Thoroughbred Bavarian race technology for the street.
It wasn’t that long ago that BMW was suffering from a severe case of the blahs. Through the Bavarian auto maker continued to make impressive inroads on the American market, aficionados of the marquee slipped into reactions of indifference, a response that was due primarily to the firm’s lackluster powerplants combined with continued price hikes.
And then there was the distaste created when – despite the uninvolving level of performance delivered by the automobiles – the dreaded Kingdom of Yuppiedom embraced the blue-and-white propeller as the symbol of youthful status.
Those rather commonplace Bimmers from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s short-circuited acceptance by true BMW lovers, leading that group to wax nostalgic over such past gems as the 2002tii. Happily, though, adherents of automotive excitement can once again look to Munich for pulse-quickening sustenance.
BMW’s renewed vigor is led by a group of genuine sports machines, the M-Squad, which emanates from the same high-tech halls responsible for developing purpose-built race cars. So far, the M-series is comprised of three cars: the M6, M5 and M3.
Based on BMW’s 3-series coupe, the M3 exists because of a now-extinct race series, FIA’s 1987 Group A World Touring Car Championship. Homologation rules called for 5000units to be produced within a year, which has afforded a select group the opportunity to own a street car that was truly developed for the track. That old saw, “Racing improves the breed,” is nowhere more justified than on the M3.
The car’s competition genes are reflected in the aggressive bodywork. The wide fenders, front spoiler and rear wing, redesigned angel of the rear window, and side rockers provide more than just surface excitement. Aerodynamics is a key to racing success, and that science can also be utilized to refine passenger cars. The additions bring the coupe’s Cd down to a slippery 0.33, which translates to impressively quiet thrusts through the atmosphere and a solid grip on terra firma.
And grip is certainly the term needed to describe the M3′s handling characteristics. The basic suspension setup remains the familiar front strut/rear trailing arm arrangement, but he M3 has been lowered via shorter springs. It also features revised values for the shocks and springs, a large rear anti-roll bar and new attachment points for the front bar. Tires are 205/55VR-15 Pirelli P600 radials on 7JX15inch cross-spoke alloys, while superior braking discs, ventilated in front. As with all BMWs in the US, the M3 has standard ABS.
Especially un-standard, though, is the heart of this beauty, a 2.3 litre, 192 hp four cylinder powerplant. Using the virtually identical block as BMW’s Formula One engine and the same cylinder head design as the legendary M1, it also features twin chain-driven overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, free-flow exhaust manifold and twin exhaust tubes. Advanced engine management, called Motronic, measure such functions as air density, ambient temperature and engine temperature to keep it on the cutting edge of performance. As with most multi-valve engines, peak horsepower is found high up in the rev range – while the maximum torque of 170ft lbs is reached at a more accessible 4750rpm. Redline is reached at a lofty 7000rpm.
Acceleration is understandably swift, with 0 to 60mph accomplished in the area of 7 seconds, and the quarter-mile in roughly 15seconds at 90 plus mph. The M3 tops out around 140mph, and it’s all done with a raspy smoothness unknown to most four-cylinder engines. Power flows through a wonderful five speed sports gearbox that features close ratios ideally suited to the power curve. Gear selection is managed by a well-located quick-throw shift lever.
For all its high-performance aspirations, though, the M3 can be driven in the urban grind without a care. True, max power is usually out of reach during commuting, but find a stretch of open road and prepare for world-class fun.
As is the case with all quality automobiles from Germany, the cost of ownership is breathtakingly high – $34,000 at last count. The only option is metallic paint, and the list of standard equipment is right in line with the sumptuous level of comfort and convenience identified with current BMWs.
If it sounds as though we lust after such a car, be assured that we do. Few other cars can deliver the M3′s combination of sporty appearance, superb handling, smooth ride and responsive powerplant.
However, we also think of the M3 as a target vehicle for our Jetta GLI project. By the time we’re through modifying the Volkswagen, we think we can approach very closely the panache and motoring behaviour of the M3. Stay with us for the story of our success – or failure.