Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
With colors like Laguna Seca Blue and Imola Red, there's no question as to where the M3's aspirations lie. These famous racetracks would be fitting playgrounds for any car that promises such stratospheric levels of power and handling. Whether blasting up Tamburello at Imola or diving into the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, few cars in the world could attack a road course with the tenacity of those wearing the "M" badge of BMW's Motorsport division.
Up until now, we Yanks have had to deal with the fact that as much as we loved those Motorsport machines, our European counterparts were getting versions far more powerful than ours. Their M3's boasted 317 horsepower, while ours made do with just 240.
Not that we were complaining. Even with its detuned engine, the previous-generation M3 was still one of the best performance coupes available anywhere. But the grass is always greener on the other side, and U.S. enthusiasts couldn't help but wonder just how much better the M3 was in its Euro-spec trim.
Wonder no more. The 2001 M3 is now the same whether you buy it in Stuttgart or San Francisco. Better yet, it's been blessed with an even more powerful engine, a sturdier, more responsive suspension, and slinkier bodywork that should further bolster its reputation as one of BMW's finest.
When it came time for our turn behind the wheel, we subjected a fiery red test car to the worst of L.A.'s traffic and the best of Malibu's canyons. We wish we were good enough drivers to say that we pushed the M3 to its limits, but like so many ultra-high-performance cars of today, finding the edge takes more than just an empty road and the guts to hold the pedal down longer than usual.
The staff consensus varied from "wow" to "incredible" to "what's the penalty for raiding your 401k?" Hardly a surprise considering that we've been decried as BMW-lovers more times than we can count. Although this time we challenge anyone to come up with legitimate reasons why we shouldn't be fawning all over this Motorsport gem.
The shape alone is enough reason to pull out the checkbook. The M3 builds upon the already near-perfect proportions of the 330Ci with a deeper front airdam, flared wheel arches and chromed side gills that recall high-performance BMW CS coupes of the past. Capped off with four chrome exhaust tips and a revised rear skirt, the M3 casts a muscular yet refined silhouette that drew raves from nearly everyone who laid eyes on it.
But enough about the cosmetics. The real story is what lies underneath all that gleaming sheetmetal. Specifically, what lies beneath the lightweight aluminum "power dome" hood. A quick glance reveals a typical BMW arrangement: six cylinders straight down the middle, 3.2-liters of displacement and enough computers watching over it all to run a small company.
Doesn't seem like much to crow about until you realize that this engine churns out an astounding 333 horses. That's 93 more than the previous engine despite only a marginal increase in size. So where did all that horsepower come from?
Basically, instead of going bigger, they went more efficient. Variable valve timing and individual throttle bodies for each cylinder give the engine incredible flexibility to adapt to changing demands. An exhaust system that BMW calls "one of the freest-flowing ever installed in a production car" also contributes to the engine's extreme efficiency. A stronger crankshaft and lighter connecting rods allowed the engineers to bump the redline to a blistering 8,000 rpm.
All this mechanical gadgetry comes together to produce a nearly flawless powerplant that rockets the M3 from 0 to 60 in just 5 seconds flat. The quarter-mile streaks by in 13.5 seconds at a scorching 105 mph, ranking the M3 right up there with some of the fastest production cars in the world. It even has a "sport" throttle mode that increases pedal response and advances the ignition timing think "turbo boost" from Knight Rider and you're close.
Even with all that power, it's still every bit as drivable around town as a standard 3 Series coupe. There's plenty of torque down low for lazy second-gear starts, and with the throttle button switch set to "normal," you can glide about town with none of the temperamental fits that typically plague such high-strung engines.
The six-speed manual transmission is a step up from the standard coupe's five-speed unit, providing plenty of options down low as well as a tall sixth gear for quiet cruising. Shift effort seemed a little higher than normal, but certainly not excessive. For serious driving, some of us would prefer a stick with a little more heft, but for most drivers the transmission will rarely disappoint.
