At the end of the ’90s, there was about a year when the then shockingly expensive first-gen BMW 8 Series and the ascendant E39-generation M5 overlapped. The long, sleek, sexy coupe with its pillarless greenhouse had a restrained elegance about it. That stunning coupe could be had with either a 282-hp V-8 (840Ci) or 322-hp V-12 (850Ci). However, its substantial weight relegated it to grand touring status rather than sport coupe.
At about the same time, BMW introduced its third-generation M5 sedan with its bespoke 394-hp V-8. Some say this was the most coherent and best M5 to date. Back then, it got me thinking: What would a 2000 BMW M8 be like with that potent powerplant? There were ludicrously expensive Alpina spin-offs, but an M8 might’ve breathed some life into the otherwise exiting 8 Series. We never found out because that M8 was never built for public consumption.
Flash forward two decades, and voila. Here it is: the 2020 BMW M8 Competition coupe/convertible, powered by the current-generation M5’s twin-turbo V-8 juiced up to 617 horsepower and a tarmac-torturing 553 lb-ft of torque. Like the M5, power goes through a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic and clever adjustable all-wheel-drive system with AWD, AWD Sport, and RWD modes. Is it everything I had hoped it would be? Nearly.
Pressing the starter button, the M8 convertible’s subdued rumble awakens my 20-year-old dream, but now with 200-plus more horses than I had originally hoped. I click the button to open the car’s sport exhaust system. “It’s gonna be a ferocious thing, right?” I ask myself. My driving partner and I take to the streets of Faro, Portugal, and putter through town in Comfort mode, the engine barely idling and yet supplying peak torque at just 1,800 rpm. Entering an “A” road (freeway), we pin the throttle and leap onto the motorway as if we were about to take flight. Sure, it’s the torque doing the work, but the top-end horsepower (peaking at 6,000 rpm) is what is so remarkable. The car’s acceleration feels never-ending. BMW reckons either the coupe or convertible will run 0–60 mph in about 3 seconds flat. We concur; we’ve already tested a mere 523-hp M850i xDrive, and it does the deed in 3.4–3.5 seconds.
Watching Portuguese cork trees whiz by, remembering an SNL skit where they could barely get the words out without laughing, the navigation system politely updates our progress: “You will arrive at your destination in 25 minutes,” and I joke, “24 minutes, 23 minutes, 22 minutes.” At about this time, we wonder if there are speed cameras and back ’er down a bit since we were heading to a racetrack where there are no speed limits, but track limits. Even at triple-digit (kph) speeds, it’s shockingly quiet under the fabric top, the only wind noise coming from the side mirrors. The rear “seat,” if you can call it that, is only slightly more useful than that of a Porsche 911. If you want rear seats, you’ll have to wait for the four-door M8 Gran Coupe, which would later be revealed to us (no cameras allowed), by invitation only, at the racetrack. The M8’s interior is typical, modern BMW fare, iDrive controller prominently placed but accompanied by a mode selector: Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Track, the last being exclusive to the Competition models. There’s yet another version of a stubby BMW shifter that doesn’t operate the same as other BMWs.
Too Many Choices?
As we exit the highway, we select Sport, and the M8’s adjustable dampers firm up noticeably, but the ride remains exceptionally compliant and buttoned down. The steering weight gets heftier, too. Besides the two programmable M buttons on the steering wheel, there’s a menu where you can independently customize settings for the engine, dampers, steering, M-tuned xDrive, and braking systems. There’s also a toggle on the shifter to adjust the transmission’s logic and shift speeds. I’m no mathematician, but there must be hundreds of permutations available. That would seem to be about 100 too many.
We head for the hills, and on the narrow, twisting roads, the M8 starts to feel its size. Sure, the dynamic stability control and rear-biased AWD system links up with the BMW active M differential to tidy things up, but this is a big car capable of 189 mph. Occasionally getting stuck behind slow-moving farm equipment, we again ask the M8 to take a lungful of crisp morning air and pass with ease and revelry. Slowing for the tight turns, however, required some recalibration. The M8 uses a brake-by-wire system, meaning there’s no hydraulic connection to the pedal that’s more akin to an actuator. The pedal travels only a short distance and the “jump-in” is steep; too steep for my taste. There’s barely any ability to modulate the brakes with such a short pedal, and limo stops proved difficult, as well. Similarly, the electronic power steering does its job with precision and without fail, but it lacks an ability to connect the driver to the road mechanically.
