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2008 BMW M3

Gerhard Richter is reading our mind. How, we’re pondering as we prepare to drive it for the first time, can the new, fourth-generation BMW M3 get close to matching the qualities of the outgoing model? The outspoken head of development at BMW’s M division has lived and breathed this car for three years. He knows it better than anyone else—every last nuance, it would seem. He’s convinced it is a step forward.

“It’s different in a number of areas, but all the intrinsic M3 qualities remain,” he assures us as he walks over to the bright red coupe in which we’re sitting. He draws back on a cigarette and adds, “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

With that, he whips the frameless door shut and guides us up the driveway of the Spanish resort in Marbella where BMW has chosen to launch its new M3, tapping his fingers on the expensive carbon-fiber roof that now comes as standard as a parting gesture. “Let’s talk later,” he says with a smile though the open driver-side window.

The map we’ve been given plots out a familiar route. Rising from sea level, it winds its way uphill over the Sierra Palmitera mountain range toward the ancient town of Ronda. It is as tough a test of a car’s dynamics as you’re likely to find on a public road. Peppered with long straights, fast and open sweepers set into rocky surroundings and all sorts of road surfaces, it is the perfect place to get to know the new M3. Later on, we’ll also get the opportunity to put the new BMW on a racetrack.

The new M3 is a bigger step away from the standard 3 Series coupe than any of its predecessors ever were. Right from the very beginning, it was conceived to be a more unique car than any time in its illustrious 20-year history. The new M3 and 3 Series coupe roll down the same production line at BMW’s Regensburg factory in Germany, but there’s now little that is shared between them. “It is 80 percent new in terms of its components,” says Richter.

The fourth-generation model boasts twice the cylinder count and double the power of the first-generation model. This speaks more about the competition than BMW’s desire to let the M3 slip into a power race. With the Audi RS4 and impressive new Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG in its sights, BMW has been forced to provide it with more firepower than the outgoing model. The question is: Has BMW gone too far? The key to the M3’s appeal has always been its responsiveness, the way its individual components all mesh together to provide fabulous tactility. Now it seems the engine is taking over the primary role. Or is it?

The new M3 was always going to get a V8. “We decided very early in the development process that the only way to move forward was to go with a bigger engine. The inline-six is still great, but it is at its limit from an engineering standpoint. There’s just no way we can wring any more out of it without reliability becoming a big issue,” reveals Richter. And what a phenomenal powerplant it is. Based on the same 90-degree architecture as the V10 found in the M5, it heralds in an exciting new era for BMW’s iconic performance coupe.

Significantly, the 4.0-liter is lighter and shorter than the six it replaces, allowing BMW to mount it farther back in the engine bay for an even more favorable weight distribution. It’s the output that steals the show, though. With a heady 420 hp at 8300 rpm, the new V8 endows the new M3 with 77 hp more than its predecessor while retaining the car’s reputation for delivering more than 100 hp per liter. Torque has also risen by 27 lb-ft to 295 lb-ft at a high 3900 rpm. Yet while the figures are impressive, it’s the deep baritone exhaust note that signals the biggest change in character.

This is one of the most-advanced engines ever to head into a road car: double Vanos variable camshaft control, individual throttle butterflies for each cylinder, equal-length stainless-steel exhaust system, force regulated oil supply and ionic current knock detection governed by the most powerful engine-management system BMW has developed—the so-called MS S60. A power button located down by the driver’s thigh on the center console also offers two different engine maps. Stick it in normal mode, and you think it feels strong until you dial up the more aggressive sport mode and there is a heightening in response. It is how we leave it all day. Topping it all off is BMW’s new brake energy regeneration system. It uses an alternator that is disconnected when the engine is under load, with energy flowing to the battery only under braking to keep efficiency high and power focus on acceleration.

If you’re getting the impression that just about everything about the new engine is dedicated to speed, you’re right. This car is fast. Gun it from a standing start with the ESP system deactivated ,and it will spin its rear wheels in first, second and—when you’re trying hard—third gear. BMW says it will hit 62 mph in 4.8 seconds, given the right surface—down 0.4 second on the old M3 but not quite in the same league as the new Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, whose claimed 4.5 seconds makes it slightly faster up the strip. And the Audi RS4? Despite boasting four-wheel drive, it is claimed to take the same time.

