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The BMW M3 has been on car nuts' short wish list since the first-generation M3 debuted in 1988. Over the course of three generations, the M3 grew from that four-cylinder glorified go-kart into a stunningly capable GT car. But the formula remained constant: Combine the relatively small, compact 3-series body with a race-derived engine and maintain class-leading handling. The fourth-generation M3, which debuted at the 2007 Geneva auto show, doesn't stray from the proven formula.

Unlike the second- and third-generation M3s, which had inline-sixes, the 2008 BMW M3 will have a high-revving, naturally aspirated V-8. The 4.0-liter engine is based on the 5.0-liter V-10 from the current M5, but minus two cylinders (and the corresponding liter of displacement). With variable valve timing, we expect it to produce approximately 410 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. The all-aluminum engine will weigh about the same as the outgoing M3's iron-and-aluminum inline-six, so the 2008 M3 won't weigh much more than the outgoing car -- about 3500 pounds.

To the relief of enthusiasts everywhere, a conventional six-speed manual transmission will be standard. A seven-speed sequential manual likely will be offered later for video-game junkies and other masochists. The M3's V-8 will produce about as much torque as the turbocharged inline-six in the 335i, but it will be fully a third more powerful. We've posted 4.8-to-4.9-second 0-to-60-mph times in the 335i, and we expect the M3 to do that sprint in less than 4.5 seconds. Top speed, as with most performance BMWs, will be limited to 155 mph.

The car debuting at the Geneva auto show is a so-called concept, but the only thing conceptual about it is the color, a brilliant metallic silver BMW calls Chrome Shadow. Other styling elements seen here will carry over unchanged to the production 2008 M3. Fans of BMW Ms could have predicted the aggressive front and rear styling, the centrally mounted quad exhausts, the 19-inch wheels, the flared fenders, the subtle rear spoiler, and the oval mirrors. But this M3 has a few surprises. A carbon-fiber roof (like the far costlier BMW M6's) saves weight and lowers the center of gravity, and it also looks amazing devoid of paint. This black roof will make the M3 immediately recognizable as something special -- particularly when the rest of the car is painted a light color.

The M3's aluminum hood, apparently taking a page from the Ford Mustang playbook, sports a power dome and air intakes. BMW's M division was one of the leaders of the current fender-vent fad that by now has trickled down to the Ford Focus, so the company had to do something cool to stay ahead of the pack. The M3 sports ultra-modern fish-gill fender vents bisected by a chrome strip of LEDs. The contrasting roof, the perforated hood, and the swoopy fenders combine for a look that's over the top yet contemporary -- call it nouveau bling. The handsome 3-series coupe, on which the M3 is based, contributes only its doors and trunk to the M3's bodywork.

The 2008 BMW M3 will compete with the new Audi S5 coupe when both go on sale in the United States in less than a year. The M3's extra 55 or so horsepower, rear-wheel drive, and lighter weight promise to deliver a more raw experience than that of the all-wheel-drive Audi, but we expect the M3 will cost thousands more.

The two-door seen here will be the first M3 to appear in showrooms, and the price is likely to be about $55,000. Later, look for a convertible with a carbon-fiber retractable hardtop, a sedan, a wagon, and a lightweight coupe. The latter two probably won't be sold in the United States, but we haven't given up hope yet. Whatever the body style, we're dying to get our hands on one.



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