For the most part, this day starts like any other… the distance between my reality, currently parked in the paddock area, to Pit-stops 1 and 2 remain the same as it has always been, the air is humid at the Sepang International Circuit as usual and the tarmac hot from gigawatts of radioactive heat beamed from the sun through a cloudless sky. That for better or worse is where similarities will end. For parked on the other end of the paddock is a salvo of Munich’s finest. The proverbial ‘theatre of dreams’ starts here and the performers are ready for their opening scenes.
The show is called the BMW M Track Experience 2015 – where a compilation of the most current BMW M cars are sourced (from around the world) for the media’s judicious assessment and ludicrous requirements of amusement. While in the dapper confines of BMW’s hospitality suite – safety briefings mind you, will always precede ceremonies of this sort. There’s something hiding in secrecy behind a tautly tied curtain enclosure in one corner of the room… but more on that later. I’m also treated to the rare sight of a pristine E30 M3 Coupe.
This car is still lauded today by some quarters as the best handling BMW ever. The philosophy of building a car light then cramming in loads of power stands true today as it was in the days of homologated ‘Gruppe A’ Touring Car racing. The good ‘ol days brought fanfare of exquisitely calibrated naturally aspirated engines, spinning to stratospheric RPM levels. The formula today, though, brandishes downsized force inducted power mills with torque curves as flat as Table Mountain and power outputs that can be altered by the click of a mouse on a hard-wired laptop.
Thirty years on, the E30 M3 remains a menacing figurehead of the engineering prowess and passion of BMW’s skunk works Motorsport Division. One thing is for sure when it comes to the pantomime that is M-rated entertainment – brutality, drama and finesse go hand in hand. And to that effect – a glimpse towards the pit lane from my elevated viewpoint parades the lustrous paint jobs of a dozen or so cars ranging from the M3, M5, X6M and M6 Gran coupe.
I will get a chance to drive at least three, I’m told. Taxi rides are also on offer, chief of which, to illustrate the intricacies of navigating this 5.54km long circuit’s wide extremities – ranging from 18.0- to 25.0-meters in width and to exhibit just what these M-onster cars can do in the hands of professional drivers.
Opening scene: The fastest taxi ride ever
The show starts with resident ‘hoon’ specialist Ivan Khong – a common feature at events such as this, who tells me to buckle up.
The off-white interior is a cossetting counterpoint to the Black Sapphire hue of the outside – itself adorned by neat detailing, perhaps invisible to the untrained eye. The larger air inlets at the front, the wider confines of the wings – grafted with the carbon etched breather gills, to the roof which is now completely made out of carbon. The 19-inch wheels are distinctive and bristle with intent, wrapping around huge blue disc-callipers tasked with wrestling massive M-compound discs.
The insides are no less special, the sexy contours of the bucket seats firmly cossets one in place, the air-conditioning unfazed by the ambient temperature outside which seems to be steadily increasing. We settle into a crawl towards the pit lane exit.
The flag drops and Ivan wastes no time in planting his right foot down, the car slingshots out along the white line that splits the pit lane exit and the main straight – 60kph, 95kph… 125kph, Turn 1 shows up far quicker than I’m comfortable with.
The next few quick moments culminate into the very reason the letter ‘M’ is now affectionately referred to as the most powerful alphabet in the world.
Just prior to corner entry – Ivan flicks the steering wheel to the left and guns the throttle; the tyres break traction almost instantaneously, pitching the M3 sideways into a blood-curdling slide, I grab fleeting eye-shot facing the inner curbs of Turn 1 almost perpendicularly, I barely exhale before the car flicks itself round the other way for Turn 2, smoke bellowing from the rear.
I have lost most of my directional bearings by now. Ivan inputs the last few bits of counter-lock before he’s flicking between the paddles and modulating the throttle through Turn 3.
Seven forward ratios are on offer with the M-DCT dual-clutcher equipped with Drivelogic. Nigh-on unnoticeable shift times send constant torque to the rear wheels. 3.0-litres of displacement, force-fed by two turbines, infused with fuel from direct-injectors squeezed to a ratio of 10.2:1 creates a whopping 431bhp at 5500rpm at the flywheel and 550Nm from 1850rpm. The torque wave remains constant from peak torque all the way to peak horsepower and in there lies the beauty of this engine.
