On a base level, there's nothing especially remarkable about the M3. Engine in front, drive wheels in back, it has doors, windows, brakes and buttons, even a wart or two, like many of its contemporaries. It begs the question: why is it so damn good? What does BMW do differently? Who puts these things together: magicians, Bavarian elves, Santao Claus?
Although it's been decades since the first M3 graced our roads, it left an indelible mark on the motoring public. Its formula included a high-revving engine, fabulous suspension, fantastic brakes and purposeful styling. And as good as BMW's technology has been, it was the overall balance of its parts that made the whole thing work. Somewhere in some alternate universe, the terms 'M3' and 'balance' must be interchangeable.
Winding through the back straight of Spain's Ascari circuit, I'm thinking about balance again, or more accurately how far out of balance I am. I've missed my apex by about a mile-at 122 mph. You'd think there would be a sense of urgency as I desperately claw my way back into the groove. Not really. The M3 shudders a bit and repositions itself with preternatural smoothness. It's all over in a few fractions of a second, with a minimum of drama.
I try again-this time I hit the right spot. I've increased my speed by 22 mph and placed the car in an almost-straight orientation for the next series of corners. If I do this right, I can navigate this section with a minimum of steering, allowing gravity and g-forces to do most of the work. I do it so right that I'm sure Tony George himself would want me driving for him.
I'm in no way a gifted driver; decent, but not remarkable. The new M3 makes my modest skills increase five-fold, the same way a gyroscope stabilizes a missile.
It's obvious BMW listened to its fans during the E92's development, the most notable of which is the suspension. Whereas previous M3 handling demanded a price (a somewhat harsh ride), the new car offers an alternative. Three alternatives, actually. BMW's optional Electronic Damper Control (EDC) features Normal, Comfort and Sport modes that adjust the dampers accordingly. EDC is an adaptive system that monitors driver behavior and revises its settings should conditions change. On Normal setting, the car provides a hypnotically smooth ride more like an acrobatic glider than a terrestrial vehicle. Extended trips in the new M3 will be an absolute joy. In Sport mode, the ride takes on a decidedly aggressive stance, though still not at expense of comfort. It's almost as though there's an extra filter between the car and the road-it tackles spirited transitions with superb smoothness. Ultimately, it feels as though the M3 has lost some of the edginess (harshness?) of its older generation.
I've often referred to the E46 M3 as an angry car, a vehicle on the edge, ready to brawl. The new M3 possesses a reserved authority, the same type of temperament as its big brother, the M5. In fact, calling it a baby M5 isn't too far from the truth.
The lion's share of the M3's personality comes from its 420-hp V8, a gorgeous piece of work utilizing lessons learned from BMW F1 forays. No, you won't be winding it out to 12,000 rpm-there's no need. Torque comes on hard and fast, somewhere in the 3900-rpm range, when nearly 300 lb-ft of twist explodes underfoot.
Internally coded S60, this V8 pulls like a freight train until 6500 rpm as 85 percent of its torque is realized under a broad rev range. And it has no reservations spinning up to 8300 rpm. But it's the way this engine delivers its power that's so intriguing.
All its moving parts have been optimized for minimum mass and maximum strength-not an especially new concept, but effective nonetheless. Box-type cast pistons weigh a paltry 481.7 grams, sintered connecting rods weigh 623 grams each and the forged steel crankshaft features short throws and special friction-reducing bearings. Even the valves have been lightened and their actuation performed by precision roller bearings. Add BMW's double VANOS, individual throttle bodies, flow-optimized air intake and exhaust, and this V8 responds like a finely tuned four-banger.
At 60 percent and below, the M3 is so refined, so quiet, it's easy to forget you're in a high performance machine. Hell, leave the manual six-speed gearbox in fourth if you want-there's plenty of power to slog through most anything.
The cockpit is clean and refined, very much like a standard 3 Series but with several special touches, including: carbon fiber dash paneling, M-spec stitching and a sizable, contoured steering wheel. Seating is reminiscent of the previous M3, and that's a good thing, as it's virtually impossible to not find the perfect driving position.
Next to the iDrive dial sits the Power button, EDC and DSC controls. These three buttons are capable of amazing feats, the results of BMW's latest generation of electronic driving aids. Moreover, the addition of its Variable M Differential Lock makes it the fastest sport sedan I have ever driven.
We were given 10 tickets, each good for a single lap around Ascari's 2.7-mile circuit. For the rest of the day, I walk with my head down looking for dropped tickets. The new M3 has amazing potential and, if you have the time, it will prove an outstanding ride. Yes, the new M3 has more equipment than ever, but BMW has managed to do its balancing magic and make it all work.
BMW has a saying: torque is for the balls, horsepower is for heart (apologies to BMW if I misquoted). The new M3 has both.
What's New Profile
*420 hp aluminum V8 with double VANOS, individual throttle bodies, special dual plate clutch/flywheel
*Power bulge in hood
*Brakes generate power under load
*New, stronger aluminum suspension components
*Steering controlled with BMW Servtronic assist (dual modes, manually selected)
*Carbon fiber roof
*M Differential Lock
2008 BMW M3
4.0-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve
F: Aluminum two-joint spring strut axle
R: Five-arm axle with anti-squat and anti-dive
Single-piston swing caliper compound discs
Length x Width x Height (in.):181.7 x 77.8 x 56.1Wheelbase: 108.7 in.
Curb Weight: 3648 lb.
Peak Power: 420 hp @ 8300 rpm
Peak Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm 0-62 mph: 4.8 sec.
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
*Why we love it: Elastic powerband, smooth ride, great exhaust note
*Why we don't: No sequential manual gearbox, no direct injection, somewhat isolated chassis, light steering
The price tag: $63,500 (est.)