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Review: 2008 BMW M3 Coupe

by Mark Elias

The new fourth-gen BMW M3 was debuted stateside earlier this year for auto journos and other "persons of interest," as the authorities are apt to say. From Cannery Row in Monterey, California, to nearby Laguna Seca Raceway, and through nearly 140-miles of stomach-twisting mountain roads, we had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the new E92 Coupe during a week long total immersion into the BMW product line.



Backstory

The week began with an introduction to the Rolls Royce Phantom and Phantom EW (extended wheelbase) sedans, followed by the Phantom Drophead, and Coupe. Next came the Mini Cooper Clubman, and the new 1-Series, followed by the M3 from BMW's M high-performance division. It was worth the wait.

The New M3 is a departure for those who have been fans of the compact sports coupes from the beginning. The M3 first arrived in North America in 1988. Power from a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine put down 192 horsepower. For reference's sake, the Ford Pinto of the 1970s was powered by a similar-sized engine, but without any of the intestinal fortitude of the former.

Generation two arrived in 1995 with a 3.0-liter, then 3.2-liter 240-horsepower I-6 powerplant. A companion sedan and convertible appeared shortly thereafter.

Version three dropped on these shores in 2001 and was produced until mid-2006. Power output grew to 333 horsepower from the 3.2-liters. Then came the introduction of the new 335i in late 2006. Powered by its sequential twin-turbocharged I-6 with an output of 335 horsepower, it made the outgoing M appear anemic. What was BMW to do? What indeed...

Flash forward to the present, and we are cruising past artichoke fields in the Central Coast region of California (Castroville, the "Artichoke Capital of the World"). The engine in our white-with-black carbon-fiber roof paneled M3 Coupe is calmly humming along in almost a docile tone. We slow through school zones and past town centers until speed limits again approach highway velocity where we can cause the engine to roar by way of steady pressure on the loud pedal.

Aesthetics - (3.5/5)

Overall, the M3 Coupe appears to have taken the best cues from the current 3-series coupe and improved upon them. Subtle side skirts help to enhance the "dropped" appearance of the car, while under-platform refinements to the near-flat floor help to enhance under-floor airflow. The vehicle is nicely accented with the M logos located in the center of the "gills" on each side of the car.

Curiously, of all the color schemes available in the M3 Coupe, the white body with black carbon-fiber roof combination is the most attractive. It appears almost like a club-racer color scheme common in Japan. Having the carbon lid achieves some functional goals, too. Weighing 11 lbs less than a regular steel top, it helps lower the car's center of gravity. Of course, it also lowers the car's overall weight. But who are we kidding -- it's mostly for the novelty.

The trouble with the new M3 is that, in more sedate colors, it's easy to mistake it for a regular 3-Series. Of course, this has always been then case for BMW's "M" cars. Bulging fenders aside, untrained observes won't notice much of a difference between an M5 and a 550i, for example. With the new M3, BMW decided to add a few more design cues to spice things up. The brawny engine requires extra clearance under the hood by way of a "powerdome." The dome is a welcomed enhancement that separates the posers from the performers.

The new 3-Series coupe by itself has more road presence than press photos might suggest. The M3 takes the look a few steps further, and as a result is much more noticeable on the road than one might think. The front is particularly aggressive, and the side profile is far more interesting in person than in photography. We're not entirely sold on the Honda Civic-esque rear 3/4 view, but the rows of LED in the taillights do a good job of distracting from this.

Whether the new M3's exterior will stand the test of time remains to be seen. Previous M3s have managed to stand the test of time thanks to their very distinctive looks. Most enthusiasts are split on whether BMW's latest effort lives up to this standard, and so are we.

Cabin - (4/5)

We can't complain too much about the M3's new interior. The interior coddles you in well-bolstered seats that managed to keep small, and larger drivers firmly in place. Everything presents itself, just as it's supposed to. A beefy leather-wrapped steering wheel is tilt and telescope adjustable; it's nicely accented with the colors of BMW's M racing division (Blue, Purple and Red). It's a color-scheme you see repeated throughout the cabin. The carbon fiber interior inserts are neither attractive nor functional, so we're glad the "ricer" look is optional.

