Road Test: 2008 BMW M3 Coupe
By Shaun Bailey of Road & Track
Lahr, Germany — When will the madness stop? When will we have enough power? It should be a clue that we have plenty when powering along the Autobahn, the new BMW E92 M3 hits an imaginary brick wall at 161 mph. It can clearly go faster, but BMW doesn't think we should. Gliding along at 161 mph, it's totally comfortable and gave me time to think about what I need 414 horsepower for. The new M3 with its frenetic V-8 is beyond being a sporting 2+2. Its performance is downright silly and puts many true sports cars to shame.
Photographer Marc Urbano and I awoke early, and stuffed the car with gear — thankfully, the rear seats fold down. We leave Munich heading to Lahr six hours away. There are lots of unlimited-speed sections along this stretch of Autobahn and, at 2 a.m., not a lot to keep us from continually bouncing off that limiter. Marc sleeps mostly, except for those rare instances when an offending local doesn't move right quickly enough, and I test the brakes. The floating front rotors and, unconventional for a sporting car, floating calipers work incredibly well, repeatedly dropping the car's speed from 150 mph to 100 with only occasional ABS intervention. The 18-in. forged wheels with Michelin Pilot Sports surely had something to do with the performance. Although 19-in. wheels are available, the 18s are likely the optimum choice to keep weight down.
Not exactly a lightweight at an estimated 3650 lb., the M3 needs more than just a carbon-fiber roof panel to be race ready — although from the performance numbers and driver's seat it would be hard to tell the M3 is heavy. It feels light and agile. Getting the car to its limits feels smooth and progressive. Few cars combine this level of performance with such docile behavior.
I had plenty of daylight seat time to examine the intricacies of the new M3 as we ripped along from Lahr to Strasbourg, France. It's much like the 335i, but with a personality that's closer to earlier generations of the M3. For those who think the M3 is getting fat and happy with age, this version will reassure you that BMW hasn't forgotten what the M stands for. Like the last competition coupe variant of the M3, there is an M-button on the steering wheel. When engaged, it changes the shocks, stability control, steering effort and power setting to an individual driver's taste. It's configurable through the iDrive controller and adds another dimension to the car's enjoyment. Once you have the M-button pre-programmed, it makes driving that much less tedious. Few things are more embarrassing than sitting at a stoplight and getting smoked by a Honda Civic because one didn't get a chance to hit all the right buttons. Thank you, BMW.
History, it's said, repeats itself. In 1987, the original E30 M3 was introduced, not with BMW's famous inline-6, but a potent 4-cylinder, one that shared the M5 and M6's bore centers. Well, they've done it again as the E92 M3's V-8 is essentially two cylinders shy of being the M5/M6's V-10. What's impressive — or insane, as it all depends on your point of view — is that the extra displacement and cylinders come with 103.5 horsepower per liter. That's more than the previously super-potent 333-horsepower iron-block inline-6 with 102.6 bhp per liter. This engine even weighs 30 lb. less! It's no surprise that this lightweight engine block is produced at the Landshut, Germany, foundry — the same place BMW makes its Formula 1 engines.
For now, the U.S. will receive only the 6-speed manual, but BMW has promised a dual-clutch semiautomatic soon. The manual lever moves like it should, with short positive strokes, but it's still a little too rubbery. This isolation is likely done to decrease vibration, as the M3 is still a slave to the luxury-car buyer who demands comfort along with performance. Also to this end, the twin-disc clutch keeps the pedal light and easy to modulate.
Electronic Damper Control is BMW's optional electronically variable damper system. Three modes — Normal, Comfort and Sport — are accessed by a convenient button near the shift lever. Flanking that button are the Power and DSC off buttons. Power selects a different electronic throttle map, opening the engine's eight individual throttles more quickly. Although the DSC, for Dynamic Stability Control, button appears to have only off and on, there is a third mode. When in M mode, there is an increase in allowable tire slip, giving a wider envelope for performance driving while still maintaining that invisible safety net. As I found during testing, the M3 is stable with the DSC on or off, with a slight bias toward understeer. The M3 is fast, but rarely twitchy. Like a proper race car, it inspires driver confidence everywhere. My only gripe with its otherwise stellar driving dynamics is the steering.
The Servotronic power steering has dual modes — Tour and Sport — selectable through the standard iDrive system. In Sport, the steering is heavier and more precise, while Tour is lighter. In either mode, the steering assist decreases as speed rises. Somewhere around 70 mph, there is a change in effort. It's subtle, but it makes slalom difficult because that's about the same speed the car runs. Thus in the middle of our slalom pass, the steering effort changed and I found myself inadvertently running over cones. We're talking inches of difference here. On a racetrack, the M3 will hit its apexes easily, but on the street, owners should be wary of clipping curbs.
What really makes the new M3 perform, though, is the M differential, a mechanical unit that divides torque left to right based on wheel speed. When wheel speeds differ, a mechanical pump tightens the differential to lock it. The greater the speed difference from wheel to wheel, the more torque it transfers.
The result of all these gizmos is the M3's ability to switch from Jekyll to Hyde and back with a press of a button or two. Not just for show, these buttons actually make a difference. Changing the M3 from a date-friendly cruiser that will impress passengers to a track car that will likely scare them — we think that's a wonderful feature.
Although pricing for the U.S. has yet to be announced, BMW has already shown the sedan at the Los Angeles and Tokyo auto shows, and there will be a retractable hardtop coming soon. It seems that BMW is toying with us, as it keeps showing us new cars that make us giddy, but won't deliver the first M3 to the U.S. until spring of 2008! By the time we test a U.S.-spec car, we'll be looking forward to the future Motorsports edition of the 1 Series. If you were hoping the M3 would have a price in the U.S. close to the last generation's, you're in for a shock. It's going to be more, a lot more. The M3 slots between the M Coupe at an MSRP of $50,100 and the M5's MSRP of $82,900. For now, we'll guess it will come in at $65,000 but the comparable Audi RS 4 is more, so don't say we didn't warn you. If the price seems steep compared to previous generations, it might help to look at the new 1 Series, where BMW will try to couple impressive power with lower weight and cost.