If we could pick one fault with the drivetrain, it would surely be the wheezing, tin can sound of the exhaust. From the inside, the shrill pinging at wide-open throttle sounds like a loose panel flapping around in the undercarriage. From the outside, a punch of the pedal emits a hollow ring that sounds more like a slammed Civic than a $50,000 European sport coupe. So there, it's not perfect.
Another potential problem for those more intent on being seen in an M3 than they are on driving one rests with the suspension. Although not dramatically different in design from the standard coupe, the M3 does incorporate some hardcore hardware intended to further distance the performance coupe from its more sedate siblings.
Additional braces front and rear provide a more rigid foundation for attachment of the various suspension components, while rubber control arm mounts replace the hydraulic units used on standard 3 Series coupes and sedans. Ultra low-profile 18-inch tires add to the less than forgiving mix.
The result is a ride that walks a very fine line between all-out performance and day-to-day drivability. It's rarely harsh, but if there's even the slightest bump in the pavement, you'll know it. Enthusiasts will find it pleasantly firm, but Beverly Hills high schoolers better hold on to their cappuccinos.
We've always loved the near telepathic feel of the 3 Series' suspension, and the M3 is all that and more. The near-insurmountable grip and predictable motions inspire cornering speeds that will leave even the most experienced drivers second-guessing themselves. Keep the throttle set in "sport" mode and the M3 will tackle your favorite set of switchbacks as fast an any production car on the road.
Should you get in a little over your head, standard Dynamic Stability Control along with a beefed-up braking system stand at the ready to keep things under control. At the track, the larger rear discs combined with Dynamic Brake Control resulted in an impressive 60-to-0 braking distance of 112 feet. Not many cars on the planet can match that kind of stopping power. Add to that a progressive, easily modulated pedal feel, and the M3 is a car with few equals on the road.
Although the M3's most significant improvements lay buried in the bodywork, the interior gets its share of exclusive enhancements, as well. The M sport steering wheel is a thing of beauty with perfectly placed hand detents, thick leather-wrapped rim and all the necessary satellite controls right at your fingertips. Our test model also included the optional eight-way power seats augmented with four-way power lumbar adjustment and adjustable side bolsters. If you can't get comfortable in one of these seats, throw away your driver license.
In true BMW fashion, base model M3s are virtual stripper cars, forcing buyers to nickel-and-dime their way to luxury status. Items like a CD player, heated seats, xenon headlights and an "upgraded" sound system are all extra cost options. Considering that the base price of the car is over $47,000, you shouldn't have to order a CD player nor should the stereo be in need of an upgrade. Such is the lunacy that comes with a car for which people gladly exchange body parts.
Sad to say, but count us in that sorry group. The M3 mesmerized all who drove it. Even those relegated to the passenger seat were awed with its abilities. Although the engine's song was less than exhilarating, its ability to perform was never in question. The suspension never lets you forget the "M" badge on the tail, but no one was complaining after experiencing its remarkable grip.
If there is anything disheartening about this phenomenal coupe (other than the fact that we can't afford it), it's that our roads are woefully inadequate to fully appreciate its awesome capabilities. Sure, it will crawl around town with no complaints, but at times, it seems as though the car is bored. Bored with slow, lazy shifts so far from the redline. Bored with gliding through turns rather than attacking them. Bored with the restraints imposed on it because lesser cars can't handle off ramps at triple-digit speeds.
If only it had a place to really stretch its legs; somewhere with long straights that would demand every ounce of power out of the hyper-efficient engine; a place with broad, sweeping corners where the precisely tuned suspension could dig in for all it was worth. There are places like this. They're called Laguna Seca and Imola, and if we could have our way, that's exactly where we'd head, with a full tank of gas and an M3 under our feet.
System Score: 8.5
Components: The optional Harman-Kardon sound system upgrade for the BMW M3 coupe swaps out the standard speakers for aftermarket-quality drivers of the same size. It also provides advanced sound equalization, ups the power by 40 percent and adds two 6-by-9-inch subwoofers to the rear deck. The high-range speakers are well-placed, with mid-tweeters near the door handles and above the rear armrests. Mid-bass tones are provided by speakers low in the doors and similar drivers found in the hatshelf behind the rear headrests. The optional single-CD head unit (What? You think shelling out almost 50 grand will get you a changer? You'll have to pony up a couple hundred just to escape CassetteLand) is nothing to write home about, but the controls are simple and are complemented by buttons on the steering wheel. The system also includes cell phone controls and a button that disables the upgrades so you can appreciate them (I guess).
