Today, more than two decades after its introduction, I had the chance to determine whether the M Coupe and its S54 engine could satisfy my ambitious expectations. BMW invited a group of journalists to participate in a roughly 400-mile drive from Miami, Florida, to Amelia Island for the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, during which we exchanged ancient BMWs. The tour centred on the BMW roadster lineage, from the contemporary Z4 to the 1996 Z3. It also gave me the opportunity to drive my legendary “white whale,” a 2001 M Coupe.

The M Coupe was painted Laguna Seca blue and glistened under the intense Florida sun. I settled comfortably into the well-cushioned driver’s seat. The M Coupe felt substantially smaller behind the wheel than its successor, the 2008 Z4 M Coupe, which I had driven the day before. With a height of 5 feet 11 inches, my head nearly touched the headliner. Taller drivers would have difficulty fitting comfortably within this small BMW. I quickly realised that comfort is subordinate to the excitement of driving an S54-powered M Coupe.


The traffic outside our Vero Beach hotel prevented me from putting some miles on this hatchback. Still, it allowed me to envisage what it might be like to use a M Coupe as a daily vehicle. The day before, while driving the Z4 M Coupe in comparable conditions, its clumsy gearshifts appeared to reprimand me for attempting to short shift. The narrow ratio of first gear (4.35:1) gave my left leg and right arm a workout as we crept through Florida’s stop-and-go traffic.

Among the slow-moving swarm, the 2001 M Coupe was the least obnoxious, since its shifter’s compliance allowed for more seamless gearshifts at lower engine rpm. Nonetheless, I felt the Clown Shoe imploring me to release it. I-95’s open on-ramp beckoned.

The diminutive dimensions of the M Coupe contribute to its exciting dynamics. In comparison to the current Z4 M40i, the M Coupe is 5.0 inches narrower, 12.2 inches shorter, and weighs over 400 fewer pounds. And yet, the M Coupe’s naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine is only 67 horsepower shy of the Z4 M40i’s turbocharged six-cylinder engine.

Nonetheless, the S54’s torque of 251 pound-feet is 118 pound-feet less than the B58’s output in the 2023 Z4. Whereas the current Z4 engine provides ample performance over the whole rev range, the M Coupe’s engine was somewhat peakier, with peak torque occurring at 4900 rpm. Yet, after the tachometer needle passed the 2500 rpm mark, the M Coupe gained sufficient power to become self-sufficient.

With an open road in front of me, the M Coupe convinced me to flat-foot its right pedal until the S54’s crankshaft passed its power peak at 7400 rpm and approached redline. At this high revolutions per minute, the engine emitted a metallic whine. Even though we rated this sound “unpleasant” in our December 2001 assessment of a M Coupe, I was captivated by the S54’s scream, which appeared to embody the defiant character of this tiny two-door BMW.

The M Coupe’s five-speed transmission was just as exhilarating as its engine. As we drove up the highway towards Amelia Island, I repeatedly shifted through the top three speeds for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the shifter’s short, accurate throws.

Surprisingly, the M Coupe was a docile and accommodating partner in this atmosphere. Its suspension was sufficiently forgiving to absorb road imperfections without upsetting the chassis.

Moreover, BMW created the M Coupe with lateral dynamics in mind. Regrettably, in Florida it is simpler to find a loggerhead sea turtle than a winding road. As I departed the mainland and approached Amelia Island, a meandering tarmac loomed in front of me.

The M Coupe entered the first turn with its rear end squatting, its wide and sticky rear tyres pushing the short Bimmer past the apex. Despite the long six-cylinder engine situated in front of the cabin, the Clown Shoe seemed balanced through curves. Recognizing the propensity for lift-off oversteer of the short-wheelbase M Coupe’s semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, I refrained from pushing the Clown Shoe too hard over this little stretch of turns.

The road soon became straight, and my brief exploration of the Clown Shoe’s lateral capabilities was complete. As I pulled up to the hotel on Amelia Island in my M Coupe, I momentarily considered leaving. I knew the rare, beautiful, and exotic vehicles of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance awaited, but at that moment, all I wanted was to remain seated in the driver’s seat of the M Coupe, to hear the metallic zing of the S54 engine as it crept towards redline and to feel the satisfying action of the five-speed gearbox one more time.

After so many years of admiring the M Coupe from afar, I almost expected it to fall short of my great expectations. Now that I had driven one, I experienced a visceral delight that beyond my expectations. BMW’s S54 engine may forever be associated with the E46 M3, but I prefer to experience the German automaker’s iconic inline-six from the tiny cabin of the Clown Shoe.