For 2010, all M3s add standard HD radio and some new options, including automatic high beams, but those things aren't central to the M3's spirit. These cars represent the pinnacle of thrill in the generally excellent 3 Series collection of compact sedans, coupes and convertibles.
Like other 3 Series variants, the M3 is available as a four-door sedan, two-door coupe and convertible. Yet the M3s are quicker, faster and flashier than any regular 3 Series model, for the owner's maximum driving enjoyment, and for bragging rights. They're designed by BMW's M division, the in-house skunk works responsible for the company's racing programs.
The biggest difference between the current M3s and their pre-2008 predecessors lies under the hood. These are the first production versions with a V8 engine, and it's a hand-built, high-tech gem. The M3's 4.0-liter V8 delivers 414 horsepower; it will push these BMWs from 0 to 60 mph in as little as 4.7 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 155 mph. Those figures meet or beat numbers generated by a lot of pure-bred exotic sports cars. The M3s come standard with a six-speed manual transmission, but they're also available with BMW's M Double Clutch transmission. This seven-speed gearbox works like a conventional automatic in most situations, but it can also be shifted manually and very aggressively.
The M3s steer and handle like sports cars, too, and like all 3 Series models, they pack a tremendous amount of electronic wallop: advanced Dynamic Stability Control, optional electronic damper control for the shock absorber settings, different power steering and throttle control modes, and an optional feature call MDrive that allows a driver to tailor the electronic settings to personal taste.
Better still, the M3s are more practical than most exotic sports cars. They're easier to get in and out of, and to see out of. All have a well finished back seat that's comfortable for average-size adults. All have decent trunk space, and can be equipped with the full menu of luxury amenities. They're easy to park in crowded city centers, and comfortably easy to drive casually in nearly all circumstances. Until a driver starts working the transmission aggressively, and bumping the free-revving V8 of its stratospheric 8400-rpm redline.
To be sure, the least expensive M3 costs substantially more than other cars in the 3 Series line. It will appeal most to hard-core enthusiast drivers. It may not be worth the price premium to many buyers, who'll find cars like the 335i just as fun and satisfying to drive.
The M3 sedan, coupe and new convertible are clearly based on their counterparts in BMW's familiar 3 Series line, though the ultra-high performance M models are also suitably distinctive from just about any angle. The M3s are also distinguished by things that aren't obvious to the eye, including more extensive use of lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber in both the body and chassis.
Virtually all of the M3's forward frame and suspension components, for example, are constructed from aluminum. This design helps shave precious pounds from the car's overall weight, yet retains or increases rigidity in the chassis design. The M3 coupe and convertible shift overall weight distribution compared to the sedan, moving a bit more of the weight toward the rear of the car for sporting handling characteristics.
The M3 front ends feature BMW's familiar double-kidney grille, with flat headlights housing stand high-intensity Xenon lamps. The air intakes are larger than those on the standard 3 Series cars, and the M3s forgo the foglights featured on other 3 Series models. With the M3s, BMW uses this space for larger intakes that allow more air to flow into the engine compartment.
One stand-out feature on all M3s is the power-dome hood, with a pronounced bubble that makes room for the V8 engine underneath. The hood dome is flanked by an air intake on each side, allowing still more air into the engine compartment. Yet the hood itself is stamped from aluminum, so it's lighter than that on standard 3 Series models.
All M3s have wider front fenders than the standard 3 Series to accommodate wider tires. Those fenders are prominently flared, and fitted with the trademark M3 gill slits. The rear end sports another of the M3's familiar design cues: four tailpipes. A big air dam under the front bumper and a smooth, flat underbody contribute to excellent aerodynamics, with a drag coefficient of only 0.31.
The M3 coupe's roof is exactly the same size and shape as that on the standard 3 Series coupe, but it's made of carbon fiber. This lightens the body considerably, and lowers the M3's center of gravity for better handling and even more stability during quick left/right/left maneuvering at speed.
In profile or front three-quarter view, the convertible closely resembles the coupe. Its front end, and the arc its roofline, are nearly identical. The difference, of course, is the convertible's retractable metal hardtop, which opens or closes at the touch of a button in just 22 seconds. The top folds in three pieces and stows itself under the trunk lid. That lid is hinged both front and rear, so that it can open toward the back to swallow the folding top, and from the back to load the trunk.
Thanks to the weight of the convertible's operating mechanism, as well as body reinforcements intended to maintain structural integrity when the top is open, the convertible is nonetheless the heaviest car in the M3 line. It weighs in some 440 pounds higher than the lightweight coupe.
The M3s share basic interior layout and design with corresponding models in the standard BMW 3 Series line, though the M cars add some extra-racy features and special trim. There's only one interior color choice with the M3, however. Whatever you want, you get dark anthracite, a scheme that fits the M3's all-business attitude and helps minimize driver distraction, according to BMW.
