The new M3 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by being the ultimate high-performance upgrade to the already-excellent BMW 3-series line-up. If you want the best of the best in a car with a less-than-six-digit price tag, the M3 continues to be that car.
Where the newest M3 departs from the path is in the source of its power: rather than hotting up the BMW straight-six engine, as in the older M3s, this version installs a downsized V8 version of the BMW V10 engine, which is not only more powerful than the previous M3 engine, but lighter to boot. Rated at 414 horsepower, the engine revs easily to an 8400 rpm redline, so the 295 foot-pounds of torque is more than enough to take the car from zero to 60 in a claimed 4.7 seconds. We didn't have a stopwatch, professional driver, or closed course but found no reason to doubt that claim. In our week-long test, we drove the sedan version – four doors and no carbon-fiber roof – with a straight-up six-speed manual transmission. It didn't have the Technology Package or navigation system, which also meant no iDrive knob to contend with.
The M3, like the rest of the 3-Series line, received some minor changes for 2009. We'll be sure to test a 2009 as soon as they become available.
What's it up against? It isn't so much what the M3 is up against, since it has been the benchmark for medium-priced four-passenger performance cars for over two decades. Instead, the question more properly is: what currently is trying to knock the M3 sedan off the top of the hill? Looking at the question from that perspective, some of the standard suspects include the Audi S4, Lexus IS-F and, of course, the fantastic Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, which we tested earlier this year.
Any breakthroughs? There's no question that the big breakthrough on the new M3 is that incredible four-liter, V8 engine with double Vanos variable valve-timing technology that enables the car to meet emissions requirements while delivering incredible performance.
Don't be deceived by the relatively low torque rating. This engine gives the car an almost schizophrenic personality. At low rpm, it's capable of loafing quietly in traffic like a Toyota Avalon. But if you get an open stretch of highway or clear track ahead, downshift, prod the accelerator and watch the tach swing up to wow or redline, whichever comes first. The g-forces will put a grin on your face.
You're not going to average much better than 16 mpg in mixed use driving in the M3. That means you'll have to fork over $1,300 to at purchase to keep the car out of gas guzzler jail. But at this echelon, that's probably not a major factor for most buyers.
The only optional equipment on our test car was three-level electronic damping control lined up on the console with the on-off switches that control the electronic throttle and steering response and the dynamic stability control. That is all the control you need to drive it like that Avalon when chauffeuring your wife's maiden aunt, or put it into taut tail-out drifts when track conditions permit. Sure, the optional Technology Package would allow multiple-screen graphical control of engine, throttle, shocks, and stability control response but, except for owners with the skills to test for a professional racing team, we suspect the benefits of this additional flexibility are more likely to be realized in chat room arguments than on the track.
How does it look? The M3 in its sedan guise is a worthy successor to earlier BMW performance sedans, managing to convey its power in subtle ways that the initiated will recognize, while not screaming "track rat" to the world at large. Doors, fenders, and roof line are common to other 3-Series cars, but a subtle bulge in the bonnet, flanked by two functional vents, provide clues to the V8 lurking underneath.
In addition, the lower front fascia is pure M3, with its functional brake duct openings and black mesh oil cooler grille. There won't be any question when a driver sees that fascia in the rear-view mirror that it's time to give a passing signal, or move out of the fast lane.
When the M3 does pass, the car doesn't make as much of an impression – the spoiler is almost invisible and the quad tail pipes could easily be those of a Honda or Toyota – but since it isn't likely to be in sight for very long, the rear quarter aesthetics don't really matter much.
The optional 19-inch wheels with low-profile tires on our test car did look pretty trick against the dark blue paint, but we wouldn't have been unhappy, nor would we have compromised handling performance, if the car came with the standard 18-inch wheels to reduce unsprung weight, and their slightly thicker tires to provide cushioning against deteriorating California freeways.
And inside? Because BMW still spurns the very thought of any dashboard ornamentation – wouldn't want to distract the driver, after all – there isn't much to say about the view forward beyond paying respect to its functionality. Controls are neatly presented, and the white on black gauges, illuminated at night in soft submarine red, echo that straightforward design.
We also liked the simplicity of the basic interior accessories. By avoiding the Techology Package, we were free of the extra screen stuck in the center of the dash board and the chrome knob competing with the gear shift for attention in the center console. Everything we needed was right there, and there was nothing that wasn't necessary.
Another design element we appreciated is that BMW has become more liberal in recent years in trim choices for its pure-performance automobiles. The rich Interlagos Blue metallic paint of our sedan was nicely complimented with Bamboo Beige leather, while we noticed other M3s at the press launch with lighter exterior colors counterpointed by deep red and butterscotch interiors. We suppose one could elect black on black, but why should the car look so restrained just to emphasize its performance capabilities?
Here's another point where we depart from the conventional wisdom of high-performance: A four-door sedan is a more practical package for an automobile than a coupe. If you aren't going to use your performance car for anything other than personal errands and track entertainment, then why not go all the way and buy a two-seat roadster?
In our view, the sedan is ideal, making it convenient to use to stow packages, dry cleaning, or whatever, even when you're not hauling more than one other passenger. Certainly performance isn't going to suffer. In our week with this car we found any number of reasons to be grateful that BMW has returned to making a four-door sedan (BMW did offer a four-door M3 in 1997 and 1998). Rear seat space wasn't overwhelming, but then no one expects that a car with a bulge in the hood is going to double as a limousine. Nevertheless, our rear seat passengers had no complaints during evenings out in town.
But does it go? With the M3's well-earned reputation, it almost seems silly to ask "does it go?" You better believe it does. With each generation, M3 power and responsiveness has improved, and handling and braking capabilities have kept pace. We could describe the feeling of taking the car out on a country road for a little fun, or what it felt like to drive the coupe version at Laguna Seca, but Mark Elias did that well in his review in February.
Instead, what we'd like to note is the comparison to some of the new cars that are coming out now. All-wheel drive, electronically controlled "sway bars" that modulate the shock absorbers to keep the car level in corners, and variable torque controls do deliver results if all you care about is how fast you can get around the corner or around the track, and don't care to invest any time actually learning to drive a high-performance car.
For us, the appeal of the M3, especially in the manual-transmission version without the high-tech handling controls, is that it is becoming almost retro, with more in common with a vintage race car than with much of the other automotive magic being introduced today. Sure the car is a little tightly-wound in everyday use, but that's like a wink and a nod to what we could be doing, if we weren't going to the grocery store or office.
Why you would buy it: The M3 is still king of the hill in mid-priced performance automobiles, and the basic sedan package with manual transmission is a perfect way to enjoy the capability of the new V8 engine without buying or paying for any more than you need.
Why you wouldn't: If the enjoyment of high-performance driving isn't number one on your priority list, there are lots of other BMWs, or even other sedans, that will give you the same feeling of quality without compromising on ride comfort.
What we drove: base price: $53,800. As tested: $61,450. Interlagos Metallic paint, $475; Cold weather package, $1,000; Premium package, $1,900; 19" alloy wheels, $1,200; Electronic damping control, $1,000; Gas guzzler tax, $1,300; Destination and handling, $775.