The Fourth-Generation, E9x-Chassis BMW M3: Faster and Fancier Than Ever

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the November 2007 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

M3: It’s a simple alphanumeric designation that gets sports car enthusiasts all hot and bothered. For two decades, the BMW M3—the sportiest variant of the company’s smaller, 3 Series line—has been the upmarket but still attainable king of the sports sedan realm.

The sheet came off the first E30-chassis M3 way back in 1986. By mixing four-seat practicality, understated but still aggressive good looks, superb engineering and highly developed performance components, BMW got it very, very right the first time.

History is full of watered-down sequels, but BMW refused to endure that kind of self-inflicted embarrassment. The second-generation car—known to enthusiasts as the E36 M3—was able to surpass the original in nearly every category.

As a result, BMW established a trend that indicated they would not allow the M3 badge to adorn anything other than a worthy car. Further confirmation came with the new millennium in the form of the even more powerful third-generation E46-chassis M3. Today, BMW fanatics have a new object to lust after, as the 2008 BMW M3 (E92 chassis) takes the M3 to an even higher tier of performance, refinement and, unfortunately, price.

Improvement Isn’t a Surprise

If anyone out there was worried that BMW would somehow drop the ball on the newest M3 and screw up 20 years of automotive legacy, you can relax and go to your happy place—the new M3 is simply phenomenal. It’s polished, aggressive, brimming with technology and it goes, stops and corners with athletic vigor. It is a worthy successor.

Unfortunately, minimal compromises in content don’t come cheap. When new, a 2006 BMW M3 had a starting MSRP of about $49,000. Official pricing for the 2008 model has not yet been announced, but if you’re itching to start writing the check now, a safe bet for the first digit would be a 6—maybe a 7 if you’re fond of options.

A starting price in the low-$60s is more than most of us can afford to spend on a new car. Then again, so was the old base price of $49,000, so from our perspective there’s little difference. Those with the scratch to seriously consider a 2008 M3 will find that they’re actually getting a lot for their money.

Maybe M Stands for More

The newest M3 is a pretty big jump up from the model it replaces. They’ve had a good stretch these last 15 years, but gone are the days of the inline-six cylinder M3s. The latest M3 is powered by the new S65-spec, all-aluminum V8, a lump that shares its basic architecture with the V10 found in the current BMW M5 and M6. The move to a V8 was vital considering the stiff competition from Audi and the Mercedes-Benz AMG cars in this category.

The 3999cc V8 engine is simply cutting-edge. Cast at the same foundry where the V8s for BMW Sauber’s Formula 1 effort are born, the normally aspirated S65 exceeds the magic 100 horsepower per liter mark. It does this by spinning to an eargasm-inducing 8400 rpm—stout is a mild term for the impressive 414 horsepower on tap. (You’ll see 420 ponies listed in Europe, but it’s the same engine.)

As the flagship of the popular 3 Series, BMW couldn’t let the new M3 out the door without giving it the full technological treatment. Some of these gizmos and tricks we love, others we would have left out. In nearly every case, the goodies that made it to the M3 were crafted to minimize weight or improve performance. In other words, it’s not hard to see where your money’s going.

Easily spotted exterior tweaks include the carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic roof, a bulging aluminum hood, aero-sculpted side mirrors and the much more aggressive front and rear treatments. Massive cross-drilled brakes are surrounded by racy wheels wrapped in big Michelin Pilot Sport PS2* tires specifically designed for the new M3 (see sidebar on pg. 94).

Inside you’ll find a typically wonderful BMW cockpit. The seats offer plenty of support and multiple adjustments, the pedals and controls are right where you need them, and the beefy three-spoke wheel is built for business. 

The latest version of Dynamic Stability Control is composed of a long list of electronic nannies, and two new features really caught our eye. The system can now compensate for brake fade by increasing the effective pressure to the calipers, and the Start-Off Assistant aids in getting the car underway from a stop on a steep grade. Those wishing to add even more buttons to their M3s can opt for Electronic Damper Control or the new MDrive feature.

The End Result

The narrow mountain roads around Marbella, Spain, are a driver’s fantasy come true—a perfect match for a car with the new M3’s capabilities. BMW chose this venue for the press launch to showcase the lifestyle they feel is indicative of the typical M3 customer, and we were more than happy to play the part for a few days. And if the glorious roads weren’t enough, we were given the opportunity to take the M3 out for some track laps at the stunning Ascari Race Resort.

Let’s hit the inevitable complaints first. Don’t worry, it’s a short list.

Even at its lowest setting, the lumbar support in the seat was a bit much for our tastes, one disappointment in an otherwise superb seat. Also, we were never quite able to get the hang of gracefully matching shifts as the engagement characteristics of the double-plate clutch were a bit elusive. It grabs hard when needed, though.

The gearing ratios are short, with fifth gear being 1:1 and sixth employing a 0.827:1 ratio as driven through a 3.846:1 final drive. That’s lovely for spirited driving, but we were surprised how many revs we saw while cruising, even in sixth gear. There was also quite a bit of wind noise at speeds higher than 75 miles per hour, and that’s unusual for a $60,000 car of this pedigree.

Now for the good stuff. The engine is simply phenomenal. Even below 3000 rpm in the higher gears it has plenty of guts, and the thrust builds steadily all the way to the heavenly 8300 rpm power peak. It’s got a nice and fairly deep musical tone, well below the shriek of a Ferrari but above the bellow of a Z06 Corvette.

You could make your entire commute comfortably in third gear, passing anyone with ease at the dip of the throttle. Stirring the engine through its six gears is fun, but anything above redline in third will get your butt thrown in jail in most states.

