Friday, July 6, 2007

MARBELLA, Spain — The fourth generation of the M3, BMW’s race bred sports sedan, is ready for its market launch. It will be introduced in Europe this summer and will come to North America before the end of the year.

From the start in 1986, the M3 has been an icon when it comes to performance coupes. With each generation, the model evolved into an even sportier car but also got more competition from the likes of the Audi RS4 and Mercedes AMG-models. The latest M3, however, should be able to withstand the competition with utterly aerodynamic styling, new driving dynamics and the all-new 420 horsepower 4-liter V-8. The forebearer of the new production M3 was unveiled last March at the Geneva Auto Show. Then, most members of the media were stunned by its looks and more than curious about the new car’s performance.

The design of the M3 is unmistakenly that of a 3 Series variant, but only 20 percent is carried over from the 3 Series Coupe. The exterior was designed and developed by BMW M GmbH to provide the car a particular appearance and combine it with the new technology.

We see a hood with an impressive power dome in the middle and air intake openings next to it. Overall, the design of the front end is longer than that of the regular 3 Series Coupe.

Beneath the typical double kidney grille are three large scoops for intake and cooling air to the engine.

With chiseled front wheel arches, 18-inch wheels in the typical double-spoke M design, the visible high-performance brakes, special mirrors with double arms finished in black, the side panels with air intake ‘gills’ and the contours of the profile line extending to the back and at the rear a spoiler lip and rear diffuser, the M3 has the looks of a real muscle car.

And muscle it has. The power comes from the 420 horsepower 4-liter V-8 that is derived from BMW’s 10-cylinder engine, used in the M5 and M6 models. It is a state of the art power plant with individual throttle butterflies, variable Double-Vanos camshaft control, brake energy regeneration (that BMW introduced in the 1 Series earlier this year), a high compression ratio of 12:1 and an upgraded engine control unit.

Although larger than the six-cylinder of the former M3, thanks to its light-weight aluminum block, crankcase and heads, this V-8 weighs 33 pounds less. Weight reduction has further been realized by equipping the car with an aluminum hood and a carbon-fiber reinforced roof. The new forged aluminum track control arms reduce total suspension weight.

This week, I was one of the lucky few to join the first group in the driving events that will last almost through all the month of July in the neighborhood of Marbella in the south of Spain.

Not only did we drive the 2008 M3 in the Andalusian mountains but also got driving time at the Ascari Race Resort, with its interesting 2.5-mile-long test track.

When you step behind the wheel, you immediately know that this is a special, sporty model. The interior with its four seats, excellent ergonomics and subtle details, such as the dual dials in BMW M configuration and the special rev counter, the M leather steering wheel, the integrated foot rest and the new center console between the front seats.

On the road, the behavior of the 2008 M3 is absolutely impressive. The V-8 reaches its maximum torque of 295 pound-feet at 3,900 rpm and keeps it there until 6,500 rpm, but at 2,000 there is already 250 pound-feet available. Even more astonishing is the fact that the V-8 is a really high-revving engine. Its maximum power is reached at 8,300 rpm, and the red line lies at 8,400. There are also two oil pumps, plus a wet sump system for sufficient oil supply at high lateral and longitudinal acceleration. And boy, the engine screams with the recognizable undertone of a V-8.

But you cannot drive without restrictions on the public road. Behaving civilized in normal traffic is absolutely no problem, but overtaking a slow truck is an absolute joy. Then, the engine reacts immediately to pressure of the right foot and flies past. On bad roads, the M3 is not too harsh on its occupants, as BMW also gave it the MDrive system, for setting specific configurations of the suspension with electronic damper control with Normal, Comfort and Sports settings. MDrive also allows for deactivation of dynamic stability control, but that is something I saved for trying on the track. I have to mention that the system also allows pre-selecting the response of the Servotronic power steering and has three control maps available for the management of the engine.

Even though I could appreciate the M3”s driving qualities on the road, the knowledge of testing the new car on the race track makes you eager to reach that destination. But the track time was barely enough to try out all possibilities — just the most important ones, which are more than enough to make you appreciate this fast BMW.

The M3, not withstanding the efforts to reduce weight, still brings nearly 3,850 pounds on the scale but accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 impressively short seconds. With a road holding that is supreme for a car that is not a race car — yet — the M3 is amazingly quick but friendly as well. I was brought up with real American muscle cars, raced them and still love them. But this new Bavarian model surpasses them in terms of overall sophistication, agility and even in muscle. Its state of the art V-8 is the heart of the matter, which, maybe surprisingly, is not a real gas guzzler with a combined fuel consumption of 19 miles per gallon, according to the European cycle. Figures, standard equipment and prices of the 2008 BMW M3 for the North American market have not been announced yet. We can expect them closer to the market introduction by the end of this year.

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