Third-party performance tuners like Alpina, AMG, Brabus, Ruf and others have thrived in the land of the autobahn, typically modifying cars from one particular brand. In the late '70s, BMW became the first of the German automakers to establish its own in-house tuning division, incorporating its motorsports arm into what's now know as the M division. The firm's racing knowledge disseminated down to its production cars with the introduction of the M1 and later the M535i. In subsequent years, M followed up with the M5 and M3. Eventually Mercedes followed suit by buying out AMG, while Audi launched Quattro GmbH. Over the past two decades, M has continued to create ever faster iterations of mainstream Bimmers and for 2008 the M brain trust brings us the fourth generation of the M3.
The original 1986 M3 used the boxy body of the E30 3-series coupe, equipped with a high output, 16-valve four cylinder engine to homologate the body and engine for Group A touring car racing. Over the years, M3s, like all other BMWs (and pretty much every other car on the road), have grown bigger, heavier and more powerful. The E36 and E46 M3s both drew motive force from in-line six-cylinder engines ranging from 240hp to 333hp. The new E90-based M3 has what could turn out to be the ultimate engine of the series, with an all-new 4.0-liter V8 generating 414 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. But what's it like to live with? Follow the jump to find out.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
BMW offers the 2008 M3 in coupe, sedan and convertible flavors, but for us, we got the pick of the litter. Our tester had two openings to access the cabin, a fixed carbon fiber roof, a menacing Sparkling Graphite Metallic paint job and a six-speed, swap-it-yourself, manual gearbox. For those who prefer to let the car handle gear selection, the dreaded SMG automated manual of the E46 has finally been discarded and replaced with a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Since the debut of the thoroughly derided Bangle look, successive models have gradually toned down the excess surface development and odd-ball cut-lines. The current 3-Series coupe, and the M3 in particular, are easily the best looking BMWs in over a decade... at least since the the E46.
The clean simple lines of the 3-Series coupe are made just a bit more muscular on the M3, with fenders flaring out to enclose the larger 19-inch wheels. The lower front fascia has a more prominent intake to draw cool air, while the fog lamps have been nixed in favor of ducting that leads to the brakes. The center of the hood swells to clear the voluminous air box on top of the V8 and functional vents on either side of the bulge and the fenders allow hot air to escape the engine bay. At the tail is a slim spoiler adorning the trailing edge of the deck-lid, while the lower rear fascia echos the contours of the front.
Getting situated in the driver's throne is a pleasure. The massive bolsters are adjustable for width, keeping you directly in front of the steering wheel without feeling excessively pinched. The thigh support is also adjustable for those of the long-limbed variety and made long trips a bit more bearable. Besides being attractive, the greenhouse of the M3 coupe has a functional element, with slim pillars that allow for excellent visibility in all directions.
Controlling the direction of the M3 is a breeze thanks to the thick rimmed, leather wrapped steering wheel. The number of controls on the center stack is kept to a manageable level through the use of the iDrive controller aft of the shifter. Given that BMW has just a revealed an all new iDrive interface for the redesigned 7-series, we'll pass on carping about how obtuse the current layout is.
The new V8 is the first in a regular production M3. Back in 2001, BMW made 10 M3 GTR models powered by the V8 from the E39 M5 in order to homologate it for GT racing. This engine is a new design that BMW claims is lighter than the old inline-six while producing 15 percent more power and consuming eight percent less premium gasoline.
After inserting the fob into the slot below the starter button, and pressing said button, the V8 fires instantly, dropping into an idle that feels more like a Lexus than a high-strung autobahn runner. It doesn't have the menacing rumble of a big American V8 like a 'Vette or GT500. In fact when we first climbed in and pulled out of the driveway, it felt rather disappointing. We were expecting something more menacing, like Audi's 4.2-liter V8 in the RS4. It wasn't until a little later, when we got out on a open winding road that we truly came to appreciate the M3's character.
At less than about 20 percent throttle around town, the V8 is quite quiet and smooth. This high-revving engine doesn't have the gut wrenching low-end torque of the supercharged GT500 or CTS-V motors, but then few engines do. But it does have more than adequate twisting capability to keep it from feeling strained when you are on and off the clutch in traffic.
More importantly, it's quiet and docile nature means it's easy to trundle along in stop and go commuting and makes freeway cruising an effortless affair. If you're headed out on a road trip, there is no rumbling exhaust to give you a headache after an hour. A loud exhaust is fun for the first few hundred miles, but after showing off for the neighbors, it easily loses its allure. BMW has clearly tuned the note of the M3 to make it a car you can live with on a daily basis.
However, a squeeze of the pedal on the right seamlessly transforms the M3 into a first-class sports car -- the laid back nature when loafing makes may for major-league fun. The M3 engine has eight individual throttle plates mounted just upstream of the intake ports, meaning that a change in position results in instant response. As the needle works its way clockwise around the tach, the exhaust note builds to a fury, letting you know this car is about serious acceleration.
When the time comes to adjust the M3's acceleration vector from the straight-ahead position, that thick steering wheel comes in handy. While the M3 lacked some of the directness we've come to expect, its tiller felt perfectly weighted and had no dead spots. Turn the wheel and the car responded precisely as expected. But while the effort felt proportioned to the cornering force, it didn't seem to relay much about what was going on at the wheels. Still, it was far better than many of our recent testers.
The ride of the M3 was as solid as we expected in a car equipped with 19-inch wheels and minimal sidewalls to provide compliance. The wheel control was adequate enough to allow the rolling stock to follow the contours of Michigan roads without beating you up and the only other flaw in the driving experience was a shifter that erred on the notchy side when shifting slowly. Once you get a feel for where the gates are and start shifting more deliberately, most of that complaint falls away.
In all, the new M3 provides the fabulous combination of high performance sports car and a compliant coupe that's easy to live with as a daily driver. It requires no compromises to fill the only hole in your garage, and with the choice of either coupe, sedan or convertible, it lets you select the configuration that best suits your lifestyle.
But a vehicle with these kind of capabilities doesn't come cheap. The sticker on our coupe came to $63,275, substantially over its $56,500 base price. With the required premium gasoline running anywhere from $4.30 to $5.00 a gallon depending on where live, and fuel economy of 17-18mpg, the M3 won't be cheap to operate either. However, if you have the necessary cash flow, it's certainly a car that should be at the top of your consideration list.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.