BMW ->So you’ve already driven the 335i and been impressed. You love the styling, love the engine and think you’re ready to plonk down your cash on a shiny new twin-turbocharged six-cylinder monster. But there’s something nagging at the back of your mind; something about that 335i not feeling like 10 years of evolution from your existing 330i, that perhaps there’s something better. Something more. Something… M.

M is a letter of the alphabet that has become synonymous with the truly ultimate driving machines. While BMW has always built all of their cars to drive like nothing else on Earth, there has almost always been that next level up for those who aren’t afraid to spend a few extra dollars and put themselves behind the wheel of a true drivers car. One that can chow down superslab all week long without complaint, and then celebrate the weekend in an haze of smoky tires and breathtaking corners. I am of course talking about BMW’s M3.

The current iteration of the M3 is the fourth generation of the car that for many marks the pinnacle of engineering in a mass production vehicle. Introduced in 2007 as a 2008 model year, the car inherited much of its appearance and thus “family traits” of the normal 3-series. Available as a coupe, convertible or a sedan, this “affordable supercar” had more agressive body styling with flared wheel arches and a “power bump” hood, but it was under that hood that the real magic happened: A 4 liter V8 pumping out an impressive 414 hp at an insane 8300rpm was squeezed into this relatively small car. Said V8 pumps out “only” 300lb/ft of torque at 3900rpm, but produces 90% of that torque just above idle and keeps it most of the way to redline. This formula 1 inspired engine really has to be experienced to be believed, and the M3 is the perfect platform to experience it.

(Picture of M3 in White)

BMW M3 Coupe in White

For more history of the M3 as a model, you could do worse than check out this wikipedia article which goes into much of the philosophy and history of the M3. Almost as a bonus, there’s also a link there to download the BMW M3 Challenge PC game, which is free and a lot of fun.

One reason I have to confess I decided to look at the M3; when I test drive the Audi S4 all that time ago, I realized quickly that for the same money as a loaded out S4 sedan, I could actually buy a more modestly equipped M3. This was a mind-blowing realization because I had always shied away from the M3 because I thought the price tag was north of 75K. Instead, the basic M3 sedan starts at a relatively paltry $57,000 or thereabouts… and that’s MSRP. Note that invoice prices are widely circulated on the ‘net for BMW’s, and there’s no reason you can’t get a car for a few thousand over invoice price these days.

So what’s it like to drive? Well, to find out I took out a 2009 M3 Sedan in Space Gray color. Mostly, this M3 was pretty much the base M3; it had combined cloth and leather interior (base option not available on the standard 3-series), a 6-speed manual transmission and no iDrive or similar toys. It did have the optional 19″ wheels, but my impressions are that the 18″ wheels would only make an impact in handling at the extreme rather than day-to-day.

The first thing one notes is the appearance of the car. In Space Gray, the car is beautiful. It’s subdued and subtle, but the styling definitely hints that this is not a regular 3-series. It certainly stands out in a row of its siblings as a far more aggressive and masculine looking vehicle. Unless you’re looking at a row of similar 3-series though its unlikely you’d notice most of the differences, except for that hood. That alone is the give-away that this is something a bit special.

For not much change from $70,000 it would need to be, too. Even in this pretty basic trim the car is closer to $60K, but add a few options and it rapidly escalates to a price that exceeds $70K. This is a lot of money for a sedan, but if you’re already in the rarified air of sedans at more than $50K, what’s the cost of a Hyundai on top of that going to affect?

"Base" M3 Cloth and Leather

So sit down in the M3 sedan on the comfortable cloth and leather seats where the seating surfaces themselves are cloth. These are a little unusual in the luxury sedan market; there’s definitely an opinion in the USA that luxury cars should have leather seats. Where this opinion came from is anyone’s guess because I can go and buy a $15k Hyundai with very acceptable leather seats brand new… and this is far from being a luxury car. However, that opinion remains, and for those who cannot conceive of buying a car in this price-range with cloth, there are a number of colours of leather available. For today though, my rear end is in a cloth seat.

I find that I like it. No, it doesn’t feel or move like leather but it does grip. You definitely get the impression that if you intend to track your car then cloth seats might be the way to go as they’ll hold you nicely in your seat right to the edge of handling. In everyday use, cloth might also be better if you live somewhere like Louisiana where it’s both hot and humid as these seats will allow your perspiration to evaporate better. How it would hold up over the long haul though is anyone’s guess. Leather might need a little more maintenance, but it can definitely last when cared for.

So, many of my impressions of the BMW 335i still apply here, particularly my comments regarding the interior. It’s still a pretty stark and empty interior, but once you’re driving you’ll barely notice it. Still, it’s not to everyone’s tastes, and as I pointed out in my review of the 335i Coupe, I personally prefer the dash with the iDrive “hump” in the middle. So where do things differ? Well, they don’t; except for the view out of the windshield having that huge hump in the hood sticking up part way. Not enough to distract, but definitely enough to let you know you’re in an M3. From the inside the only other markers of the M3 are the gorgeous M3 steering wheel and door sills… both of which are available on the standard 3-series.

