2008 BMW M3 Coupe

This has to be BMW’s most avidly followed product. The M3 Coupe in its market segment has always been the quintessential right-out-of-the-box, front-engine, rear-traction Euro boy racer—unquestionably not family-friendly, unashamedly sexist in its buyer demographics, and lusted after equally by all sexes, nationalities, species, and faiths.

It also doesn’t hurt that the latest M3 continues the model’s history of being the most attractive product of its time in the Munich lineup. Compared to the third-generation “E46” M3 that ceased deliveries in mid-2006, this new “E92” car is a significantly re-hatched kettle of fish. It is comforting, however, that the end result makes our neck hairs bristle just as they always have while steering around the E46. You may just need to force it a bit more than before.

The roads heading north and inland from Marbella to Ronda in central Andalusia are notoriously good driving roads. Weather was crystal clear, warm, and dry, so the standard set of specially formulated eighteen-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tires (nineteen-inchers are available) kept us good and stuck to the road for two days, including ten hard laps of the Ascari circuit on day two. Once these special treads get hot and as sticky as possible, and once you are master of your own throttle and torque, most understeer is squeezed out of the new equation.

For just one idea of how scorching this latest model is, BMW didn’t even invite the Japanese journalists to come try the car. This is because all 1500 units in Japan’s first allotment were sold out a while back and BMW didn’t feel the need to create more orders for the car with any additional media splurge. It says a lot about how this car is bound to perform for the company image (and company ledgers) worldwide.

The key novelty to the M3 recipe lies under the hood. Called “S65B40,” the normally aspirated 4.0-liter V-8 engine is a logical next step for the 3-series engine compartment. In Spain after our first day of driving, board member overseeing the M division Klaus Dräger had all four generations of M3 parade before us. Whereas the first three generations—E30, E36, and E46—sound fairly similar at idling revs with a low and almost discreet burble, the E92 car at 750 rpm has a definite competition voice hinting more directly at the racing GTR version soon to arrive. You can hear the rigid aluminum technology popping underneath, taunting the likes of the overweight Audi RS4.

As the M division at BMW is not about the simple task of top-speed heroics (they are all limited to 155 miles per hour), more time is spent on the M3’s agility and mid-revs power through the gears and between curves. In these respects, it is a superstar, with hasty throttle response between 3500 and 7000 rpm aided by its individual throttle butterflies for each cylinder. Between this long 295-pound-foot torque plateau and a climb to 414 horsepower that doesn’t stop until it reaches 8300 rpm (redline is 8400 rpm), a proper sporting drive out can be fatiguing as hell for any unseasoned passengers. We don’t care, though, since we were doing the driving and this is the land of M. Speaking of which, the standard front seats lack the adjustable rib-crushing security of the M5 bolsters, but lateral support is fine for us.

The most thrilling dynamic move the M3 does better than practically anything else is any transitional change of direction with medium but steady throttle, better even when there is also an elevation change. Both the roads of the Andalusian high country and the 3.4-mile circuit at Race Resort Ascari have just this sort of amusement park quality down pat, and the M3 left us mightily amused. The chassis scheme with fresh, nearly all-aluminum front axle and sturdy multilink suspension to the rear carries on the theme of other recent M cars, lending a seemingly perfect feel to the entire rolling experience. The best move of all had to be in downhill bends while in second or third gear, because, even with traction a given, the rear end can still be induced to float out just enough to make us feel in total synchronicity with the car and the given topography. Whereas the M5 or M6 can feel overlarge in circumstances such as these, and the Z4 M is almost too tight, the M3 Coupe weds the best qualities of all three.

Our tester came equipped with the optional MDrive program and Electronic Damping Control (EDC), both of which we heartily recommend, though EDC is more important than MDrive for the day-to-day. EDC monitors the existing damper calibrations according to your preference of comfort, normal, or sport, selected using the console button by your right thigh. As with Porsche Active Suspension Management on the hottest 911s, we enjoyed the full sport setting for EDC all day long, finding just enough comfort still at that level.

Using the iDrive knob on the console, you can adjust the MDrive settings for four key ingredients: what steering feel you wish to have via the Servotronic system (normal or sport); the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) setting between on, off, or M Dynamic Mode (MDM); your favorite damper setting within EDC; throttle response (“Power” a.k.a. M Engine Dynamic Control) for normal, sport, or sport plus. Meantime, throttle response can also be improved to sport by poking the standard power button by your right thigh. And, at all times, the new variable M limited-slip differential at the rear axle discreetly monitors the handling and traction situation no matter what. MDrive is a fine toy to tack on to your iDrive screen; depending on how you work the setup, this M3 rivals the 911 at times for total drive experience, with plenty of cargo space and two real rear seats to boot.

Reaching 62 mph in the M3 with manual transmission, according to BMW Germany press materials, takes 4.8 seconds, while we anticipate 4.6 seconds to 60mph in North America. This would make the M3 just 0.1 of a second less quick than the M5 and M6. If no one immediately records a 4.4-second run in the M3, we’ll eat our hats. The six-speed manual transmission with beefy dual-plate clutch frequently requires a strong hand to order it around, but smoothness happened sometimes out on our runs. While the M3 launches in Europe September 26 with only the manual available, North American M3s will launch in the first half of 2008 similarly equipped, and a new MDCT (M Dual Clutch Transmission) sequential automatic comes on line worldwide later that year. We asked bossman Dräger whether the M3’s DSG-style system will forever override a driver’s wishes, also whether the M-DCT and launch control in the M3 will pleasurably shatter our spines with each shift up as on the M5/M6 with SMGIII at level six. The engineer just grinned a lot and repeated, “Ohhh, yes. You’ll see.”

We haven’t talked much of the M3 clothing since the guts can be so distracting. Frankly, we love the German muscle car demeanor and stance, especially in this Blunt-Instrument Red. None of the holes punched in the aluminum or plastic exterior panels is cosmetic, but they all cool something. The slightly unnecessary bulge in the aluminum hood is oh-so-necessary by all accounts. Sure to be an M trademark from here out, the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic roof shaves eleven pounds off of the uppermost part of the car. Gaping air gulpers in the front serve to cool engine and brakes while holding you to the earth’s crust, and the petite spoiler on the trunk lid adds just as much rear down force as is needed to stabilize things at higher speeds. The fastest speed we achieved was on the track’s back dogleg straight in fourth gear at full throttle, where we hit 130 mph and the car felt tight and free of flinching in healthy crosswinds.

As always (for us at least), the single-piston floating caliper compound brakes have a nice modulated action to them, but they fade rather abruptly under certain circumstances at the track. They also squeal like preteens at a concert. There is a warming-up strategy to having them function really well, but they do still noticeably fade. On the other hand, for everyday use, they’re great units. Between this aspect and the somewhat clunky manual gearshifts for road use, these are the only two points we can manage to locate for any criticism.

Actually, there is one other. Though the new all-aluminum V-8 is lighter and gets more mileage from a gallon of the stuff than the outgoing inline six-cylinder, we do wish that this new engine got its fuel supplied via high-precision injection (HPI), which would make it a grand slam. Dr. Dräger explains: “This engine was planned together with the V-10 engine in the M5 and M6, and at that point HPI was not fully developed. Also, HPI at 8400 maximum revs would require further R&D to work up to our standards. We can expect HPI in all M cars, however, by the next generation.”

Besides this two-door M3 with manual starting at an estimated $59,000, there will also be the aforementioned M-DCT automatic version, plus the convertible and a four-door in the near future. As for the M3 CSL hard-core edition in 2010, don’t expect that one to make it to North America to do local battle with the Porsche GT3 RS. Boo-hoo.