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We are still in touch with Earth, but we are flying low over its wavy surface -- absolutely flying, around the dips, curves and straights of the famous Race Resort Ascari in southern Spain. The tree-lined 26-turn, 3.5-mile road course is giving the new 2008 BMW M3 coupe everything it wants in terms of challenging corners, rising and falling topography, and tricky braking zones, and we are trying to get everything we can out of this amazing new sports coupe. It's one of the easiest cars to drive fast we have ever encountered.

Every part, system and element of this new screamer says "Come on! Faster! More throttle! I can handle it! Don't worry about a thing! Let's go out and play!"

The engine is powerful, willing and revs to the moon. The slick new double-disc clutch and 6-speed transmission are race-quality. The big, fat, sticky tires tell the chassis what to do next. The onboard electronic systems evaluate conditions 200 million times per second so that the car knows exactly what to do next as we tackle this track together, lap after delicious lap, until we are waved in and our track session is ended.

No matter. We've driven up here from Marbella on some plenty arduous roads and we still have the return trip ahead of us. There will be more playing before the journey is through. This is one of those rare cars that feels more like a precision tool than a transportation device, and we want to use it some more because we like the way it feels in our sweaty hands.

I've driven all of the previous BMW M3 models, but I've never experienced this level of acceleration, braking, steering and handling in an M3. There's something very different about the way this 2008 BMW M3 behaves, and most of that difference is under that newly domed hood.

While all three previous BMW M3 models were powered by either inline four- or six-cylinder engines, the 2008 version, which will go on sale in the U.S. in January of next year, is the first M3 ever to use a V-8 engine. It's a 4.0-liter 32-valve, 414-horsepower all-aluminum masterpiece that shares much of its design and componentry with the 5.0-liter V-10 engines used in the bigger, more expensive BMW M5 and M6 performance cars. It makes a whopping 22 percent more power than the last BMW M3 engine.

The new V-8 engine features variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves (which BMW calls Double VANOS), and unlike most V-8 engines, it uses eight individual throttle assemblies, like racing engines, controlled by drive-by-wire electronics.

Due to its internal geometry and lightweight internal components, it is the highest-revving BMW engine ever built, revving up to a maximum of 8400 rpm, and it makes maximum power at 8300 rpm. Maximum torque is 295 foot-pounds, substantially more than the previous 333-horsepower, 262 foot-pound six-cylinder engine. BMW says it will take the new lightweight coupe form 0-62 mph or 0-100 kilometers per hour in just 4.8 seconds, topping out at a limited 155 mph. The engine weighs some 33 pounds less than the smaller inline six-cylinder engine it replaces. To make sure than the engine always has the lubricant it needs under acceleration or braking, it has a forward and rear oil pan.

The body of the new 2008 BMW M3 is a combination of steel, aluminum and the aforementioned carbon-fiber roof panel, with an aluminum hood that carries a distinctive power bulge to clear the V-8 engine underneath it. The widened, flared front fenders carry the BMW M3 trademark gill slots, and the rear end shows the other M3 trademark, four tailpipes. A new front air dam under the bumper and a very smooth, flat bottom add up to excellent aerodynamics.

Inside the 2008 BMW M3, there's a special small-diameter, leather-covered M steering wheel with redundant controls for the audio system and optional telephone. To complement the wheel, there are competition-style bucket seats up front with special foam inside for excellent upper body support in fast corners, plus the usual array of M decorations on the seats, door panels, and instrument panel. The white-on-black instruments are typical BMW, with red pointers and the tachometer can change its yellow-line and red-line limits depending on engine oil temperature to prevent premature engine wear on cold days. Clever. The new BMW M3 center console goes all the way to the rear seats and wraps around the driver seat to make a cozy, comfortable cockpit. You can have any interior color you want, as long as you want dark anthracite, which BMW claims helps keep driver attention on the road and the instruments, besides being very sexy.

Underneath the carbon-fiber roof panel and the slick new bodywork, there is a brand new chassis and suspension system, a lightweight suspension featuring MacPherson strut front suspension, lightweight five-link rear suspension and one of the most wonderful, linear and responsive power steering systems we have ever used. The differential has a locking feature than can transmit up to 100 percent of the available engine power to whichever rear tire has more traction. The tires are special M3 versions of the Michelin Pilot Sport, P245/35ZR-19s on 19-inch alloy M wheels.

The huge ABS brakes, 14.2 inche front and 13.8 inche rear, feature iron rotors and aluminum hubs, with ventilated discs all around, and a unique brake energy regenerating system, usually found on hybrids, that uses the brakes to charge the battery and shuts off the alternator during acceleration and cruising. There’s an optional competition brake system that’s even more powerful than the standard brakes.

The new 2008 BMW M3 also brings with it an ideal 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, and a host of electronic chassis systems including traction control, dynamic stability control, cornering brake control, a start-off assistant to keep the car from rolling forward or back on grades, a driver's choice of three different shock absorber modes with the optional EDC system. If desired, the dynamic stability control system can be disabled completely for track events. M3 offers two different power steering assist modes, selectable through the iDrive button on the center console.

Speaking of buttons, another available option for the 2008 BMW M3 V-8 is MDrive, a standard feature on the BMW M5 and M6 cars. MDrive allows the driver to preset all of the engine power, steering, shock absorber, dynamic stability control and other systems so that the M3 can be transformed from a boulevardier to a near-race car at the touch of a single button.

Although the 2008 BMW M3 is quite complete, there is an option list, containing items like DVD navigation, the competition brakes, Electronic Damper Control, the MDrive electronic control system, adaptive headlamps that turn corners before the car does, an optional interior lighting scheme that paints a rim of light around the entire cockpit, leather upholstery, and a 16-speaker, 825-watt sound system. BMW says the cars will go on sale in the U.S, sometime in January and will start at about $62,000. A lot of money, certainly, but an awful lot of car.



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