2009 BMW M3 Long Term Road Test

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2009 BMW M3: Angeles Crest Highway vs. M3 V8

June 04, 2009

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It was bright and sunny, so we drove the 2009 BMW M3 sedan across the Angeles Crest Highway. Who wouldn't?

Every city has its own place to go if you like driving, and L.A. is lucky to have a couple. Angeles Crest Highway is one of the best. It started out as a Forest Service road into the San Gabriel Mountains in 1929, but it took until 1956 for a paved road to make it across the top to Wrightwood. Max Balchowsky celebrated by driving his Old Yeller I race car up there from Hollywood Motors, his garage on Hollywood Boulevard.

We had something to celebrate, because the road all the way to Wrightwood had just been reopened for the first time since the winter of 2005, when huge storms washed out 17 sections of asphalt clinging to the mountain slopes along a 10 mile section of the route. Once CalTrans officially opened the gates on May 20, the motorcycle guys had been up there in force and news stories had filled the local paper.

Probably the M3 would be the car you'd pick if you were looking forward to the 198 corners between the Shell station at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and the restaurant at Newcomb's Ranch. But Angeles Crest Highway is no longer the place to rip it up unless you choose your timing carefully. There are too many bikes, too many accidents, and too many CHP cars.

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No matter where you drive the M3 on a mountain road, it's not much fun to shift this car's six-speed manual transmission. As ever, the shift linkage feels rubbery, the clutch action is heavy and the pedal travel is long. Sure, it's great to beat your chest and say you prefer a manual transmission, but it's hard to see the point here unless you like to feel like some kind of German farmer plowing his spargle field with a 180-mph tractor. The seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch transmission is the way to go with this car, I think.

But it turns out that there's nothing about the M3's transmission that matters on a winding mountain road. Six-speed or seven-speed, which three gears do you really need today? The M3's 4.0-liter V8 redlines at 8,300 rpm, and 85 percent of the maximum 295 pound-feet of torque is available over a range of 6,500 rpm. Which means you don't really have to shift this engine much at all. Third gear doesn't top out until you hit 105 mph, so it's pretty much all you need.

So that's how it played out. Once you quit playing with the transmission, you can think a little more about the corner ahead, the intuitive action of the steering, and making a smooth transition from throttle to brake pedal and back again. The eight individual throttle bodies of the M3's DOHC V8 deliver incredibly crisp throttle response, so you can modulate the power with incredible precision. And there's just a lot of pleasure that just comes from an engine's ability to change rpm.

It's 66 miles from the Shell station at the foot of SR-2 at Foothill Boulevard to the Shell station at the entrance ramp to Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass. It was one of those great days, so warm and fine that you had to drive with the windows down. The road starts out at an elevation of 1,300 feet in La Canada and climbs all the way to 7,903 feet at Dawson Saddle, which makes this the ninth highest road in California. Toward the north, you can look out into the desert of the Antelope Valley.

Roads go places. And one of the really great things about a car is that it can take you to them.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 3,832 miles

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