The M3 for so long was pretty much the only game in town. Audi and Mercedes armed four-doors to poach M's customers, but they never succeeded in achieving greatness. You either bought the BMW or you bought the wrong car. That's hardly the case today, with both of the M3's direct competitors -- the C63 AMG and the RS5 -- offering a credible and compelling alternative. Yet the BMW M3 still sets the standard for the class, even as the oldest member of the group.
Its age does show, however. The high-strung 4.0-liter V-8 was magnificent five years ago. Today, it's merely great, overshadowed by the stronger and more extroverted personalities of the Mercedes and Audi engines. The gearbox shows shades of SMG, the automated manual of the E46-chassis M3 that was phenomenal on the track and fussy in the city. Compared with its competitors, the M3's dual-clutch automatic exhibits lazier shifts in auto mode. On one occasion, we pulled away from a red light with the lurch-and-buck launch of an absolute novice driving a three-pedal transmission. Early on, we seriously wondered how far back the BMW might finish in this test.
And then, after a long day of schlepping around for photos, we finally escaped the tourist-packed summer towns and our plodding photo car for a chance to attack the wide sweepers of northwestern Michigan's M-22. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio was the first to fall for the M3. "Forget any of the negative things I might have said earlier about this car," his voice crackled over the two-way radio.
It may not be the placid daily driver that the Audi and the Mercedes are, but the M3 sets itself apart from those two cars with every hard and fast mile you drive. The eight individual throttles follow every twitch of your right foot. Behind the fiddly gear selector, there's a rocker switch with an odd icon that might be mistaken for a volume control. It actually alters the intensity and the speed of the shifts. In manual mode, the gearbox interprets every up- and downshift before you've finished pulling the paddle, and the M3 can deliver the hardest and quickest shifts of any car here. We wouldn't have it any other way, except, of course, with a true manual transmission -- and the M3 is the only car of the three coupes to offer one.
After driving the Audi and the Mercedes, the BMW reveals a lightness and agility that you might otherwise take for granted. Its svelte chassis is beautifully complemented by surprisingly light steering that guides the car with pinpoint accuracy, while the suspension is planted but supple. The M3 is the embodiment of everything that BMW stands for: a potent engine, a balanced chassis, clairvoyant steering, and -- the key differentiator -- how they're all seamlessly integrated together.
At the absolute limit, the M3 does reveal some dicey manners. Add throttle in a corner, and the speed-sensing rear differential will suddenly shift grunt to the outside wheel, inducing snap oversteer. "The M3 was the only car that was difficult to drive quickly. I had to work the hardest for my lap time in this car," Noordeloos reported. He also set the brakes on fire. Fortunately, there's a distinct line between toying with the M3 and provoking its aggression, and you can have a blast on either side of that line.
Although the base prices of these cars average about $64,000, it's only the M3 that avoids sticker shock when the options are added. With an as-tested price of $69,595, the M3 is a stripper of sorts, with a no-frills interior devoid of navigation and power seats. We're OK with that, though. The manual sport seats are infinitely adjustable and fit any driver just so, and the sterile interior amplifies the feeling that you're in a purposeful, specialized machine.
That's exactly what makes the M3 our pick over the Mercedes-Benz and the Audi. It's not just a faster 3-series, it is a totally different car. A better car. While AMG and Quattro add speed and sound, M adds emotion. We're feeling it.
Porsche Boxster S
The ringer wins. It is perhaps not surprising that a lightweight, mid-engine roadster won out against three heavier coupes, but it wasn't a given, either. The Boxster's competition was universally more powerful, quicker in a straight line, more practical on the road, and cheaper off the dealership lot. So how'd it win? By engaging and thrilling the driver in everything it does.
For one, the Boxster is striking to look at. Porsche's design studio has put some muscle and presence into the Boxster's traditionally delicate design. We also love the rich lime-gold paint but not the fact that it's one of several four-figure additions that lead to the incomprehensible cost of $28,685 for optional equipment. Try to filter out the extras and strip the Boxster down to its basics, because it's this Porsche's very core that is so very good.
The Boxster S is quick and its 315-hp engine sings a special flat-six song on the climb up the tach, but it's easy to become power hungry when every other car has about 100 hp on you. We're not so delusional to think that Porsche will up the output as long as it's selling the 911, so we propose a compromise: shorter gearing. In several turns where the other cars were content with third gear, the Boxster required second. Numerically higher gearing would quicken acceleration, increase torque at the rear wheels, and create more opportunities for using the ideally placed paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
The PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission clicks through its seven gears with the speed of a firing pin, and the punch of every shift hits harder as you tap into Sport and Sport Plus modes. This gearbox falls just short of perfection. With Sport Plus activated and the gear selector pushed into manual mode, the computer still retains some control. The transmission will downshift to the lowest possible gear or upshift at redline if you've pushed the gas pedal through its kickdown switch, and on the track, a right foot in pursuit of full-throttle acceleration can't be bothered with a wimpy detent at the end of the pedal travel.
These are petty gripes; the Porsche is driving bliss on the road and the track. It is poised and planted, with puttylike grip and unflappable handling. The perfect steering -- not too heavy and not too light, great on-center action, and excellent feel -- makes the M3's seem ho-hum. And it's more than 400 pounds lighter than the other cars. Added together, these qualities instill a confidence that leads to superlegal cornering speeds on the road.
Our lap jockey deemed it "the only car here that could run at the track all day without breaking a sweat." Credit that to the most robust brakes in this bunch. Whereas every other car exhibited some fade during timed laps, the Porsche's brake pedal remained firm as it laid down faster times than the M3 and the C63 AMG. Part of the Boxster's allure is that it is so easy to drive so quickly. It takes a concerted effort or an unforgivable mistake to bring the rear end around. Instead, the Boxster gives off only the faintest whiff of understeer in what is quite possibly the industry's most neutral-handling car. With a more experienced driver piloting the faster Audi, one of our younger staffers shadowed the RS5's every move (save his brief disappearance on the long straight) for a full lap before the Audi driver relented and waved him by. It isn't the fastest car here, but there's a good chance the Boxster is the car that you would be fastest in.
If you've been paying attention, you've noticed that we can't quite separate the coupes from their shortcomings. The M3 is an edgy driver's delight that can be high maintenance on the street. The C63 and the RS5 are capable on the track but truly excellent on the road. Choosing the Boxster S means not having to choose sides. It is just as livable on well-worn roads as it is fierce on a track. Skip the pricey options, and it can be the answer to your $64,000 question, too.