Not much room under here...

The first big differentiator is of course the engine. Hold the clutch and hit the start button, and the powerplant just leaps to life in a sweet and contented burble you can only get from having 8 cylinders in front of you. There’s a certain “metallic” quality to the cold idle sound, but having read much about it online I know this is perfectly normal in the M3 and it will dissipate as the car warms up. Which also brings me to another thing I noticed; the redline on the tachometer moves! When you start the engine cold it will drop to around 6500rpm, but as the engine warms up it will move up to the “true” redline of 8300rpm. I know, it’s a geeky little thing but it does look extremely cool.

Getting ready to move off, the clutch pedal I note is heavy but no heavier than my E46 330i. Same for the shifter as I slide it into first gear; it’s a tad notchy but not in a negative way. It gives a really good and positive feel that the car has been slotted into gear. The throw of the shifter is a little long , but nothing that couldn’t be changed with a short shift kit if you are so inclined. From there I gently let the clutch out and start the car moving off.

Now, at low speeds when moving away the M3 is not exactly giving you the feeling of being a speed demon. It feels sedate at these speeds, but not in a bad way. The torque is right there right above idle, so getting the car moving is easy and completely drama free. The feeling of being sedate comes from the unhurried way the car just obediently does exactly what you want without delay or complaint. At least in this mode it’s difficult to see why one would choose the M3 over the other 3-series sedans, but I’m not sure if that speaks to the quality of the 3-series as a whole or the amount of engineering work it actually took to turn an engine like this into a really good street engine. Sitting at the entrance to the dealership though, I’m reminded that I’m in a very different 3-series car by the sound of that V8. By this time it’s settling into a less metallic sound, and more like it should. This is nice.

Out of the dealership, I goose the gas pedal a bit and I can feel the power under my foot. The torque comes on quickly and propels the car beautifully out onto the road and up to 40mph in the blink of an eye. Although most of this is torque and thus not much different from the 335i I drove earlier, it’s much more linear and predictable. It doesn’t have the momentary lag in the throttle I felt on both 335i test drives. This is mostly due to the difference between forced induction and naturally aspirated engines, the M3′s V8 being the latter. This, to me feels more natural… though the last turbocharged car I owned was almost a decade ago so I might be a little rusty with forced induction engines!

The speed builds linearly, but does not explode like the 335i. I think the best way to describe the power delivery is to paraphrase James May relating the acceleration characteristic of a Rolls Royce; it does not explode to speed, rather it “whooshes” to speed in a way that seems deceptively slow. In fact, quickly you find the RPMs building and you feel the urge to reach for the shifter. However, the engineer in me stays my hand. I’ve researched this car; I know that the magic in this car happens well above 4000 rpm, not down around 2-3000rpm where most cars do the majority of their work. Sure enough, there’s no dropoff in power, there’s no “lumpiness” to the power delivery… it just continues to pump power to the pavement in an almost turbine-smooth and untroubled take-off. By the time you do push in the clutch and reach for the shifter, the engine is already in the heady heights of 5500rpm but still has another 2800rpm to go to redline (that used to say 1800… my bad math showing itself). That in itself is an impressive piece of engineering.

Here’s where people get into trouble with the M3 though; they expect that a true sports car should explode out of the gate and howl its way to 100mph. This isn’t what supercars do. I’ve had the pleasure of driving a Ferrari or two in my time, and none of them did this. It’s only the modern small engined, often turbocharged cars that do this and it’s in no way indicative of true speed. In fact, by providing gobs of torque at low RPM’s, you lose a lot of top-end power. However, since most drivers (or automatic transmissions for that matter) shift WAY short of the peak of power in higher-revving cars, a car like the M3 can feel incredibly slow.

Compare for example some motorbikes. On the one hand we have the torque-heavy V-Twins that Harley Davidson churn out, and on the other hand we have motorcycles like Ducati bikes. On paper, they should be pretty even, or the HD should be faster because it produces gobs of torque at low RPMs. However, they redline in the 8000rpm range (which is low for a bike) while a Ducati will keep singing up to 14000rpm or more. It’s in this high-strung, high-revving place where performance bikes and Formula One cars live… that’s why they scream down the track with incredibly high-pitched sounds. BMW made the M3 to be one of these; high-revving and high-strung… where to get the best out of it you have to explore areas of the tachometer that most cars discourage you from ever exploring.