Track at Last
We arrive at the track and immediately notice that the cars set aside for us to lap are wearing Pirelli P Zero tires, whereas our road cars wore Michelin Pilot Sport 4S of the same size (275/35R20 front; 285/35R20 rear). It turns out that when you order an M8, you get what you get and cannot specify which brand. Both are excellent, but our experience is that the Michelins are slightly more progressive when they begin to lose traction. When our session begins, we’re told the first two laps will be done with the M1 button pre-selections—engine: Sport+; dampers: Sport; steering: Comfort; brake: Sport; transmission: Drive III; stability control: on; M xDrive: AWD. The second set of two laps would be with the M2 pre-selections—engine: Sport+; dampers: Sport+; steering: Sport; brake: Sport; transmission: Sport III (manual shift); stability control: M-Dynamic; M xDrive: AWD Sport.
Follow the Leader
On a damp 3-mile track, we head out; two M8s following BMW Works driver Nick Catsburg in his. He’s doing his job of showing us the racing line on a track that has several blind brows followed by high-speed corners that go in different directions, and we’re glad for the tow. Without wasting any time, Catsburg has us up to speed, pushing the car’s limits. I can sense the tremendous grip begin to wane as the stability and traction control start to peek through their electronic curtains. The traction available on corner exits is what is so remarkable, and clearly the AWD system is seamless in clawing at the asphalt at all four corners with the throttle pinned to the floormat.
As choreographed, we swap places on the long straight and double-tap the M2 button for the final two laps. And, an instant later, I hit the rev limiter for a moment. “Right, we have to shift now,” I say to myself. The car begins to move around a bit more within its invisible electronic limits. The rear-biased Sport setting for the AWD system allowed the rear to dance around a bit more under power—fun. The steering, as it was on the country road, was immensely precise and, with its quick 14.3:1 ratio, happy to catch an errant slide with little more than a flick. There was a dry line forming, so our leader picked up the pace considerably.
My original objection to the brake pedal was even more apparent on the track. With so little ability to feel where I am in terms of braking traction, I found myself in full ABS, often. On the last flier, I managed to glimpse my car’s speed at the end of the straight; it flashed 250 kph (155 mph) for a moment before I breathed on the brake pedal. Yet, even at that speed, the car was so quiet and composed, it felt like 55 mph. It’s shocking how well the M8 hides speed from the driver—but should it? Getting out of the car after four hot laps, I checked my hands: calm; not shaking from adrenaline. Hmm. Watching and listening to the previous and next groups on the track, the M8 didn’t even sound aggressive from the sidelines. I asked if the exhaust sounds were electronically enhanced in the cabin. They are, through the speakers. Our hosts were quick to point out that the U.S.-bound cars won’t have the newly introduced EU-spec particulate filters, and we’re assured they will be louder and prouder (and likely quicker) than these German test cars were.
Meeting Your Hero
Did I like the M8? Did my 20-year-old dream finally come true? Technically, yes on both counts. However, I just thought it would be something more than it is. On paper and to witness it, the M8 does all the things it should do. Like a grocery list, it ticks off all the boxes and then some. That said, it’s not as engaging as it could be. Something like the Mercedes-AMG GT 63 S is what I had in mind. That sport coupe has a rowdy rawness that complements its dynamic capabilities. It’s a bit of a rebel while also being an upstanding citizen. Certainly, a louder, more aggressive-sounding U.S.-spec M8 will help and be appreciated, but there’s something missing here. From a distance and a dynamic standpoint, the M8 isn’t a huge step away from the M-tuned M850i xDrive. They’re indistinguishable in many ways, and that’s not good. The M8 should look, sound, feel, and just be the alpha dog, but it doesn’t come off that way. I like it, but I wanted to love it.
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