James Mackintosh 10 years ago 0

1988 BMW M6 Test Drive

Remind me later
One must maintain perspective when driving an old car.  You hear legends and stories about how great something was, but you have to remember that it was during the time period it was around those legends accumulated.  Best example of this: old school muscle cars from the 60's.  Sure, they're cool, and back in the day they were some of the fastest things with wheels and license plates.  But if you lined up a Chevelle SS396 with a 4-speed against a brand new, stock 2.0L Volkswagen GTI, it would get it's lunch handed to it.  This is perspective, and it's important to keep. So when I was given the opportunity to slide behind the wheel of a 1988 BMW M6, sure I was excited.  It's one of my all-time favorite BMWs; the E24 6-series has always held a pretty high spot on my list of classic BMW's, and the M6 was the top-dog of the 6-series line, and of the whole BMW line.  It was also one of the most rapid cars you could get your hands on at the time.  It's one of 1,700-odd M6's imported to the US over three years.  But come on; this a 23-year old BMW.  How great can it actually be? Maybe I'm biased.  I drove around in a 23-year-old European car for more than a year, and despite some modern features it was really quite archaic.  But then again, the 900 SPG had a lot of Saab 99 DNA under the hood; DNA that dated back to the late 60's.  It was delightfully outdated when it was new.  The 6'er, on the other hand, was not. Like most M cars then and today, the M6 is all about the engine.  While normal 6-series used M30 derivatives (the strongest of which being the 635i which had a 3.5L 218bhp motor), the M6 was a bit more exotic under the hood.  Called the S38B35, it was derived from the M88 straight-six which sat behind the passengers in the original BMW M1 supercar.  The S38 was civilized a bit for street car duty, but it still enjoyed most of the race-derived technology that made it so desirable.  While European E28 M5's and E24 M6's received the 282bhp M88/2 motor, the US market got a slightly detuned version.  Changes include a double-row timing chain, lower compression ratio, tubular exhaust manifolds (non-equal length), and the addition of a catalytic converter to meet emissions standards. Power on the US spec engine was down to 256bhp (from 282) at 6,500rpm but torque was hardly changed, 243lb-ft (from 251) at 4,500.  The S38's distinct calling card was the row of individual throttle bodies for each cylinder, instead of one huge one.  All M6's were mated exclusively to a five-speed manual transmission with a limited-slip differential (although other E24's were available with an automatic.) M6's in the US (sold between 1987-1989) came with a lot of impressive luxury features standard.  The rear seat had it's own dedicated A/C system with separate controls and a drink cooler(!), the front seats were highly bolstered power-adjustable heated units, and a premium stereo was standard. Stepping into the M6, a few things strike you.  Primarily, compared to most modern sports coupes, visibility is amazing.  The E24 has a huge greenhouse (glass area) and thin A-pillars, so blind spots are not an issue.  This is something I wish modern coupes took into consideration; sitting in a modern Camaro makes you wonder who the designers had in mind (midgets with X-Ray vision?) when they laid out interior.  The other thing is how damn comfortable those seats are: Most cars from the 80's have pretty bad seats.  The science of ergonomics has come a long way in the last 30 years, and it shows.  But with 23 years and 116,000 miles under their belts, M6 seats still hold you in place like a vice, yet you sink into them like your favorite couch.  They're absolutely wonderful, and they adjust in so many ways that if you can't find a good driving position you're probably just not trying hard enough. The outside of the car is...  Oh, I'll be honest: it's hard to retain journalistic integrity when reviewing an M6.  I've loved the E24's lines since I first saw one years ago, and I still believe it's one of the best looking BMW's ever made.  That forward-pointed grille with wide-set quad headlights is the definition of menacing, and the simplicity of the design harkens back to an era when BMW's were made to impress those that owned them, not their neighbors.  The one odd thing on this particular car are those modern 5-series wheels (off an E60 530i, I believe.)  They look out of place, but there's a logical explanation.  All M6's in the US came with metric-sized wheels and Michelin TRX metric tires, which was the cool thing to do in the 80's.  