Road Test: 2008 BMW M3
For 20 years and three generations, BMW's high-performance M3 has stood out as the ultimate of Ultimate Driving Machines, an icon on the level of the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette. Since an M car has always followed the introduction of a new 3-series, we awaited this latest M3, seen here, with nervous anticipation because the M3's big brother, the M5, although a technical triumph, had become complex to the point of creating an infuriating barrier between driver and machine.
Surely, we hoped, the cold, dead hand of the engineer wouldn't be allowed to ruin BMW's crown jewel. Our fears were amplified by the excellence of the 3-series on which the M3 is based—how could they improve the performance without turning it into the automotive equivalent of the Incredible Hulk?
Our qualms were unwarranted. Although the 2008 BMW M3, which goes on sale next spring, is the absolute state of the art in engine and chassis technology, it remains the soulful driving machine that made its predecessors perennial Car and Driver 10Best favorites. And although the M3's refined manners draw a closer comparison to Bruce Banner, there is still a monster lurking just beneath the surface.
Under the bulging aluminum hood is a V-8 that makes 414 horsepower and spins to an astonishing 8400 rpm. Eight cylinders were necessary considering that the M3's main rivals—the Audi RS 4 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG—both feature V-8 power, but the M3's engine is more than just a marketing ploy. The 4.0-liter, based on the 5.0-liter V-10 in the M5, is in fact 33 pounds lighter than the 3.2-liter inline-six from the previous M3. However, the entire car weighs about 250 more pounds than the last M3, and that's a consequence of the 3-series coupe, the car on which the M3 is based, getting bigger. Even so, BMW has tried hard to keep the weight down and claims 80 percent of the M3's technically relevant parts differ from the 3-series'. Many of those changes reduce the M3's heft. The roof is made of carbon fiber, as is the M6's, and it spares 11 pounds compared with steel. The cross-drilled brake discs, 14.2 inches up front and 13.8 inches out back, are bolted to aluminum hubs. The five-link rear suspension, of which four links are unique to the M3, saves six pounds. Even the trunk pass-through in the rear seat armrest has been redesigned, reducing curb weight by a further 15 pounds.
The M3's interior has undergone fewer alterations than the exterior, but there are a number of significant changes. The usual M treatment includes sportier seats with deep torso and side bolsters, a thick leather steering wheel, and a new M-badged tachometer. The iDrive knob is present, and aside from our usual gripe about its lack of user-friendliness, we mention it because it accesses the settings for M Drive. As in the M5 and M6, the M Drive button on the steering wheel switches the car into a sport mode that can be customized via the iDrive wheel. There are four systems: throttle sensitivity, variable shock absorbers (optional), stability control, and power-steering assist. Throttle control and steering can be set at normal or sport, the latter giving quicker reactions to the gas pedal and producing a heavier steering feel, respectively. The shock absorbers have three settings of what BMW calls "electronic damper control" (EDC). Stability control also has three settings: on, off, and "M dynamic mode" (MDM), which allows for aggressive driving but will step in if your bacon needs saving.
If that's all too confusing, there are separate buttons for the throttle, EDC, and stability control next to the shift lever. However, if a driver wants to select MDM or adjust the steering (normally, it switches with the stiffest EDC setting), he or she can only do so through M Drive/iDrive. It makes one wonder why the time-consuming and distracting iDrive system has to be used when the buttons are faster and close at hand.
The irritating starting procedure from the 3-series has not been improved in the M3, but once we got the key fob in its slot, depressed the clutch, and engaged the start button, we got over it. The V-8 roared to life, and we were delighted to see a conventional do-it-yourself six-speed, which is the only setup. A paddle-shift system—a further development of BMW's SMG or a dual-clutch system similar to Volkswagen's DSG—should be available in a year or so, but BMW is being tight-lipped on the subject.
There's a temptation to rev the ever-loving stuffing out of the engine as soon as it's fired up, but the sliding redline indicator on the tachometer encourages more adult behavior—at least until the engine warms up and all 8400 revs are available. Even though the horsepower peaks just below the maximum engine speed, the M3's engine has usable thrust throughout its entire range. The torque peak of 295 pound-feet comes at 3900 rpm, but the torque curve is nearly flat from 3500 to 6500 rpm. There's enough low-end grunt that it's easy to forget how much the engine can be wrung out. It's almost natural to shift before the redline because, well, most V-8s would destroy themselves at that high an engine speed. Keep a left foot on the dead pedal, though, and the M3 will run to its limiter as easily as a hummingbird flaps its wings. In our limited test, the M3 charged to 60 miles an hour in 4.4 seconds. That's 0.4 second quicker than the last M3 we tested, despite a slippery road surface and hurried test schedule. Expect the '08 to be even quicker when we get a chance to conduct a full road test.
The only thing not in the M3's favor is its price. Although stickers won't be finalized for some time, the cost of admission will almost definitely go up. We're guessing somewhere around $60,000, which is awfully steep for a 3-series. Also, if we had a wish left over, we'd ask for a less rubbery shift lever. Maybe BMW can fix that on the next version, but for now there's plenty of time to enjoy the M3 before we start worrying how the engineers could possibly improve it again.