At this particular moment, there are 15 1988 BMW M3s listed for sale across the United States on AutoTrader.com. The cheapest is $11,990, a white car located in Cincinnati that appears to have about 160,000 hard miles on it. The most expensive is a two-owner silver car in New Hartford, Conn., with just 47,000 miles. It's $28,950.
Average asking price of the 15 BMW M3s: $19,090.
To those not that familiar with the M3, that price must seem a little astounding, especially for a four-cylinder coupe that, by today's standards, neither looks nor performs anywhere near supercar standards. But since the M3, basically a hot-rod version of the BMW 3-Series, came to the United States in 1988 -- two years after it debuted in Europe -- it has become the template for the semi-sensible European sports sedan. No one, not Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Jaguar or any other manufacturer -- has been able to build a car that consistently challenges the M3's place at the top of that particular mountain.
While that hasn't changed, the M3 itself has, especially the all-new 2008 model. Still, its core mission remains the same. But as times change, so has the M3.
That first M3, sold through 1991, had a 192-horsepower, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. Generation two didn't arrive until 1995, with a 3.0-liter, 240-horsepower six-cylinder engine. In 1997, an M3 four-door sedan was added, then a convertible. The last-generation M3, from 2001 to 2006, was sold only as a coupe or convertible, and it had a 333-horsepower, 3.2-liter six-cylinder.
For its late 2008 introduction, we get it all: A coupe, a sedan, and soon, a convertible. And under the hood is the first-ever V-8 in an M3: A downright stellar 4.0-liter V-8 with 414 horsepower. It revs up to a stratospheric 8,400 rpm, and in all six gears of its manual transmission, the engine just sings.
(This is a good place to tell you that next week, I'm writing about hybrids, OK? I know the M3 is EPA-rated at just 14 mpg city driving, 20 mpg highway. On premium gas. And yes, there's a federal "gas-guzzler" tax of $1,300. But just let me have this one week with the M3, all right? Hybrids next week. Lots of them. I promise.)
I've driven the coupe -- it has a very neat carbon-fiber roof -- but I especially like the sedan, because you get a back seat, and a sizable trunk, all nicely disguising the oozing testosterone.
From a distance, it may look a lot like a regular 3-Series sedan. But as you draw closer, the M3 sedan becomes a wolf in wolf's clothing. You see the power bulge in the hood, there to contain that all-new V-8. You see the enormous drilled brake rotors. You see gills behind the front fenders that actually look as though they belong there. You notice the absence of boy-racer fog lights, replaced by huge air intakes for the brakes and engine.
But mostly you notice the flared fenders and nose-low, hunkered-down profile that suggests a nearly audible snarl. Crank the engine, and the snarl becomes entirely audible. Run the M3 through the six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox, and the snarl becomes an Indian battle whoop as you approach the stratospheric redline.
Then, like any good BMW sedan, the M3 is more than happy to lope along in the pickup line outside the elementary school, even as the more auto-savvy parents shoo their children away from yours.
As mentioned, this is the first M3 with V-8 power, but it's something of a revelation that the engine actually weighs 33 pounds less than the in-line six-cylinder it replaces. The V-8 is quite the sophisticate, with a low-power version of BMW's double-VANOS camshaft control, individual throttle butterflies for each cylinder, and a lightweight forged crankshaft that helps make all that high-rpm work possible.
Though a seven-speed double-clutch automatic transmission is en route, arriving first with the convertible, our M3's six-speed Getrag-built manual is, as always, smooth-shifting, with clutch action that shows none of the annoying hair-trigger engagement we've seen on so many previous manual-equipped BMWs. Yes, the clutch is firm, but not to the point where rush-hour traffic will leave your left leg aching.
With the optional MDrive system, the driver can make multiple changes to the way the car responds to throttle and steering input, generally bracketing choices to emphasize sportiness or comfort. Nice, but one place to save money, in my opinion.
Of course iDrive remains, but we've beaten that dead horse enough already. It's the console-mounted, joysticklike control system that handles audio, climate, the navigation system and other duties in a manner so unnecessarily complex and anti-intuitive that the best we can say is that at least it has been marginalized to the point where it's an annoyance, instead of a genuine frustration.
The cockpit is snug but roomy enough; instruments and controls are typical BMW, and the extra-fat, red-and-blue-laced steering wheel feels right. The front buckets are firm but adjustable to the point where anyone should be able to find the sweet spot. Rear-seat room, two adults only, is tight but livable. Trunk space is fine, but access is a little narrow.
On the road, the M3 seems telepathic: Think what you want it to do, and it pretty much does. Brakes are progressive and linear, handling is superb, and the ride, while no one will confuse this with a Buick, is not that bad, even on very rough roads, and even with all the "sport" settings engaged. Tire noise, from the fat, optional 19-inch Michelins, can be loud on porous pavement, unobjectionable everywhere else.
Of course, it isn't cheap: No M3 has ever been cheap. Base price for the sedan is $54,575, and the coupe is $57,275, plus that $1,300 guzzler tax, and $775 in shipping. Once that automatic transmission becomes available later this year, that will add $2,700. And there's a long list of available options, ranging from a power moon roof for the sedan ($1,050) to a technology package ($3,250) that gets you a navigation system, the MDrive programmable performance system, and electronically adjustable suspension system.
Expensive? Sure. But look at what a 20-year-old M3 is selling for, and you can see that the M3 hangs onto its resale value the way the big 40-series radial tires hang onto the turns.
And now, we return you to hybrids.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.