The purpose of optional LCD-screen-based iDrive, among other things, is to reduce the amount of clutter produced by buttons and dials. But for a company whose interiors are creeping dangerously close to IKEA territory, we think a little clutter might be a good thing.

We'd call the M3's cabin boring, except for the fact that every other interior in the segment this side of an Audi S5 is equally bland. That's not to say it's ugly or uncomfortable -- it's just not inspiring. Order the leather seats in red if you're looking for a bit more visual stimulation.

Technology - (4/5)

Order the iDrive-equipped model and you'll see a twin-binnacle dashboard housing the gauges directly in front of the driver, and the iDrive screen to the right. For the computer- and smartphone-literate the iDrive system isn't as bad as some folks would have you believe, but better designs are surely on the drawing board somewhere.

Just to the left of the six-speed manual shifter are three buttons that comprise the controls to the M Drive, included in the optional Technology package. Through the use of these buttons, the M's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Electronic Damping Control (EDC) and engine response can be engaged or disengaged as desired. The result allows for more wheel slippage, softer or firmer ride quality and engine response""normal, sport or sport plus. An "MDrive" button is located on the steering wheel that enables the driver to store the preferences.

In a nod to the phrase "racing improves the breed," BMW has borrowed from their F1 engine-building program by incorporating a technique that casts engine blocks from an aluminum/silicon alloy. This silicon alloy whose crystals line the cylinders obviates the need for a specially coated cylinder bore. Topside, the injection system is made of eight separate throttle bodies for quicker response. Trust us. It is quick.

Performance - (5/5)

The new M5 sedan's ten-cylinder engine has been met with rave reviews, so for a car whose alphanumeric badge has two less digits, it seems almost poetic BMW decided to simply chop off two cylinders from that monstrous V10 to make a smaller, lighter V8.

Simply put, the engine in this new E92-bodied M3 is a piece of Teutonic industrial art. Lighter than the six-cylinder M3 motor it replaced, it is not as attractive as the 4.2-liter found under the hood of Audi's RS-4. Instead, it is covered with a big glob of plastic cladding over the injection system, which sports a little bling in the form of an M-badge. Turns out this cladding houses the M's airbox.

From that point, the powerplant becomes all business. At 4.0-liters, and 414 horsepower at 8400 rounds-per-minute, the engine displays an incredible power to weight ratio of 8.8 lbs to one horsepower. And did we mention high-revving? Torque weighs in at 295 lb-ft, and BMW says there is enough of it to launch the M3 from naught to 60mph in a claimed 4.7 seconds.

This is an "M" car, so everything you've read thus far is irrelevant until the most important question is answered -- How does it go? Like Stink, thank you.

The BMW Double-Vanos system of its variable-valve timing technology delivers the appropriate power for nearly every situation, while at the same time lowering emissions. The good stuff does not just reside up top, either.

Through the use of aluminum suspension parts, from the front and rear axles, to the control arms and dampers, added strength and lightness are achieved throughout the new M3, improving chassis dynamics along the way.

During BMW's track day at famed Laguna Seca Raceway, we were given the chance to see probably every behavioral trait that the M3 possesses. From the kick-in-your-pants acceleration to the mild understeer exhibited through the Andretti Hairpin the car is absolutely well sorted, keeping the average driver out of trouble. Bump the DSC switch and feel the tail wiggle for a more exhilarating entrance and exit through the turn. If you don't set up correctly, expect a bit of tire squeal, too! Pass through turn five, stand on the gas and ease onward to the uphill straight, pulling right to connect with the sweeping left turn apex of turn six. Accelerate as much as you can and then stand on the brakes with their 14-inch cross-drilled compound rotors, turn hard left and aim for the dead tree. Do this correctly, and you avoid the gravel pits on both sides and will have found the quickest way to thread the needle through the famed Laguna Seca "Corkscrew."

Hit the gas through the Rainey curve and approach the quick right-hander on the way towards pit-in for the end of this roller coaster ride. If you are nice to the ride attendant, he may let you stay in and go again!

Words and photos by Mark Elias