Large, fast, sporty BMWs have always been somewhat of a tough sell, both to company and customer. M Division has never touched a 7 Series, despite decades of AMG S-Classes. The spiritual precursor to this car, the amazing M8 Prototype, never made production because such a potent V12 8 Series was never deemed as profitable in the early 1990s. And, let's be honest, once spending more than £100,000 on a car, there's an argument to say that the blue and white roundel might not cut it in the prestige stakes - BMW themselves admitting this is M's "first foray into the world of luxury motoring".
There's plenty to be a little wary of in assessing an M8 Competition, then, before any of the, um, competition is even mentioned. On the other hand, there should be much in the way of encouragement as well. BMW believes these cars (Coupe and Convertible for now, with swoopy Gran Coupe on the way) will "deliver purisitic M feeling in a luxury class car". Make of that what you will, but there's lot of tangible stuff to be enthused by. This is a lower, more rigid, more focussed car than the M5 with which it shares so much (and which is so damn good), and featuring a host of bespoke parts: new engine mounts, more bracing, forged suspension arms and more. If it can drive as well (if not a bit better) than an M5, while delivering the additional luxury and sense of occasion befitting its price, then the M8 Competition could be a successful first foray into luxury M cars. Especially so given the 8 Series has been well, if not rapturously, received - nothing like a memorable flagship to boost perceived image.
Can you really call a car a Competition, talk of its "precise interaction between powertrain, chassis technology and aerodynamics", suggest there's been influence from an M8 GTE race car, then make a 2,085kg cabriolet version? A cynic would suggest not. Still, BMW is hardly the first to label a car disingenuously, and a bad name does not a bad car make. It just irks a tad.
So although the M8 Convertible doesn't feel like a competition car with either an upper or lower-case 'c' - for some it won't even qualify as an M car - that doesn't stop it feeling like a very well-engineered and immensely impressive one. BMW's CLAR architecture, which combines carbon, aluminium and steel, gives the 8 Series solid enough foundations that lopping off a roof makes precious little difference. If there are shakes and wobbles, they don't make their presence felt inside, the cabin as peaceful and undisturbed as anything else in the market. Roof raised almost silently, it's a coupe, with nothing discernible from a regular hard top; roof down it's brilliant, wind-in-the-hair entertainment on offer with none of the typical drawbacks.
There genuinely is entertainment, too. While everyone will have their own definition of what an M car really is, there's no denying the M8's innate talents. Of course it's fast, because that 4.4 V8 could power an aircraft carrier and still be brisk, but there's genuine dynamic reward as well. There's more configuration than ever, with an M Mode to tinker with assistance systems and displays, plus the adjustable brake pedal feel, along with the usual parameters, yet a feeling of cohesion as well that isn't always present in M cars. What does that mean? It means that the Sport steering setting isn't blighted by gloopiness, the Sport+ suspension mode doesn't reduce the car to a jittery mess, and the Sport brake mode isn't as obtrusive as could be expected. They could be more feelsome - what brakes couldn't? - but aren't to be as worried about as feared. Point being that the drop-top M8 is really quite good, sufficiently more energetic and dynamic than a standard 850 on the road to feel like more than just a big engine in a big cabriolet. You'll want to string me up for saying this, but there is some contemporary M car feeling to it - and that's intended as a positive...
The focus though, of course, is on the M8 Competition coupe, reserved only for driving on the Portimao race track. So yeah, another highly representative test - not one that anybody is going turn down though. BMW has two 'M1' and 'M2' presets programmed for the test cars, the first featuring 4WD Sport and the DSC in its mid-way setting, the dampers in Sport, the powertrain set the same and Comfort for the steering. M2 has the DSC off but regular 4WD engaged, then everything else upped a notch: dampers and powertrain in Sport Plus, steering in Sport. In both configurations the brake pedal feel remained in Sport; there'll be no further tinkering today, either, because Portimao doesn't let up much, and rear-drive skids will have to wait for another time.
In a limited time on circuit, the M8 Competition is really impressive. It doesn't possess the agility of something like a 911, chiefly because it weighs so much more, though it feels much more suited to the treatment than something like a DB11, Continental GT or S-Class.
Even on a track as vast as Portimao (and weighing two tonnes), the M8 is monstrously fast, seemingly regardless of gear or revs. It sounds better than an M5 at any gear or revs, too, a lot more V8 than speaker manipulation seemingly present. The eight-speed automatic is the perfect partner, dutifully swapping ratios as required, even into the big braking zones; if a torque converter can be this convincing already, and as smooth as it is on the road, it's hard to imagine dual-clutchers lasting an awful lot longer.
Dynamically, the M8 feels like a leaner, sharper M5, no doubt thanks to being that bit lower, increasing negative camber on the front axle and so on. More broadly that means it's superb fun, more accurate than a car of this weight should be, more entertaining than four-wheel drive would imply, more engaging than a car with this much tech is expected to be. As is the modern M car way, the front end is eager and seemingly impervious to understeer, albeit with confidence there from incredible corner speed and response more than the wheel itself. Mid-corner stability is great, assured and predictable, with traction then supreme on the way out. 4WD Sport also opens up a few options with a safety net still in place, the rear axle gladly dominating attitude and balance in a typically BMW fashion. Bring that together with strong (optional) ceramic brakes, fine body control and discreet, well-honed assist interventions, and you have the makings in the M8 of an unsuspecting track monster.
Well, kind of. There's only so long two tonnes can be flung around a circuit without complaint, and those enormous front Michelins do eventually begin to feel the strain and lose a bit of precision. The brake booster does an admirable job, keeping the pedal firm, though the smell after just half a dozen swift laps belies how much work it's really doing. For those that can afford the presumably prohibitive cost of consumables, the M8 Comp does make for quite the track tool, genuinely lending some credibility to the circuit testing claims. The Caterhams won't know what's happening...
How the coupe fares on the road will have to wait for another day, but it promises to be intriguing to say the least: on the one hand there's the potential of an improvement on the ability shown in the M8 Convertible, addressing that car's slight bagginess over really testing tarmac, but on the other the concern around a BMW even firmer than an M5 Competition on the public road - already a pretty stiff car. Could it be that the track adroitness is at the expense of usability and, more concerningly, to the detriment of its GT credentials?
Let's hope not, because there's a lot to like about this BMW. It straddles the line neatly between the more overtly sporty options at the money, and the more traditionally luxurious options: it's more exciting to drive than an S-Class Coupe, but feels like a more refined proposition than something like an Aston Vantage. The M8's is a small niche, sure, though it's easy to be convinced of its logic given any time with the Competition; the name makes little sense (same with having a convertible), and some will take issue with the interior, but there's no denying that BMW's decision to venture into new ground has been validated by the end product. On this experience the M8 delivers pretty emphatically on both the big BMW sense of occasion as well as M car performance and prowess, however uncomfortably those two worlds co-exist for purists. Let's hope a successful first impression can translate to a view just as favourable with more driving time - first cars are here before the end of 2019...
SPECIFICATION - BMW M8 COMPETITION
Engine: 4,395cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Power (hp): 625@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 553@1,800-5,600rpm
0-62mph: 3.3 seconds (3.4)
Top speed: 190mph (with M Driver's Package)
Weight: 1,960kg (2,085kg, both to EU)
MPG: 26.6 (26.2)
CO2: 242g/km (246g/km)
Price: £123,435 (£130,435)
(Figures in brackets for Convertible)