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BMW has come a long way in the past 50 years, from the low point in the winter of 1959 when its fortunes were so bad that it was nearly sold to Mercedes-Benz, to becoming a world powerhouse of motorcycles, high-performance cars, luxury sedans and SUVS. Like Mercedes-Benz with its AMG in-house racing and high-performance specialists, BMW has created its M division, primarily responsible for motorsports, but also for high-performance cars, including the M3 version of the 3 Series, the M5 version of the 5 Series, and the M6 version of the 6 Series (no M7 yet, and no high-performance versions of their SUVs, but it's only a matter of time). The M3 is the one with the longest history and the most affordability, so it has become extremely popular over the last four generations of the 3 Series.
Every generation of BMW 3 Series, for the past four generations, has offered the enthusiast driver an M3, something rare and special at the top of the lineup, something that the cognoscenti will recognize and appreciate every time it goes by, and something that is quicker, faster, flatter and flashier than the regular 3 Series, for the owner's maximum driving and bragging enjoyment.
Every one of the previous generations was powered by a modified version of the famous BMW inline six-cylinder engine, but this new generation has broken with that long tradition to become the first V8-powered M3 in BMW history.
For now, the BMW M3 in the North American lineup comes as the coupe and the less-expensive sedan, but if history is any indicator, these will soon be followed by a convertible version, the same model flow as the last two generations of M3. The first car to arrive, the M3 coupe, will be replete, including every available safety feature from ABS to stability control, traction control, six air bags, and run-flat high-performance tires.
The M3 also packs a tremendous amount of electronic wallop, with dynamic stability control having new interconnected control features, electronic damper control for the shock absorber settings, iDrive for the radio, navigation and telephone as well as two different power steering modes, normal and sport, that can be selected through iDrive.
The 2008 BMW M3 coupe ($57,275) and sedan ($54,575) come with a high-performance 4.0-liter V8 mated with a six-speed manual transmission.
Although the M3 is quite complete, there is an option list, containing items like DVD navigation, the competition brakes, Electronic Damper Control, the MDrive electronic control system, adaptive headlamps that turn corners before the car does, an optional interior lighting scheme that paints a rim of light around the entire cockpit, leather upholstery, and a 16-speaker, 825-watt sound system.
An important option is MDrive, an electronic control system that enables the driver to tailor suspension, steering, and engine performance to his own personal tastes and style, with almost 300 possible combinations, using a single button on the multi-function steering wheel to switch from the normal mode to the M mode. The MDrive system was piloted on the larger, more expensive M5 sedan and M6 coupe and convertible and is available on the new 3 Series for the first time. Another new feature is the Variable M Differential Lock, which automatically apportions traction to the two rear tires depending on which has more grip at the moment, a feature that really enhances high-performance driving in bad weather conditions or on twisty roads.
The exterior appearance of the M3 coupe is suitably distinctive, front, side, rear and roof, compared to any other 3 Series coupe. Especially the roof, which, while it is exactly the same size and shape as the rooves on other 3 Series coupes, is made of carbon fiber, to lighten the body considerably and lower the center of gravity for better handling and left/right/left maneuvering at speed.
The body of the new M3 is a combination of steel, aluminum, and the aforementioned carbon-fiber roof panel, with an aluminum hood that carries a distinctive power bulge to clear the V-8 engine underneath it. The widened, flared front fenders carry the M3 trademark gill slots, and the rear end shows the other M3 trademark, four tailpipes. A new front air dam under the bumper and a very smooth, flat bottom add up to excellent aerodynamics, with a drag coefficient of only 0.31.
The M3 interior design scheme is racy from every angle. It carries a special small-diameter, high-grip leather-covered M steering wheel with redundant controls for the audio system and optional telephone. To complement the wheel, there is a set of competition-flavored, body-gripping bucket seats up front, each one built with a special foam inside for excellent upper body support in fast corners. There's the usual array of discreet red, white and blue M decorations on the seats, door panels, and instrument panel. The white-on-black instruments are typical BMW, with red pointers, and the tachometer can change its yellow-line and red-line limits depending on engine oil temperature, a featured designed to prevent premature engine wear on cold days.
