The current BMW M3 has been an all-conquering hero. In arguments around this office, its name is regularly invoked to slap down the claimed merits of other performance cars, even those considerably more expensive. It rebuffed the challenge of the Mercedes C32 AMG and the (previous-generation) Audi S4 in our May 2001 comparison test. For those who've grown weary of our veneration of BMWs and of the M3 in particular, we've got some more bad news: Twelve months and 31,653 miles with an Oxford green M3 coupe have only strengthened our enthusiasm.
We certainly never tired of looking at it. Compared with the regular 3-series coupes, the M3 squats low; it faces the world with a purposeful, but not garish, enlarged front air dam; its wheel openings flare out a bit. Eighteen-inch "satin chrome" wheels (eight inches wide at the front, nine inches at the rear) fill the wheel wells. Four exhaust tips peek out from under the rear valance. Despite the subtlety of the changes, the overall appearance is distinctly muscular.
Inside, there's a surprising level of luxury. "I had no idea such a cool leather package was available from BMW," commented associate editor Joe DeMatio, referring to the cinnamon-colored nappa leather that swathed the interior. That supple cowhide plus dual power front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and a power moonroof make up the $3100 luxury package. Our car's interior was further fancied up with a CD player ($200), a Harman Kardon sound system ($675), adjustable seatback width and lumbar ($500), and seat heating (part of the $700 cold weather package). Aside from two discordant notes--over the black plastic trim and the oval rear-view mirror--the cabin garnered lots of praise, with production editor Jennifer Misaros even noting that the steering wheel "feels great and looks handmade, with its tricolor M stitching."
The swanky cabin proved very livable. Unlike those of most high-performance coupes, the M3's back bench is not merely decorative. "You can get the kids in the back and teach them the true meaning of fear," observed executive editor--and father of the year--Mark Gillies. Average-sized adults have enough space back there, too, even when sitting behind six-footers. As for the best seat in the house--the left front--online editor Greg Anderson pronounced it "fantastic" after an eighteen-hour drive. Most others agreed. DeMatio elaborated: "These should be the archetype of sporty car seats. The $500 for adjustable seatback width is money well spent for anyone who ever turns a corner quickly, which, one would hope, is anyone who owns this car."
We certainly turned some corners quickly. And the M3 is a virtuoso at it. Compared with your garden-variety 3-series coupes--no slouches in the handling department themselves--the M3 has a slightly lower and wider stance; recalibrated springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars; unique ball joints and bushings; and additional bracing for the rear subframe. When the juices start flowing, the M Variable Differential Lock (which can send 100 percent of the available torque to either wheel), the Dynamic Stability Control, and the tires' tremendous grip keep the limits high and shrug off midcorner line adjustments. Turn off the electronic watchdogs, and you can push the car as far out of line as you dare, but the fine chassis balance and near-even weight distribution help you gather it back up.
Our M3 came with eighteen-inch wheels, and when we switched to seventeens and Pirelli Winter 210 snow tires, several staffers noted the improvement in ride quality. In fact, a somewhat harsh ride over Michigan's often brutal pavement was the chief complaint about the car's dynamics. While acknowledging the improved ride on the snow tires, senior editor Eddie Alterman nonetheless waved away the complaints about ride harshness when he called the M3 "the man's 3-series."
Another key element of a high-performance car's chassis is, of course, brakes, and the M3 did not disappoint. It's certainly got the equipment, with four vented discs, 12.8 inches in front and 12.1 at the rear. Not only did they excel in everyday use, but they also proved their mettle by turning in a fade-free performance in a vigorous workout at our track day last spring.
While that racetrack outing highlighted the M3's exceptional chassis, it was the engine that hogged the limelight. "There's always so much power instantly available that it takes tremendous restraint to keep from roaring off into a quick oblivion," observed one driver. "On the track, the power of the engine is just amazing," echoed another.
That engine, as any BMW-head can tell you, is just as powerful in our U.S. version as it is in Europe's--which was not the case previously. It spins out a glorious 333 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque from 3.2 liters of displacement. Among its various modifications, versus the 330Ci's 3.0-liter straight six, are its six individual electronically controlled throttles and two throttle-response modes, standard and sport, the latter of which is accessed via a button on the dash. Some felt that the aggressive response of the sport mode was almost too snappy for track work.
Of course, we didn't have to be on a racetrack to appreciate this engine. Far from it. "This car and I were invincible in the two-lane passing zones on M-72," read one testimonial after a blast to northern Michigan. From the backroads of Kentucky came this: "Engine just rockets you from one corner to the next." And a road trip to New York brought this: "Made it from Rochester, New York, to Ann Arbor (380 miles) in just under six hours and on only one tank of gas."
This unique engine mates to a unique, six-speed transmission--or, as of 2002, an optional Sequential Manual Gearbox. We've sampled the SMG, and the choice is really a matter of personal taste. The SMG's chief advantage, particularly on a racetrack, is its ability to snap off ultra-quick shifts and to match revs flawlessly on every downshift. But for those who like to work the box themselves, we're here to report that the standard setup also lends itself to easy heel-and-toe downshifts.
Despite all the hard use, our only unscheduled service visit was prompted when the car went into "limp home" mode, accompanied by illumination of the DSC, EML, and "check engine" lights. We had the throttle valve actuator replaced, but the lights came on again soon thereafter, and a second new actuator didn't help. Finally, a new throttle position sensor cured the M3. We also were hearing valvetrain noise at cold start, but a switch to 10W-60 oil quieted it down. A clunking during shifts into first gear and an occasionally noisy clutch were dismissed as normal by the local service writer, as was a lumpy idle on cold starts.
We skirted one issue that some M3 owners haven't been so lucky with. The switch to 10W-60 oil was instituted after BMW had several M3 engines fail in the field. BMW has yet to pinpoint the problem, which has affected mostly U.S. cars delivered in late 2001. The company continues to investigate, and the warranty for internal engine parts on all M3s has been upgraded to six years/ 100,000 miles.
That problem is unfortunate, but our experience was positive. The M3's brawny good looks, surprising luxury, unexpected practicality, and stupendous performance wowed our sometimes-jaded staff all year long. As the year drew to a close, Gillies summed up the office reaction: "If anyone needs reminding why we have an enduring love affair with the BMW brand, here's your answer."