This has been an incredible month. First we got to drive the new R32, and then we flew to Spain to drive the new BMW E92 M3. Originally born out of BMW's desire to dominate motorsport, the M3 remains the most successful touring car ever. This racing heritage has given the car enviable street credibility and has seen more than 180,000 M3s sold to date, from the original E30 to the most recent E46. And while the M3 has virtually defined the ber sports category, its reign as king has recently been questioned by muscled upstarts such as the Audi RS4 and the new Mercedes CLK63 AMG Black Series.
So how would BMW respond? Everybody knew the answer would be emphatic, and this E92 M3 restores the rightful king to his throne. But don't imagine the threat has gone away.
Creating this M3 required a great deal of development. Up to 80% of the car's parts were redesigned from its E92 335i roots. It has a new aluminum hood, carbon roof and aero mirrors, plus spoilers and skirts. It also gets four exclusive colors to differentiate it.
Upon first acquaintance, the M3 looks a little like a mini M5. It shares many visual cues, including the fender gills and quad tailpipes. And the comparisons aren't merely cosmetic. The new V8 is related to the M5's V10 - in simple terms, two pistons were removed.
It shares the M5's 500cc cylinder volume, creating 3999c. It also shares the heady 8400rpm redline and individual throttle bodies. And like the M5, it develops relatively low torque numbers (295 lb/ft), but impressive power (420hp/414hp SAE).
Using an aluminum-silicon block housing lightweight components and ancillaries, the V8 weighs 445 lb, or 33 lb less than the E46 M3's six cylinder. Along with other weight-saving measures such as the body panels mentioned, this has enabled BMW to preserve its 50/50 weight distribution for handling prowess.
However, the M5 similarities aren't all good - the M3 gets many of its big brother's electronic aids. There's a Power button that allows you to trim the throttle actuation; then there's a DSC button to switch the stability control off, as well as three EDC electronic damper settings. There' s also an M button on the steering wheel that can be programmed through the dreaded iDrive to preset these functions, as well as two options for electronic steering assist.
Having driven the RS4, we liked the simplicity of approach; its engineers choosing one setup that works really well. With the M3, you have plenty of permutations to play with, but in our short run we never really felt we had the car at its optimum. Changing road conditions had us playing with EDC until we tired of it and left it in the stiffest "Sport".
In our opinion, the M3 should be a pure driving experience, devoid of bells and whistles. We trust BMW to create a fine driving machine and don't need buttons to distract us. We want it stripped down and exciting, rather than resembling a video game controller.
That said, once we stopped being distracted by the toys, the M3 delivers a powerful punch. We had the opportunity to drive it on some wonderfully challenging Spanish roads and the private track at the Ascari race resort (www.ascari.net).
With everything set to Sport through the M button, we switched off the DSC and had some fun. The car is superbly balanced thanks to that weight distribution, and the acceleration is rapid (0-60 in 4.8sec) thanks to the powerful motor and obsessive weight saving.
What makes the M3 so flexible as a fast road or track car is the motor's phenomenal power band. It makes torque from about 3500rpm and max power is developed at 8300rpm. That means as long as the V8 is over 3000rpm, it'll pull to redline. Almost the entire Ascari track was tackled in third gear, taking us from about 50mph to triple digits. The V8's flexibility is the M3's best trick since it requires little stirring from the E46 derived six-speed manual - yes, BMW resisted the urge to insist on SMG transmission for the M3, but it's coming soon and should suit the motor. However, we're glad to have the choice of manual on the M3 from launch.
Like the R32, the new M3 risks being overshadowed by its lesser sibling. In this case, the enormously capable 335i is attracting lots of admirers, and the forthcoming 135i could also rain on the M3's parade. The twin-turbo 3.0 in both offers performance, refinement and tuneability that could draw potential owners away from the M3. However, we're sure this M3 will be another sales success.
The M3's success will be attributed to BMW's attention to detail, with everything coming under the microscope; even the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s. They were specially created for the M3 and use three compounds, including different materials on the inside front and again on the rear for wear and wet weather handling. The outside compound is different again for dry grip. This takes advantage of the Variable Contact Patch tread design that puts more rubber on the outside to maintain the amount of tread in contact with the road when cornering. BMW also demanded lightweight tires, and so the 245/40-18 fronts weigh just 10.6kg, while the 265/40 rear are 11.5kg. No word on the weight of the optional 19s.
While the M3 is perhaps overcomplicated, that's not a real detraction from the overall package that goes on sale in Spring '08 and will retail in the low $60k.
The M3 will go on sale alongside the M5, M6, 335i and 135i, giving BMW enthusiasts an incredible range of performance cars.