The big brakes are genuinely up to the task of hot laps right out of the box, at least on the European-spec cars. We would have guessed they were a racing compound, because they also squeaked like hell in nearly all conditions—okay, there’s one more nitpick. We were told that the U.S. cars would come equipped with a different pad compound and it remains to be seen if that pad is track worthy, but the sucker we drove could stop hard lap after lap.

The steering is electronic, but as we found with the latest MINI, that’s not a bad thing. The feel is precise, the car responds instantly to commands and the chassis loves to change direction. It dances like an M3 should.

With the MDrive engaged (nannies turned off) the M3 favors understeer, but some of that seems to be designed into the tires. Wider, stickier rubber up front should allow the car’s 50/50 weight distribution to shine through. There’s ample power to bring the tail around when needed.

Worthy of the Name

While we lament the ever-increasing price, the fourth-generation M3 really does eclipse its forebears. In the future, we wouldn’t mind seeing the M3 come down a few tiers in complexity and cost, but that’s an impractical wish considering the success that BMW has enjoyed from moving the M3 upmarket. Perhaps the upcoming 1 Series will give us the entry-level answer to our budget BMW sports-sedan cravings.

In the meantime, those who can afford it will find that the new M3 is a fantastic driver’s car. In some ways, particularly with the grabby brakes and lightweight no-frills roof, it’s even racier than we expected.

The latest M3 is worthy of its post as flagship for the most recognized sports sedan maker in the world. Just like the previous generations, these cars should become very popular at track days and autocrosses. Look for the new BMW M3 to go on sale in the spring of 2008.

New for 2008

Believe it or not, the E46-chassis M3—a car that seems extremely modern to those of us still in love with the venerable E36 M3—debuted way back in 2000 and is now no longer on sale. The last examples of that most recent M3 were built for the 2006 model year.

As has been the case with each generation of BMW M3, the 2008 E92-chassis M3 is more expensive, has more tricks up its sleeve and turns a faster lap than its predecessor just about anywhere. Here are the highlights.

Drivetrain

  • With each cylinder displacing 500cc, the new S65-spec V8 cranks out 414 horsepower on the U.S. scale, 81 ponies more than the S54 inline-six from the previous M3.
  • Thanks to the larger displacement, torque is up a bit, too, from 262 lb.-ft. to 295 lb.-ft.
  • Despite the increased size of the engine, BMW still managed to eke out even more revs. The V8 makes its power peak 400 rpm higher than the already stratospheric 7900 rpm achieved by the inline six. Redline is 8400 rpm.
  • At 445 pounds, the S65 engine weighs 33 pounds less than the straight-six it replaces.
  • The engine control system measures ion flow in the combustion chambers to detect and prevent predetonation or an imperfect air-fuel ratio.
  • BMW’s double-VANOS steplessly variable intake and exhaust valve timing makes another appearance with this engine, although this time it’s a low-pressure system.
  • As before, each cylinder gets its own electronically actuated throttle body.
  • Lubrication under cornering is not a problem, as the wet-sump setup is enhanced by dual oil pumps.
  • As on the E46-chassis M3, the new car uses BMW’s Variable M Differential Lock. It can send up to 100 percent of the drive torque to a single rear wheel if necessary.

Body

  • Having debuted on the last-generation M3 CSL, all new BMW M3s come with a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic roof, shaving 11 pounds from the top of the car. As a result of the fancy new lid, we don’t expect the moonroof option to make a return.
  • The new M3’s fascia has large air scoops to feed the V8’s hunger for cooling and oxygen. Another visual clue is the hood bulge, which is flanked by two more vents.
  • This M3 is only 68 pounds heavier than the model it replaces. It has grown about five inches in length and is one inch wider.
  • Weight distribution remains at 50/50 with a focus on a low center of gravity and keeping the mass toward the middle of the car.
  • Visually, the rear of the car gets a unique light treatment with LEDs, and the quad exhaust pipes now make mathematical sense.

Interior

  • As before, the M3 receives its own palette of interior trim and upholstery options, with many possible combinations ranging from futuristic to classical.
  • Get used to iDrive.
  • Electricity for the car’s onboard gizmos comes from Brake Energy Regeneration, freeing up horsepower and increasing fuel economy.
  • The tachometer still has a variable redline setting to keep the engine from winding out too far when cold, but the LED limiters have been replaced by a more tasteful analog outer element that rotates to indicate the current maximum engine speed.
  • The trunk has grown from 9.5 cubic feet to 15.
  • Rock out to 16 speakers and 825 peak watts of audio awesomeness—neodymium magnets in the speakers keep the mass at a minimum.
  • BMW kept the rear seats as low as possible to maximize headroom for back seat passengers.
  • Be sure to give the little robot arm that hands you your seat belt a good robot name.

Suspension

  • Increased use of hollow tubes and forged aluminum allowed engineers to shave 5.5 pounds off the suspension compared to the E46.
  • Directional stability of the rear axle has been increased with two additional longitudinal arms to cope with the more powerful engine.
  • In autocross competition, the relatively narrow front wheels will make it difficult to prevent understeer, so the new M3 isn’t likely to fare well on a national scope wherever it gets classed. (Our guess would be A Stock.)
  • The new M3 can be equipped with an option called Electronic Damper Control, which gives a trio of settings: Normal, Comfort and Sports. It also allows the complete deactivation of the Dynamic Stability Control systems.
  • Check another box and you can add MDrive to the new M3, allowing you to program your own preferences for all dynamic systems and activate them at the push of a button.
Join Free Join our community to easily find more M3, BMW and E92 articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Our Preferred Partners
AlhHfoyjIxmUQmBcbDCMu2syAIyITKZXqobo0wer2Fgb2i5kkmQTferqTPRvJFF0