The M3 interior looks racy from every angle. The special small-diameter, high-grip leather-covered M steering wheel has redundant controls for the audio system and optional telephone. Complimenting the steering wheel, the competition-flavored, body-gripping front bucket seats have special foam that increases upper body support in fast corners. There's the usual array of discreet red, white and blue M decorations on the seats, door panels, and instrument panel. The white-on-black instruments have red pointers, and the tachometer changes its yellow-line and red-line limits depending on engine oil temperature. This feature is intended to prevent premature engine wear on cold days.
The M3 has no keyed ignition switch, relying instead on a slot-type key fob and a starter button. We're not sold on its benefit over a conventional key. The fob slides into a slot next to the steering column, and you push the button to fire up. The Comfort Access option makes everything automatic, and the thinking here is more obvious. With fob in pocket, the doors unlock automatically as the driver approaches, and the seats are waiting in their proper position. The driver just pushes the start button, and pushes it again when it's time to get out.
For 2010, the M3 offers Automatic High Beams. These sense oncoming traffic and switch between standard and high beams without driver interventions.
The center console in the coupe and convertible goes all the way to the rear seats, and wraps around the driver seat to make a cozy, comfortable cockpit. The rear accommodations are actually a little better in the M3 coupe than in the sedan, though access is more difficult in the absence of rear side doors. There's decent legroom and more shoulder room. It's almost like sitting in a little limousine. There are even buttons on the outside edge of the front seats, in the shoulder area, so those in back can reach up and power the front seat forward to ease exit from the rear of the car.
The trunk is largest in the sedan, though still smaller than many comparably sized competitors (12 cubic feet capacity). The 3 Series coupe's trunk is smaller still (11.1 cubic feet). A separate compartment under the trunk mat, measuring 1.75 cubic feet, adds some space for small items that won't slide around.
The 2010 M3 is a technical tour de force, regardless of body style, with all the latest high-performance technology baked in. It's one of those cars that leaves reviewers mumbling for new and unusual superlatives, because it stands head and shoulders above previous-generations in technology, sex appeal and, most importantly, performance.
Its V8 engine is powerful, willing and revs to the moon. The slick double-disc clutch and six-speed transmission are race-quality. The fat, sticky tires grip like race slicks, while the chassis and suspension can make novice high-performance drivers feel like pros. The onboard electronic systems evaluate conditions 200 million times per second so that the car knows exactly what to do next on the road or race track. 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 current version is the first to use a V8. 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. The M3 V8 features variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves (which BMW calls Double VANOS). It has eight individual throttle assemblies, like racing engines. It makes 22 percent more power than the last M3 engine, and its 8400-rpm redline is higher than any BMW production engine before.
Yet, thanks to aluminum-intensive construction and high-tech features, the V8 actually weighs less than the six-cylinder engine in the previous M3, and it uses less fuel to generate a given amount of horsepower. With a 12:1 compression ratio, it also demands expensive 95-98 octane premium fuel.
Driven for all its worth, this M3 is nothing short of spectacular. Its test-track numbers (0-60-mph in 4.7 seconds, top speed electronically limited top speed of 155 mph) hover in the same territory as exotic, pure-bred sports cars. Indeed, the free-revving M3 delivers a pure-bred, track-tuned feel, and that might merit a warning for the typical consumer. In certain respects the M3 is a more demanding car than BMW's twin-turbo, six-cylinder 335i models, which are outstanding performers in their own right. The M3 makes the driver work a bit harder to get the most out of it, and that's probably as it should be. But for the driver who doesn't typically do the work or seek that extra performance, the M3 might not seem worth the substantial price premium over the standard 3 Series cars. We'd guess that many drivers will be just as happy, and impressed, with the 335i.
Underneath the M3's slick bodywork, its lightweight suspension system is enhanced by 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. A unique brake energy regenerating system, usually found on hybrids, 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, and virtually impervious to brake fade under the most demanding use.
The M3 also offers a host of electronic chassis systems such as traction control, dynamic stability control, cornering brake control, a start-off assistant to keep the car from rolling forward or back on grades, and three different shock absorber modes with the optional EDC system. If desired, the dynamic stability control system can be disabled completely for track events. There are two different power steering assist modes, selectable through the iDrive button on the center console.
There's another optional feature called MDrive, and it allows the driver to preset all of the engine, steering, shock absorber and other electronic systems to personal taste. Appropriately configured, MDrive can transform the M3 from boulevardier to near-race car at the touch of a single button. We expect that enthusiast drivers will appreciate this option, and invest the energy required to experiment and settle on the right electronic combinations.
If that sort of investment doesn't sound like a particularly appealing proposition, then one of the other, outstanding 3 Series models might make a better, less-expensive choice than the M3.
The BMW M3 accelerates, stops and turns with the verve and agility of a pure sports car, whether a buyer chooses the sedan, coupe or convertible. It's the BMW 3 Series model for the ultimate car enthusiast, and particularly for those who look forward to track-day outings with the local BMW club. Of course, the least expensive M3 costs at least $20,000 more than some other, extremely capable and exhilarating cars in the 3 Series line. We'd guess that many drivers will find lesser 3 Series cars, and particularly the 335i, just as satisfying to drive for considerably less cash.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Marbella, Spain, with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit.