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As the high performance member and image-maker of BMW's popular 3-series range, the M3 coupe is one highly desirable motor car.
With a 3.0 litre, variable valve timing BMW Motorsport straight-six engine shoe-horned under its bonnet, the M3 provides blistering performance, but then responsibly backs this up with very high levels of both passive and active safety.
All BMW 3-series models boast excellent chassis dynamics but the M3 raises the standards to another plateau. The M3 backs up its superb handling, precise steering and stable road manners with immensely powerful brakes that instil plenty of confidence in the car's ability to keep you out of trouble.
One of the nice things about the M3 is that despite its awesome capabilities as a sports car, it doesn't demand major sacrifices in the areas of comfort and convenience.
For example, the M3 has a lot more standard equipment and rides more comfortably than last year's recipient of the NRMA award for Best Sports over the luxury tax threshold - the Porsche 968 CS. The M3 is even classified as a five-seater, though rear occupants need to be fairly small to be comfortable.
At $124,650, the M3 is easily the most expensive model in the 3-series line-up, but it compares favourably with the rather skimpily-equipped Porsche 968 CS at $119,900. Honda's mouth-watering NSX coupe (which on our test results, the M3 outperforms) currently costs $205,500.
The engineers at BMW Motorsport certainly know their stuff when it comes to getting the best out of an engine. With its infinitely variable camshaft control system (VANOS), the 3.0 litre DOHC six produces as much torque just above idle speed as many sixes do at their maximum.
Drive from this high-output, high-efficiency engine goes to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox (automatic isn't available). The limited slip differential features a 25 per cent locking action to help prevent the drive wheels from spinning. Drivetrain components are enlarged and/or reinforced to cope with the high power output.
The M3's superb braking comes from four extra large ventilated discs and as on every BMW, ABS anti-lock equipment is standard.
The M3 carries over the 3-series' all-independent front strut, rear central link/semi-trailing arm suspension but it has been thoroughly revised and modified to handle the car's high performance capabilities and specially tuned to match the ultra-low profile 17 inch 40 series tyres fitted.
As already mentioned, the M3 is not short on standard equipment. The list includes CFC-free air conditioning, a driver's airbag, electric front windows, remote control anti-theft system, a 10 speaker anti-theft sound system, heated door locks, mirrors and screen washer nozzles (good for the snow country), on-board trip computer, suede trim, 50/50 split folding rear seat and alloy wheels.
The option list includes an electric sun-roof at $2,930; electric adjustment for the front seats, $3,270; cruise control, $1,350 and a boot-mounted 6 pack CD changer, $1,690.
Building on the pretty lines of the 3-series coupes, the M3 happily does without unsightly wings and instead improves its high speed aerodynamics by way of a new front spoiler, modified rear apron and full-length side skirts. These modifications, together with the M3's lower stance and its big alloy wheels and low profile tyres, leave no doubt to even a casual observer, that this is a no-nonsense, high performance car.
Of the seven exterior colours available for the M3, four have been created exclusively. For those who really want to be noticed, Dakar Yellow is definitely the stand-out choice, but then this is a car that would probably look great in any colour.
Finish on the M3 presented for evaluation was immaculate throughout. Our check of the paintwork showed ample coverage and consistent film build. Not everyone was keen on the look of the suede-like trim with splashes of red and blue from the M concept, but the trim fit and finish was excellent.
Initially, the M3's seats don't look all that inviting, being rather thin and hard, but they certainly do their job in supporting and securing the driver and front passenger, and proved comfortable over a full day's driving. With five adjustment levers, plus a backrest release on each front seat, it can get a bit confusing at times as to which lever does what!
Like most sports coupes, the M3 looks after its front occupants with plenty of leg room, but with the optional sun-roof, head room is just fair.
The M3 has three seat belts across the back seat but it would ambitious to think of the car as a five-seater. You would need to have the front seats forward a few notches to carry larger children or adults as there's not enough space to get your feet under the front seats. Also, the shaping of the rear seat cushion isn't conducive to carrying a centre passenger.
One of the surprising things about the M3 for me was the compliance of the suspension. Despite being stiffened for taut handling and riding on ultra-low 40-series tyres, the M3 didn't display any uncomfortable harshness. Sure, the ride is firm and you can feel the bumps, but I rate it as very acceptable, considering the car's tremendous handling and road holding.
Unlike some sports coupes which can accommodate a couple of soft bags and little else, the M3 has quite a useful-size boot. It's long and easy to load, because of the low load lip and BMW's neat arrangement of the lid hinges being located outside of the load area. The area isn't that deep but the floor is flat and solid. The M3 carries a full size spare wheel and tyre in a well under the floor cover.
The combination of multi-adjustable seat and tilt steering column gives drivers of varying sizes a good chance of finding a suitable and comfortable driving position in the M3. With fairly slim roof pillars, vision is good to the sides and of the road ahead. To the rear, vision is restricted somewhat by the rear head restraints and high rear deck panel.
