The One to Beat is the BMW M3. The current version of the M3 coupe, introduced in 2001, offers a seemingly impossible blend of performance, handling, luxury, and-most important-refinement. It was an Automobile Magazine All-Star in 2003 and won our unqualified praise during a year-long Four Seasons test. But the M3 is getting old, and it is expensive. Our test car cost $50,470 and it had manual, unheated cloth seats, an upgraded stereo that sounded like hell, and no navigation system. M3s equipped like the other two cars in this test cost between $55,000 and $57,000.
The M3 is worth the extra money. The engine sounds to onlookers like a weed wacker with a shot of nitrous, but as long as you keep the windows up, the noises that enter the cabin are glorious. The 3.2-liter inline-6's powerband is unimpeachable. Where else can one find an engine that revs to over 8,000 rpm and still offers serious torque down low? Nowhere this side of a Ferrari. The clutch is a bit tricky, but once you acclimate to the on-the-floor engagement point, it is predictable and precise.
The interior doesn't offer quite the style, space, or features of the Audi, but its materials are just as nice. The M3's seats aren't as gloriously supportive as the S4's, but they get the job done, and a comfortable driving position is always easy to find. The thick, small-diameter steering wheel and shifter are exactly where they should be.
The M3 stands out for being not only as capable as you'd expect, but also relaxed. Where the CTS-V can feel a bit high strung with its nervous ride and demanding transmission and the S4 can feel a bit slow-witted in this company, the M3 manages to carve up twisty roads without ever feeling like it is trying.
A number of factors feed this feeling of effortless capability; the steering, suspension, and transmission are obviously the products of exquisite fine-tuning far beyond what is necessary to get good lap times.
The M3's steering is something to behold. It offers amazing depth of information transmitted to the driver. The limits of adhesion and changing road surfaces are always clearly communicated, but the wheel is never jittery and it never kicks back on bumpy roads.
The M3's trump card is its fundamentally good chassis tuning. While the car is undeniably stiffly sprung, it is also damped well enough to keep body motions in check. Bumps make themselves heard and felt, but the car never loses composure. Wallowing and bouncing just aren't in the cards for the M3. Only over the worst roads does the M3 become harsh.
The six-speed manual transmission is precise and user-friendly. The shifter's throws are just the right length and its engagement is crisp. The top of the shift lever lights up in a singular concession to bling.
The M3 is refined-and we mean refined in its road manners, not just in how luxurious it is-far beyond the other cars here. That should come as no great shock; BMW has been perfecting the rear-wheel-drive small coupe since the fantastic 1968 2002 model, and it shows.