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The BMW M Coupe Proves It's Not Wrong to Want to Meet Your Heroes

Almost every BMW to bear the M3 moniker has served as a benchmark for driving excellence, but the E46-generation M3 is widely considered the pinnacle of the model’s lineage. The E46 M3’s high-revving inline-six, better known as the S54, also found its way under the hood of the Z3-based M Roadster and M Coupe. Despite its name, the latter model is better described as a hatchback or shooting brake, and its shape earned it the nickname “Clown Shoe.”

I was just two years old when the S54-powered M Coupe entered the U.S. market for 2001. Prior to that, BMW’s 240-hp S52 inline-six powered U.S.-spec M Coupes (and M Roadsters). As I grew up and developed a love for bizarre and unorthodox vehicles, I learned of the later S54-powered M Coupe’s punky reputation. I lusted after the Clown Shoe as a teenager; the car‘s wacky shape appealed to my contrarian tastes.

Caleb Miller|Car and Driver

Now, more than 20 years after its introduction, I finally had the opportunity to discover if the M Coupe and its S54 engine were capable of meeting my lofty expectations. BMW invited a group of journalists to partake in a nearly 400-mile drive from Miami, Florida, to Amelia Island for the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, with the lot of us swapping among several classic BMWs along the way. The trip focused on the bloodline of BMW roadsters, from the modern Z4 to the 1996 Z3. It also afforded me a stint behind the wheel of my proverbial white whale: a 2001 M Coupe.

Painted in Laguna Seca blue, the M Coupe looked resplendent under the severe Florida sun. I nestled into the well-bolstered driver’s seat. Behind the wheel, the M Coupe felt significantly smaller than the 2008 Z4 M Coupe—the M Coupe’s successor—that I had driven the previous day. At five feet 11 inches tall, my scalp nearly brushed the headliner. Taller drivers surely would struggle to fit comfortably within this compact Bimmer. I soon discovered that comfort is secondary to the thrill of driving an S54-powered M Coupe.

2001 bmw m coupe

Caleb Miller|Car and Driver

Traffic outside our Vero Beach hotel limited my ability to stretch this hatchback’s legs for some miles. Still, it gave me the opportunity to imagine what living with an M Coupe as a daily driver might feel like. Just one day earlier, I drove the Z4 M Coupe in similar conditions, and its clunky gearshifts seemed to scold me for trying to short shift. First gear’s short ratio (just 4.35:1) gave my left leg and right arm a workout as the car crawled through Florida’s stop-and-go congestion.

The 2001 M Coupe, however, proved less disagreeable among the slow-moving swarm, its shifter’s compliance allowing me to execute smoother gearchanges at lower engine speeds. Still, I felt the Clown Shoe begging me to let it loose. The open on-ramp to I-95 beckoned.

The M Coupe’s minuscule dimensions contribute to its exhilarating dynamics. Compared to the current Z4 M40i, the M Coupe is 5.0 inches narrower and 12.2 inches shorter, not to mention more than 400 pounds lighter. And yet, the 22-year-older M Coupe’s brawny naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine is down just 67 horses to the Z4 M40i’s turbocharged inline-six.

That said, the S54’s 251 pound-feet of torque is a substantial 118 pound-feet less than the B58’s output in the 2023 Z4. Whereas today’s Z4 engine offers plentiful torque throughout the rev range, the M Coupe’s engine proved a bit peakier, with its peak torque arriving at 4900 rpm. Even so, once the tachometer needle swung past the 2500 rpm mark, the M Coupe shored up enough grunt to come into its own.

2001 bmw m coupe

Caleb Miller|Car and Driver

With an open road ahead, the M Coupe goaded me into flat-footing its right pedal until the S54’s crankshaft spun past its power peak of 7400 rpm and toward redline. At these high revs, the engine emitted a tinny wail. Though we deemed this sound “unpleasant” in our December 2001 review of an M Coupe, I found myself enthralled by the S54’s scream, which seemed to exemplify the rebellious spirit of this tiny two-door Bimmer.

The M Coupe’s five-speed gearbox was just as enjoyable as the engine it’s paired with. As we motored up the highway toward Amelia Island, I repeatedly ran through the car’s top three gears simply for the satisfaction of feeling the shifter’s short and precise throws.

To my surprise, the M Coupe was a relatively tame and comfortable companion in this environment. Its firm suspension was forgiving enough to absorb dips and divets in the tarmac without upsetting the chassis.

2001 bmw m coupe

Caleb Miller|Car and Driver

BMW designed the M Coupe with lateral dynamics in mind, as well. Unfortunately, it’s easier to find a loggerhead sea turtle in Florida than it is to find a winding road. Yet, as I headed away from the mainland and toward Amelia Island, a ribbon of snaking tarmac appeared before me.

The M Coupe squatted on its rear end upon entering the first corner, its wide and sticky rear tires pushing the stubby Bimmer past the apex. In spite of the lengthy six-cylinder engine mounted fore of the cabin, the Clown Shoe felt balanced through the corners. Knowing the short-wheelbase M Coupe’s semi-trailing-arm rear suspension’s penchant for lift-off oversteer, I refrained from pushing the Clown Shoe too hard on this small section of curves.

2001 bmw m coupe

Caleb Miller|Car and Driver

Soon the road straightened out, and my brief time exploring the Clown Shoe’s lateral capabilities was over. I briefly thought about taking off with the M Coupe as I pulled up to the Amelia Island hotel. I knew the rare, beautiful, and exotic vehicles of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance awaited, but at that moment, all I really wanted was to stay buckled into the driver’s seat of the M Coupe, to hear the metallic zing of the S54 engine as it crept toward redline and to feel the satisfying action of the five-speed gearbox just one more time.

Having admired the M Coupe from afar for so many years, I almost expected it to fall short of my lofty expectations. Now I’d driven one and felt a visceral thrill that was even more satisfying than I imagined. BMW’s S54 engine may always be synonymous with the E46 M3, but to me, the German automaker’s legendary inline-six is best experienced from the cramped cabin of the Clown Shoe.

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Associate News Editor

Caleb Miller began blogging about cars at 13 years old, and he realized his dream of writing for a car magazine after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University and joining the Car and Driver team. He loves quirky and obscure autos, aiming to one day own something bizarre like a Nissan S-Cargo, and is an avid motorsports fan.

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