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We Drive: BMW M6

* Story Highlights
* 500 bhp V10-engined variant of the BMW 6-Series
* Seats four adults in comfort, while providing sports car thrills
* Surprisingly practical, but offers disappointing fuel economy and range

by James Snoddgrass for CNN

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Prejudice is a funny thing. I was prepared not to like BMW's M6. Not that I thought it would be a bad car -- BMW, as a rule, isn't prone to making duff automobiles -- it's just I wasn't entirely sure what it was supposed to be. An executive coupe with a 5-liter V10 engine and 500 bhp? With a price tag that could buy you a Porsche 911 or most of an Aston Martin V8 Vantage? What fresh nonsense was this? But prejudice is there to be challenged.

Taking delivery of the M6 at my home in Brighton, southern England, I felt the car looked ever so slightly out of place. After all I live in an electoral ward which elected three Green representatives to the City council and is predicted to deliver the first Green Party member to the national government at the next general election. Muscular sports cars aren't common sights on my street (someone once parked a Porsche Cayenne Turbo here but he got a dirty look for it).

An acquaintance, Kevin, strolled past. "Hello," I said, "it's not mine". Second-guessing his likely prejudices I added, "It's rather ostentatious, I know."

"I don't know," replied Kevin, "I think it's quite understated, quite elegant."

One prejudice quashed.

My wife and I then filled the surprisingly roomy trunk with our luggage and various gifts (the weekend being the occasion of my father-in-law's 70th birthday) and prepared for our journey to the Staffordshire moorlands in central England.

You can spend a lot of time preparing for a journey in an M6. You can choose a location for the sat-nav to direct you to and whether the directions are displayed as a map or as a perspective diagram. You can choose to listen to CD, radio or an external audio source and then modify the acoustic properties with a graphic equalizer and various surround sound settings. You can program the "M" button on the steering wheel so that the various suspension, gearing and power settings can be switched between sedate motorway driving and utter lunacy. You can adjust the seat's height and rake; inflate, deflate and position the lumbar support so the small of your back is just so and adjust the seat wings to hold you as tight as a doting grandmother, should you wish.

The car is started with a start/stop button. This is best done with the window open because the M6 is front-engined and the general cabin ambience is too refined to be invaded with the brutish noises of the 5-liter V10. Even so, the hood's sound insulation means that you never get the eviscerating snarl that juvenile men -- such as myself -- expect from a supercar.

The automatic gearbox can be put in a fully-automatic mode, or gears can be selected by nudging the sequential gear lever, or flipping the paddle-shifts behind the steering wheel.

The car is surprisingly civilized at low speeds. It doesn't feel like you're taming a monster. If anything there's a slight lag between pushing the throttle and the forwards crawl. Navigational and speedometer readings are projected onto the windscreen by the head-up display, creating the impression of a floating screen a few feet in front of the car.

This omnipresent reminder of speed is good news for my (unblemished) driving licence as it is horribly easily to drive way too fast in the M6. It is so stable that 30 mph feels like a walking pace and I wouldn't want to incriminate myself by stating the speed I found myself doing on the public highway while thinking I was driving at just about the speed limit.

Naturally the head-up display can also be customized and, in "M" mode displays speed and a graphic display of rev ranges, in favor of navigational instructions.

Put simply the M6 is perfect on the highways, which would make up the majority of my journey (much of it, coincidentally, on a highway called the "M6"). You are under no compulsion to drive like a hooligan. With the power button off (meaning you have only 400 not 500 horses at your disposal), and at its least-sporty setting, the M6 drives like a perfectly ordinary BMW -- composed, sturdy but able to accelerate out of trouble when necessary.

On country roads it handles diligently, holding corners reassuringly but without the physical sensation you get driving smaller, lower sports cars. I'm assured that you can drive the M6 like a hooligan if you wish, taking advantage of the M-Diff system -- a torque-sensing differential that can provide between zero and 100 per cent of the drive forces to either driven wheel -- and the MDynamic mode which allows the car to perform on the edge for as long as possible before kicking in the dynamic stability control to keep the car in line.

Sadly time, conditions, and my wife's insistence that we arrived in one piece, prevented me from testing these attributes.

The point of the M6, then, is that it's both a refined, four-seater grand tourer and a sports car. It has, as the car wash attendant in a supermarket parking lot in Cheadle suggested "too much electronics" but those electronics are necessary for performing the car's dual roles.

The car's not without niggles: the indicator stalk is too short (and would it hurt to put an indicator display on the head-up?). It's very thirsty (officially 19 mpg, but we managed rather less) and the 70-liter tank is insufficient for long journeys. The lag between gear changes at low speed is rather annoying. And the compromise between sports car thrills and autobahn civility means that it doesn't sound, or look, like a schoolboy's fantasy.

But perhaps that's the point. Far from being ostentatious, the M6 is the devil dressed as middle-management: it does bad things very respectably.
 
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