After many months that we have been teased with spy photos, press releases and rumors, the 2008 BMW M3 has been put to test by the car magazines. We have all seen the press photos and many other pictures and brochures, but no one has had a chance to test the engine capability and the handling. In case you missed my previous articles, the 2008 BMW M3 is sporting a V-8 engine with 414-hp, 4.0-liter, 8400-rpm screamer. The lucky guys at Car And Driver had the privilege to test drive the new M3 and report the findings to all of us.
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When we’re talking about new 3-series BMWs, expectations run high, particularly so for M versions, and we arrived hoping for full-on fabulous, which the M3 mostly delivered. The surprising exception was in the steering department. The M3′s hydraulic rack has a much quicker, 12.5:1 ratio than that of regular 3-series and features two settings, normal and sport. In its normal setting, the steering is feather light, far lighter than in a regular 3-series and, according to BMW, enables the driver to park the car much more easily. Come on, is this what we really need on the M3? At 100-plus-mph speeds on the highway, the steering borders on scary light in its regular setting. It’s certainly accurate, however, and the sport setting clears up much of the lightness problem, but it still has a larger-than-we’d-like dead spot on-center and could use even more heft, in our opinion. Worse is that the level of tingly, tactile feedback coming through that thick-rimmed wheel seems to be dialed back a bit compared with the last M3 or even a current-gen 328i or 335i.
We’ve already spent plenty of time with the 4.0-liter V-8′s big brother, the 5.0-liter V-10 found in the M5 and M6, so we pretty much knew it was going to scream. But the M3′s breath-through-the-driver’s-side-mesh-hood-vent V-8 version is even better. Down low, it doesn’t sound all that happy, grumbling its way past 2000 rpm, but once you reach about 3000 revs, that meaty, growling V-8 noise comes in, and it really starts to pull, and pull, and pull it doesn’t quit showcasing a torque curve much broader than that of the V-10 and quickly hurtling the M3 to ridiculous speeds.
Check out the torque-peak differences: the V-10, 6100 rpm; the V-8, 3900. This makes the M3′s engine feel far more flexible, and it often doesn’t even need a downshift for passing, responding so strongly on the highway that a couple of times we mistakenly thought we were in fourth gear when we were still comfortably in sixth. Throttle blips under heel-and-toe downshifting are spectacular and happen almost naturally. But not surprisingly, the best part is the shrieking crescendo from 6000 rpm all the way to the 8400-rpm sweet spot. Sorry, 420-hp Audi RS 4; this one sounds better and pulls harder.
Dropping the hammer from a standstill, we blasted to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, 0.4 second quicker than the previous car, with the quarter-mile dispatched in 12.9 seconds at 111 mph, an even larger, 0.7-second gain. The surface wasn’t ideal, however, and we expect even better numbers once we get an M3 to our usual test track. Even so, that’s already enough to outrun the $69,785 Audi RS 4.
The six-speed manual (for now it’s the only transmission, although a dual-clutch automated manual is rumored to be on the way) has new ratios, but the shift effort feels awfully similar to the previous M3′s a touch imprecise, but willing enough, with shorter and stiffer throws than the regular 3-series units.
The heavily massaged M chassis, on the other hand, is brilliant even better than we expected. The rather brittle ride from the last-generation M3 is replaced by one that is amazingly supple, considering the M3′s ever-planted suspension and utter lack of body roll, squat, and dive. We spent a couple hundred miles in the M3′s comfortable and supportive saddles, tearing up the tangled mountain roads in Spain many of which have 50 km/h (31 mph) speed limits that we might or might not have exceeded by large factors in a fruitless search for imperfections.
There is a catch, however. To get this excellence, you must opt for the adjustable shocks, called EDC, which is the way all the cars we drove were equipped. BMW says the default conventional setup has a much-less-forgiving ride. At first, we were a bit skeptical about the usefulness of the three settings (comfort, normal, sport), and we couldn’t feel much difference among them. The reason for that is due to the system’s constant shock-valve-preload adjustment at each corner based on a number of inputs, including steering angle and lateral g when in either comfort or sport mode. That means when you turn in aggressively for a corner, you effectively get the stiffest sport setting and then the shocks soften up afterward. We don’t know what EDC will cost, but it works so well it’s worth whatever BMW charges.