The new M3 center console goes all the way to the rear seats, and wraps around the driver seat to make a cozy, comfortable and eminently usable cockpit. With the M3, there are no interior color choices. Whatever you want, you get dark anthracite, a feature that BMW says helps keep driver distraction to a minimum.
This is one of those cars that sends writers scurrying to look for new and unusual superlatives, because it stands head and shoulders above all of the previous generations of M3 in sex appeal, but mostly in performance.
With the 414-horsepower V8 engine, an engine fully capable of 8400 rpm, the slick BMW six-speed manual transmission, and a cockpit made for high-performance driving, the V8-powered M3 is nothing short of spectacular. The story starts with a 0-60-mph time of only 4.7 seconds and goes from there to a an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. With a 12:1 compression ratio, it demands expensive 95-98 octane premium fuel.
The engine is powerful and willing and revs to the moon. The slick new double-disc clutch and six-speed transmission are race-quality. The big, fat, sticky tires tell the chassis what to do next. The onboard electronic systems evaluate conditions 200 million times per second so that the car knows exactly what to do next as we tackle this track together, lap after delicious lap, until we are waved in and our track session is ended.
We've driven all of the previous M3s, but we've never experienced this level of acceleration, braking, steering and handling in an M3. There's something very different about the way this M3 behaves, and most of that difference is under that newly domed hood.
While all three previous M3s were powered by either inline four- or six-cylinder engines, the 2008 version is the first M3 ever to use a V8 engine. It's a 4.0-liter 32-valve, 414-horsepower all-aluminum masterpiece that shares much of its design and componentry with the 5.0-liter V10 engines used in the bigger, more expensive M5 and M6 performance cars. It makes a whopping 22 percent more power than the last M3 engine.
The new V8 features variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves (which BMW calls Double VANOS), and unlike most V8 engines, it uses eight individual throttle assemblies, like racing engines, controlled by drive-by-wire electronics.
This is the highest-revving BMW production engine ever built, revving up to a maximum of 8400 rpm, and it makes maximum power at 8300 rpm. Maximum torque is 295 foot-pounds. BMW says it will take the new lightweight coupe form 0-62 mph or 0-100 kilometers per hour in just 4.8 seconds, topping out at a limited 155 mph. The engine weighs some 33 pounds less than the smaller inline six-cylinder engine it replaces. To make sure than the engine always has the lubricant it needs under acceleration or braking, it has a forward oil pan and a rear oil pan.
Underneath the carbon-fiber roof panel and the slick new bodywork, there is a brand new chassis and suspension system, a lightweight suspension featuring MacPherson strut front suspension, lightweight five-link rear suspension, and one of the most wonderful, linear and responsive power steering systems we have ever used. The differential has a locking feature than can transmit up to 100 percent of the available engine power to whichever rear tire has more traction. The tires are special M3 versions of the Michelin Pilot Sport, P245/35ZR-19s on 19-inch alloy M wheels.
The huge ABS brakes, 14.2 inches front and 13.8 inches rear, feature iron rotors and aluminum hubs, with ventilated discs all around, and a unique brake energy regenerating system, usually found on hybrids, that uses the brakes to charge the battery and shuts off the alternator during acceleration and cruising. There's an optional competition brake system that's even more powerful than the standard brakes.
The new M3 also brings with it an ideal 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, and a host of electronic chassis systems including traction control, dynamic stability control, cornering brake control, a start-off assistant to keep the car from rolling forward or back on grades, a driver's choice of three different shock absorber modes with the optional EDC system. If desired, the dynamic stability
The BMW M3 is the defining performance car for the lineup of 3 Series cars that define BMW. This is a lot of high-performance car in a small package.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Marbella, Spain.