A comprehensive instrument panel and trip computer provide ample information about the car's operating functions but I have to say I'm not a fan of orange instrument dial markings - they can be hard to read in sunlight.
Against the clock, the M3 returned some of the quickest acceleration times ever recorded in NRMA road testing, but that's only part of the story.
Just as impressive (or perhaps more so), is the way the M3 pulls so well from very low engine speeds, and then continues to accelerate eagerly up to its maximum. The infinitely variable valve timing, combined with the obvious overall efficiency of this engine, provides smooth and seamless power throughout the rev range.
There's just one thing that spoils the smooth performance and that's an accelerator action that seems unnecessarily stiff. It makes the M3 a bit jerky in slow moving traffic and smooth start-offs take some practice with clutch and accelerator techniques.
Another example of the engine's efficiency is its specific power output - that is the amount of power produced per litre of engine capacity. The figure of 70.2 kW per litre is amongst the best I've experienced for a normally aspirated (non-turbo) engine.
For a high output engine, the M3's 3.0 litre in-line six does remarkably well on fuel. In this segment, the four cylinder Porsche 968 does best on fuel, but the M3, at 12.4 litres/100 km overall, did far better than turbo sports cars such as the Mazda RX7, Mitsubishi 3000GT and Nissan 300ZX.
The downside to the M3's good fuel economy is that it is supposed to run on 98 octane petrol. It barely tolerates our 95 octane PULP, as indicated by some occasional pinging in the test car.
It's not much use having a lot of power if the car's handling is not up to scratch, but I'm happy to report that the M3 has no worries in that regard. The handling is most impressive, with high limits of adhesion and very capable cornering abilities.
With virtually no flexing from the 40-series tyres, the M3 turns into corners very sharply. This pinpoint accuracy and quick steering response in fact, can take a little getting used to for drivers accustomed to vaguer systems.
It's enlightening, after driving the M3, just how sloppy and vague some other cars feel in their handling and steering.
The M3 is also a winner when it comes to stopping power. I couldn't find a better braking performance in more than 15 years of test results and that includes last year's Best Sports, the Porsche 968 CS, which has tremendously powerful brakes as well.
Not only did the M3 pull up in incredibly short distances with very high deceleration rates, it also breezed through our standard fade tests with virtually no increase in pedal effort and no signs of the brakes getting hot. The immensely powerful feel of the brakes when you stomp solidly on the pedal is very reassuring and instils plenty of confidence in the M3's ability to keep you out of trouble.
Another plus in the M3's driving enjoyment is its manual gearbox. It has one of those change actions that makes it a pleasure to swap cogs and the ratios are nicely spaced to complement the engine.
The finely detailed straight six, complete with bold BMW M Power badging, presents an imposing sight under the bonnet. But it's a tight fit and I wouldn't relish the prospect of doing much more than just the usual service checks. For reasons of better mass distribution (and possibly because it wouldn't fit under the bonnet?) the battery resides in the boot.
Don't be fooled by the BMW M3's relatively conservative appearance, underneath there's a thoroughbred sports machine of awesome capabilities.
On performance, handling and braking, the M3 is more than a match for anything in its class, up to and including the $200,000-plus Honda NSX.
One of the nice things about the M3 is that despite its high performance, it's user-friendly, with a wonderfully flexible engine, space for kids and luggage, and enough standard equipment to satisfy luxury car buyers. All-in-all, a delightful driver's car that in my book, rates a winner in its class.
|Price of vehicle tested||$124,650|
Powerful, flexible performance
Restricted leg space for rear occupants
|Country of manufacture||Germany|
|Warranty||2 years/Unlimited kilometres|
|Number of cylinders||6|
|Engine size||2.990 L|
|Claimed max power (kW)||210 kW @ 7000 rpm|
|Claimed max torque (Nm)||320 Nm @ 3600 rpm|
|Wheel size||7.5J x 17 inch "|
|Dimensions||235/40 ZR 17|
|Type||Variable power assisted, rack and pinion|
|Turns to lock||3.2 m|
|Turning circle (measured)||10.9 m|
|Width (including mirrors)||1710 mm|
|Fuel capacity||65 litres|
|Max towed mass (trailer plus load)||1460 kg|
NRMA Theft Rating
Acceleration - Test results
|50 - 80km/h||4.1 secs|
|60 - 100km/h||5.0 secs|
|0 - 80km/h||4.6 secs|
|0 - 100km/h||6.0 secs|
|Best recorded during testing||10.1 L/100km|
|Worst recorded during testing||14.4 L/100km|
|Average on test||12.4 L/100km|
|Distance to stop (from 80km/h)||25.2 metres|
|Interior noise at constant 80km/h||68 dB(A)|