Every generation of BMW 3 Series, for the past four generations, has offered the enthusiast driver an M3, something rare and special at the top of the lineup, something that the cognoscenti will recognize and appreciate every time it goes by, and something that is quicker, faster, flatter and flashier than the regular 3 Series, for the owner's maximum driving and bragging enjoyment.
Every one of the previous generations was powered by a modified version of the famous BMW inline six-cylinder engine, but this new generation has broken with that long tradition to become the first V8-powered M3 in BMW history.
For now, the BMW M3 in the North American lineup comes as the coupe and the less-expensive sedan, but if history is any indicator, these will soon be followed by a convertible version, the same model flow as the last two generations of M3. The first car to arrive, the M3 coupe, will be replete, including every available safety feature from ABS to stability control, traction control, six air bags, and run-flat high-performance tires.
The M3 also packs a tremendous amount of electronic wallop, with dynamic stability control having new interconnected control features, electronic damper control for the shock absorber settings, iDrive for the radio, navigation and telephone as well as two different power steering modes, normal and sport, that can be selected through iDrive.
BMW M3 coupe ($57,275), sedan ($54,575)
The body of the new 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 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, with a drag coefficient of only 0.31.
The new M3 center console goes all the way to the rear seats, and wraps around the driver seat to make a cozy, comfortable and eminently usable cockpit. With the M3, there are no interior color choices. Whatever you want, you get dark anthracite, a feature that BMW says helps keep driver distraction to a minimum.
With the 414-horsepower V8 engine, an engine fully capable of 8400 rpm, the slick BMW six-speed manual transmission, and a cockpit made for high-performance driving, the V8-powered M3 is nothing short of spectacular. The story starts with a 0-60-mph time of only 4.7 seconds and goes from there to a an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. With a 12:1 compression ratio, it demands expensive 95-98 octane premium fuel.
The engine is powerful and willing and revs to the moon. The slick new double-disc clutch and six-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.
We've driven all of the previous M3s, but we've never experienced this level of acceleration, braking, steering and handling in an M3. There's something very different about the way this M3 behaves, and most of that difference is under that newly domed hood.
While all three previous M3s were powered by either inline four- or six-cylinder engines, the 2008 version is the first M3 ever to use a V8 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 V10 engines used in the bigger, more expensive M5 and M6 performance cars. It makes a whopping 22 percent more power than the last M3 engine.
The new V8 features variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves (which BMW calls Double VANOS), and unlike most V8 engines, it uses eight individual throttle assemblies, like racing engines, controlled by drive-by-wire electronics.
This is the highest-revving BMW production 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. 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 oil pan and a rear oil pan.
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 inches front and 13.8 inches 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 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
The BMW M3 is the defining performance car for the lineup of 3 Series cars that define BMW. This is a lot of high-performance car in a small package.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Marbella, Spain.