Still, it is the M3’s in-gear performance that raises eyebrows when we find a deserted stretch of the snaking A-397 and let it rip. A fourth-gear 50-to-75-mph split of just 4.9 seconds is hair-raising in its intensity, shaming many mid-engined supercars in the process. This in a four-seat coupe weighing 3500 pounds. Blimey! Top speed is once again limited to 155 mph but with a high 3.846:1 final drive channeling the drive rearward, the new M3 is claimed to reach all the way up to 200 mph without electronic intervention. Charging hard on wide-open straights, its high-speed stability is impressive.

Then there’s the gearbox. BMW is not saying much at the moment, suggesting the six-speed manual fitted on all the cars at the M3 launch this week is suited to the new engine. It would, of course, and in combination with a new double-plate clutch, it proves to be slick in its actions. However, with plans for a new seven-speed double-clutch gearbox to make its appearance early next year, we’ll reserve judgment until then.

Slot back a couple of gears to send the new M3’s engine soaring. The immediacy is impressive for a production-car powerplant assembled to the same generous tolerances as the rest of the German carmaker’s engine lineup. Tapping the throttle sees it gain revs with rabid enthusiasm. Lift off, and it loses them with the same sort of focused zeal. They’re the kind of friction-free characteristics that BMW touts for its motorsport engines; an association it is keen to cultivate; the engine from the M3 and the BMW-Sauber Formula One car are cast alongside each other in the same light-metal foundry at Landshut in southern Germany. Production of the new M3’s V8 takes place alongside the M5’s V10 at BMW’s specialty-engine plant in Munich.

Although peak torque doesn’t arrive until you’ve used up almost half of the available revs, you’d hardly describe the new M3 as being sluggish low down. No way. There’s genuine shove from 2000 rpm, the advanced electronics altering the intake system, fuel-injection mixture and valve timing to help give it the sort of bottom-end savagery to make the old 3.2-liter six seem ordinary. And neither does the torque show any sign of waning through the midrange. It is so vast, you get 6000 rpm and think there can’t be much more left. But in fact, there is still a large chunk of revs left to conquer.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Before we even had a chance to sample its brilliant new V8 racing up to its 8500-rpm redline with all the apparent single-mindedness of a thoroughbred race-car engine, the aggressive good looks of the new M3 had already heightened our senses. Okay, so its shape is shared to a large extent with the latest 3 Series coupe. But the styling changes made by BMW M division’s chief designer, Ulf Weidhase, give the new coupe a menacing appearance that makes some earlier M3 models, most notably the second-generation version from 1991, look almost plain by comparison.

Nowhere is this more evident than up front, where a gaping center flanked by sizeable brake cooling ducts and a new hood sporting a large power dome and a pair of vents help set the M3 apart. Added to this are more flared wheel arches, scalloped vents in the front fenders housing the side repeater lights, funky new mirror housings, widened side sills with a distinctive lip to smooth airflow along the lower flanks, a subtle Gurney-lip-style spoiler atop the trunk and a reprofiled rear bumper incorporating a diffuser-style element to draw hot air away from the rear differential bookended by BMW M division’s now trademarked quad-tailpipe treatment.

Even the most casual fast-car observer will realize this car means business. It has great presence, especially on the optional 19-inch forged aluminum Fuchs wheels on our test car. They are shod with big 245/40 front and 265/40 rear tires that flesh out the wheel arches, giving the M3 a hunkered-down character from every angle. Even on the standard wheels and tires—a combination of 18-inch forged aluminum Speedlines running the same 245/40 front and 265/40 rear rubber—you won’t be disappointed. Together with the initial coupe model, BMW is also planning to introduce the M3 in both convertible and sedan body styles, too.

While its hard-core engine dominates proceedings, the M3’s chassis feels unified in its actions. There’s an inherent athleticism to its movements that you just don’t find in the latest 3 Series coupe—itself a fine car. Although sharing the same basic design, with MacPherson struts up front and a multilink arrangement at the rear, much of the new BMW’s suspension components are unique. The attention to detail makes you appreciate the price premium that BMW applies to the new M3 over its standard 3—the stabilizer bars, for example, are both hollow but the front unit measures 26.5 mm in diameter and gets a wall thickness of 4.0 mm, while the rear is 22.3 mm across and has a wall thickness of 3.5 mm. They are small differences, but Richter insists they are crucial in providing the M3 with its individual dynamic character.

