2009 BMW M3: Comparison Drive, Part One
August 03, 2009
Eight hundred and fifty horsepower. That's what has been sitting in my garage ever since I brought home our 2009 BMW M3 sedan. It's a bit absurd, really, having a white 2009 M3 with gray wheels parked next to my black 2008 Corvette coupe with gray wheels. What have I done to deserve this yin-and-yang good fortune?
But ever since editor Josh Sadlier brought up a point on an Edmunds Daily post about how the M3 challenges the Corvette as a value-for-the-money leader, I've been wondering how the two cars stack up. So I decided a little comparison drive was in order. It's good versus evil, propeller versus flags, bratwurst versus hot dog. It's the everyday sport sedan versus the everyday sports car.
Since it was just me over the weekend for this comparison, I'd have to drive one car at a time on a 100-mile route that was mostly highway, country roads and curvy roads that head up into the Sierra Nevada. The M3 was up first for this early morning drive. With a clean M3 and a blue sky, it was if the driving gods had pronounced, "Go Forth Young Man and Burn Some Hydrocarbons." Well, OK, if you insist, holy ones.
The M3's 414-horsepower 4.0-liter V8 isn't a morning person, though. Like head honcho Karl posted before, fire the V8 cold and it's rather rough and grumbly. Apparently, BMW has it this way to reduce cold-start tailpipe emissions.
On city roads, the M3 putters about pretty much like any other 3 Series. Well, the manual transmission can be a little tricky to get smooth shifts out of every time, though, and there are those distinctive (and endearing) M driveline clunking noises at low speeds that no regular 3 would ever roll off the assembly line with.
After exiting the highway, I come across my first match of the day: a rendezvous with a 2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Game on! Actually, it was premeditated -- I had called a friend of mine who owns the Vantage. I told him I was driving the M3 up to the mountains and asked him if he wanted to tag along. I wasn't sure what the presence of a Vantage would bring, but the owner's always down for a back-road drive.
We're out in the country at this point where the roads are pretty empty and straight. We pull out to pass a dawdling truck, which gives us the chance to run through a couple of gears. The M3 accelerates hard, V8 pumping out its Euro-style, honking baritone wail. Fourth is an absolutely crushing gear -- clutch in, yank the shifter down as it twacks into place, then clutch out. There's no hesitation as the M3 surges forth on another wave of power. Honestly, a quick 3rd to 4th shift in this car is so tactilely pleasing that it alone would forever sell me on getting the manual transmission rather than the automated dual-clutch transmission.
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the general parity of weight-to-power ratios, the M3 and Vantage are pretty evenly matched on the straights, with the M3 perhaps maybe having just a slight advantage. If our cell phones were working, I might have had tried to trash talk my friend a little on how this white workaday 3 was outrunning the double-the-price Aston Martin. But then again, his Aston looks about twice as good as the M3.
At this point we're up in the hills, with lots of smooth and empty pavement to work with. Most of the corners are medium speed, 3rd gear stuff. The M3 is like a bloodhound, its helm obediently sniffing out whatever cornering apex I throw at it. The coolest part about our car, though, is the adjustability, with three damper stiffness settings, the sport throttle setting and the adjustable side bolsters for the driver seat.
There's also the M Mode, which gives a one-button-push programmed setup for the dampers and throttle plus further customization to stability control activation and steering assist. To be honest, I completely forgot about M Mode, but just putting the dampers in the mid-level Normal mode was all that was required for this road.
For the entire curvy road section, the M3 is in the lead and the Aston is hanging right behind. It's a crackingly great time. We eventually finish the curvy road section and I ask my friend how hard he was pushing the Aston. He said there were a couple corners where he would have perhaps gone faster had he been in the lead, but for the rest it was a good pace. It's a nice affirmation that the M3 truly does offer exotic sports car performance to go with its real-world sedan practicality. Did I mention I did the whole drive with a child safety seat (sans child) in the back?
Arriving back home, the M3 looks like it's been working hard -- there's splash and/or rubber marks behind each wheel well, and the wheels are once again full of brake dust. Oh, and it burned half a tank of gas for the 100 miles or so, giving it about a 12.5 mpg average. But the performance payoff is undeniable.
Now it's time to see how the Corvette fares. Part Two continues tomorrow, 12 p.m. Pacific.
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor @ 6768 miles