If you want one of these dual purpose sport sedans, you’d better see your dealer soon. Then again, you might want to wait for the electronic countermeasure paint option – Roundel
Rob Mitchell, BMW NA’s Product Information Manager, called a while back and wanted to know whether I was interested in going to the M3 press introduction. No, Rob, I’d rather stay home and get whipped with stinging nettles and then have kerosene sprayed onto the resulting wounds! He understood me to mean yes. So it came to pass that at the end of June, I Twin-Ottered down to New Jersey from East Awfulgosh, met Rob at NA’s headquarters in Montvale, and wandered out to the back garage. Although there were probably seventy BMWs in the garage, one’s eye was immediately drawn to the one red (red!) M3 there. “Rob,” I said. “I’d really rather not drive the copcatcher red one!” No problem – mine was dark and as inconspicuous as an M3 can reasonably expect to be.
Since the M3 (5000 produced to qualify for the World Touring car Championship, Group A) has the capabilities of both a race car and a street car, this introduction was designed to give us a day on the road and a day on the track. We were provided with an M3 (one each), maps of the area (three each), scenic roads marked (“scenic” = narrow, twisty, sheer rock face on one side, flimsy guardrail and steep dropoff on the other), and the information that A) dinner at the Interlaken Inn, Lakeville, Connecticut, was at 7:30 that evening, B) radar detectors were illegal in Connecticut, and C) all moving violations were ours. Since the first day was to evaluate that M3′s road manners, we went our various ways and I began to look at what I had just been handed the keys to.
What do you get for your $34,000 that the 325i doesn’t have? How about two fewer cylinders (but four more valves and another cam? How about the interest and probable close scrutiny of your local constabulary? Or 192 horsepower at 6750rpm before the rev limiter cuts in? Interested in a 143mph top end? The speedometer is marked up to 160mph, and at 55 in a very thin, pale red line, the M3′s only concession to the 55mph NSL. Oh, and all the usual BMW goodies are there – two-position electric sunroof, eight speaker stereo, leather upholstery, electric windows, trip computer, halogen headlights and fog lights, electric mirrors, central locking, and like that. In fact, the only option is metallic paint, although if BMW were to offer electronic countermeasure paint, they couldn’t go wrong!
I had been a bit reluctant to take on this test drive because the longest I had driven any vehicle since a back operation three months before was about an hour/sixty miles, but the M3, even with its rather stiff ride (3.7degrees roll rate per G, for example), proved very easy on my recently-repaired back over two days and some 350miles. The leathers seats are so adjustable that you just wiggle all the movable pieces (fore and aft adjustment, seat back rake, front and back of seat bottom up and down, thigh support fore and aft) until you are comfortable and then wiggle them again later if need be. It would be nice if there were adjustable lumbar support. The seat bottom’s side bolsters are high so climbing in and out requires some dexterity. A day’s worth of driving through three states and on a variety of roads revealed only one vice, an engine resonance that makes the rearview mirror (and your brain cells) vibrate a la Volkswagen Beetle. Since the introduction of the M3 in Europe over a year ago, the car has gotten a new Getrag five-speed with an overdrive fifth, not the sport gearing it had in Europe, enough fitted underhood insulation to snug up a small house, and hydraulic/rubber engine and transmission mounts. It still buzzes, but it’s a small price to pay for 83.4 horsepower per litre, higher than any non-turbo engine now on the American market.
My drive started with wandering around the Montvale area for a bit, putting through traffic, bumping over roads under repair, checking out the site work at NA’s new headquarters and generally mixing it up with New Jersey traffic. Then, off to the “scenic” roads. And a treat they were. The M3 makes you wish you had a daily eighty-mile commute on the Taconic Parkway. The car tracks so well (three times the caster of the stock 3er), runs so strongly and has such good brakes, handling and acceleration that it’s pure pleasure to drive. Whether running along the Bear Mountain Parkway or trundling down main Street in West Furbush, the M3 is equally a home.
