Barry Winfield, Contributor
We all knew that BMW would put a V8 into the 2008 BMW M3. The company admitted it some time ago, and why should it not?
Audi and Mercedes-Benz already have bent-8s burbling under the hoods of their M3 competitors, and BMW's new M-car needed at least that to maintain its sterling reputation. The M3, after all, is the car that started all this nonsense about the ultrahigh-performance compact car.
So imagine our surprise to learn that the 2008 BMW M3's chassis has even more speed built into it than the car's 414-horsepower, 4.0-liter V8.
Gen-4 Priorities BMW has flung its considerable technological might at this fourth-generation M3 to make it stand out among its proliferating rivals. Technology aside, we think the M3 has something extra when compared to the alternatives.
For one thing, the 2008 BMW M3 comes as a coupe or a four-door, and a convertible version is soon to be introduced. Not so the Audi RS4 or Mercedes-Benz C63. But quite apart from this, the M3 has always epitomized BMW's famous chassis tuning expertise and organic control behavior.
These are worth something, as you soon discover when lapping California's famous Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, where BMW turned us loose in the M3 during part of our time with this car. Bernd Limmer, technical director of the M3 project and former chassis engineer for all M vehicles over the last 10 years, says the plan has always been to make the M3's chassis faster than its engine. We think that's a good idea. There's nothing scarier than a killer motor in a dodgy chassis.
And a killer motor it is. This new 4.0-liter V8 pours forth a wave of torque as it spins toward a frenzied power peak at 8,300 rpm, where 414 beer-drinking Bavarian Oberlander horses lay waste to tire rubber with gusto. As we have proven with our own testing, the M3 will lunge to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, and traverse 1,320 feet in 12.7 seconds at 112 mph, which easily makes this the quickest M3 ever. Performance from the V8 at its elevated operating speed is both muscular and exciting, so the overall flexibility of the engine comes as something of a surprise.
Equipped with variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts, the all-aluminum V8 seems to have ample muscle at low and midrange engine speeds, and the eight separate throttle bodies provide a response from the accelerator seldom seen in car engines. Blip the throttle during a double-clutched downshift and the engine spins up in a snap, uttering an angry bark as it does.
Torque Is Not That Cheap The torque peak occurs just about halfway through the engine's operating range, with 295 pound-feet at 3,900 rpm, so every gear is a long and strong trip up the tachometer, attended by the intense snarl of a V8 spinning its forged crankshaft at seemingly indecent speeds. This extraordinary aural experience is a vivid accompaniment to the rush of speed and the willing way this new car goes about its business.
Speed is terribly easy to get hooked on, so it's lucky that the chassis is, as Herr Limmer claims, thoroughly sorted. BMW arranged some track time at Laguna Seca, which gave us the opportunity to disable the stability control system without a second thought, so we pressed the button on the center console. (The stability control defaults into engagement again once the ignition is switched off.) With this setup the M3 can be braked hard into turns without any sense of instability. In fact, the chassis is more prone to oversteer under power on the way out of turns, when a judicious dab of throttle will rotate the car to finish the corner. With a little technique, the M3's awesome 0.95g of grip on the skid pad can be translated into spectacular 75-mph speed through the slalom.
There's BMW's so-called variable M differential lock to help both rear wheels make the best use of available traction so none of the valuable torque goes up in smoke instead of propelling the car forward. Also assisting a driver in search of illicit thrills is a light-effort shift mechanism and a trio of pedals arrayed in a way that helps ensure their best use. Control weighting of all of these devices is firm and deliberate, and there's no slop or vagueness about them.
The Occasional Bounce The M3's combination of a fairly hefty clutch action and taut drivetrain sometimes makes driving smoothly in traffic challenging. It's easy to initiate a jerky driveline shuffle if you're anything but ultra-smooth, and it sometimes snatches so badly you have to dip the clutch and start again. But we should also point out that BMW's engine management calibrations make it possible to walk the car up a driveway smoothly at 5 mph with the clutch fully engaged. So perhaps this occasional shuffle is a matter for the driver to resolve.
BMW has quite rightly chosen not to use super-expensive carbon-ceramic brakes on this car, opting instead for big cross-drilled steel rotors that prove strong and communicative in use. In our tests, the M3 stopped from 60 mph in 100 feet, which is the shortest stopping distance we've ever recorded. At the Laguna Seca track event, BMW's organizers decided to run laps from the pit lane to avoid any straightaway incidents, which meant no cool-down laps for any of the cars. Despite this hard use, we saw very little smoke from the brake pads, and the brake performance of all the cars we drove held up well.
