Tuesday

2008 E92 BMW M3 Review

Ah, a new M3. The M3 represents the pinnacle of BMW performance for balance, poise, and genuine driving excitement. It’s aimed directly at true, hardcore car enthusiasts that appreciate its scalpel-like prowess, making the driver feel confident in any circumstance and giving an experience that is generally second to none whether on a morning commute or hot lapping the local track. How well does this model carry the torch of its predecessor?

As usual, there are several outside differences between the M3 and the standard 3 for eagle-eyes to spot. First off, on the coupe, is the carbon fiber roof. Look at the hood too for a tell-tale power bulge. Rims are M3 specific, of course. Inside, M gauges, an 8300RPM redline, and heavily bolstered seats let you know you’re about to bolt yourself into a thrill ride.

Mechanically, all the important systems are significantly upgraded - brakes, suspension, and of course the engine. This version of the M3 is, for the first time, powered by a V8 that puts out 414hp. As noted, it seems to rev forever right up there with many Italian steeds.

But, you probably already know all of that. You want to know how it drives.

If this is your first M car experience, you won’t be disappointed. Power is abundant all the way through the rev range. And to be fair, that is quite an accomplishment. Generally speaking, when an engine has a high specific redline, the power all comes on well into the rev range. That was true on the F355 Ferrari, and is also true on most of Honda’s rides that boast significant redlines (S2000 and RSX Type S notably). More often than not, that range is rarely accessible on a public road unless you’re bound and determined to test the local constable’s patience for driving antics. So when I was running the M3 hard through the gears, finding that power and torque was actually on tap at most any point on the tach was a pleasant surprise. In fact, get into it hard enough and you can scratch in third gear even with the traction control engaged. The power curve is ideal for a street car. There’s ample grunt to move you smartly off the line and the rest is easy to access for on-ramps or stoplight grand prixs. And let’s face it, even with its racetrack breeding, 99.9% of these will spend most of their lives on the street.

The ride is tolerable. Stiff, to be sure, but you expect that with anything coming adorned with the letter M. It’s within reason given the capabilities of the M3. Turn-in is quick, and handling is vice-less. The seats support you in all the right places during spirited driving. The limits are high enough that finding their peak on anything outside of a racetrack would be unwise. Suffice it to say, whatever situation you find yourself in on the street, the M3 will carry you through.

I sampled the M3 with the fully manual transmission (remember those?) The shifter is above average and you can run the gears quickly without getting lost in the maze. Pedal placement is, as expected, perfect. Executing heel-and-toe downshifts is a simple exercise thanks to the responsive throttle pedal. Note - Euro dash shown


Because of extensive experience with the E36 M3, it’s hard for me to not compare these two models. To this day, the E36 M3 remains one of my most favorite rides. It’s balanced in any circumstance, and makes you feel like a hero no matter what. IMO, it’s one of the greatest drivers’ cars ever made. This current one……isn’t.

It’s not that it doesn’t belt out the performance – it does. It shows well on the spec sheets and in tests. Scanning the BMW techno babble it seems to have the right ingredients. As I noted above, it carries a very confident feeling – working with the pilot rather than against.

So what’s wrong?

Well, it’s into its 4th generation now. And just like people, it has piled on the pounds and gotten thicker in the middle as it has aged. What’s been lost is that light, tossable, do-no-wrong driving feel that made, say, the E30 and E36 M3, such sweet cars to pilot. And while the engine is capable of revving past 8k RPM, it doesn’t sound like it’s happy to be there. It seems more like BMW wanted a high redline number to advertise, and that’s exactly what they got. To be blunt, most engines (save the F355 and most other exotic motors) don’t sound like they’re happy to be in the upper limits of their rev range, but this is an M car. It’s from BMW’s race division. It’s SUPPOSED to feel twice removed from a race car. This doesn’t – even though it’s priced similar to one. Don’t count on getting out of the dealership without stroking a check for more than $60 large. Make it a convertible or get careless with option boxes and you’ll quickly shoot the entry price north of $70k, and top out a bit over $80k.

The most telling thing about experiencing this car is that I’ve not thought twice about it since. There are a handful of cars I look forward to experiencing again and again. Unfortunately this isn’t one of them. Once I was done with it, I was done with it. While its limits are high and performance is inarguable, it just doesn't have that 'pure' feel of the older M cars. There's something 'missing' in the drive of this car that I just can't quite put my finger on. Too many electronics diluting the experience perhaps? Maybe. This would not be the only current BMW to suffer from that affliction. As stated, I can't quite put my finger on it. In fact, it took me months to dig out my notes and get around to writing this review. It’s not a car that I lust after or was so bowled over by that I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s a bad sign as well as a shame too, because I’ve always looked forward to BMW’s latest M performance machines. After reading Boz’s review of the current M5 (here), I just didn’t want to accept that perhaps the mediocrity that has infected other areas in BMW had infected the M engineers too. Apparently it has.

Rumor has it that the next gen M3 will go back to being lighter, and offering a smaller, boosted powerplant. Let’s hope so. The last thing BMW needs to do is mess up the heritage of the M3. They’re already making too many silly things (M models of the X series for example) and seem on the verge of making the M badge the equivalent of an SS badge on a Chevy – irrelevant and played.

But given some of the other dopey decisions as of late (cough Gran Turismo concept cough) and some of the even dopier models that they’ve released (cough X6 cough), I don’t hold out much hope. Here’s hoping they’ll prove me wrong.

In the meantime, if you want a true M experience, check out the last gen M5 or a first or second gen M3. Otherwise, spend $70k on a real sports car – a special one. Trust me – you’ll be doing yourself quite a favor.

You've often heard it said that they don't build 'em like they used to. Unfortunately, that saying now applies to the M3.

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