California, US: the land of the hot rod and a state famous for its car culture. Its residents have been stuffing oversized and overpowered engines under impossibly small bonnets for decades and the craze soon travelled the world, its influence now evident across the globe.
And it’s not something limited to simple back-street garages and home tuners either; even the major manufacturers got in on the act — and none more so than BMW with its M division. Created back in 1972 the firm’s initial task was to run the company’s racing teams, but before long it turned its attention to road cars. And although it started with the bespoke M1 supercar, it soon decided to take that car’s engine and install it in the 1983 M 635CSi.
A new legend was born, that of BMW’s road cars with race-inspired engines, and it went on to foster the M3 and M5 families that are now in their fourth and fifth generations respectively.
So it’s really no surprise that the first time any journalists are getting behind the wheel of the new BMW M6 is in sunny Santa Barbara — it’s also no coincidence that the only version of the M6 we’ll be driving is the Convertible.
First up is that engine, and budding hot rodders should maybe prepare for a slight disappointment; where the previous M6 used a 5.0-litre V10, the latest example has lost a pair of cylinders and 600cc of displacement.
Article continues below
Any negative thoughts are short lived though, as in place of the last pair of pistons is an equally exciting pair of turbochargers. No replacement for displacement? Pah, with 560bhp and 670Nm of torque (up 53bhp and a whopping 150Nm) this is one engine that should finally convince those doubters.
What’s key about this turbocharged V8 is the way that it delivers its power. That peak torque figure is available at only 1,500rpm and continues for over 4,000rpm more. On the road, that translates to instantaneous performance in almost any one of the seven gears, and a ferocious rate of acceleration no matter the starting speed. From rest the car will accelerate to 100kph in only 4.3 seconds, and is electronically limited to a 250kph top speed. What we can tell you is that on one particular stretch we got incredibly close to that with surprising ease; in fact, we even did it with the roof down, and despite the sometimes bumpy surface, the M6 remained utterly composed. Not only is this one incredibly fast car, but it’s also incredibly easy to drive quickly — the performance is always on top, no matter what mood you are in before you press the loud pedal.
Not long after exploring the upper reaches of the M6’s straight-line performance we move off-piste into canyon country where the roads twist, wiggle and turn around jutting rock faces balanced with sheer drops to the other side. It’s a section of road that most true hot rods would certainly struggle with, their massive power corrupting their often slightly underdeveloped or over-compromised suspension systems. But not only has the F10 M5 donated its engine and seven-speed DCT (dual clutch transmission), the M6 also benefits from a number of electronically adjustable settings throughout the rest of its chassis.
These include throttle, steering response (an electric rather than a hydraulic system), suspension and even gearbox shift patterns. The gearbox is probably the real party trick, as it proves smooth and easy to use around town, opting for the fastest of its three settings sees cogs swapped with alarming speed, but still incredibly smoothly. It’s this that really allows you to take advantage of this car’s prodigious speed, the sensation of the power never dipping between ratios only adding to the brutal feeling acceleration.
Between apexes we’re able to shift rapidly up through the ’box before a handful of taps on the gear-change paddles behind the steering wheel allow us to block shift back down to a gear more suitable for our forthcoming corner. Not many paddle gear-change systems will successfully shift from sixth to second like this one. There’s no doubt it’s a digital experience — and many will lament the lack of a true manual gearbox — but with the throttle blips and lightning reactions it is one of the best systems on the market.
The suspension’s not bad either — and along with the throttle response can be set to Comfort, Sport or Sport+ in an instant. On the standard 19in wheels of our test car (we’d opt for the aesthetically pleasing twenties) the ride across broken American tarmac was pretty impressive, managing to remain comfortable at motorway speeds especially. Swap to a firmer setting and the M6 continues to impress, with little in the way of body roll.
One thing that is noticeable is this car’s weight through the turns (it comes in at just over two tonnes — 50kg more than the previous M6 Convertible), especially when asking it to make a quick change in direction. It remains stiff and fuss-free throughout, which is mostly due to the new way the M6 has had its rear sub-frame mounted to the rest of the chassis — gone are the rubber linkages, replaced with solid connections. The result, along with the extra strengthening around the shell and other sections of chassis, is a car that remains unflustered no matter what the conditions beneath the tyres — even mid-corner bumps can’t truly unsettle this roofless M6.
And while throttle and steering options make smaller changes to the way this car drives the former hides another of this car’s tricks — in Sport or Sport+ modes the exhaust valves in the quad-pipe system are activated. With the turbos, this engine is certainly a little more muffled than many would like, but it makes a pleasing growl at low speeds and full-bore upshifts are accompanied by a neat little burp as cogs are swapped near the engine’s redline. It’s still not as dramatic as you might expect, and a Jaguar XKR-S sounds more exciting and emotional, but it’s a small complaint.
And as great as that Jag sounds, the option to change so many of this car’s parameters is certainly addictive, and somewhat confusing (the amount of different configurations numbers nearly 500 when all gearbox modes — manual and automatic — are taken into account).
We find ourselves thumbing between the different settings along the short straights, readied for the ever-challenging corners that are soon upon us, and eventually find a series of settings that please us the most. Helpfully these can then be saved to the car’s computer with either of the steering wheel-mounted M1 or M2 buttons — a bit like an electric seat’s memory.
With the throttle in Sport+, suspension and steering in Sport, gearbox in setting three and the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) in Sport mode — a halfway house between off and on that leaves a modicum of slip to really flatter even the most ham-fisted of drivers — the M6 comes alive.
Grip in the dry is outstanding, and only if you are particularly aggressive with the throttle and steering will the rear of the Convertible become even mildly unsettled. Turn in is sharp, and no matter how quickly you enter a corner the rear is progressive in its movements. You can even jab the brakes mid-bend (as we had to on occasion for missing the rock slides now littering our lane) and there is no drama from either end of the M6. And though the brakes of BMW’s M cars often come under criticism, especially with repeated track use where they often feel under specified for the car’s capabilities, on the road (even with high air temperatures) they remained strong and fade-free. Those worried can specify the carbon ceramics with six-piston callipers, but we’d be inclined to save our money.
As with all the very best hot rods, the M6 looks and feels a bit special inside and out. Along with the oversized rims and extended track (by 30mm) the wheel arches are flared, the front bumper more aggressive and the rear diffuser deeper.
The M badge makes a return to the double-kidney grille in homage to the original M6 and the car looks especially cool in one of the new matte paint finishes. Inside you’re treated to M specific seats, instruments and a head-up display with M-only modes and a dashboard trimmed in high quality leather. And then there’s that roof, a canvas covering shared with the rest of the 6 Series Convertible range, it looks good up (thanks to the flying buttresses) and stows away almost invisibly — the fact you can operate it on the move is the icing on the cake.
So while the Germans are often accused of lacking a sense of humour, with its latest M6 it seems this preconception couldn’t be further from the truth. A truly bonkers car, hilarity ensues as soon as you press the go pedal. Thanks mainly to that 560bhp engine, the latest M car really does embody the hot-rod concept beautifully; almost makes us want to move to California…