Motoring: Dial M for missile

The BMW M Coupe is the nearest thing to an E-type since the E- type.
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When is Jaguar going to build a new E-type? After all, Rover has unveiled its new Mini (on sale in 2000) and VW has given us its new Beetle. When is that other great, seminal car of the Sixties going to get revivified, redesigned and relaunched? No matter what Jaguar may be planning - and the Coventry manufacturer is refusing to confirm whether it's working on such a vehicle - there is already a car that fits the bill. It is the BMW M Coupe.

In many ways, it is like the hardtop coupe version of the E-type - which sold better than the convertible. Its styling is all trousers. Or, to put it in a car context, it is all long bonnet, short cabin, short tail. The body is like a giant cowling for the engine, with exiguous cabin thrown in for free. It even drives like an E-type - powered by a hugely gutsy, big, straight-six engine, which gives monstrous power when commanded. Yet the steering is rather vague, and the ride is so firm that, on occasion, you can really feel broken Tarmac kicking your backside. Also, you drive behind that long, long bonnet - just as with an E-type. You feel you're riding a missile as much as driving a car.

The cockpit, too, is rather cobbled together, without that homogenous feel of a mass-made, carefully conceived, beautifully hewn BMW 3-series or 5-series.

The pull-out headlamp switch is straight out of the Sixties. However, the pedals are grouped far too close together, so that those who are big of foot will find the M Coupe rather hard to drive. And the steering wheel is incongruously big, which doesn't help the steering feel, and underlines the view that you're driving a modern iteration of a classic car, as opposed to a brand-new 1999 supercar.

As for carrying space, there is virtually none. Just a small hatchback boot. There is no back seat. However, this is no car for carrying; it is a car for driving. And what huge fun it is to punt along a winding B-road! The 3.2-litre straight six, borrowed from the M3, is one of the world's great motors. It can rev from tick-over to well over 7,000rpm with sublime ease and inspirational musical accompaniment. And yet this is a vehicle that can tootle along as gently as the most nondescript hatchback.

Bury the throttle, at any moment, and the car's mien will be transmogrified. One kick of the accelerator pedal is enough to stir the devil. And what acceleration! Going from 0-60mph in less than five seconds makes the M Coupe the fastest-accelerating BMW of them all. The action doesn't stop until a limiter spoils the fun at 155mph. This is an outrageously fast car.

In fact it is an outrageous car, period. It looks disjointed, unnatural and small - apart from that long nose - with wide wings covering huge wheels and tyres that look too big for the body.

It has a graceful front, identical to that of the Z3 roadster, which gives way - aft of the roof - to a stumpy, abrupt tail. It is not a beautiful car. But it is a very striking car. I have driven few cars that have turned heads faster.

Its unconventionality is also one of its great appeals. European car manufacturers are going through a terribly sensible, self-righteous phase just now. There are few "hero" cars - madcap machines that make you feel good, even if they make little sense. But the M Coupe is such a car. It is a testament to the go-it-alone bravery of BMW as much as it is to BMW's engineers for being able to produce such an excitingly individualistic machine.

And if you fancy a roadster version, to bring us back to the E-type analogy, BMW can oblige. The M Roadster version is the same price, and mechanically identical. However, the M Coupe is the better car. Replacing the soft- top roof with a big plank of steel hugely increases the car's torsional stiffness, greatly improving handling and road behaviour. Besides, there is something far more individual about the coupe. There are many other small, fast convertibles. But there are no other modern high-performance coupes quite like this one. It makes no sense. But how it plays with your senses - serenading you, charming you. It is like a big toy, and it is no more logical than most other toys. But what a toy!

Specifications

Make, model and price: BMW M Coupe pounds 40,595. Engine: 3201cc, straight-six engine, 24 valves, 321bhp at 7400rpm. Transmission: Five- speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: Maximum speed 155mph (governed), 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds, 25mpg.

rivals

Lotus Esprit GT3 pounds 40,125. Mid-engined plastic-bodied British star. Fast and handles well, but lacks the quality of the BMW and isn't as exciting to drive.

Mitsubishi 3000GT pounds 45,800. Hugely competent but strangely anodyne car. Great for high-speed blasts across country, but no real fun for the driver.

Nissan Skyline GTR pounds 50,000. Nissan unlike any other. Awesomely fast, outstandingly capable, incredibly high-tech. One of the world's great cars.

TVR Cerbera 4.2 V8 pounds 41,100. Rather BMW-like in manners and design, but far more handsome. Mind you, quality is not up to BMW standards.

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