own E90 V8 M3 was in prestigious company as it shared the road with a few of M’s finest creations: E60 V10 M5, E85 Straight Six Z4M, F22 M2 and a near new black on black F90 M5 Competition. And so it was, that five very different M Cars and their expectant drivers took to these amazing roads.
As VPower is consumed along with mile after mile of mind focusing tarmac, so confidence rises. It is now that the months of development work that every M car receives, starts to expose itself to you as a driver, layer by layer.
The fizz of being taken to the next level causes the endorphins to surge, with the Michelin PS4S’s providing immense grip as they warm, that grip increasing all the time as I flow from one corner to the next. Short shifting and using the mid-range in 4th and 5th to limit wheel spin, revving out only when there is a clear and smoother straight; it’s all about carrying speed up here, not just red lining. Up on the Cambrian Mountains, the clear-sighted corners and limited traffic allow the full width of the road to be used to straighten the twisting road and allowing wide corner entry. Balancing the throttle through the apex, turn and clip it, not being greedy by getting on the power too early. And then, and only when the tyres are ready, getting back on the throttle and unleashing that wonderful V8 soundtrack, that final 2,500rpm before the red line simply majestic.
No need to fear the road compressions or those frequent cattle grids, the M car suspension will take it and maintain composure, never bottoming out. Leaving the EDC in ‘Comfort’ mode works well on the smooth and slower and twisty mountainous ascents and descents, that slightly increased body movement providing that added communication. But where ‘Comfort’ mode worked in the tighter turns, it works less well in the much sweeping fast A roads that follow. Here the hardest EDC setting of ‘Sport’ inspires the most confidence with tighter body control, improving the information flow from the tyres, and confidence that grip will be maintained even on the uneven road surface. And so, the day is quickly consumed as fast as the fuel and the tarmac.
In the early morning that follows, the damp patches in the shade and the fields draining their water across the road surface combined with the low sun demand attention. Keeping those steering wheels straight as possible through the water and being more measured on the throttle provides another wonderful experience to see what talents can be extracted from the car. Another sheep on the road. Lambs bursting out around the outside of the farm gates, playful and oblivious as they skip next to our now near stationary cars. Fortunately, the M brakes are strong, easily measured and fade free on these twisting and flowing roads.
All of this intense concentration brings great reward and satisfaction. Regular stops for refuelling are required to maintain the driving thrills. After a day of 95 RON, the appearance of a Shell garage stocking VPower in Betws-y-Coed brings an audible cheer across the Walkie Talkies and I’m sure I hear a “TGFT” sigh from under the bonnet of the M3. A fish-finger sandwich on white bloomer, Welsh cake and cup of tea refresh the driver before heading southwards to our Sunday night stop, the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel.
The view of the reservoir and surrounding hills that greets us takes our breath away, only the popping of the F90 M5 Competitions exhaust disturbing the tranquillity, deliberately and unnecessarily provoked by its driver, but it still makes me grin from ear to ear. The reservoir, 4¾ miles in length, is a picture of serenity. The Straining Tower standing on the water’s edge in the distance looks like a fairy-tale castle. However, this tower serves a serious purpose as it feeds fresh water to Liverpool along a manmade aqueduct 68 miles in length, as it has done since its completion in 1888. As we cross the dam and park up for photographs, this unexpected treasure of Wales becomes the perfect aperitif before the first well deserved cold beer of the day.
The beer talk is all about the driving, about the immense satisfaction we all feel about our M cars. From manuals to DCT to Auto boxes, normal aspiration to twin turbo monsters, rear wheel drive to all-wheel-drive. Not a single car, whether five months or 14 years old, has flinched. However different, these M Cars have unwavering reliability whilst delivering a consistent and near flawless depth of dynamic capability its rivals can only dream of.
I can say with absolute certainty to my own M Car, my M3, “You made a believer out of me”. The best thing of all? I am pretty sure I’ve only just started scratching the surface of what it’s truly capable of. Time for me to pick up the key again, warm the V8 and head out on to my favourite roads. Just for the sheer thrill of it.
M Life: E85 Straight Six Z4M
Having come from a motorcycling background, I have always been attracted to convertibles, as the love of being out in the elements appeals. My hunt for a sweet handling convertible took me to the Z4M, a car that when released back in 2006 was setting some impressive times at the Nürburgring. So, to Wales. Being the lightest, but least powerful and oldest car, it would be interesting to see how it would compare.
As we enter the first of the decent roads the speed builds, the tyres warm and both the M suspension and hydraulic steering come alive. The front end goes exactly where you point it. The back end is composed; the variable differential lock limited slip diff does its thing and you sit pretty much on the rear axle.
The S54 engine needs no introduction, perfect power for this car and these roads. The manual gearbox is slick and involving. With limited driver aids you have to work with what you’ve got which really adds to a rewarding driving experience. So how did it compare? Right up there with the best of course!
M Life: E60 V10 M5
It all started during a mundane trip through Northamptonshire of short dual carriageways and roundabouts. From nowhere, my offside was filled with the presence of a vehicle. As we exit the next roundabout, all I can hear is the screaming V10, reminiscent of an F1 car of the day. This was to be my introduction to the extraordinary E60 M5.
My own E60 M5 fills me with the same exhilaration as that first introduction. Now before me the Brecon Beacons, the switchback Welsh roads and some like-minded M drivers for company.
As each route is laid out before us, 507bhp and EDC Sport mode are in play and the M5 hunkers down onto the tarmac. It feels planted and precise into each corner, PS4s reassuring with the occasional playful skip on the exit, the S85 V10 power plant howling through each 7000rpm gear change along the straights and on to sweeping bends before the down shift into the next tight corner.
As the end of each section arrives the air fills with the glorious smell of hot brakes and hotter exhaust fumes.
M Life: F22 Straight Six Twin Turbo M2
After many years of not owning a BMW I was brought back to the fold by the M2. I remember taking one for a test drive with Barons in Farnborough and was immediately struck by how this car felt alive when properly driven. A suitable M2 with a manual box was located by Barons and I took delivery of my new toy in January 2018.
In everyday use the M2 can feel a bit unsettled on our typical British country roads and the steering lacks some feel. However, take it to somewhere like Wales where the roads are generally much better and those feelings are soon set aside. Push the M2 hard and the steering comes alive, the damping feels just right; the car dances around the corners.
The simplicity of the M2’s suspension, with a damper coil spring, is what appealed to me when I bought this car. There is no Comfort mode on the suspension and it just begs to be used on the track. Hence, a track day has been booked on the track at the Goodwood circuit in August with my son. I can’t wait!
M Life: F90 V8 Twin Turbo M5 Competition
The history and reputation across generations of the M5 is the reason that drew me to my own car, an F90 M5 Competition. Less than 12 months ago I was driving around in a Golf diesel, so the jump up to this car with a whole heap more power and torque was quite intimidating at first.
I have owned the car for the several months now. Whilst the M5 has been doing the mundane stuff very well, the weekend in Wales allowed me to fully focus on the driving, leave my nervousness behind and get a glimpse into the car’s true capability.
The film American Psycho is perhaps the best analogy I can make to the M5: by day a fairly nondescript and smartly dressed executive (saloon), and by night, an absolute psychopath! A car which shrinks around you, mixes savage low-down torque and relentless power from its twin turbo V8, with flat cornering and insane grip from its all-wheel drive system that allows it to keep up with its lighter M Car relatives in the twist bits. Totally awesome.