First Drive: 2008 BMW M3

2008 BMW M3 Coupe

(4.0L V8 6-speed Manual)

Transforming the M3's Character With V8 Power

From the moment you prod its starter button, the 2008 BMW M3 surprises you. Its 4.0-liter V8 is quiet — possibly too quiet — and settles to a lazy, subdued burble. It's obviously a very different kind of engine than the inline-6 that powered the old M3, and for a moment you wonder if the gang at BMW M have botched up the world's finest high-performance coupe.

But then you find a clear stretch of road and depress the accelerator. The big V8 takes a giant gulp of air and the 2008 BMW M3 starts to come alive. At first you'll find yourself instinctively changing up a gear at 6,500 rpm, but then the engine's only starting to get into its stride. You find patience and let it rip all the way to 8,400 rpm, when you've got 420 horsepower in full cry.

Now you realize that BMW's in-house performance shop got it right. Big-time right. The 2008 BMW M3 is more than you expect.

A Porsche 911 With Four Doors
Consider this. The benchmark car for the new 2008 BMW M3 has not been the Audi RS4 or Mercedes C63 AMG, but instead the Porsche 911.

Simple logic: If it's good enough to beat the 911, then it will be better than everything else. Gerhard Richter, vice president of BMW M Power, says, "M3 stands for our philosophy; it best describes the M character."

The E92 M3 might be based loosely on the standard 3 Series coupe, but 80 percent of the parts are bespoke. Most of all, it replaces the inline-6 with an all-new 4.0-liter V8. Richter notes, "Our targets were higher revs, more horsepower, yet lower fuel consumption."

The Beauty of Purpose
BMW introduced the M3 Concept at the Geneva auto show in March, but it's only now, in the heat of a Spanish afternoon and on a public road, that you fully appreciate the impact of its styling. While previous M3s have spoken with a modest, unassuming voice, this latest car shouts its extravagance.

Only the doors, the trunk lid and the lights have been carried over from the standard 3 Series coupe. There is also a carbon-fiber roof, and its distinctive weave of fibers is there to see beneath a couple layers of clearcoat. Its role is to reduce the car's weight and fractionally lower its center of gravity. It's a neat trick that's shared with the M6 and is likely to become the new visual signature of the M Power cars.

The roof look attempts to lift this car above the mainstream and make it look like a car that costs nearly $100,000 in Europe (and will cost nearly $60,000 when it comes to the U.S.). Richter tells us, "For 20 years, people have learned to pay for more power, not less weight. But that must change."

Overall, the effect is poised, athletic and purposeful. This car makes no secret of its intent and no excuses for its performance. No one will mistake the new M3 for anything else.

The Message of Power
A thirst for more power has made the switch to a V8 engine inevitable. The 3.2-liter inline-6 in the old M3 had been pushed to its limits and the M Power engineers decided the only solution was to design a new engine from the ground up. Gerhard Richter says, "We aim to offer the best performance for the type of car. We have a V10 for the M5 and a V8 for the M3. If you use one engine for all your cars, you cannot have a perfect car."

The V8's specifications will fascinate engine geeks. Based on the architecture of the 5.0-liter V10 in the M5, the new V8 displaces 3,999cc, features eight individual throttle butterflies (one for each cylinder) and includes variable VANOS control on both the intake and exhaust camshafts. There's even an energy recovery system that uses the energy released when the brakes are applied to power the onboard electric systems. The use of trick materials like an aluminum-silicon alloy crankcase also helps minimize weight so the new V8 is actually 33 pounds lighter than the inline-6 it replaces.

Almost as impressive as the specification are the raw statistics. The V8 generates 420 hp (DIN) at 8,300 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque at just 3,000 rpm. Moreover, BMW claims that 85 percent of its peak torque is available across a rev range of 6,500 rpm. BMW says it's enough to whisk this 3,649-pound car to 100 kph (62 mph) in just 4.8 seconds, then on to 100 mph in around 10 seconds and finally to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph.