Riding the Range The M3's optional electronic damper control definitely broadens the car's range of activities by reserving the super-taut damper values for high-speed work. This function — as well as the Sport feature that quickens throttle opening and the variable-effort Servotronic steering assist — can be tailored individually via the beloved iDrive system to a particular driver's preference. This profile can then be engaged by an M button on the steering wheel. At the factory default settings, the car seemed as happy touring down soporific, four-lane California Highway 101 as it did during a full-on assault of the more stimulating California Highway 58.
But however adaptable the M3's chassis might now be, the tires still reveal the car's principal purpose. While the optional 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport radials prove grippy, dependable and readable in all circumstances, they are prone to generating noise. Different pavement textures induce everything from a happy hum on smooth pavement to a penetrating drone across rough surfaces. What did you expect? This is the M3, not a Buick. And trust us, after you've experienced the way this car changes direction at high speed, you'll forgive it a little tire roar.
Tough but Gentle Besides, the M3 has some creature comforts, and it is anything but a relentlessly hard-edged sport sedan. The seats are supportive and the steering wheel is a thick, softly squeezable leather hoop with thumb pads and satellite stereo controls. There is all the high-end stereo performance and climate-controlled atmosphere anyone could want. When you first get in and take a seat, a telescoping wand delivers the seatbelt like a backseat butler. A navigation system is available, and — as we discovered in the southbound lane of the San Diego Freeway one afternoon — sophisticated enough to detour you around a traffic incident.
You could even argue that the M3 makes a brilliant everyday high-performance coupe (or sedan, if you choose that option). The seating position and all-around visibility are metro-friendly factors, and the very short front overhang makes it much less likely you'll experience noisy and expensive airdam touchdowns in the urban jungle despite the extensive aerodynamic optimization this car has been through. (Even the M3-exclusive exterior mirrors produce downforce, BMW says.)
Nevertheless, the dramatic appearance of the coupe with its carbon-fiber roof, bulging power-dome hood and gaping front-end air intakes sets it well apart from the rest of the 3 Series family. With 80 percent of the 3 Series components redesigned for this application, BMW claims only the windshield, doors and lights have been carried over. If the engine output of 414 hp seems comparatively tame in this era of proliferating 600-hp cars, the performance of this athletic 3,704-pound coupe is spectacular, and the EPA estimates a reasonable 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway consumption outcome. (We observed 16.2 mpg in our testing.)
One could argue that even the base price of $57,275 for a 2008 BMW M3 coupe is not horrendous considering the car's extraordinary specifications. (The sedan is $3,300 cheaper.) The only thing that might make more sense for a well-heeled enthusiast looking for a one-size-fits-all performance coupe would be an M1, based on the new 1 Series coupes. But they don't make that one yet.
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: The M3 purists will insist this latest version is too big, too heavy and too "disconnected" to be taken seriously as a worthwhile performance car. They'll further bemoan the loss of BMW's engaging inline-6 and scoff at the $60,000 price tag. As such, none of these folks will ever give the latest M3 a second glance, let alone commit to an actual test-drive.
That's probably a good thing, because if they bother driving the car they'll quickly discover handling dynamics on par with premium sports cars and cabin amenities on par with top-tier luxury sedans. They'll further learn that Munich's maestros have effectively combined a traditional V8 rumble with the M3's trademark high-pitched screech to achieve one of the most compelling exhaust wails in all of automobiledom.
And if they happen to hustle a new M3 around a road course, where the car's advanced drivetrain and suspension technologies can be fully utilized, they'll find it's not only quicker than the previous M3, but far more confident as well. The manual transmission's shift lever moves with improved precision compared to the former M3 E46 model, and the variable differential gives the car amazing stability when you ask for all 414 horses and power out past an apex.
Finally, if the $60,000 price irks the purists, they should try to remember that a Porsche 911 starts at $75,000 and ramps up quickly from there. And just as the last-generation M5 was called a four-door Corvette by many enthusiasts, this M3 can genuinely wear the mantle of four-door 911.
Yep, these so-called purists really should just write off the new M3 as a lost cause. After all, we know how much they hate being wrong.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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