Other electronic gimmickry includes M Drive, which is handed down from the M5 and M6 and allows you to configure all the settings (throttle mapping, steering effort, EDC suspension setting, stability-control mode) with one memory button on the steering wheel. By the way, that power button you see next to the shifter doesn’t have anything to do with power, as in the M5 and M6. It merely adjusts the throttle mapping between normal (which is plenty quick) and the over-the-top, bet-you-can’t-drive-smooth sport setting.
On the track, we appreciated the M3′s come-hither and forgiving limits; no matter how hard you push, it never makes you pay for your mistakes. It turns in like a champ, then puts all the power to the ground via the M-specific limited-slip differential (can we get one in the 335i, please?), ever resisting understeer, and transitioning surprisingly well, considering its claimed 3650-pound heft. High-speed stability? Well, once our courage had swelled enough to stay in the throttle through a 130-mph kink at Ascari, as well as during high-speed straight-line driving, we’d say it has plenty. And the brakes massive single-piston units with huge cross-drilled 14.2-inch front and 13.8-inch rear discs (significantly larger than even the brakes with the E46 Competition package) are phenomenal, with progressive feel and never once fading during our track time or extended mountain-road abuse. The trade-off is that they squeal. A lot. And this started even before we hit the track.
Equipped with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires some of the stickiest street tires known to man in 245/40R-18 front and 265/40R-18 rear sizes (19s are optional), the limits are upped significantly as well, despite a roughly 250-pound weight gain. (We hope never to see the day of a two-ton M3, but now it doesn’t seem impossible.) An impromptu skidpad test showed 0.94 g, a whopping 0.07 g higher than in the last E46 M3 we tested and about 0.04 g higher than in a Sport-package-equipped 335i. We didn’t get a chance to drive an M3 with the optional 19s, but we definitely prefer that design (an evolution of the E46′s double-spoke 18s) to the ones pictured here, which we think don’t stand out enough.
Of course, as with any 3500-plus-pound car on street tires, the rubber starts to get greasy after a couple hard laps on a track. At that point, the M3 starts to understeer more, a problem that can be remedied by the pedal on the right. And the car never snaps, happy to predictably slide its tail wide if you so desire.
With V-8 competitors like the 420-hp Audi RS 4 and the upcoming 451-hp Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and 400-plus-hp Lexus IS-F, we’re leading up to one heck of a showdown one that, based on our drive, the M3 has a strong chance of winning.
A Problem: Can You Afford One? If So, Bring Gas Money
But the biggest problem with the new M3 is likely the price, which is expected to climb to about $62,000 when it goes on sale next spring. That’s some $7000 more than the outgoing model, nearly double the price of a base 328i, and it’s getting steep for a 3-series-based car.
If you manage to overcome the price issue, be ready for a big fuel bill. The E46 M3 was rated at 16 mpg city and 24 highway, numbers that would drop to 14 and 22 under the 2008 test methods. Based on European numbers, the 08 M3 will likely drop about five percent to a projected 13/21 for the new M3. That’s not terrible, considering 24-percent power increase and nearly 300-pound weight gain, but it’s a whopping 25-percent lower than the twin-turbo 300-hp 335i, which is only about a half-second slower through the quarter-mile.
During our nontrack driving, we averaged about 14 mpg. Yes, we were wringing it out, but wouldn’t you? With the 08 M5 and M6 officially rated at 11/17, it’s clear this new family of high-revving M engines is a lot of things, but it ain’t fuel conscious.
Then again, there aren’t many inexpensive habits, and owning an M3 is certainly not an exception. And with almost 180,000 indulgers worldwide since the M3 madness began in 1986, we expect the line to be a long one for this new model.
Don’t you want to experience first-hand the 8400-rpm shriek from BMW’s highest-revving (and best) engine? “