Underneath, aluminum is used throughout in a bid to reduce the unsprung masses—a crucial factor in providing the new car with such rabid response. Many of the rubber bushings also have been replaced by steel units in the interests of greater tactility. The biggest development according to Richter, however, concerns the way the front wheel bearings connect to the damper units. Instead of requiring a heavy, high-strength steel brace, they are now held in place by a patented flange, adding stiffness while lowering weight and cutting down on the number of components. The hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system has also been reworked; the standard 16.0:1 ratio making way for a more direct 12.5:1 setup.

Charging up the road toward Ronda, the M3 feels vice-less—taut body control, a firm but controlled ride and a level of grip matched only by a handful of front-engine cars helping to keep progress strong. You can carry big speeds into open sweepers and rely on the terrific damping, immense purchase and generous traction created by the M-differential to retain your chosen line without needing to feather the throttle. In tighter corners there is a trace of understeer on entry—the nose running wide when you dive in deep, but it is quelled keeping the throttle down for a more neutral stance, a slight flick of opposite lock helping to correct the line upon exit. It is all progressive. As a driver, you feel flattered by the ease of it all.

Confidence builds quickly; we traveled less than 20 miles before we felt assured enough by the quality of the chassis to switch the variable ESP (electronic stability program) to a so-called M-mode, in which the threshold is set higher than the default mode to induce greater levels of oversteer. As you’d expect, the M3 will hang its tail out on command, but you do need to provoke it to see exaggerated slip angles, so effectively does the chassis handle the V8’s power. You’d need to be confident in your ability to disable the ESP on public roads. On the racetrack, though, it is great fun.

For all this, though, the M3 is not quite as tactile in its actions, perhaps, as the car it replaces. The steering, which also offers the choice between normal and sport modes, is very light for a car boasting such explosive performance, giving the impression of being a tad vague as you turn the wheel away from the straight ahead. It is only a small factor in the overall scheme of things, but it does detract from the overall driving experience. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion system also fails to weight up sufficiency when you begin to wind on greater amounts of lock. More weight is needed.

You are also aware of the car’s larger dimensions. It never feels quite as wieldy when you are pressing as before. It’s not all that much bigger, but it gives the feeling that the M3 has moved up in size. Call it middle-age flab, if you like.

No such reservations about the brakes, though; they’re as effective at wiping off speed as the engine is generating it. The front discs are a generous 360 mm in diameter, while those at the rear measure 330 mm; they’re grabbed by twin piston sliding aluminum calipers that use electronic sensors to monitor pad wear and vary the M3’s stability control threshold accordingly. The pedal is beautifully weighted and full of feel; you can modulate the brakes right up the point where the ABS antilock begins to cycle with great confidence. And they do this over and again without any sign of fade.

Ride quality? That depends on what damper setting you select. Like the larger M5, the new M3 receives EDC (electronic damper control) with three different options. In comfort mode, it mops up bumps with composure but trades it off with added roll in corners. The sport mode is best reserved for press-on driving where the added tautness gives it a rather unyielding feel but keeps the body flat. The best compromise, then, is normal mode, which introduces firmness without making it too fidgety over broken pavement while keeping things on a nice even keel.

To help you make the most of all its electronic systems, the M3 receives MDrive—a system that first made its appearance on the M5 back in 2004. Easily accessed via a button on the steering wheel, it allows you to program your preferred chassis settings and store them. When you are in the mood, and the conditions allow, you can then retrieve them; the settings appearing on the iDrive monitor, though, where they can also be altered if so required. At start-up, the M3 defaults to standard mode, but with a press of the MDrive button, you can sharpen up the steering, stiffen the damping and set the ESP to function at a higher threshold. You’re not likely to use it every day, but it is a nice touch for those times when the road and weather conditions invite you to play.

Driving the M3 has always been a compelling experience, and that feeling remains with this new one. Arriving back from Ronda after a solid day behind the wheel, we are in awe of its abilities. The new engine is potent, endowing it devastating pace when you call upon it with a heavy right foot. However, it doesn’t dominate proceedings in the same one-dimensional way we suspected it might. That’s because the chassis it is placed in is well up to the job of corralling its reserves. It devours corners with clinical efficiency. In making it do so, however, BMW has been forced to trade off some of the M3’s renowned sensitivity. But never mind, as Richter intimates as we relay our thoughts to him later, there’s still the CSL version to come. That day can’t come soon enough . . .

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