Don’t ever think “yuppie” again.
Let’s put an end to the BMW-yuppie link. These days, all you have to do is whisper “BMW,” and everyone immediately thinks “yuppie.” Enough of the yups! That overpublicized group of consumers, who lust after Bimmers as they do any object perceived to confer status on its owners, could never fully appreciate the car you see on these pages. We don’t mean to say that the young urban professionals won’t love the new M3. After all, it’s got that famous badge on the hood. And you know, it’s the prestigious Eurosedan and everything. But will they realize that the M3 is the latest well-muscled, painstakingly crafted creation from BMW’s esteemed Motorsport department? “Nah, but it’ll sure look great in front of the condo.”
The M3 deserves better. This is not a car for yuppies. This is a car for us. In case you haven’t noticed, BMW’s US lineup has blossomed to include a dazzling array of leather-lined hot rods that beg to be flogged through the twisties and hammered on the superslabs. Gone are the anemic four-cylinder models that nearly ruined BMW’s image. Nearly extinct are the Bimmers reserved for social climbers.
The M3 is the most recent of the broad-shouldered BMW Motorsport models to reach our shores. For those not yet fluent in M-speak, the M-machines are limited-edition, high-performance versions of the 3-, 5-, and 6-Series sedans. For several years the M-cars were a treat reserved for European buyers, but since early this year they have been trickling into the hands of hungry American enthusiasts. The M5 and the M6 debuted stateside in February, and the M3 joined the brawny pair in June.
The M3 is available to enthusiasts because of the rules that govern FIA Group A racing. To qualify a car for Group A competition, its manufacturer must build a minimum of 5000 examples of it within twelve months. The rules also strictly limit the modifications that can be made for racing, so most of the performance hardware must be baked into the roadgoing cars. BMW Motorsport clearly knows the recipe for success in Group A road racing: after the fourth of seven European Touring Car Championship events this year, the M3 had already clinched the title.
The M3′s racing heritage is immediately apparent in its steroid-injected bodywork. With its aggressive assortment of air dams, body flares, and spoilers, the M3 will quicken the pulse of any boy (or girl) racer lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. Most of the new pieces are made of steel, though the rocker panels, the trunk lid, the front air dam, and the rear wing are molded in plastic. The rake of the rear window has been altered for improved aerodynamics, and both it and the windshield are bonded flush with the surrounding bodywork. The net result of all these aero tweaks is a drag coefficient of 0.33, down substantially from the 325i’s 0.37Cd. Perhaps more important, no one will ever mistake the burly M3 for an ordinary 3-Series sedan.
The subskin make-over is equally impressive. Like its 3-Series siblings, the M3′s fully independent suspension has struts in front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, but the coil springs and the gas shocks have been revised and strengthened for race duty. The shorter springs drop the M3 about an inch lower than the 325i. In addition, the front anti-roll bar is attached to the struts rather than to the control arms, and a beefier anti-roll bar is fitted to the rear.
Formula 1 fans will think they’ve died and gone to Monaco the first time they lift the M3′s hood. Inside sits a normally aspirated, 2.3litre version of BMW’s brutal, turbocharged four-cylinder Grand Prix engine. This is the only remaining four banger in BMW’s US lineup, but it’s anything but a prestige-sapping weakling. Hardware enthusiasts have plenty to drool over here: four valves per cylinder, double overhead camshafts, an individual throttle for each cylinder, tuned intake and exhaust plumbing, and a new ML3 Bosch Motronic engine-management system. As further proof that this is no ordinary powerplant, its cam cover and air cleaner are emblazoned with the words “BMW M Power.”
Though the “M” stands for “Motorsport,” we think “Mucho Power” is more like it. The sixteen-valve four-cylinder turns out 192hp at a lofty 6750rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4750. If you think those are remarkable figures for a 2.3litre, you’re right: the M3′s ferocious four boasts a higher output per litre than any other normally aspirated piston engine available in America.
What looks impressive on paper feels equally stirring on the road. When its tail is twisted, the 2857 pound M3 dashes to 60mph in 6.9 seconds and trips the quarter-mile lights in 15.2 seconds at 92mph. Top speed is an autobahn-tuned 141mph. That’s enough punch to blow off the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 and stay neck and neck with the Porsche 944S. Best of all, the M3′s power delivery is wonderfully linear; it pulls willingly from its midrange all the way to its sizzling 7250rpm redline.
Those accustomed to the silky smoothness of BMW’s refined in-line sixes, however, may wince a bit when this engine starts to sing. It is, after all, a highly tuned, relatively large four-cylinder, so a little harshness is part of the bargain. BMW has softened the resonance considerably since we sampled an M3 on the autobahn a year ago, but this engine remains a howler. The noise is a fine, mechanical sound, especially when you’re near the very top of the tach, but it’s there whether you want it or not.
Most of the time, you won’t mind a little kibitzing from the engine compartment, because the M3 is designed for driving with brio. Pushed hard, the M3 comes into its own. The five-speed transmission is tightly geared for maximum go. The chassis is more than a match for the engine, responding swiftly and surely to orders from the helm. Powering through hard corners, the tail stays firmly planted, though there is enough predictable lift-throttle oversteer available to point you back toward your line when understeer begins to be a problem. The standard 205/55VR-15 Pirelli P600 tires don’t turn in as crisply as we’d like, but they do stick: the M3 squeals around the skidpad at an impressive 0.81g.
We had a chance to put in a handful of brisk laps around Connecticut’s challenging Lime Rock racetrack, and the M3 proved equal to its breeding. Few road cars can take to the track with such poise. The M3 leaps through the corners like a cat, it’s feisty engine spinning and spitting until you snatch another gear or the rev-limiter grabs it by the tail. Excellent controls help you keep the frenzy in check: the steering is supple and superbly accurate, the shifter has just the right amount of notchiness, and the massive disc brakes – vented in front and equipped with a standard anti-lock system – are always on duty, lap after lap. Our seat-of-the-pants admiration for the binders was confirmed by our fifth-wheel testing; the M3 clawed to a stop from 70mph in a mere 179 feet.
The M3 may be a thinly disguised race car, but its creature-comforts list would do most luxury sedans proud. Included are power windows, mirrors, and locks; a power sunroof; air conditioning; a premium AM/FM-stereo/cassette system; a three-spoke, leather-wrapped Motorsport steering wheel; and a nine-function trip computer. Everything is laid out in typically sensible BMW fashion, and the white-on-black analog gauges are among the most legible in the industry. In view of the M3′s sporting nature, an oil-temperature gauge has been substituted for the normal 3-Series layout’s fuel-economy display.
We have mixed feelings about the standard leather seats, however. They offer an adequate range of manual adjustment, and they’re dandy for spirited maneuvers. The problem is that they aren’t well designed for extended travel. Several staffers complained of a lack of lumbar support, and others suffered from pinched behinds after long drives. We’ll give these thrones an overall B. Passengers banished to the rear seats should be either short or masochistic.
All in all, we’re smitten by the M3. Our test car was weighed down by a $34,810 price tag – about what you’d pay for a 944S – but the Bavarian beast offers a lot in return. For that princely sum you get a stunningly distinctive design, a generous helping of luxury and quality, and the kind of cool, collected performance available only in German sports sedans.
Enthusiasts who find those attributes tantalizing should get in line immediately; BMW plans to export only 2400 M3s to the United States this year. The supply probably won’t be enough to meet the demand, but it will serve to remind enthusiasts that BMW is back in the performance car business.
Gee, what was that “y” word again?