Although at $34k it’s an expensive grocery-getter, the M3 will perform that function perfectly, lugging four people and their stuff around in comfort (if they don’t mind the rather hard ride) and in style (if they don’t mind the boy-racer look). The M3 has those aerodynamic bits (side skirts, etc.) and an extended roofline and a high trunk lid for better air flow at speed. Although the trunk is as large as the stock 3er, the trunk lid is smaller so there is a limit to how large a piece you can stuff through the opening. There was no room for the radio antenna due to this new trunk lid, so onto the roof it went. A hand through the open sunroof will enable you to adjust the rake (but not length) as you drive. Speaking of radios, do you know how you can tell when you’re in a remote area? When you push the “seek” button on your radio and it goes all ‘round the dial and comes back to the station you were on, and you weren’t even getting that one well!
Upon arriving at the Interlaken Inn late in the first day, I noticed the copcatcher red M3 parked nose-to-nose with a Connecticut state tropper’s car in front of the office. Ooops! We’re in deep doodah already. Nope – just a bomb scare (but they let us check in anyway – and then kicked us out of our rooms until the appointed hour was well past. Best line of the night: Tom McGurn, NA’s General Manager of Corporate Communications – “Those Mercedes people have probably called in the bomb scare!”
If you always wanted to sign up for the Skip barber school, here’s what will decide it for you. They now have M3s! The nice clean M3s NA gave us for the press intro were going to Skip Barber for use in his school. Of course, they weren’t so clean after we were through with them, being now covered in mud, dirt, brake pad dust and pocked with cone marks.
Our day at Lime Rock started with the 40mph lane-avoidance exercises, with Ed “On Driving” Dellis giving us about a nanosecond to pick our lane, brake, turn and make it through without running over too many cones. Ed wouldn’t let me use a necker’s knob and I can’t shuffle steer as fast as he can so quite a few cones met my M3′s deformable front bumper. The mind boggles at even thinking of performing these moves in something like the usual state police ride, a Ford Crown Victoria. Ed must stay up nights thinking of combinations of reds, greens and even no lights to drive us nuts!
Next, we were off to the autocross course, a kidney-shaped loop where the M3′s minimal body roll, sticky tires, neutral handling and ABS braking earned praise from all. If you had the spare cash, you could keep an M3 just for weekend autocrossing. Drive to the track, empty the trunk, and you’re off. Put on some real gumballs and watch the times go down! After the autocross, motor sedately (or not) home. My M3 was equipped with Pirelli P600 205/55VR15s, although some of the cars had Goodyear Eagle NCT’s in the same size and these seemed a tad better on the autocross course. Sure would like to try some Gatorbacks or Yokohamas though. The M3 has a 25% locking ZF multiplate limited-slip differential to get you out of the corners quickly.
To really wear some rubber off, the skid pad was next. Get the M3 cranked up, back off the throttle, punch it, and out the rear end goes, a textbook example of throttle-induced oversteer. The trick, of course, is to keep it hanging out there, just aslidin’ ‘round that wet ol’ track. If you spin out (happens frequently!), just start off again in the other direction and wear out the tires that way! The real killer here is starting to spin, catching it, and just as you mentally pat yourself on the back, off in the other direction you go, having failed to move fast enough to stop the overcorrection-induced skid! The instructors sure make it look easy.
After lunch in NA’s hospitality suite, we were turned loose to see how the M3 does in the environment for which it was designed – the race track. It does well, racing fans. It does real well. I don’t think that the folks who run M3s in the Touring Car Championship do it with the air condition running, the stereo on, and the sunroof cranked open a bit, but I did, and enjoyed every minute of it. The hydraulic engine and transmission mounts do a good job of quieting engine vibration so that it is not carried through the Getrag five-speed to buzz your hand off. The coolant and oil temperature gauges barely moved, lap after lap. The gas gauge needle, however, was a different story. The M3′s EPA rating is 17/29 and that seems pretty accurate. Even at truly bodacious speeds on the highway, the needle drops slowly. Start opening up those four throttles around town though and your local petrol purveyor (premium unleaded only, please) will be seeing you often. A mix of city and a highway driving will take you about 370miles on a tank so crossing Death Valley will be no problem. Only about 2400 of the 5000 M3s made will end up in the United States, so if you want the most visually striking of the M-cars and a real dual-purpose sports sedan – street and track – pay your BMW dealer a visit. Just watch out for the copcatcher red one. Oh, and ask if they have the electronic countermeasure paint option yet.