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."