The shifter itself is nice… though relatively unremarkable. The clutch is a little heavy, but this could be attributed to this being a newish car. The shifter itself falls into gear relatively easily and feels for all the world almost exactly like my BMW 330i. Like many cars, a short-shift-kit would probably benefit the feel of the transmission, but the stock shifter is really not half bad and would be perfectly acceptable for 99% of drivers. There’s a satisfying “snick” as the shifter drops into place, and it’s easy enough to let the revs fall a smidgen before I re-engage the clutch.

So how would I summarize the experience so far? Linear, predictable… but never boring. That V8 out front sounds mean above 3500rpm, but when cruising it’s quiet as a pussycat. The sounds alone are addictive. Also, the view from the cockpit is good, with the same excellent visibility that you’ll find in all the current generation of BMW 3-series. There’s still that hump in the middle of the hood which I find draws my eyes occasionally… but hey, it’s no worse than the “clown nose” under the rear view mirror in my 330i that I swore would irritate me until I died when I first bought a Bimmer. Like everything, I realize that this is something that you can get used to quite quickly.

Coming to a set of lights the brakes bring the car to a nice and unhurried stop. One thing I do notice at this point though is a distinct lack of dive. Most cars suffer from dive when they come to an halt; the nose of the car gets dragged down by the brakes, adding more of a feeling of falling to the driver. The M3 doesn’t completely eliminate it, but as soon as the car stops there’s no sign of the “bounce back” when the nose comes back up. The car feels like it stopped completely flat. It’s hard to describe how nice that actually feels until you’ve felt it yourself. Again, when the lights change there’s that acceleration. It’s not like a Mustang Cobra scrambling off the line… it’s much more refined than that. I know that if I were to wring out the throttle at a stop and dump the clutch I could probably get a wheel spinning take off that might leave a cloud of smoke behind me, but firstly this isn’t my car and thus I’m not about to beat it up… especially not with the sales guy sitting in the back seat… and secondly there’s just a feeling that knowing the car’s capable is good enough.

So up onto the interstate. Like it or not, most of my driving is on the highway and I need to know how this car will perform when taken out onto the superslab. Sure enough, I press the gas pedal and the car sails up the entrance ramp onto Interstate 44, eating up the slope and the road like they weren’t even there. The car is at highway speeds long before it reaches the merging point, and so there’s plenty of power to merge into the fast moving traffic. This is a car that has been built so it can drive down the Autobahn at 150mph… American Interstates are a light snack in comparison.

It’s then that I notice that despite the performance tuned stock suspension, the ride is absolutely wonderful. It’s smooth, predictable and there’s absolutely no harshness entering the cabin. The 335i for all its niceties had a certain “buzzy” quality to the suspension that could be felt through the steering wheel on the highway. This has none of that… it feels composed and completely in control. We don’t go far down the highway like this, just far enough for me to tell that this car can be an incredibly comfortable highway cruiser, even on the rather broken and worn out Interstate 44 in St. Louis.

So to skip forward, I returned to the dealership and looked at the M3. It’s different… very different than the 335i sedan I drove earlier. The stick compared to the automatic was just part of it; the whole car had a different feel.

I used to own a Saab 900. It was an odd car, and did things completely differently than the M3 in just about every way; it was front wheel drive, an hatchback and had styling that people either loved or hated… though most hated. However, one thing the two cars have in common; the car doesn’t feel like it were built so much, rather it feels like it was carved from a single lump of rock. It feels that solid, that planted and that stable. You look at the car and marvel at how all these incredibly complex moving parts can move together so beautifully, in such a symphony that you can barely tell that there’s anything actually moving at all. Both also have that telepathic connection to the wheels that means you can pretty much drive the car by feel, and you know exactly what’s going on at the wheels at every moment. The Saab however would tend to wrench the steering wheel out of your hands on hard acceleration… torque steer is something that’s a bear on front wheel drive cars… whereas the M3 with its rear-drive platform has none of these tendencies.

In summary, the BMW M3 looks like a 3-series and smells like a 3-series… but sounds and drives like something completely different. In many ways the M3 sedan is the spiritual successor to the incredibly well regarded E39 M5; it has similar weight and power, and is even similar in size. However the styling and the high-strung V8 put it firmly in the realms of a more raw, more visceral experience. While the M5 was almost exactly as fast as the M3 on review here, it was even more refined. I always wanted that generation of M5… the E60 M5 really just never did it for me in style. Since I can’t buy that new any more, maybe the M3 is the right car for me?

If you’re looking for a stop-light to stop-light racer then the M3 is not for you. At lower speeds it will not accelerate like more dedicated drag cars like a Corvette ZR-1, and in many ways it will fall behind even in the quarter mile. However, the M3 is not in its element on the drag track; it needs corners to really excel. This is where true supercars live. The M3 is not a supercar, but it’s maybe as close as one can really get with four doors for less than $100,000. It’s not for everyone; that high-revving V8 requires a very specialized driving style to get the best out of it… but for those who want this sort of performance in a small-ish 4-door saloon… there really aren’t many other options out there at this price range.