BMW M3: The Best of the Best

For power, performance, and near-perfect engineering, the new BMW M3 may well be worth the $17,000 premium over the regular 3 Series

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Raw speed, magnificent handling

The Bad: High price (list and for options), performance car fuel economy

The Bottom Line: BMW outdoes itself—again.

Up Front

BMW (BMWG) set itself up for a potential fall with the introduction last year of the latest generation of its 335i sedans and coupes. The 335i is such a sweet-handling car—and so incredibly quick—that it eclipsed the previous generation M3, which is supposed to be the fastest model in the 3 Series lineup. Indeed, BMW temporarily dropped the M3 for the '07 model year, and it wasn't clear to many outsiders how the company could surpass the 335i by a sufficient margin to justify the M3's traditional premium price.

I've just test-driven the '08 M3 Coupe, the fourth generation of the M3, and I have to say BMW did a masterful job with it. The new M3 eclipses the 3 Series in dozens of small increments that add up to notably better handling. Whether the M3 is worth its premium price is another matter. The M3 Coupe starts at $58,575, including a $1,300 federal gas guzzler tax—which is 17 Gs more than the $41,575 starting price of the '08 335i Coupe. Personally, I'd probably bank the extra $22,500 and content myself with a BMW 228i, which is a bit slower and starts at a "mere" $36,075, but that's just me. If you want the crème de la crème in this class of BMW, pay up for the M3.

In addition to the Coupe, the M3 comes as a convertible and, for those who want the convenience of four doors, a sedan. The M3 Sedan costs $3,000 less than the Coupe, partly because the Coupe has a lightweight carbon fiber roof that isn't available on the Sedan. The new M3 convertible, starting at $67,025 (including the gas guzzler tax), came out in early May.

The M3 is more than just a souped-up version of the 3 Series. Its interior is similar, and the M3 shares some parts with the regular 3 Series—things like doors, trunk lid, and windows. But there's no mistaking the two if you look closely. Among other things, the M3 has four tailpipes, big bulging fenders to accommodate its extra-wide Michelins, and a noticeable power bulge in its hood.

Mechanically, the M3 is upgraded, with the most obvious difference being its engine. Under the hood is a 4.0-liter, 414-horsepower V8, which is 24% more powerful than the inline 6 in the previous M3, yet weighs 7% less. (The regular 3 Series models are powered by an inline 6 that, in the 335i, has double turbochargers and generates 300 hp.)

The unsurprising downside of the M3's greater power is lower fuel economy. The '08 M3 is rated to get 14 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, and it uses premium gasoline. In 1,060 miles of fast, mainly highway driving, I got 17.6 mpg. By comparison, the '08 BMW 335i with stick shift is rated to get 17/26, the '08 328i 19/28.

BMW has high hopes for the M3. The company had a record year in North America in 2007 but is off to a rough start in 2008, with BMW car sales off 6.7%, to 67,083, through the end of April. Sales of the 3 Series fell 17.1%, to 38,414, in the first four months of the year.

Nonetheless, BMW expects to sell about 10,000 M3s in North America this year. That would just about match the M3's previous peak sales, which came in 2002, the year the third generation M3 debuted. That year, BMW says it sold 5,439 M3 Coupes and 4,069 M3 convertibles.

Behind the Wheel

The new M3 is a great car for speeding through rolling hills and loping around wide curves. Its V8 revs to a maximum of 8,400 rpm, much higher than most engines. It delivers a maximum of 295 ft. lb. of torque, which isn't a lot of oomph, but the magic of the engine's tuning is that 85% of maximum power is available all the way up to 6,500 rpm. In practical terms, that means you experience a long, thrilling surge of power as you run the M3 through each gear.

It's also even quicker than the 335i. BMW says the M3 will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds, which is marginally faster than the 4.8 second-fastest time I (and other journalists) got in the 335i. However, Road and Track magazine clocked the new M3 at 4.6 seconds, and Car and Driver at 4.4. Also, BMW officially rates the 335i Coupe's zero-to-60 acceleration at 5.3 seconds with a stick shift and 5.5 seconds with an automatic.

Practically speaking, only an expert driver can achieve such fast times with the M3's standard stick shift. If you're an average driver who relishes fast acceleration, check out the M3's new optional gearbox, dubbed M-Double Clutch with Drivelogic by BMW. It can operate as a five-speed automatic but also allows you to do the shifting yourself without having to deal with a clutch. "Manumatic" transmissions are less macho than traditional stick shifts, but all you have to do to match the M3's rated zero-to-60 times is punch the gas and hold on for dear life. BMW says the new M-Double Clutch transmission shifts even faster than its Steptronic manumatic—which is to say, almost instantly.

One of the intriguing things about the M3 is its optional M Drive system, which allows you to configure the car's driving dynamics to your personal taste. You can enter your settings in memory via the car's iDrive electronic control system and call them up simultaneously by pushing a little "M" button on the steering wheel. Or you can change the settings on the fly via three buttons on the center console.

The DSC (for Dynamic Stability Control) button allows you to put the stability control system into "M" mode, which means it only kicks in when you're in danger of wrapping the car around a tree (or, as the owner's manual delicately puts it, "at the absolute limit of stability"). The EDC (Electronic Damper Control) system can be set on "Comfort," which softens the ride, "Normal," during which the ride is a bit harder, and "Sport," which noticeably stiffens up the suspension.

The "Power" button controls the engine dynamics. "Sport" mode makes the engine jumpier, causing it to "respond to accelerator movements with high spontaneity and uncompromising sportiness," to quote from the owner's manual. You can also change the M3's steering dynamics. If you want to wrestle with the steering, as you would in an old fashioned sports car, put it in the "Sport" setting.

Toggle back and forth between more and less sporty settings using the "M" button, and you'll see what a difference this system makes. In the sportiest modes, the M3 seems to strain forward like an animal trying to burst free of its chain.

The big downside of the M3, as with other BMWs, is its expensive options. The Technology Package that includes M Drive costs $3,250, the M-Double Clutch transmission $2,700. Metallic paint goes for $475, and an iPod/USB connection is $400. On the plus side, BMW continues to simplify its once notorious iDrive system. You'll probably still need the owner's manual to figure it out, but the new M3's manual is a single 245-page volume (a miracle of concision for BMW) and is easy to understand.

Buy it or Bag It?

The M3's toughest competition is probably the Mercedes-Benz (DAI) C63 AMG, which has a more powerful engine but is also heavier. In comparison tests, Road and Track magazine ranked the C63 AMG slightly ahead of the M3 (with the Audi RS 4 and Toyota's (TM) Lexus IS F, the other main competitors, trailing). Motor Trend gave the M3 a slight edge over the Mercedes.

In terms of price, the M3 is in the middle of the pack. The average recent selling price of the '08 BMW M3 Coupe is $68,284, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That's 3 grand more than the '08 Mercedes C63 AMG ($65,279), although PIN cautions that its sample size for the Mercedes is too small to be accurate for sure. On average, the M3 costs 7 grand more than the Lexus IS F ($60,900) and 5 grand less than the Audi RS 4 ($73,540), according to PIN, which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).

Of course, the 3 Series Coupe and Sedan cost far less and are among the best cars I've ever driven. But if you've read this far, you probably want the best of the best, and that's the M3.

See's slide show to see more of the 2008 BMW M3 Coupe.

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