Zero turbo lag and tractable performance give you pin-sharp response through the sweeping ‘Esses’ of Turn 5- and 6. Clip the apex on the exit perfectly for a fast run down to Turn 7- and 8. Ivan clips 160kph on the speedo just before entry. The cloud of madness the M3 exhibits is silver-lined with a sense of poise and surefootedness that is hard to define. You just want more of it.
The noise, as you may expect is different from the days of the screaming ‘S14’ power pumps, in place is the sonorous bellow, not as dramatic surely – but concentrated in its message. And the brakes, pin sharp and so powerful… I quietly wonder if they will even stop the current plunge of the Ringgit.
At this point, I have not even driven an M car. Once I’m back at the pits, a boyhood dream comes true. Just not the way I expected, because now the M Division makes SUVs too.
Act 1: Large and in-charge
I toggle through the many powered adjustments of the X5M’s supportive leather seats, finding the right driving position requires a trade-off between being low slung in the cabin and having an adequate vision of the wide expanse that is the front bonnet. Buttons and knobs right where I need them, the steering wheel is canted nicely for ease of operation. Switch up for the full-monty by selecting Sports mode for the suspension and drivetrain setup – before clasping the shift paddles on the 9- and 3 positions.
Initially, at least, the plan was to take things easy, get to grips with the racing lines, braking points and focussing on where to put the power down. This is, after all, my very first time on the ‘Cee-Pangh’ Circuit. A fact quickly lost on me the moment I ride out of the pits.
The rumble is bloody sonorous. An impatient warble turns into a forceful howl, the traction out of the hole is sublime, gears 1, 2 and three go by fast until I run wide at the entry of Turn 1 - sloppy yet forgiven by the car’s dazzling XDrive all-wheel system spreading torque between the four wheels.
Given the car’s almost 2-metre width, threading over the curbs on Turn 2 is vital to setting up for a good run down to Turn 3, this car needs all the space it can get – laying off the throttle through Turn 3 reveals I’m doing almost 135kph, before gunning the throttle for Turn 4 – the lot of the convoy has no trouble getting up to nearly 170kph before the ascending right-hander. Weighing in at 2350kg, it’s frankly baffling, the massive stopping power afforded by the brakes of this Sports Activity Coupe (SAC).
And Sporty it is, as exhibited between Turns 7- and 8, is best taken with one smooth flowing lock angle. The X5M remain flat during this complex of corners, there’s no denying one feels the heft of the car under the brakes and in the bends, but the amount of body control and chassis rigidity this car has is superb. With both dampers and drivetrain settings in Sports mode – the car’s electronic wizardry, modulated by BMW M’s Cornering Brake Control (CBC), ADB-X Electronic Diff. Lock and M-Specific elastokinematic dampers allow for car-like confidence.
It’s almost uncanny – but the only indicator of how hard this car is working seems to be the blobs of tyre thread that is kicked up on the tighter corners such as Turn 14 and 15. Even if you had a minute sense of mechanical sympathy (which I do) – it would seem a tad stretched that a soccer-mom superstar like the X5 can be subjected to such aggression, but it does take it in stride. Back at the pits, it’s time to go faster!
Act 2: Sleeker and meaner
I have a confession to make, one that makes me feel pretty silly – in addition to the rolling thunder these M cars and SACs have, it’s easy to forget the beauty and execution of the interior. In the case of the X6M, which has its expanse of a dashboard, draped in exquisite leather, tautly hemmed at the upper regions, flowing across the dial clusters. A glossy strip of carbon demarcates the lower regions of the two-toned dash, Aragon brown in this case. The controls are familiar by now, the protocols for obtaining a comfortable driving position well-rehearsed.
I lamented to my co-pilot, “I wonder why they would swap us into the same car, we just drove the X5M”, to which she replied, “This is the X6M, notice the rear roofline?” I was probably at Turn 3, blitzing past 145kph by now. Plus, this is the most expensive BMW on sale today, priced at RM1,238,800 – thumping even BMW’s i8 sports-hybrid model. I’m sorry BMW, I should have known better!
