BMW M3-01
BMW tranforms a sedan from refined to rabid with one simple letter.
By Bill Heald

There’s something we need to get out of the way from the get-go: The BMW 3 Series is a fine automobile. When driven in sedan form especially (there are a coupe and a convertible as well), it is a solid, sharp-handling, balanced midsize sport machine that is incredibly polished and loaded up the wazoo with technology. It’s no slug by any measure, and definitely the kind of ride you’d want to use to escort yourself and several of your chums to events in smart society. But, no matter how cool the 3 Series is, if you manage to get your hands on one with an “M” in the title, hoo boy.

From a very basic standpoint, when you stuff a 414-horsepower V-8 in the engine compartment of a lightweight sedan, you expect a performance boost. What happens in the M3’s case is something far wilder and more potent, almost as if this car had, anaconda-like, swallowed a Dodge Viper.

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The V-8 itself is only four liters in size, and actually weighs less than the previous M3 generation’s six-cylinder engine. But big power erupts from this compact package, thanks to an absurd amount of übercomplex engineering, including ion-current technology to fine-tune combustion and, as BMW puts it, “a separate throttle butterfly for each cylinder—eight in this instance—a feature adapted from BMW M’s racing heritage that provides immediate reaction to the gas pedal at all times.”

Oh, the gas pedal reacts, that’s for sure. When you bypass the standard six-speed manual transmission and opt for the automatic M Double Clutch Transmission with Drivelogic, the power gets to the rear wheels with neck-snapping urgency. This gearbox has seven speeds, 11 different shift programs (five for the automatic and six for the manual mode), and works with the crispness of a Formula 1–style sequential transmission. It’s a really wild experience to let all the ponies loose, especially from a standing start, as the transmission is able to handle a huge stomp on the throttle almost instantaneously. I’ve never been shot out of a cannon, but thanks to this monster I feel I have experienced something very similar.

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I’ve mentioned all the programs you can select for the transmission, but the engine itself has a power button that lets you select Normal, Sport, or Sportplus throttle-response settings. The adjustable Dynamic Stability Control governs the car’s desire to slide under power by altering engine, braking, and God-knows what-other algorithms to keep you in charge. This system even manages to help dry the brakes when they get wet, maintaining their potency. When completely dry, these huge ABS stoppers repeatedly hauled us down from 60 mph in just over 100 feet, which is outstanding (and quite welcome from a hide-preserving standpoint).

The suspension is taut, superfirm, and tuned as you would expect, for BMW believes in “engineering a chassis that is faster than the engine.” It is truly up to handling all the power, and naturally the bump response is adjustable through the optional Electronic Damper Control. Even the steering gets the full e-treatment: It’s called Servotronic, and it has two different control maps that regulate boost. Incidentally, one of the reasons the M3 is rear drive instead of AWD is so the front wheels can steer the car with maximum feedback, unencumbered by any drive hardware.

As much as BMW is focused on connecting the road with the driver, though, it also likes to try to meld the human with the car’s electronics with its unique iDrive system. Tweaked over the years, this joystick-meets big-round-dial that resides in the center console is used to navigate the audio, navigation, ventilation, and other systems. You’ll either love it or find it tedious and inefficient. But honestly, who wants to even bother with the audio components when you can make that glorious V-8 wail like a banshee?

Body style Four-door, reardrive sedan
Engine Four-liter V-8
Power 414 horsepower
Torque 400 foot-pounds
Transmission Seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Front tires 245/40 ZR18
Rear tires 265/40 ZR18
Curb weight 3,726 pounds
0–60 4.5 seconds
Top speed 155 mph
Fuel capacity 16.6 gallons
EPA mpg 14 city/20 highway
Price (as tested) $65,575
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