“"At first I thought flying privately was a luxury and I felt guilty. Then I realized how much more I can do in a week than I would if I had to fly commercially.” ”
BMW M6 Convertible
Convertibles get a bad rap from some diehard sports-car purists who dismiss them as semi-serious boulevard cruisers a notch down from where they should be with the rigidity of a hardtop. When the man from BMW said the M6 to be delivered for this evaluation would be a convertible, my sense of anticipation encountered a mild downdraft. Perhaps unfairly, what came to mind were rattles, body shake and the damp aroma that can blight drop-tops. The white leather interior didn't help the car's case when it was delivered.
The car had another strike against it: only two pedals on the floor, and a sequential manual gearbox controlled either by paddle shifters behind the steering wheel or by a vestigial stick atop the transmission tunnel. To me, driving a sports car is like playing a musical instrument, requiring no less finesse with the clutch, throttle and stick to be rewarding.
Piloting a 612 Scaglietti with F1 shifters from New York to Washington, D.C. (more on this 60th-anniversary hundred-Ferrari drive in a future issue) not long before the M6 showed up had reinforced my mourning for the departed third pedal. Bottom line: the M6 with the quasi-manual gearbox and an umbrella for a roof had its work cut out to prove it deserved its M badge.
Befitting a $100,000-plus car, raising or lowering the ragtop requires nothing more than the push of a button. There aren't even any latches in the top of the windscreen frame to be released or secured. Pushing the button initiates the process (already found in much less expensive cars) of motors whirring, hatches opening and closing, canvas folding and so on. In a few seconds, the top is stowed, opening the seats to the sun or, in our case, leaden gray 40-degree F skies on the 330 miles of road from central New Jersey to Falling Rock at the woodlands resort of Nemacolin, south of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. With the seat heat, floor blower and appropriate clothing all on, the ride was bracing and invigorating but comfortable, even with the windows down as well. The rear window in the M6 is heated glass, and it (along with all the other windows) can be raised or lowered fully whether the ragtop is up or down.
Regardless of the wrapper, a 500-horsepower BMW V10 sprinkled with M dust is serious propulsion. Granted, the car was new (it had only about 1,900 miles on it when delivered to us), but it made not one squeak or rattle during the 1,300 miles we put on it in a week, and its fabric roof and seals repelled every drop of the record rainfall that flooded the Northeast in mid-April. The white leather, however, was already soiled in some areas.
The soft top keeps out the rain but it is largely defenseless against the exhaust note of the V10. The engine's voice changes markedly between the lower rev regions and the 8250-rpm redline. Until about 3500 rpm, it emits a raucous flatulence that sounds like two discordant inline fives failing to harmonize, never striking a singular note as clean and pure as a V12's or even a V8's. Give it more revs, though, and the explosions in the 10 pots are in such quick succession that by 7000 they have become a Formula 1 scream. Tunnels and overpasses beckon, the better to sample this odd assortment of decibels.
The 3.2-liter straight six in my own 1999 Z3 M Coupe has only about half the horsepower (240) and 236 pounds-feet of torque at 3800 rpm, but at low revs it propels that 3,100-pound car with considerably more enthusiasm than the V10 does in the M6. While the V10 does not relish pulling the heavier M6 until it builds to the middle revs, there's no arguing with a zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds-half a second quicker than the M Coupe. Peak torque on the M6's five-liter V10 is a modest 383 pounds-feet at 6100 rpm. Consider that torque from the Corvette Z06's 505-hp, seven-liter V8 peaks at 470 pounds-feet at 4800 rpm.
For raw, blistering performance, nothing beats the Z06 dollar for dollar. What the M6 offers is a "Bavarian-ness" in the steering feel, the suspension damping (befitting an M when in the firmest of its three modes), the tightness of the power train, the interior appointments and so on, as well as a styling job by the controversial Chris Bangle that seems to be a broad hit.
White rings linked to electronics encircle both the tachometer and the speedometer. On the tach, the white ring adjusts to show the recommended max engine rpm for the current engine oil temperature. For a cold startup, the marker settles at about 6000 rpm, moving clockwise to the full 8250 rpm limit as the oil heats (a swift process in this car). On the speedometer, a red line on the white ring shows the speed selected for cruise control.
Weight control was a crucial enough mission on the M6 Coupe that its hard top is made of carbon fiber, which serves to widen the gap between the two cars on the scales. With all of its stowage mechanisms and structural reinforcements to compensate for the vanishing roof, the convertible has a curb weight of 4,398 pounds, 489 pounds higher than the Coupe's 3,909. The Coupe can also carry more luggage: 15.9 cubic feet versus the convertible's 10.6 or (with the top up and the unused stowage space available) 12.4 cubic feet. Even without using the back seats or the soft-top stowage space, we managed to squeeze into the trunk two cases, various loose bags, camera gear that included a substantial tripod, and a bucket and cleaning supplies for primping the car for the lens.
The SMG transmission on this M6 offers regular automatic mode or manual shifting via paddles or stick (blip it forward to downshift, flick it aft to upshift). To start from a standstill, select first. Nothing happens until you give it some gas, at which point the clutch plates are signaled electronically to engage and the car moves-just like a stick shift but minus the footwork on the clutch pedal. Each successive upshift then has to be selected, and for hard, pedal-to-the-metal acceleration, the electronics manage lifting and reapplying the throttle as the clutch plates separate and rejoin for the gear change. It works smoothly, but the really clever stuff comes during downshifting.
In contrast to the Ferrari 612, whose paddles initiate almost instantaneous, hard shifting up or down, the M6's manual mode electronically takes care of synchronizing the engine revs with the gear/road speed during downshifting. What this means is that as you shift down to third from fourth, say, at appreciable road speed, computers give the engine the requisite burst of revs so that when the clutch engages in third, the engine is already rotating at the correct speed for a grease-slick meshing. Perfect footwork with none of the footwork that you've spent years practicing and perfecting.
There's a parallel here with the introduction of helicopter autopilots three or four decades ago. Suddenly, electronics could replicate the deft touch on a cyclic stick, collective lever and anti-torque pedals that set helo pilots apart from all other mere mortals. With only their flying intellect left intact, helo pilots did not immediately embrace the automation that had stolen their magical powers. The same goes for SMG. Now anyone can do a perfectly synchromeshed downshift with the flick of a switch. Is this a good thing?
Given the tiny percentage of U.S. new-car buyers who ever actively sought out and acquired three-pedal stick shifts, this tidal change was inevitable once the racecar crowd made it technically feasible. The similarly powered M5 sedan for the U.S. market offers the option for a traditional six-speed manual transmission, and BMW confirmed to BJT that it is now taking orders for a six-speed true manual M6 for delivery later this year.
Our test car had a base price of $104,400 and about $7,000 worth of options, including Silverstone Merino II leather ($3,500), a comfort access system ($1,000), carbon-fiber black trim ($300), a head-up display ($1,000), HD radio ($500) and satellite radio ($595). The $695 destination charge and $3,000 gas-guzzler fee took the as-tested price to $114,990.
Does this car deserve its M badge? Maybe not as much as the Z3 M Coupe, a gecko-footed go-kart devoid of any baubles and bangles, or an M6 Coupe, but the M6 convertible is undeniably a red-blooded sports car, circa 2007. If you can take the time to learn to live with BMW's iDrive "systems-management system," and if a folding top is a wind-in-the-hair bonus rather than a blemish on a sporting pedigree, this car is a blast.