The V8 is matched with a six-speed manual transmission, as BMW's new twin-clutch sequential manual transmission isn't ready for production and should find its way to the M3 next year. Meanwhile, this engine has a relaxed gait, pulling easily in a high gear from very low revs. Around town, this car's as easy to drive as a regular 3 Series coupe.

Once you step into the gas pedal, the V8 launches the car at the horizon with the sort of midrange rumble that a child might make when simulating a car noise. It's unerringly smooth in the best BMW tradition, but you can't help wondering whether in the switch to eight cylinders, some of the classic BMW character has been lost. Even M Power's Richter admits, "Deciding to replace the six with the V8 was a difficult decision."

The tantalizing, hard-edged bark of the old M3 six that teased and cajoled is no more. And the M3 is poorer for it.

Wheels on the Ground
Although the suspension configuration of the M3 echoes that of the regular 3 Series coupe with its MacPherson strut fronts and multilink rear setup, almost all the components are new and most are made from aluminum to save weight. Also new to the M3 is the M Power limited-slip differential (previously seen on the M5), which is standard equipment. This is tuned to work in conjunction with the Michelin Pilot Sport tires, which feature a compound and construction that's unique to this car. The 18-inch wheels fitted to our test car come as standard equipment, while 19-inch rims are available as an option.

The M3 we drove in Spain also came with BMW's Electronic Damper Control system, which allows the driver to choose among three different damper settings. In the softest setting, this car has an enviable ride quality that is no less accommodating than a regular 3 Series, and it ensures that the M3 will continue to be the consummate everyday sports car.

Yet the M3 has a tougher side to its character, as the stability control system can be detuned or turned off, the throttle mapping can be altered for ultimate performance and the steering effort can be increased. The M3's Jekyll and Hyde persona is underlined by the presence of the M Power button on the steering wheel. At the touch of a button, the car can be programmed to default to its most aggressive settings. This M button says, "I'm in the mood."

It Comes to the Party
In this maximum attack mode, the M3 definitely comes to the party. It changes direction with greater alacrity, is more responsive to the throttle and recaptures some of the spirit of its predecessors. Compared with the larger, heavier M5, the M3 feels lithe and nimble. This is a car that likes to be finessed, but it will also respond to more aggressive, determined inputs.

On a private Spanish racetrack, the M3's natural tendency toward understeer is more evident than it seems on the road, but the grip levels are exceptionally high. And with judicious use of the right pedal, it's easy to coax the M3 into a gentle powerslide that's easy to control.

But it's not perfect. The steering lacks the consistent weighting and tactile communication that a Porsche offers. For a car this rapid, it's not as talkative as it should be. We've also got reservations about the brakes. Our test car was fitted with competition-grade brake pads to cope with track use, but they still faded badly after a handful of hard laps. Meanwhile, the long-throw action of the manual transmission isn't quite what you want, and you need to be delicate with the clutch to ensure a smooth shift.

A Porsche 911 or Not?
The 2008 BMW M3 confuses us a little. Its aggressive looks point to a hard-edged road racer of the old school, and the engineers certainly have set their goals high by referring to the Porsche 911. Yet the new M3's engine and chassis have been tuned for all-around civility, much like the second- and third-generation M3s.

This is an exceptionally able car that's blessed with a superbly executed engine, but there can be no denying that some of the guttural appeal of the old car has been lost. Or at least the guttural appeal of the fully optioned M3 that enthusiasts remember. The 2008 BMW M3 might have the grunt to challenge the Porsche 911, but it doesn't quite have the finesse or the emotive appeal. Indeed, you end up wondering whether it's worth paying such a premium over the brilliant BMW 335i coupe.

Clearly, some of M Power's engineers are thinking the same thoughts. They let slip that a lighter, harder-edged M3 CSL is already in development.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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