"M" — among serious driving enthusiasts, there's no other letter that carries so much weight. Tell a fellow car buff you drive a 2008 BMW M3 (or any other member of the M family) and you might as well tell them you broke 70 on your last round of golf, or that you're taking Scarlett Johansson out for drinks. In other words, they'd be impressed...and jealous.
For the uninitiated, an M emblem on the butt of a Bimmer signifies the carmaker's Motorsport division. This in-house tuning team takes the performance of a given BMW model (in this case the 3 Series coupe) not only to the next level, but into the stratosphere. With the 2008 BMW M3, it's all there — sizzling acceleration, handling and braking that nearly defy physics and controls that have just the right feel and action to them, making the car an extension of your body.
But in practical terms, one may wonder if an M3 is worth nearly $17,000 more than the thoroughly capable 335i coupe. The latter is certainly quick enough (sprints to 60 mph in a blistering 4.9 seconds), it handles great and offers a less aggressive ride. For most people, therefore, the answer is no — they'll be sufficiently giddy with the performance and overall livability of the 335i.
But look at the M3 another way. As a practical four-passenger coupe that happens to beat the performance of a highly respected (and highly priced) sports car, say the Porsche 911 Carrera S, the 2008 BMW M3 coupe starts to look like an outright bargain.
BMW breaks recent M3 tradition by snubbing six-cylinder power. With its chief rivals in the super sport coupe/sedan class — Audi's RS4 and S5, and Mercedes-Benz's C63 AMG — now packing V8s underhood, BMW certainly didn't want to be caught two cylinders down. And now that the "normal" 3 Series (the 335i in particular) can be had with a rip-snorting 300-horsepower twin-turbocharged inline-6, the upgrade to a V8 seemed mandatory.
With 414 hp and a redline that exceeds 8 grand, the M3's V8 is a thriller that'll pin your ears back with its smooth, potent rush from 3,000 rpm to that 8,400-rpm redline. The six-speed manual's shift action is solid and precise, with less of the somewhat rubbery feel found in the previous-gen M3. With its firm resistance and progressive action, the clutch is just what we'd expect in a performance car — in hard driving it feels just right, while around town it's not so stiff you feel like you're doing (left) leg presses at the gym.
At the track, the 2008 BMW M3 ran the 0-60-mph dash in just 4.3 seconds and ripped through the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds. Its stopping ability was equally impressive. The M3's confident, easily modulated brakes took only 100 feet to stop from 60 mph — the shortest distance we've ever recorded.
Pry yourself away from the spec sheet and belt into the driver seat and the M3 gets even better. Pushed hard on a ribbon of deserted blacktop, the M3 comes into its own, with both car and driver settling into a groove at speeds that will have you wishing your best friend was the local traffic court judge. Always a strong point in a Bimmer, the steering is just about perfect in terms of weighting, precision and feel. The trademark feedback is still there, if not quite as tactile as the previous-generation M3's. Factor in the chassis' superb balance and the tires' tremendous grip, and the M3 makes good drivers feel great and great drivers wish they had a racetrack in their backyard.
The other 90 percent of the time, when you're driving in the real world of potholes and commuter traffic, you'll find the M3's optional three-way electronic damping control adjustable suspension (Comfort, Normal and Sport) a nice feature to have. When set to Comfort it provides a firm but not harsh ride, Normal is noticeably stiffer (more like a sports car) and Sport is harshly stiff and best left for track days. Still, it's a good bet that many would appreciate an even softer setting for rough pavement encountered in town and on the highway.
Concerning the other reality of fuel consumption, we averaged 15.6 mpg, against the EPA estimates of 14 city/20 highway and 16 combined. We imagine you'll do a few mpg better given our proximity to deserted canyon roads and our staff's heavy feet.
As you'd expect, the aggressively bolstered front seats are tops at holding one in place while slicing up a twisty road. And thanks to the multiple adjustments that include the side wings and under-thigh support, they're also very comfortable and supportive on long interstate drives. The two-passenger rear seat is actually usable by a pair of adults. We had our 6-foot-3 and 5-foot-5 staffers rotate seating positions, with one in the driver seat and the other behind, and in both cases they each had sufficient room and support.
At speed on the freeway, the M3's wind noise is notably low, but that's unfortunately offset by the tire roar sent courtesy of the high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport tires. Keep in mind our car had the optional 19-inch wheels and rubber; the standard 18s may be better in this regard.
In typical BMW fashion (which favors slim roof pillars and plenty of glass), the M3 provides clear sight lines. The cockpit likewise provides clear instrumentation, and the clever moving redline on the tach (it starts lower, around 6,000 rpm when the engine is cold and gradually moves up to 8,400 rpm as the engine warms up) is handy for hard-core enthusiasts. Our quibbles are age-old BMW ones, meaning having to repeatedly tap the fan speed down to shut off the climate control system and the needlessly complex operation of the iDrive multifunction controller that operates the optional navigation system. The numerous personalized performance settings (M Drive) may also confuse some — reading the thick manual is an absolute must.
Lending a measure of unexpected practicality, the M3's rear seat is not only of a 60/40-split-folding design, but also features a trunk pass-through that allows longer items to be transported while still carrying four passengers. The trunk's capacity is 11.1 cubic feet, on the smallish side but fully usable thanks to its squared-off shape.
Design/Fit and Finish
In addition to those expected performance and handling enhancements, the M3 coupe offers a tasteful amount of eye candy. Most noticeable is the carbon-fiber roof, which lightens the car up on top, lowering its center of gravity to optimize handling. The functional side vents, hood power bulge, unique front and rear fascias, quad exhaust outlets and unique wheels also serve to increase the wow factor and separate the 2008 BMW M3 from its increasingly ubiquitous 3 Series siblings.
The M3's interior is rather plain, save for the splashes of aluminum trim (included in the Premium Package), though materials and build quality are excellent. Those looking for a more luxurious vibe can choose dark wood trim in lieu of the aluminum, provided they opt for the Premium Package.
Who should consider this vehicle
Though the M3's 335i sibling offers all the performance most enthusiasts could ever want, the fringe element who relish the idea of driving a practical four-seat coupe that can put the hurt on a number of prestigious sports cars will find the M3's cost of admission money well spent.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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