Performance: Once that button is engaged, the benefits of custom equalization are hard to ignore. Instead of a flat and boring recreation of an album, songs are allowed to breathe and play throughout the entire cabin. The tweeters in front and back provide good separation of the left and right channels, but the mids in the rear deck don't allow passengers in back to enjoy the delightful imaging found up front. That doesn't mean sound quality suffers, though. Cymbals and other very high tones are reproduced with no trouble or distortion at most volume levels. All vocals come through clean and warm, and aren't tripped-up by lower tones. Mid-bass is tight and powerful, allowing hard rock guitars and drums to play without speaker flutter. The crossover circuitry does a good job of keeping bass in the 6-by-9-inch subs, and the output is very clean, but the booming of Kool Keith was able shake the grille at full volume.
Best Feature: Steering wheel-mounted controls for stereo and cell phone.
Worst Feature: Bass rattles.
Conclusion: A fine stereo upgrade that deserves to be standard equipment on this high-priced German rocket.
Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says: Between the Subaru WRX and the BMW M3, it would appear that foreign automakers have finally decided to let us Yanks in on the party. In BMW's case, that's a good thing. Can you image the new M3 still being equipped with the old 240-horsepower engine when the 2002 WRX arrived earlier this year with 227 horsepower for less than $25,000? Even propeller heads would have had trouble explaining that one.
But the new M3 is far better than the previous car, itself a stunner even by today's standards. Those 333 horsepower move the car with authority, and the shifter is as sublime as ever. Only one problem with this car's drivetrain: the exhaust note. Actually, you can't really call it a note. It's more of an annoying whine that seems ripped from The Fast and the Furious sound effects lab. More than one staffer thought something was wrong with the exhaust system, and as far as I'm concerned, there is! It sounds like a Civic!
Otherwise, the M3 lives up to its mission as the ultimate M Car for the serious performance fan. It offers sports car-like handling, a variable redline and comfortable seating for four. Throw in an automatic so my wife can drive it, and I'm sold. Oh, wait, BMW is going one better by offering a sequential clutchless manual gearbox in 2002. Where do I leave my deposit?
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: I'm sure enough will be said about this car's incredibly powerful, refined and willing engine, telepathic steering and physics-defying brakes, so I'll concentrate on another facet of the M3's magnetic personality: ease of use.
Within a few miles of hopping into the cockpit, I felt as if I'd been driving the M3 for weeks; all control actions and efforts were spot-on and took no adjusting to at all. It is amazing that a car with such high-caliber performance is so easy to acclimate to.
Zipping through the canyons, it was no sweat for the M3 to slingshot from apex to apex. At times I left the tranny in third so flexible and unstrained was the power delivery. The extremely well-balanced chassis allows the prodigious power to be enjoyed with confidence. And no need to worry about a harsh ride. In spite of its racetrack-ready handling, the M3 won't have you bracing for vertebral shock over bumpy roads.
Getting into the rhythm of the road, effortlessly making time on the sinewy blacktop, I was reminded of that near-euphoric feeling one gets when making a fluid and speedy pass down a favorite ski run. I was also reminded, emphatically, why I love cars and driving so dang much.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says: What can I say about the M3? I've drooled over its pictures and specs ever since its introduction at this year's North American International Auto Show. Just how did they stuff 333 horses into that engine? In convertible form, it is the guilty pleasure that roars into my subconscious, a powerful object of desire that invades my fantasies. And it is certainly a handsome apparition, with every sleek angle and crease oozing Teutonic seductiveness.
