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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By David Thomas
May 14, 2008
The "M" designation has always been reserved for BMW's ultra-high-performance lineup. Insiders and car guys around the world snap to attention and ogle jealously whenever one of these heavily modified versions of an otherwise-commonplace BMW drives by.
The shade of green reserved for those witnessing the new M3 will be the darkest of them all. While previous Ms have been great performers, they sacrificed a lot of ride comfort in exchange for track-worthy chops, but the 2008 M3 is probably the first I'd recommend as a daily driver for even a casual enthusiast. That's right: For roughly $60,000, you can have one of the most capable commuters ever, and it will stun anyone on the track, too. This is automotive nirvana, pure and simple. Performance on the Street The basics of the new M3 are as follows: A 3 Series coupe, convertible or sedan serves as the canvas, to which BMW's M engineering artists add a 414-horsepower, naturally aspirated V-8 engine under a new, bulged hood. That hood is needed to fit the V-8, seeing as the 3 Series is used to namby-pamby six-cylinders (OK, so the turbo six in the 335 is pretty darn nice, too). The M3 has a lowered stance and rides on 18-inch wheels and high-performance tires. There are huge brakes — 14.2 inches up front and 13.8 inches in back — as well as quad tailpipes out the back.
All this is put to the test through the rear wheels. On the street, this means you can peel out from stops, but because the engine is a high-revving affair — with maximum power coming at 8,400 rpm — the M3 doesn't launch like a typical muscle car. It's at the next level that it excels: Second gear is a thrill ride that feels like you've been placed in a metal sled and launched down the road from a garage-sized slingshot.
Handling? This thing carves corners and feels as planted as any all-wheel-drive performance car I've driven recently. The low ride height and enhanced suspension translate to incredibly improved handling. Steering isn't heavy, either. Gripping the thick, almost foam-like material of the steering wheel is much harder than turning it. I was shocked to get in the new 135i coupe a few days later and experience a wheel that was annoyingly heavy and hard to turn. The M3's is precise without wearing down your triceps.
The lone drawback in everyday driving is the tall, rickety manual shifter. This has plagued every manual BMW I've ever tested. Every other Cars.com reviewer who drove the M3 agreed: This is one bad stick. There's no reason for BMW to keep it, but it seems the company likes being different. It's really too bad, too, because the shifting experience of the left foot on the clutch is terrific.
I don't know why M drivers would choose an automatic transmission even with the less-than-optimal stick shift, and that's why BMW offers a very sophisticated double-clutch seven-speed automanual as a $2,700 option. I tested the dual-clutch transmission briefly and thought it quite capable shifting through gears seamlessly, but I preferred the manual.
For drivers who choose the manual, the clutch depresses easily and springs back out smoothly. It's not too heavy and not too springy, nor does it seem to mind all the power. It's simply perfect. One of the main reasons I'd endorse the M3 as a daily driver is because the clutch won't wear out your left leg during rush-hour traffic. That support is also helped by the fact that, with the suspension set to either Normal or Comfort, road imperfections don't cause a lot of unwanted shuddering.
This is a stunning achievement for BMW. In other high-performance machines I've tested — like the Chevy Corvette Z06 and Audi RS 4 — you feel like you're an inch off the ground, with every bridge joint or asphalt crack sending a jolt through your spine. When you opt to turn off the performance-tuned M Drive settings (more on that later), the M3 handles these well. It's not as cushy as a Lexus, obviously, but I've driven traditional 5 Series models that didn't ride this smoothly. Performance on the Track I drove a new M3 coupe with the dual-clutch automanual on the very demanding Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and found that its personality there was much like it is on the road. It was extremely well-composed on the track. It was almost eerily capable, taking tough turns with ease while the well-bolstered seats and low center of gravity kept my body upright.
Oddly enough, it didn't feel like a car made for the track. A lot of engineering time was spent on this car so that it could master courses like this, and it did, but there was little skin-of-the-teeth feel. That said, it probably took the course faster than any of the many other cars I drove that day. The brakes performed superbly under extreme conditions, and the handling was pinpoint. Still, I didn't get the same exhilaration I did driving the new BMW 135i on the same day, or even the previous-generation M3 on that same track a few years ago. M Drive Included in a $3,250 Technology Package, M Drive allows drivers to change a number of performance settings in a number of ways through the iDrive interface, so you can't get M Drive without iDrive. Among the settings that can be controlled are throttle response, steering and suspension. Once set, a single button on the steering wheel will engage the M Drive settings when in motion. Without those settings engaged, the M3 remains in normal mode, which is what I used for about 90 percent of my routine driving. Interior: Still a 3 Series Inside, the M3 is basically the same as any 3 Series — coupe, convertible or sedan. My sedan tester is obviously the most practical of the three. It can carry four adults to dinner, it has a rather large trunk, the backseat folds and, yes, a baby seat will fit in back for adrenaline-junky parents out there.
Special touches for the M include numerous M3 logos in the doorsills and on the seats. The seats themselves are also much thicker than the standard 3 Series', and our tester came with upgraded leather that had an almost slick feel to it, versus the grainy leather you find in most luxury cars. It's a $950 stand-alone option, but, hey, why not? M Pricey Considering the M3 is such a brilliant performance machine, the sedan's starting price of $53,800 is quite reasonable. Very few M3s will hit lots that bare-bones, however. Of the 600-plus M3s currently in Cars.com's nationwide inventory, only about 20 are stickered under $60,000. Starting prices for the coupe and convertible are $56,500 and $64,950, respectively.
Options that run up those prices include the Technology Package for $3,250; the Premium Package — which includes the $950 Novillo leather seats — for $1,900; a Cold Weather Package for $1,000; really cool 19-inch wheels with high-performance tires for $1,200; HD radio for $350; Park Distance Control for $350; an iPod/USB adapter for $400; and Sirius Satellite Radio (including a one-year subscription) for $595. Bluetooth is an additional $750. There's also a gas-guzzler tax of $1,300.
Add all that to a sedan and the total hovers just below $65,000. That's exactly how our tester was equipped, though, and even at that price I'd call it a steal. I'd probably sacrifice the Park Distance Control — which I didn't think worked particularly well — and Sirius, though, and opt for a moonroof ($1,050) instead. Safety As you might expect, the M3 has not been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but the regular 3 Series has. It received top marks in frontal and side-impact tests, but just an Average grade in rear collisions, which kept it from receiving Top Safety Pick status. BMW M3 in the Market The M3 competes directly with the Audi RS 4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. I've tested the RS 4 but not the new C63. The M3 easily bests the current Audi RS 4 for me because of its civil manners as a daily driver. I'd even compare the M3 to the Corvette Z06 and its 505 hp because of their similar prices when well-equipped. If someone offered me a choice between the two, I'd lunge at the M3, again for its combination of practicality and road-conquering capability.