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2008 BMW M3 test drive

The car I would have loved to hate

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

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2008 BMW M3 coupe front-left view

2008 BMW M3 coupe

Photo © Aaron Gold

What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

Let me start with a confession: I was hoping this test drive of the 2008 BMW M3 wouldn't go well. I was hoping I'd be able to say that the all-new 2008 BMW M3 -- the first M3 with a V8 engine -- didn't live up to the hype that surrounds it. I was hoping I'd be able to confidently tell you to skip the new M3 and buy something else -- something like the Audi RS4 or the Lexus IS-F. Why do I have such a problem with the M3? And did it live down to my expectations? Read on. $55,875 base, $69,145 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 14 MPG city, 20 MPG highway.

First Glance: Why I wanted to hate the M3

Larger photos: Front - rear

I believe in being up front about my biases, and one of my biggest biases is the one I have against BMWs -- not so much the cars as the people who buy them. Don't get me wrong, there are some very nice BMW owners out there; I've met both of them. It's just that it seems like whenever I engage a BMW owner -- especially an M3 owner -- in a conversation about cars, he (or, on rare occasions, she) starts going on and on about how BMWs are the greatest things on wheels and how each and every car BMW makes is assembled at the right hand of God. Now, I'm sure there are quite a few M3 drivers who really can appreciate a fine-handling automobile. But having been stuck behind countless M3s driven by people who clearly don't know how to get the most out of them on curvy roads -- yet who refuse to pull aside to let faster drivers pass (or, worse yet, speed up in the passing zones) -- you can understand why I view the BMW M3 as a bit of a putz-magnet.

So I was hoping that the new M3 would suck. I was hoping I could say that the M3 is a sham, an overpriced sham, and that it can't hold a candle to my favorite sport sedan, the Audi RS4 -- a car so magical in its abilities that I'm pretty sure it was designed by Santa's elves, probably during February or March when things are slow.

Sadly, I can't say that.

Because the M3, I must grudgingly admit, is good. It's really, really really good. In fact, it may be -- and you cannot possibly imagine how much it pains me to say this -- one of the best cars I've driven. Ever.

Damn those Bavarian bastards.

In the Driver's Seat: Annoyingly easy to live with

2008 BMW M3 dashboard

M3's dashboard puts function over form; aluminum trim is a $500 option

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

I've never been a fan of the German's super-serious school of interior design, but I must say that the M3's cabin is a fairly pleasant place, well built and sensibly laid out. That said, I was bummed to learn that the aluminum trim, which really dressed up my car's all-black interior, doesn't come standard -- it's a $500 option.

Writers love to complain about BMW's iDrive dial interface. I didn't fully explore its menu-driven system -- the average American has a life expectancy of 78.1 years, so there simply wasn't enough time -- but I was able to get the stereo, climate and navigation systems to do pretty much what I wanted most of the time, and that's good enough for me.

One of the things I will admit to liking about the M3 is that it's available as either a two-door coupe or a four-door sedan (a convertible is on the way). I drove the M3 coupe, which has a reasonably roomy back seat apportioned for two adults. Access to the back is awkward but once back there you'll find decent room. Rearward visibility is pretty good for a coupe; my test car the optional Park Distance Control system which warns you before you back into something. It made parking quite a bit easier, though I wish the system had sensors in the front bumper as well -- the M3's bulged hood isn't all that easy to see over. The M3 comes with front "sport seats" that feature inflatable side bolsters to hold you in place during cornering. Even with the bolsters fully deflated, they were a tight squeeze, and driving the M3 made me wonder if there are simply no fat people in Germany.

On the Road: So good, it hurts

The big news -- and the factoid that M3 owners will no doubt use to bore people at cocktail parties for generations to come -- is that the 2008 M3 is the first M3 to use a V8 engine; previous M3s had 4 or 6 cylinders. The engine -- and I'm only going into detail so that you can cut the Bimmer bores off before they make you nod off into your martini -- is a 4.0 liter V8 that revs to 8,400 RPM and puts out 414 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. For comparison, the specs for my beloved Audi RS4 are 4.2 liters, 8,250 RPM, 420 hp and 317 lb-ft. (Coincidence? No way, Jose.) Unlike the RS4, the M3 does not use all-wheel-drive; in keeping with BMW tradition, it's a rear-driver. BMW claims a 0-60 time of 4.8 seconds and a top speed of 155 MPH. My test car had a 6-speed manual, but BMW also offers a 7-speed Double Clutch automatic similar in operation to VW/Audi's Direct Shift Gearbox.

So what's it like to drive? I hate to say it, but it's incredible. The power feels endless, the grip is biblical, and the brakes could stop continental drift. I'm not a big fan of spinning out on public roads, so I left the M3's electronic stability control system switched on -- much, I could feel, to the chagrin of the engine, which was dying to spin those rear wheels. As a result, there was no oversteer for me. Too bad -- some cars (coughAudiRS4cough) allow a bit of tail-out action even with the electronic nanny engaged. Even so, driving the M3 on the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road was a thrilling experience that left me wide-eyed and light-headed -- it was like dancing a tango with God.

Journey's End: M3 really does live up to the hype

2008 BMW M3 left-rear view

M3 is available as a 4-door sedan and a convertible as well as the coupe shown here

Photo © Aaron Gold

So how does the M3 stack up against the Audi RS4 of which I am so fond? Quite well, I'm afraid. One could argue that the RS4's all-wheel-drive makes for superior grip -- but it's not as if the M3 does a worse job clinging to the road. The M3 offers an automatic transmission, while the RS4 is manual-only. The RS4 does ride better than the M3, but other than that, I'm hard pressed to find any advantage. And then there's the fact that the M3 is about $13,000 cheaper than the RS4. Even a Bimmer-hater like myself can't ignore a number like that. So when you compare the M3 to the RS4 on price, performance, and convenience, the BMW is... Oh, darn it, I just can't bring myself to write out the sentence, so I'll supply the words, and you can put them in order: M3, better, the, is.

The M3's other major rival is the Lexus IS-F. Again, I'd love to be able to say that the Lexus does everything the M3 does for comparable money. But sadly, it doesn't. The IS-F is a tremendous car, but it just doesn't string it all together as well as the M3. The IS-F feels like a machine; the M3 feels like a living organism.

Bottom line: The BMW M3 is an amazing automobile -- without question, it's one of the best cars I've ever driven. It looks great, it sounds great, and it drives great. It's electrifying in the curves yet quiet and comfortable enough for day-to-day driving. It's everything those boorish BMW snobs are bound to spend the next twenty years saying it is.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go throw up. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

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