With the much-desired keys in my hot little hands and a guest who begged to come along for a ride, I let it loose on Latigo Canyon, a 16-mile serpentine two-lane road overlooking the bluffs of Malibu with no fence or retaining wall (from which a minor rock star and his car plunged to their demise just two weeks prior). The engine screamed toward redline, the trees and rocks morphed into shapeless blobs, the tires practically clawed into the asphalt and I chortled with glee, a sound rarely eructed when it doesn't involve a major credit card purchase. A couple of my colleagues mentioned that the exhaust note wasn't up to BMW-aria standards, but it was still sweet to my ears, urging me to push harder and harder. The suspension, steering and brakes were as close to perfect as a prelapsarian Lucifer, and at the end of the drive, we were sated, our nerves still tingling from being on heightened awareness mode for the past 30 minutes.
What's great about this car is that it doesn't just give you thrills in the twisties; it's perfectly livable for everyday commutes as well, with a full complement of luxurious features expected of a BMW.
I want this car. I need this car. I would commit low-grade felonies to have this car.
OK, so I'll just stand in line for Lotto tickets.
"My friends have nicknamed my 2001 M3 the Millennium Falcon. The name was adopted after hitting the button (sport mode) for the jump into light speed on a local highway at three in the morning. The passengers then proceeded to give themselves their own names (Chewbacca & R2-D2) because of the sounds that were coming from their mouths once we hit 135 mph in fifth gear. I can see why they have given the M3 such a galactic name. All other cars and objects on the road seem to suck past you in a blurred stream of light. Congrats to BMW they have made a 100 percent sports car and 100 percent daily driver with awesome amenities." jssans, "BMW M3," #1358 of 1390, July 21, 2001
"The car is great; I have become much better with the tail slides and quick acceleration and braking along with the handling. I always have the car in Sport mode, and it really is almost a bad thing because you always want to give it full throttle from a stoplight. The other day I had a little 'performance test' with some kids and some guy in a 911. This is my first manual car and I absolutely love the control, I am always flipping first, second and third for quick responses. I just cannot say enough good things about it ." mrman_3K1, "BMW M3," #1366 of 1390, July 27, 2001
"I've had my black '01 M3 coupe for about six weeks now. I get about 20 mpg, more if I stick to the freeways (I've put about 3K miles during this time). I could likely get better mileage, but trust me, it is oh so difficult to resist the sport button and your suddenly heavy right foot. This car is a joy to drive, pure and simple. If it doesn't put a huge grin on your face, there is something seriously wrong." nickstip, "BMW M3," #1283 of 1390, June 25, 2001
"I took delivery (MSRP) of a Titanium Silver M3 with all the options except nav and cold weather package about five weeks ago. I now have over 1,600 miles, and after the 1,200-mile service, I am still having some of the same problems I had before taking the car in for service. The transmission clunks from first to second gear at low rpm; the Harman Kardon system subwoofer rattles; rough idle in the morning and sometimes shut off; and BMW forgot to install the LED on the rearview mirror. After the 1,200-mile service, I was hoping that these problems would have been corrected but they haven't; the biggest annoyances are the clunk in the transmission and the rattle from the sound system. Personally, after paying almost $60K, I wasn't expecting these problems and I would have like to know that the dealer would have taken care of these issues. I did inform the dealer and I am scheduled to return the car to their service department. Overall, if these problems can be fixed, it's a great car, fun to drive especially when you hit the sport button, [but] if BMW cannot fix these problems, this car is not worth the $60K price tag." mikevw, "BMW M3," #1314 of 1390, July 3, 2001
"I have had my '01 Imola Red M3 convertible for a week and am getting 19 mpg (per the computer). Mostly city and I'm taking easy during the 1,200-mile break-in period. Not too bad, though far from good. After spending $59K (with the grand or so gas guzzler tax) and insuring the car plus the (what I fully expect to be) costly long-term maintenance plus future property taxes, I don't think the gas mileage is a big issue in the big scheme of things. I would've liked a slightly bigger fuel tank 2-3 more gallons would be nice for the range. I highly recommend this car. My two- and three-year-old children fit great in the back seat with car seats. Like I've been trying to tell my wife it IS a family car." herf, "BMW M3," #1282 of 1390, June 25, 2001
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