"I see a lot of the ordinary Z3s around and I like their retro styling, it reminds me of my youth," said John. "This has lots of headroom, but the seat's not too comfy and I'm used to seeing over the other cars, this is very low. The rear-view mirror gets in the way, too. The steering is very positive, I'm used to a bit of play in mine. I've got my licence to worry about so I don't think I'll go too fast. But you've really got to work this fast through the gears, that's the whole point of it. Otherwise you're just in Mondeo-mode."
Mandy Hurrell, 35, lecturer, Roger Ayrton, 36, architecture student from Woolwich, London. Currently drive a Ford Escort cabriolet
"I think it looks a bit strange - chunky," pondered Mandy. "There's certainly a lot of power, though it seems very easy to drive. But I wouldn't ever want to spend that much on a car. I'd prefer a two-bedroom cottage in Ventnor!" Roger was far more enthusiastic: "The brakes are really responsive and it sounds nice, almost like a V8. Amazing power, very smooth ride and there's pretty good vision all round, too."
James Donovan, 29, barrister's clerk from
Welling, Kent. Currently drives a Ford Mondeo
James found the BMW's cabin a little too cramped, particularly the footwell. "My feet (size 11) keep catching on the trim, which is a little dangerous. I must try not to drive too fast. It has got a bit more acceleration than my Mondeo - it's like a bloody aircraft taking off. It feels very firm and safe on the road, though. I'd expect the people who buy these to be in their forties and male, but I might like one. It looks great, it's the
sort of car for long Sunday drives in the country."
Delma Moore, 50, housewife, from Orpington, Kent. Currently drives a Mazda 323
"I like the styling, but the back is a bit staid," reckoned Delma. "Overall, it's not at all BMW-like - except for the price, which is too much. I'd want a few more features for the money. Personally, I don't like the retro look. I don't think it would be very practical, but it is comfortable, and you get a good view out. It feels very nippy and responds very well, but the ride isn't as hard as I expected. If I had spare cash doing nothing I wouldn't mind one as a second car, but otherwise you'd have to have money to burn."
o BMW's designers are human after all - either that or they've got hold of some very good drugs lately. For the last 50 years or so, BMW has toiled Teutonically to expand production from austere bubble cars to prosaic small saloons to high-minded executive bahnstormers. Never has it produced a car quite as determinedly frivolous at the M Coupe.
Derived from the ostentatiously retro though rather lily-livered Z3 roadster, the M Coupe is an unadulterated driver's machine, dreamed up by five BMW designers working secretly and for fun in their own time. That's not unprecedented among companies like TVR, but for a manufacturer as German as BMW to produce a car as brazenly irrational as this is akin to the Bundesbank printing Deutschmarks with Mickey Mouse's face on them.
But I'm jolly glad it did. With one half of a McLaren F1 engine under the bonnet, the two-seater M Coupe is inordinately fast, reaching 60mph in under five seconds. Its straight six-cylinder engine revs thrillingly to over 7,000rpm, howls exhilaratingly as you race up through the five gears - a chunky change that exudes mechanical integrity. Floor the pedal and the exhaust vapour from the fat drainpipes signals the car's intent by instantly misting up the rear screen. This is a Porsche 911 for pounds 25,000 less, and with just 200 promised for the UK market, it is certain to be an instant classic.
Luckily, bearing in mind all that power on tap, the Coupe is twice as rigid as the roadster (hardly a significant achievement - the convertible flexed like an Access Card), but while its suspension is not quite denture-rattling, it is firm. That does mean, though, that corners can be taken at great speed, at least in the dry, with only pronounced understeer to slow you. It is terrific fun and, apparently, every motoring journalist who has borrowed this car has asked to keep it a little longer. I did, too, and even at the end of my last journey I sat racking my brains to think of somewhere else to drive.
This addictiveness is due not only to its fabulous engine, but also to the Coupe's size. While BMW saloons have become progressively more bloated, the M Coupe is blessedly lithe and slender. The downside is a cockpit that's a squeeze for anyone with more meat on them than a jockey, and though its hatchback nods towards practicality, the Coupe has a tiny boot, even compared to a 911.
And then there is the question of styling. If we're being kind we could liken the Coupe to the old Jensen Healey GT, a deservedly maligned though not unpretty Coupe from the early Seventies. Others though, will simply point and laugh and tell you you've spent pounds 40,000 on an Austin Allegro estate lookalike with fancy chrome bits. Of all the cars, many exotic, that I have parked in my local car park, this was the only one that prompted the attendant to share his thoughts. He liked it but most didn't and though it looks great on the pages of a magazine there is no denying that this steroidal hot rod is a fairly incongruous sight among the Escorts and Vectra's in the real world
Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.