As in other current M models from BMW, the 2008 BMW M6 is afflicted with a dual personality. It masquerades as a big luxury coupe around town, but when the roads open up, the M6 can transform into a superhero. At a push of the M button on the steering wheel, the suspension tightens and the throttle response becomes more acute. Where a superhero might where a cape, the M6 gets a carbon fiber roof, lowering its center of gravity. But while the big, long coupe shows a lot of brawn in its styling, the high trunk lid makes it look like it could go on a diet.
BMW fits the car out with plenty of technology for driving and infotainment. Both the M button and a star button on the wheel are programmable, letting the driver customize the car a little, although this theme could be taken further. iDrive still serves as the interface for navigation, stereo, cell phone, and other car systems, but that system is about to get a radical overhaul, which isn't soon enough.
Test the tech: Navigation rally
As M6 sounds like a name for military hardware (actually, an air defense version of the Bradley fighting vehicle), we decided to run a navigation rally with our 2008 BMW M6 to a number of old army bases around San Francisco. For the navigation rally, we enter a series of locations into the navigation system and see if we can get there as close to the estimated time of arrival that the system promises.
We set our first destination as Crissy Field, an Army air strip active from 1915 to 1974 and since converted to a public recreation area. From the start we hit a snag with the M6, as it only let us enter one destination at a time. On the plus side, we searched for the term Crissy Field in its points-of-interest database (labeled "Information" in the BMW) and got the right result immediately. The navigation system told us the 5-mile trip from CNET headquarters to Crissy Field would take 10 minutes, so we took off, dutifully following its directions.
Downtown traffic kills our time getting to our first destination.
Unfortunately, those directions took us through the heart of downtown and all its attendant traffic. The start and stop traffic was brutal, but the M6 didn't seem to mind. We had it set for the city, with the suspension in comfort mode and the throttle relaxed. The M6 was well-mannered, and didn't mind letting us creep along with its six-speed manual transmission in first gear. The only thing that had us worried was the speed of the gas gauge.
With the secondary screen in the M6 set to show route guidance, we had no difficulty following its directions, and even got to put on a little more speed as we broke out of the jam. But we couldn't make up the time we had spent at lights, arriving at Crissy Field a full 17 minutes over our ETA. The car does have traffic reporting in the navigation system, but that didn't do us any good as it only covers freeways and major highways, not surface streets.
The car's heads-up display helps us with the navigation.
Our second destination was the Presidio, which served as a military base for 219 years, first under the Spanish, until it closed in 1995. Now it's the home of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which includes Lucasfilm, LucasArts, and Industrial Light and Magic. For this destination, we chose to use the navigation system's map input, finding a point on a road near the Parade Grounds. This time we were given 3 minutes to cover 1.3 miles. To make sure we hit our mark, we put the car in M mode, giving it an immediate boost, but even then we were 1 minute over, taking 4 minutes to cover the distance.
For the final destination, we chose Fort Baker, across the Golden Gate Bridge. This base opened in 1866, and was closed in 2002. We tried the points-of-interest database, but couldn't find an entry for Fort Baker, so we resorted to the map input. This option proved frustrating, as you can't scroll the map very quickly on this DVD-based system. For the 5-mile trip there, the navigation system allotted 8 minutes. Knowing that these ETAs were proving optimistic, we kept the car in M mode and maneuvered as fast as we safely could through the tourist traffic. But the 1.7 miles of the bridge had a speed limit of 45 mph, and the cars were generally moving below that. We followed the M6's directions down the other side of the bridge, making it to our chosen spot in 10 minutes, which was 2 minutes more than the ETA.
The bridge cost us time on the rally, but the M6 helped us pick up minutes wherever the road opened up.
The M6 doesn't want for speed, but there's only so much you can do on public roads, and its navigation system seems to expect clear roads and full use of the car's capabilities.
In the cabin
The cabin of the 2008 BMW M6 features good fit and finish we've come to expect from the automaker. One detail stands out: the carbon fiber trim used over the instrument panel, which makes a nice change from flat black plastic or faux metal. We appreciate how BMW includes a cowl over the center LCD, similar to the one over the instrument cluster, to cut glare. The single knob and menu button for the iDrive interface are mounted aft of the shifter on the console. Although we've become adept with iDrive, we welcome BMW's news that the system will soon be radically redesigned, with a whole new software interface.
The navigation system displays traffic, delivered to the car through Clear Channel's FM broadcast.
As we mentioned above, the navigation system is DVD-based, which makes some of its functions slow. A few times we had to wait quite a long time for it to calculate a destination. But the maps offer very good resolution, and the route-guidance graphics are very good. Our big complaint about the system is that getting to the map display takes five moves of the iDrive controller. You can say "show map" to the voice command system, but that takes longer than a quick access button. The integrated traffic reporting system is about as good as current infrastructure allows and, as we found in our review of the BMW X6, offers dynamic routing around severe traffic.
The lack of multiple destination capability is a flaw, and the points-of-interest database is limited. We also found it difficult to configure which icons are displayed on the map. Although route guidance didn't have text to speech, we did like that turn directions were shown on the optional heads-up display, projected on the windshield.
