Like the Thunderbird SC? You’ll love the 2020 BMW M8 Competition

2020 BMW M8

The BMW M8 is like one particular Ford, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but it’s also like one particular rock concert. Hear me out. Do you remember when the surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited to play Celebration Day in December 2007? Expectations for the gig were low, because Robert Plant wasn’t really into it, and John Paul Jones looked like he would rather be anywhere else, and Jason Bonham is not John Bonham. We all knew the songs would be slowed down and low-key (literally) to suit the age and fragility of the players—but it was also an undeniable thrill to see the band together one final time.

That’s the M8. If the original M6 was Stairway-era Plant, all swagger and edge, this big Competition Coupe in please-ignore-me grey is the shaggy, lion-esque fellow who reluctantly performed the hits with quite a bit more gravitas than anyone could reasonably expect from the fellow who once asked an audience, “Does anyone remember laughter?” BMW has managed to do the nearly impossible; it has put so much weight and molasses-like control inertia into the car that it’s blunted the impact of a truly herculean 617-horse twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8. In bearing, behavior, and rough dimension, this is strangely similar to the old Ford Thunderbird SC. Like the big Bird, the M8 feels aircraft-carrier massive on the move; also like that charming coupe of the late ’80s, the M8 uses power and a carefully tuned suspension to put some interest back in the proceedings. 

As with the final Zep concert, however, the mere existence of the M8 is wondrous to behold. It’s a real full-sized two-door performance coupe in the year 2020. BMW calls the car “aquatic” in shape, and it is; the first time I saw it in the metal I knew how Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer must have felt back in 1938 when a fisherman brought her a coelacanth. Wasn’t this fish supposed to have gone extinct 66 million years ago? Who’s making Super Coupes now? And how long will they last, with the joyless shadow of Saint Thunberg falling across Munich even as we speak? If you can afford this car, I implore you to stop what you’re doing and buy one right now. To misquote Samuel Johnson, it’s not perfect—but you are surprised to find it done at all.

This is what you get for your $150,000 or thereabouts: a surfeit of quilted leather, every luxury feature under the sun, a lot of LCD screens, great seats, good sightlines, a lot of surfaces that are pleasing to the touch. The shape won’t erase anyone’s memories of the E24 M6, but after  the previous two generations of 6-Series, this feels like a return to conventional notions of beauty. Did I mention that it has just two doors?

BMW 2020 M8 Competition Coupe
BMW 2020 M8 Competition Coupe
BMW 2020 M8 Competition Coupe
BMW

Under the watchful eyes of the BMW Spartanburg Performance Center staff, I pressed the bright-red metallic “M1” button on the left spoke of the steering wheel. This setting loosens the electronic reins a bit but still maintains enough intervention to straighten out the horrifying wall-pointed slide of a fellow journalist driving ahead of me like the proverbial steam-powered arrestor hook. In fact, it’s both possible and fun to abuse this safety net, deliberately sliding the car all over the place, knowing that at some point BMW’s Skynet will save your bacon. I entered a long sweeping turn at perhaps 15 mph above the proper entry speed and yanked the wheel as if I were panicking, stabbing the brake as I did so; there was a lurid moment where all two-and-a-half tons of car and driver slipped merrily sideways a full five feet, then cruising altitude was restored with much audible rapid squeezing of brakes, at which point control was handed back to me by the autopilot. Very smart car.

If only the transmission possessed a similar intelligence. The forces involved in getting this M8 Competition to 185 mph are massive; Newton’s First Law is present here with death-penalty force. It’s no surprise, then, that the conventional automatic transmission can be hugely absent-minded, shifting up on the entry to corners, then stubbornly retaining the mis-chosen gear until about 0.75 seconds after full exit throttle is called for. At that point the engine, transmission, differentials, and traction-control system go through a complicated dance to change gear, build boost, and release the internal clutches in a manner that won’t puree the metal innards. Shortly after that, you’ll be fired towards the next corner with a violence that is less than McLaren but more than plain-jane Corvette. It would be infuriating, if anybody actually used this car as a track toy. Presumably hitting the “M2” button on the right spoke would exchange transmission life for celerity of response. I don’t know; they didn’t let me do it.

BMW 2020 M8 Competition Coupe
BMW

One way in which the M8 departs from its illustrious predecessors for the better: the brakes, which are absolutely up to the task despite the odd whiff of smoke. BMW is late to the modern gospel of fixed-caliper multi-piston braking, but the fire burns in none quite like the converted, and now you are provided with enough brake hardware to stop a Space Shuttle. ABS programming is outstanding, but it perhaps errs on the side of invisibility. I know that I’m at risk, because I can hear a staccato skip-squeak from all four wheels as I’m late-late braking into a corner—but a little tactile reminder would be nice. The brake feel itself is apparently adjustable, if you like that. My concern is that I don’t know how well the system communicates boiling brake fluid or cooked pads to the driver. The Acura NSX, which has the same kind of electronic operation, can be troublingly circumspect in that regard. 

Like its relatives in the BMW Group, the M8 is now an all-wheel-drive car, and when the front axles are contributing to forward progress the steering feels more than a little dead. Part of it has to be due to the massive and thick-rimmed wheel that comes on all the performance Bimmers now. It’s meant to impress in the showroom, and it conveys a sense of expense quite well, but on the racetrack it contributes to that odd and overdamped feedback that makes driving this car oddly resemble the opening of a bank safe. With the right combination of buttons you can send all the power to the rear wheels, as you can in the M5. Make sure you’re pointing in the correct direction when you do.

BMW 2020 M8 Competition Coupe
BMW

With a seven-speed manual gearbox, this would be a hugely compelling car. Hell, with a four-speed manual gearbox, this would be a hugely compelling car. It’s not like you need a narrow gear range with this engine, which has no discernible variation in its tidal-wave torque delivery. The BMWCCA may tear up my long-expired membership card for saying this, but the M8 would be a considerably better vehicle if it had the Tremec DCT from the new Shelby GT500. If your neighbor has a GT500, you should tactfully avoid anything like a timed competition. 

Ah, but the original M6 wasn’t the fastest thing money could buy at the time of its debut, and neither was the highly-appreciated (in the financial sense) 850CSi. They were both about going fast enough while inducing acute envy in surrounding motorists. The M8 will do that just about as well as its predecessors ever did. BMW should be commended for making it, the same way I appreciate Jimmy Page’s tireless efforts to make the O2 Arena reunion happen. It’s churlish to expect too much in the way of racetrack response or CSL-style purity. There’s something about a high-power, high-profile coupe that can’t help but be charming. It doesn’t matter if it’s the M8 or the Mark VIII—another American car that comes to mind while driving this German one. This car looks good, pampers its occupants properly, and drives better than any jacked-up truck-coupe out there. It deserves a whole lotta love.