The car is driven like the X5M, direct-injected, 32-valve twin-scroll Biturbo V8 pumping out a massive 575bhp at 6000rpm while channelling 750Nm of torque as soon as the tacho-needle hits 2200rpm, which as you might surmise is bonkers numbers for 355days in a year, the other 10 are good for track days. Power is sent to a Steptronic auto with closely matched eight forward ratios. With a 5.00 first gear ratio and 3.15 final drive ratio – flicking up through the gears is a fanfare of satisfying paddle flicks. The accelerative force is as you can expect is scintillating – with the century sprint all but over in 4.2seconds.
Gargantuan 21-inch wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sport rubbers 285mm and 325mm cross-sectionals front and rear provide proper anchorage to the tarmac and in the corners. Where being in the X6M does count though is in the corners, it tips the scales at a measly 10kg less than the X5M, but feels substantially more agile in the corners. That lack of top-high mass this coupe’s streamlined silhouette does without adds premiums of confidence when approaching a corner hard on the anchors, snaking through the invisible racing lines of Sepang’ Turn 14, its gains a bit more in the straights too, as it dices through still air with a vengeance. I guess the biggest take home I got with these two-tonne colossus of SACs is the sheer driving pleasure that is still preserved between the many platforms and powerplants adding to the quantum of individualistic flavour.
I am guilty of once saying that these days, driving a BMW 320d and 520d, replete with the same switchable performance parameters across the board, has started to dilute their respective driving individuality. While I still feel that to be true for the pedestrian offerings – in the theatre of M cars, it’s a very different scenario. And for the closing act – there was but one storming finale to end the day with.
The closing act: The four-doored masterclass
And no, it’s not the BMW M5, while it may house similar tech in the form of 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, pumping out 560bhp at 6000rpm and 680Nm at 1500rpm, the M6 Gran Coupe is ultimate form BMW M showmanship, performance and drama. In my opinion, it’s one of the best cars of all ever built by BMW.
It starts with the sonic drama that is the car’s low-slung and stylised lines, it’s a thing of beauty from any corner. A svelte line along the flanks etched over flawless body work connecting arches that house 20-inch alloys to create the stance, the gorgeous proportions of the greenhouse is the other focal point. Aggressive features highlighted at the front and rears by the slick head- and tail-lamps create a silhouette that looks fast standing still.
Inside, the acreage of complex textures, tactile buttons and contoured three spoke steering wheel fills the senses with emotions of excitement and self-pride. You feel like a million bucks while in it – which is almost what it costs at RM980,800. Sat in the firm padding of the seats, I’m happy my bottom is much closer to the ground now after a stint in the prior SACs. The driving position is flawless, the sense of occasion… priceless!
Winding out of the pits, I waste no time stomping my right foot firm to the floor, the car rockets forward, similar 4.2second 0-100kph sprint time as the X6M feels a tad faster while in the M6 GC, with engine tacked to a seven-speed ZF double-clutch gearbox, there is no power loss between the gears, while the aural highlights sound like hurricane-force winds forced through the quad-tailpipes.
In the corners, it’s difficult to remember that this car is some 200mm shorter than a 7-Series BMW, from behind the wheel, it feels as lithe, communicative and agile as the smaller M3. Hitting the apex spot-on corner after corner, feeling those surface changes filter through the hydraulic steering setup and experiencing those G-forces pummel my torso, supported by the Hydraulic dampers – this car is alive in your hands. Hitting nearly 210kph in the main straight, it simply feels organic, tractable and addictive. Its gets even better as you explore deeper into its performance envelope – and encourages you to do so.
I would imagine, if the BMW E30, while perched on its elevated platform was looking down at an M6 GC tearing up the main straight – and as it were, has traded its mechanical wail for an induction roar, it need not worry - the experience that is an M car, in firmly intact even three decades later.
Words: Arvind Kumar
Photography: BMW Malaysia and Arvind Kumar