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Project BMW M3 Part 9: A serious diet and a xenon conversion kit

Pablo Mazlumian
Aug 8, 2002
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New Year's Day was yesterday. I haven't made any personal resolutions yet, but I made one for Project M3--weight loss. Lowering a vehicle's overall weight can be one of the single most important upgrades for improving performance. Handling, acceleration and stopping distances could be greatly affected (and improved), depending on the extent and nature of the weight loss.

To help reduce the heft of your E36 coupe, look no further than MA Shaw. Following the company's success making lightweight and carbon-fiber body components for Porsche road- and race-car applications, founder Mike Shaw turned to BMWs, specifically the E36 body style. With Project M3 weighing in at 3,220 lb stock with full fluids, it was evident some of the heavier body components could be swapped for some lighter ones.

To reduce weight, MA Shaw offers compression-molded carbon-fiber hoods and decklids, lightweight composite multi-stage wings almost identical to that of the M3 Lightweight--only lighter--and a super-lightweight replica of the E46 M3 front bumper cover for the E36 cars. For racing only, MA Shaw sells E36 coupe carbon-fiber doors that can be picked up with one finger.

For Project M3, I opted for the hood and rear decklid. With a combined weight savings of 45 lb, these upgrades counterbalanced the weight gain of Active's turbo system, maintaining the car at 3,175 lb with full fluids. Not only that, but the weight was reduced in the front and the rear.

With the help of strong opinion ("Dude, you've got to keep that carbon-fiber-look going!"), I decided to keep the hood unpainted, showing the sweet carbon-fiber finish. The metallic "Cosmos" black paint complemented the hood, making it a subtle, yet very sporty-looking modification--not too loud to the eyes of the conservative but sporty enough for your average boy-racer-carbon-fiber freak.

The technicians at evosport installed the hood and found all but two holes were pre-drilled for ease of installation. The large holes to accommodate the factory latches had to be drilled out, but MA Shaw precisely pre-drilled everything else. Besides the benefits of looks and weight loss, MA Shaw's hood doesn't require hood pins, allowing the factory latches to be used. The only disadvantage is the elimination of the hood shocks, necessitating a hood prop.

The MA Shaw carbon-fiber deck lid also fit perfectly. I took the car to custom fabricator Jeff Toberg of DJ Exotic Imports. Thanks to Jeff's skill and MA Shaw's flawless trunk-lid manufacturing, Project M3's new butt got a brilliant, factory Cosmos Black paint job and a trouble-free install. The only downside is there are no pre-drilled holes for the factory tool kit--but that's okay, as the tool kit just lays in the trunk now.

To keep up with the car's newfound turbo power during the evening hours, I decided to upgrade the headlights. I had originally wanted to go with the European ellipsoid headlights found on the Euro-spec model M3s. These lights feature city driving lights, much stronger light projection and glass covers--as opposed to the factory plastic. But HIDS4Less had a better idea--European ellipsoids with a xenon light conversion kit (HIDS4Less also has a kit for the factory U.S.-spec E36 lights).

HIDS4Less is owned by MTC Lighting and is on a mission to develop cutting-edge automotive lighting products. The company's core products consist of xenon light conversion kits, as well as projector headlight systems. All its kits require no modifications or wire cutting and are manufactured in-house, ensuring the best possible quality control. HIDS4Less reports the principal components of the xenon kits are made in Germany by the same suppliers that equip Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The company also states it's the only one in the industry to offer for all of its retrofit kits a 5-year warranty that covers any failure in the ballasts or xenon bulbs.

The particular kit I put on Project M3 is HIDS4Less' Stage 1 xenon conversion, converting only the low-beam lights to xenon. Since the kit didn't come with high-beam four-way connectors to allow for the use of the city driving lights, Supreme Power Parts kindly sent out the connectors. Other than that, HIDS4Less kit came pretty much complete, prewired and assembled. All wiring work was done and all I had to do was plug the system in. But the European ellipsoid housings are a little trickier than installing factory U.S.-spec headlights, especially if you've installed a turbo kit. The front grille had to be taken out because the housings are slightly larger than the U.S.-spec housings, and the chrome pipe channeling the compressed, intercooled air from the intercooler to the intake manifold required modifications. Thankfully Jeff Toberg was up to the task again.

When finished, I picked up the car and drove home. Turning on the lights reminded me of the sound of a "Star Wars" light saber turning on. As I expected, these xenon lights are very white and very bright--even the bright European ellipsoid stock high beams look yellowish by comparison. The lights weren't manually aligned yet, so they were pointing high and to the right. I didn't realize how bad this was until 5 miles away from home, when I spotted a cop on side of the road. When I got within 150 ft of his car, the xenon lights shined right in his face, leaving him looking like he was staring right into the sun. Within seconds I was pulled over.

"Do you know why I stopped you?" he asked, his eyes looking like Gizmo's from the movie "Gremlins."

"Yes, I'm sorry," I said smiling, "I'm actually on my way home to realign them." He nodded his head in understanding, finished wiping his eyes like a waking baby, and let me go home.

Aligning the European ellipsoids is a snap. Two adjustable 6.5mm hex screws allow for easy up-down and right-to-left adjustments.

The E36 M3 was apparently designed to successfully work with a xenon conversion kit, without upgrades to the electrical system. What the E36 M3 engineers didn't have in mind was over 350 lb-ft of torque at the wheels. That said, it was time to change the rear toe bushings. It makes sense for a tuner such as Active Autowerke to sell these things--they'll help your car keep going straight under hard acceleration. The M3 turbos load the rear wheels so much the toe actually changes with the factory bushings as you step on the gas--even more so if they're worn out.

I saw this firsthand when I let my fiancee Rhonda drive Project M3 as I followed in another vehicle. I told her after she made an easy upshift to second gear to floor it. The next thing I saw was totally bizarre--Project M3 was accelerating as if it were trying to go sideways to the left a few inches, and this was without breaking the tires loose. Rhonda couldn't tell because she was holding on tightly to the steering wheel, and as far as she knew the car was going straight. Well, at least the front of it was.

I jumped in Project M3, got it up to 40 mph, let go of the steering wheel, and mashed the gas pedal in third gear. Sure enough, the car pulled hard to the left under full acceleration. However, constant speed or light acceleration didn't reveal this problem.

The solid aluminum bushings from Active Autowerke were designed to take care of this problem. "The factory rubber bushing gives out after a while, and the control arm begins to move. Hence the toe alignment begins to change. These solid bushings eliminate that problem," said Karl Hugh, cofounder of Active Autowerke.

Even some of the higher-mileage stock '95 M3s I test drove over a year ago pulled to the left under hard acceleration. If your E36 BMW is getting up there in mileage, it may be time to change out your bushings, especially if your car is putting out considerable power.

The toe problem was solved with the AA bushings, and the car is now a straight shooter. Only, as it is with almost every other modification, an upgrade rarely comes without some sort of compromise--in this case I'm talking about increased road noise. The rear suspension feels a lot stiffer and road noise is more apparent, especially when changing lanes and driving over highway lane reflectors. But, hey, it's a small price to pay to make sure my rear passengers are facing the same direction I am.

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By Pablo Mazlumian
77 Articles

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