PORTIMÃO, Portugal — After politely asking if I can switch my BMW M8 Competition Coupe to drift mode, the pit crew worker responds with a quick “No.” Come to think of it, choosing to send 617 horsepower to only the rear wheels on a damp racetrack with off-camber corners and blind crests does sound like the etching on a Darwin Award. All-wheel drive it is.
The sheer fact I had such a choice speaks to the 2020 BMW M8 Competition Coupe and Convertible being rolling exercises in customizability. The choice of how many wheels you want driven is just one of myriad options. Drive mode settings are so copious that the steering wheel is flanked with twin M1 and M2 buttons finished in flashy crimson to summon driver presets on the fly. A slew of engine, chassis, steering, brake, and all-wheel-drive power distribution settings are managed via the 10.25-inch infotainment system. Also present are buttons on the center console to switch into M Dynamic mode, which manipulates the all-wheel drive and e-differential to allow the car to enter “controlled drifts,” though the Bavarian manufacturer never directly refers to it as drift mode.
The M8 expands upon the M850i’s already formidable performance arsenal with a series of upgrades intended to take it to the next level. It has the most powerful series production M car engine yet, a twin-turbocharged, twin-scroll 4.4-liter V8 that pumps out an even 600 hp in standard M8 trim, or 617 hp with the $13,000 M8 Competition Coupe package. Torque is an identical 553 pound-feet for both models, though the peak lasts an extra 160 rpm in the Competition. That base output is 77 hp more than the M850i (torque reaches the same peak but does so 1,100 rpm sooner) and a stunning 265 hp more than the 840i.
Besides its extra output, the Competition package adds stiffer engine mounts, increased front suspension camber, and ball joints instead of rubber at the rear for greater body control. Other improvements compared to non-M models include beefier engine cooling, stiffer and completely revised body structure and suspension components. BMW says the coupe will go from zero to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds, with the Competition shaving a tenth off for an even 3 seconds. The Convertible drops those times to 3.2 and 3.1 seconds, respectively.
My day started in an M8 Competition Convertible ($143,495), covering the deliciously sinuous route from the Conrad Algarve hotel to the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve — commonly known as Portimão. There’s one word that invariably springs to mind when I climb into most modern M cars: Beefy. The word is usually triggered by BMW’s girthier-than-average steering wheel diameter and the cockpit’s prevailing mood of stark masculinity. A premium, substantially finished feel prevails throughout the cabin, which is well insulated from the elements due to a thick, multi-layer soft top. Lowering it takes 15 seconds and can be done up to 31 mph, while a wind deflector that can be plugged into the back seat (and takes up space in the trunk when not in use) keeps the front compartment relatively quiet. Seat and neck warmers keeps it relatively toasty.
Even in its mildest suspension setting, the M8 doesn’t feels wallowy or soft. There’s noticeably more body control and responsiveness compared to the M850i in all modes. At least on the relatively smooth surfaces of Portugal’s well-paved mountain roads, the ride doesn’t get firm to the point of being uncomfortable, though it does appear to transmit virtually every ridge and crease in the pavement. Steering provides a decent amount of feedback — certainly more than in the M850i, though the overall impression veers more towards isolation than kickback from road irregularities. There’s enough information and buildup of effort through the thick-rimmed wheel to lend confidence in high-speed corners, and the variable ratio setup doesn’t draw much attention to itself, unlike some earlier iterations that made it difficult to assess how much steering input is needed for direction change.
Vast reserves of power are available from the twin-turbocharged V8 but can be difficult to access on winding public roads. Aim it at an open stretch of highway, however, and the M8 reaches triple-digit speeds in what seems like no time at all. In its quieter setting, the exhaust note is just quiet enough to enable comfortable motoring all day long. Switch to the louder setting with the button on the center console, and an artificially enhanced sound delivers a refined but convincing cabin-filling baritone note.
Though it’s hard to scratch the surface of the M8’s full capabilities during two sets of hot laps at the Algarve circuit, they still reveal quite a bit about the Competition Coupe’s underpinnings. In “AWD Sport” mode, the big two-door grasps ahold of tarmac and accelerates strongly off the line without a hint of wheel slip. It didn’t seem prudent to engage launch control in pit lane, but that claimed 3-second 0-60 mph time suggests I could accumulate quite a bit of speed before turn 1 if so desired. Though it takes a bit of bravado to fully put your faith in the M8’s rear-biased all-wheel-drive system off the bat, once you do, there’s quite a bit of maneuverability on tap for a nearly 4,300-pound car, thanks in part to the magic of torque- and brake vectoring that help the vehicle change direction. Though not as palpably agile as, say, a Porsche 911 Turbo (which tips the scales a full 778 pounds lighter than the Bimmer), the M8’s chassis stiffness and aggressively tuned suspension help shrink its perceived mass.
Once you’ve overcome the fear of inertia plowing you into a corner, the M8 proves capable of considerable corner speeds and confident exits. Simply point the wheel in the desired direction, and the chassis manages to plant the wheels and slingshot the car through the corner, much in the same way the wizard-like Nissan GT-R’s sophisticated all-wheel-drive system seemingly defies physics. Though the two-wheel-drive setting presumably delivers tail-happy slides, the all-wheel drive in its most aggressive setting never feels understeer-prone or unwilling to dance. Jam the carbon ceramic brakes, and the rapid deceleration nearly matches the M8’s remarkable ability to dart forward. Though more laps might reveal chinks in the armor — brake fade, perhaps, or maybe handling awkwardness at higher speeds — the M8 proved remarkably composed during my stints given its relatively large footprint and considerable curb weight.
Starting at $133,995, or $146,995 for the Competition package (including $995 for destination), the M8 is positioned near the pinnacle of the BMW lineup, not far off the top-dog $158,695, V12-powered M760i xDrive sedan. The M850i Coupe starts at $112,895. Tick boxes like carbon ceramic brakes ($8,150), the Bowers & Wilkins sound system ($3,400), or a carbon exterior package ($5,400), and the premium escalates further. Though not as uncompromising as its most sporting competitor, the Porsche 911 Turbo, the M8 proves more driver-focused than the Mercedes-AMG S 63 coupe and more usable than the AMG GT two-seater. The ultra-high-performance two-door super coupe is a narrow niche, and the M8’s minuscule rear seats don’t make much of a case for hauling around grown adults. But for high-speed, track-capable ability and all-day comfort, the M8 achieves its mission with effortless potency and ease.