For those who can never have too much of a good thing, the BMW M3 takes the automaker’s top selling 3-Series and delivers more of everything those models represent. Offered in coupe, sedan and convertible versions, the current generation dates back to its model-year 2008 revision and continues to offer performance capabilities few vehicles – at least those shy of the six-figure range – can match. It continues for 2011 and should prevail into 2012 with only modest changes. In many ways the M3 is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, as its overall look isn’t dramatically different than a standard-issue 3 Series, though most body panels are model-specific. Still, its exterior is beefed up with added air intakes, flared wheel arches, a prominent “power bulge” in its aluminum hood, unique side-mirrors and a specific spoiler that’s claimed to reduce rear-end lift forces at higher speeds. A carbon-fiber-reinforced roof adds structural integrity, minimizes weight and helps lower the car’s center of gravity, which enhances its handling agility. The rear deck lid spoiler, mirror caps, and front splitters are likewise constructed of carbon fiber.
But the M3 is engineered more for performance than sheer good looks and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard, thanks to a lightweight 4.0-liter V8 engine that develops 414 horsepower. That’s roughly on a par with a Chevrolet Corvette’s base engine, though – in the American muscle car tradition – that model’s small-block V8 generates about a third more low-end torque. The M3 can reach 60 mph from a standing start in just under five seconds, with a top speed that’s electronically limited at 155 mph.
The V8 channels all that power efficiently to the rear wheels via a beefed-up six-speed short-throw manual transmission that gives the driver total and immediate control. Those seeking added convenience can choose a clutch-less seven-speed dual-clutch sequential-shift automated manual gearbox; it can be operated in fully automatic mode or shifted manually via either the shift knob or steering wheel-mounted paddles, Formula 1 style. The latter includes what BMW calls Drivelogic, which offers 11 selectable programs (five automatic and six manual) to alter the transmission’s shift points more or less aggressively.
The BMW M3 handles more like an exotic sports car than a luxury car, thanks to a specially modified all-aluminum suspension, with 18-inch wheels and tires (19-inchers are alternately offered) and a variable locking rear differential that affords top traction on a wide range of road surfaces. The tradeoff for the car’s uncanny cornering prowess, however, comes in the form of a stiff ride that manifests itself painfully over bumps, potholes and even relatively minor pavement imperfections.
One of the niftiest features included here, as it is in the M5 sedan, is BMW’s “MDrive” control system that lets drivers tailor the car’s performance and handling characteristics to suit their driving styles and preferences. Those who like to fiddle with such things can tune the engine management controls for livelier throttle response, adjust the suspension damping to accentuate better handling or a slightly more-comfortable ride and calibrate the power steering system to afford more or less assist at varying speeds. Large compound four-wheel antilock disc brakes ensure swift and straight stopping abilities.
As if that’s not enough, the M3’s Dynamic Stability Control system can be switched off altogether for those who are accomplished and brave enough to slide the rear end around the turns, “Tokyo drift” style. New for 2011 is an optional Competition Package for coupe and sedan models that lowers the suspension by 10 millimeters, includes wider 19-inch wheels, and comes with assorted chassis control system tweaks, presumably for the benefit of weekend racers.
The M3’s interior is similar in appearance to the rest of the 3 Series line, albeit with richer materials used and various M-specific embellishments added. For example, the dashboard sports a gauge that indicates how much of the engine’s power remains available, based not on rpm, but on the temperature of the engine oil. The cabin can be dressed up with various leather and trim treatments and optional front seats feature adjustable-width backrests to allow maximum lateral support through sharp turns. Other options include a voice-activated navigation system, rear park distance warnings, heated front seats, and headlamp washers.
And yes, the M3 includes BMW’s knob-operated and menu-driven iDrive system to clumsily control the entertainment, navigation, communication and climate control functions. The latest generation works more intuitively than did the initial iterations with the addition of a few shortcut buttons, but it still makes performing relatively simple tasks more complicated than necessary and can be a distraction while driving.
The M3 is not for the faint of heart, but it rewards deep-pocketed enthusiasts with a truly thrilling ride and can make anyone at least feel like an accomplished racecar driver.
BMW M3 Quick Facts
Engine: 4.0 Liter V8
Horsepower: 414 @ 8,300 rpm
Torque: 295 @ 3,900 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 14/20
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual, 7-Spd Auto Manual
Wheelbase: 108.7 in
Overall Length: 180.4 in
Width: 71.5 in
Height: 57.0 in
Curb Weight: 3,726 lbs
MSRP: $55,900 – $67,550
Did You Know?
BMW began bringing high-performance M-branded vehicles into the U.S. in 1988, with the original M3, which was essentially a racing version of the 3 Series coupe that had been modestly modified for on-road use. It was quick, but intensely harsh, even by performance-car standards, and was sold only to a select few enthusiasts and weekend racers. The second generation M3, released in 1995, was considerably more civilized and sophisticated, and set the tone for higher-performance M treatments that would be subsequently applied to other M-branded models, including the X5 and X6 crossover SUVs.