D. John Booth, Contributor
When the last BMW M3 was sold in North America (from 1995 to 1999), it was an emasculated version of the car available across the Atlantic. While Europeans were ripping about in 321-horsepower M3s, we made do with choked 240-horse variants. Sure, they were great-handling cars armed with that razor sharpness endemic to all BMWs. But with the release of the more powerful 2001 330Ci making nearly as much power as the old M3, an upgrade was clearly needed. To rectify this situation, Americans get a new M3 for 2001, replete with 333 horsepower.
Yes, you read right. Three hundred thirty-three horsepower from a high-revving 3.2-liter inline six. That prodigious output, measuring better than 100 horsepower per liter, is generated thanks to BMW's VANOS variable valve timing system on both the inlet and exhaust cams, individual throttle bodies that improve throttle response, and other engine upgrades and enhancements. Those 333 ponies arrive at a lofty 7,900 rpm.
Capped with a six-speed manual transmission, all that horsepower and the 262 foot-pounds of torque (at 4,900 rpm) is good enough to propel the 3,781-pound M3 convertible to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds, according to BMW. The lighter 3,415-pound M3 coupe, meanwhile, reportedly gets the job done in an even quicker 4.8 seconds.
Just as enjoyable as the blistering acceleration are the aural delights generated by the inline six. The overused "ripping silk" analogy is still the best description of this wonderful engine's note as it sings toward 8,000 rpm. And like all M engines, it's a model of civility despite being so highly tuned. However, we can't apply the same high praise to the six-speed manual transmission. It shifts easily enough, but there seems to be more play than is necessary, occasionally making gear selection difficult.
Once upon a time, roadsters ruled the sports car world. Most serious sporting automobiles were drop tops, from the Jaguar XK120 to the first Corvettes, backing up their high performance with the ability to seriously muss your hair. It didn't take long, however, for engineers to realize that a car with a roof is a far better platform for a serious sporting machine, the extra stiffness added by the steel top a prerequisite for dealing with the immense loads generated by super-sticky, ultra-wide tires.
Modern convertibles, with few exceptions, have been relegated to Gran Turismo status faster, yes, than the average sedan, but less sporting than the car's coupe equivalent. Even the Corvette convertible 350-horsepower and monstrous tires notwithstanding can't hold a candle to the incredible handling prowess of the hardtop Z06 version. So the obvious question is whether an M3 with its roof amputated is still worthy of the red and blue M badge.
It certainly has the technical credentials. Save for a few details like curb weight (when a car's top is lopped off, the engineers generally try to compensate for the lack of rigidity with extra structural bracing, which makes a ragtop weigh more than its coupe counterpart), the convertible is every bit M3.
Expectedly, handling prowess is beyond reproach. Compared to almost any ragtop we've tested previously, the M3 convertible is a revelation. Any doubts we might have had regarding structural rigidity were dispelled on the Northern Canadian roads where we tested the car.
Few motocross tracks have whoop-de-doos to compare with the strings of paved potholes that Canadians call roads, yet the convertible performed with but the slightest hint of cowl shake. In fact, BMW claims that this version of the ragtop boasts a superstructure more rigid than the previous-generation 3 Series coupe. It's quite an accomplishment and the perfect accompaniment to the M3's superb MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear independent suspension systems.
In fact, were it not for the fact that we tested the coupe and convertible back-to-back, it would have been impossible to discern any palpable differences between the two. Not surprisingly, what performance edge there is goes to the coupe, mainly as a result of its 366-pound weight advantage. The coupe's steering is a little lighter, and it's just a touch easier to throw into corners. It's worth noting, however, that the differences are subtle, and we were hustling along at go-directly-to-jail, do-not-pass-go speeds. At lower velocities, the coupe's advantage is more illusory than real.
Both M3s stick to the tarmac like rumors of infidelity to a politician. Despite relatively modest rubber the M3's 225/45ZR18 fronts and 255/40ZR18 rears, for instance, are substantially narrower than the Corvette's driving aggressively produced not a squeal or even an untoward wiggle.
Inside, the M3 is pretty much standard-issue 3 Series with minor trim differences. There is a special "sport" control switch that changes the engine's drive-by-wire throttle calibration. Flipping the switch changes the way the intake butterfly valves respond to the gas pedal. In sport mode, the valves open much more quickly, lessening throttle response time. Another M3 addition are the instrument gauges, which are lifted from the M5, complete with orange- and red-glowing indicators that admonish the driver against revving a cold engine. There's also a surprising amount of room in the cabin, with easy space for four adults.
Useful standard features include heated, power-adjustable sport bucket seats that provide enough side bolstering to contain both driver and passenger adequately in ground-attack mode. There are front and side airbags (coupes get a head protection system for front seat occupants, too) for safety and, of course, antilock brakes are standard. BMW's DSCIII stability control system also makes the grade and the drop-top version of the M3 gets a Rollover Protection System that automatically deploys roll hoops behind the rear seats in case the ragtop ever goes end over end.
And what's the price for all of this power and technology? The coupe starts at $46,045 (including destination charge), and the convertible rings in at an even princelier sum of $54,045. Adding insult to injury is the lack of standard luxury features, including a dual-zone climate control system, a CD player or power seats. You can get these features, but you'll need to pay more.
Other options include a removable hard top that'll make the convertible more palatable during the winter months and a proximity-sensing Park Distance Control system that might save a few costly scratches to the bumpers. Also worthy of consideration is the navigation system. And there's a Cold Weather package. Throw the entire catalogue of options at the convertible, for instance, and its suggested list price will exceed $60,000. A fully loaded coupe can cost over $52,000. And then there's the issue of dealer markup, which will likely occur as long as the M3 is a hot commodity.
But let us put this into perspective for you. A Mercedes-Benz CLK55 coupe starts at $68,045 and a Porsche 911 starts at $67,265. Now, don't you feel silly for complaining?
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