We were pleased to find a USB port in the console, which let us plug in an iPod or a USB flash drive. These sources augmented the single-CD slot in the dashboard, Sirius satellite radio, and HD radio, another option for the M6. For MP3 CDs and USB drives, the interface let us browse folders and choose music to play. The iPod interface is better, breaking music down by album, artist, and genre. One odd note: although we could play the MP3 tracks stored on our iPod, it wouldn't play a few albums encoded in Apple Lossless format.
This seven-band equalizer is part of the enhanced audio system.
The Harman Kardon audio system in the M6 uses 13 speakers, which includes one center in the dashboard and two subwoofers toward the rear. Although this setup seems like it should be impressive, we weren't blown away by it. The audio sounded good, but seemed a little muffled, not really bringing out the full quality of the music we played. Beyond typical controls such as bass and treble, the BMW interface also has a seven-band graphic equalizer, part of the optional Enhanced Audio package.
BMW's Bluetooth cell phone integration is excellent. We paired up a Samsung phone and almost immediately our contact list was available through iDrive. One other interesting feature to note on the car is a star button on the steering wheel that can be programmed to activate a number of functions, such as muting the stereo, moving to the next audio source, or changing the air recirculation mode. We would have liked the option of having that button show the map, though.
Under the hood
All of the cabin tech in the 2008 BMW M6 can be had in the standard BMW 650i, but what's under the hood and in the suspension differentiates the two cars. With the engine program set to normal, or P400 as BMW calls it, and the Electronic Damper Control set to Comfort, the M6 is a nicely appointed boat. It rides well, but the steering feels loose and you'll wonder if the V-10 under the hood is missing a few cylinders. But change the engine program to P500 or P500 Sport, set the EDC to either Normal or Sport, and push the M Dynamic Mode button for good measure, and the car immediately becomes fun, with more power on tap than you can reasonably use on a public road.
The car lets you program its M button with custom settings for engine program, traction control, and suspension.
Pushing all of these buttons to make the M6 worth driving sounds tedious, but BMW includes a programmable M button on the steering wheel, which can transform the car with one push. If you wanted, you could set the M button to take all the fun out of the car, but most people will want to either use BMW's Sport defaults, or program in even higher performance settings, such as having it turn the Dynamic Stability Control off. These changes are pretty dramatic in practice. For instance, going from P400 to P500 Sport while driving down the highway delivers a palpable boost, and changing the EDC to Sport makes the car's suspension and steering suddenly feel much tighter. MDM loosens up the traction control, letting you pivot the big car around corners a little better.
BMW claims 4.5 seconds to 60 mph with the M6, a number we can certainly believe after experiencing the M6's acceleration. With sport settings on and giving it the gun, the car leaps forward, but BMW makes sure everything happens efficiently, with no sound and fury of spinning wheels. The car keeps its rear wheels gripping the pavement, and holding the nose in line is an easy task for the driver. Because of its grip, we found it difficult to stress the car in hard cornering, although we managed to get in a little of BMW's characteristic controlled rear slide from the M6. But the truth is that it's difficult to make use of the 500 horsepower from the 5-liter V-10 on anything less than a track. The engine uses BMW's Double VANOS system, which gives it stepless variable valve timing and 10 throttle controllers, making the three driver-selectable engine programs possible. The engine's torque number is 383 foot-pounds at 6,100rpm, substantial, but low enough to keep the drive wheels under control on fast launches.
After hearing many complaints about its SMG, BMW offered the six-speed manual as a no-cost option.
One thing that will make enthusiasts happy is the six-speed manual transmission option, as opposed to the Sequential Manual Gearbox, which was the only transmission available on previous versions of the car. The manual transmission isn't high-tech, but it works well, offering fairly wide ratios so that you can clear 60 mph in second gear, pushing up toward the car's 8,200rpm redline. On the tachometer, BMW gives a yellow zone, running from about 7,800rpm to 8,200rpm before the redline.
We noted that, driving about 70 mph on the freeway in sixth gear, the engine speed remained around 3,000rpm--a little high for economical driving. And this is where the M6's performance suffers. During our time with the car, which included a mix of city, freeway, and mountain driving, we saw an average of 11.7 mpg, sticking to the low end of the EPA's range of 11 mpg city and 17 mpg highway for the M6. Given the car's 18.5-gallon tank, we saw the low fuel warning message come on with some frequency. For emissions, the car meets California's minimal LEV II rating.
The 2008 BMW M6 goes for a base price of $99,300. Our test car added a number of options, including $400 for iPod integration, $1,000 for a smart key, $300 for the carbon fiber cabin trim, $350 for HD radio, $700 for an audio system enhancement, and $1,200 for the heads-up display. Along with a few other nontechie options, $775 destination charge, and $3,000 gas guzzler fee, the total racked up to $111,320. For this kind of money you could get a Maserati GranTurismo, a much more distinctive car, although not as fast. Other coupes to consider would be the more brutish Nissan GT-R and the Audi S5.
Rating the tech on the BMW M6, the engine and suspension get high marks because of the damping control, the M Dynamic Mode switch, and the VANOS system, which lets the driver select how the engine runs. But we have to knock it for the fuel economy. The cabin tech is all excellent, as we've seen in previous BMWs, but the navigation system works a little too slowly and the audio system could sound better. For design, we like the look of the front three quarters of the car, but that high trunk lid is an eyesore. Then there's the iDrive interface, which presents various usability issues. Fortunately, we should see that go away soon.