Chalk up the new BMW M3 to one of life's truly unfair realities. Unless you live near an Autobahn, or they begin building a bridge over the Atlantic, you can't really drive one.

Oh, you can tool around in stop-and-go traffic impressing your friends that the M3's blast-of-gas power will zoom you from stoplight to stoplight. And occasionally, when a radar gun isn't looking, you might be able to take an on-ramp at faster than posted speeds.

But don't even think about stretching the M3's legs, winding out its engine or making it scream. And how infuriating is that? Try 333 horsepower worth.

M, thanks.

The dream of driving an M3 is that there's all that potential car enthusiasts crave. The reality is, that's all it is: Potential.

Performance nuts will gush, gearheads will gawk, and your neighborhood-friendly police officer will pull you over if you even think about edging into the power band of this two-door sports coupe. Careful: One hundred and three horsepower per cylinder will do that to you. So will a four-tailpipe exhaust system and a range of harmonics that sounds better than a German pipe organ on Oktoberfest weekend.

Indeed, the Fatherland has done good.

First delivered as a late 2001, and unchanged for 2002, the M3 is the performance version of BMW's very popular, very successful 3-Series. Previous M3 models have been solid rides, but lacked the punch to deliver a truly gutsy ride against other muscular entries. At 240 horses, the old M3s were a nice bump up in the food chain - until a Corvette ate them for lunch.

Now look who's invited to dinner.

The new M3 is engineering prowess from every angle, but especially under the hood.

Seated quietly in your driveway, it is an unassuming, sleek and smartly designed coupe with chrome M3 badging, fender flares, spoked wheels and scalloped headlights that flow into the rest of the body.

Rolled out of the driveway, it's a demon.

Turn the key and it rumbles to life, growling and buzzing. Hit the gas and things turn haywire. Under the hood, a robust, naturally aspirated, twin-cam, 3.2-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine busts out more power than a Jaguar XJ8 or a Porsche 911 Carrera. (Whew!)

And it loves to spend time near an incredible 8,000 rpm - all delivered through a six-speed gearbox, its only transmission, with throws that are sharp, short and smooth.

This is no rush to revs, either. Maybe the greatest thing about the M3 is that it is not raw power from your right foot to the engine block. There is a broad torque band that means head-snapping fun from 20 mph or 120. And all of that power under the hood is tied to a trend-setting design underneath. With an all-independent sport suspension, four-wheel vented disc brakes and variable-assist steering, the M3 can be M-planted against a corner and still come out roaring. It handles with a surgeon's precision and responsiveness that seems to be constantly asking for mor e. It even has an electronic stability program to shield inexpert drivers from making huge errors of judgment - or just in case your 16-year-old son accidentally gets the keys.

Loaded up with an invoice of standard equipment, the M3 also includes side air bags, a head protection system and a tire-pressure monitoring system. There's also a fair amount of room for rear-seat passengers, the front bucket seats will hug your sides and there's a fun quotient that, in our estimation, breaks the meter.

But, again, practicality must be considered.

Even if you could find room in city driving to park the M3 into sixth gear, it probably wouldn't happen until 3 in the morning or on some interstate when you needed overdrive to save gas.

Also, a few passengers found the doors a bit heavy and, with a sloped roof and high front end, seating is tough for anyone under 5-foot-9. With ultra-low profile Michelin P225/45ZR-18 performance tires on the front and P225/40ZR-18s on the back t grips and sticks, especially in cornering, but does rattle a little over rough pavement. It's (dare we say?) choppy.

But enough of that. This is a car that will bring tears to a purist's eyes - incredible engine, sweet steering and a total hi-fi driving experience. At 65 mph.

So how much will all this frustration cost you?

More than you think.

A breathtaking ride needs a sticker to match, right? The M3 doesn't disappoint. With a $45,400 base, it ranks right up there with the high-performance models we all crave but only few can afford.

That's not including a $1,100 leather package, a $645 destination charge and a $1,000 "gas-guzzler" tax, even though the M3 ranks right in there with other big-pedal, high-dollar rides at 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

Actually, for 45K I have a better idea. Start building that bridge to the Autobahn.

2002 BMW M3 - SPECS

Rating: 3.5

High gear: Incredible engine, ferocious low-end speed, smooth handling and a silky gearbox make this a purist's dream, and not a bad resale. Looks don't suffer either.

Low gear: Low-profile tires can create a ride that's a little choppy and lumpy over rough surfaces. A lack of power seats or standard CD player may raise some eyebrows for this price.

Vehicle type: Rear-wheel drive, front-engine, two-door, four-passenger sports coupe.

Standard equipment: Six-speed manual transmission; dual front airbags; front side airbags; front side head-protection airbags; antilock 4-wheel ABS; air conditioning w/auto climate control; power, tilt steering; cruise control; heated, power mirrors; power door locks; remote keyless entry; AM/FM/cassette w/steering wheel controls; theft-deterrent system; fog lights; limited-slip differential; passenger-side mirror tilt-down back-up aid; automatic mirrors; outside temperature display; tire-pressure indicator; chrome alloy wheels.

Competition: Mercedes Benz CLK55 AMG, Chevrolet Corvette, Audi S6, Lexus IS 300

Engine: 333 horsepower, 3.2-liter, DOHC 24-valve in-line six-cylinder

Torque: 262 foot-lbs. @ 4,900 rpm

Wheelbase: 107.5 inches

Length: 176.8 inches

MPG rating: 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway

Manufactured: Germany

Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is six years/unlimited miles; roadside assistance warranty is four years/50,000 miles; free scheduled maintenance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price: $45,400

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $49,195