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."