After Michelin realized that making standard and metric sized tires was pointless, they sold the molds to Coker, who still makes them today.  For unbelievably high prices.  The solution is fitting modern standard-sized wheels with the right bolt pattern and offset, and enjoying the benefits of decades-newer tire design at sane prices. Insert the key into the ignition, push the heavy clutch in, and fire it over.  The big straight six cranks for a short second and bursts to life, with a little bit of a loping idle as it warms through.  It's a far less synthetic sound than a modern engine starting, you can actually hear the lifters and valvetrain working.  Once it gets closer to operating temperature, all the various sounds fade into a harmony, and it's time to go. The M6 is a delightfully mechanical car, despite the relative amount of sophistication present in it given the time frame in which it was produced.  The clutch has a weight and feel to it that's just simply lacking in modern cars; if you didn't have a strong left leg when you started daily driving this car, you would in a week.  The gear shift is set far forward and has BMW's traditionally long, ropey throws - yet it somehow manages to avoid being imprecise, but rather it's laid back.  Clutch takeup is sharp, but with the driveline in good shape (fresh motor mounts and guibo), you're soon on your way. The steering is heavy - proper heavy - another attribute of older cars.  At first you're apprehensive, thinking about how old and complicated the car is, treating it like a museum piece.  But within a mile you realize the M6 is not a museum piece, it's not just for taking to Cars & Coffee, it's a driver's car, the type of car that the Camry-driving proletariat would absolutely hate.  The feel of solidity to the car is palpable, and everything feels like it's exactly where it should be.  The suspension - the rear suspension since converted from self-leveling air to static shocks - doesn't beat you up, but it's firm enough to remain perfectly composed on a winding road. And that engine - oh, that engine.  It's incredible.  Of course, the sound and feel is amazing - dip into half throttle in second gear, and you can hear all six throttle butterflies open up, sucking in atmosphere and turning it into horsepower.  Throttle response is amazing; you don't get reactions like this with a modern, single throttle-body drive by wire car.  But the power is what impresses most.  You look at the figures and you might not be impressed; a modern V6 Accord makes more power and torque than the M6, but it still feels every bit the legend it was back in the day.  The crescendo of all those valves and throttle bodies as the tach swings up is just amazing, and even by my jaded, modern standards the M6 is proper quick. The mid-range torque impresses most; you always think you should be in a lower gear than you are, but you're most likely wrong.  The large displacement coupled with the fantastic flow through the cylinder head lets the S38 punch much higher than it's weight.  This car is someone's baby, so I won't make up tales of bouncing the rev limiter and stepping sideways on gear changes - I only beat my own car like that.  But the performance of the M6 is distinct from a lot of the performance Hondas I'm used to.  With a car like a Civic Si or an S2000, to be impressed by the power you have to have your foot flat to the floor, passing the high-lift cam changeover at 6,000 rpm, and bouncing off the rev limiter.  With the M6, you dip halfway into the throttle, and it pushes you into your seat.  You can tell just how earth-shaking this engine was in the 80's; it's amazing even today. It doesn't suffer from any of the idiosyncratic hiccups that early fuel-injected cars sometimes do; there's no part throttle stumbles or weird lumpy idle when cold.  The sound is unique: much deeper and richer than the somewhat tinny-sounding E46 M3, but it's still an orchestra of noise.  It's geared relatively long, making for sedate highway cruising, and the long wheelbase and wide track make it quite stable.  The brakes have a much heavier pedal than modern cars, but there's plenty of feel - and stopping power. Is this a relevant review of something you'd consider for a daily driver?  No, it's a 23 year-old BMW M Car.  They're expensive to maintain and hard to find parts for.  They're fussy (not Ferrari fussy), and not the latest word in safety.  No, the point of this test drive was: when you meet your heroes, do they stand up to your expectations?  My answer, at least as pertains to the M6, is a resounding "yes."  Now I've got to find a way to get behind the wheel of a GMC Syclone...