By Jason Cammisa
The 2008 BMW M3 is either a complete winner or a big disappointment. It all depends on your expectations.
If you're looking for a supremely fast, incredibly capable back-road stormer, you won't be disappointed; the E92 is even faster than the previous E46 M3.
If, however, you think the M3 should be more than just speed, you'll be disappointed. After only a few seconds behind the wheel, it becomes obvious that the M3's engineers traded some driver involvement in return for more speed.
More speed, in this case, comes from the retirement of the inline-six cylinder engine that has defined the previous two generations of M3s. As it turns out, there was no more power to be had from a block with six holes in it. The previous 3.2-liter developed 333 horsepower, and the only way to add more ponies would have been to add more displacement. That sounds easy enough, but it wasn't - the engine block was already bored to its maximum, and increasing the stroke would have reduced the engine's maximum RPM. Thus, the engineers had no choice but to add two more cylinders.
The new V-8 is anything but a half-hearted attempt at fixing the problem. It is, after all, based on the powerhouse V-10 from the M5. Whereas the old inline-six was iron, the V-engines' larger bore spacing allows them to be made of aluminum, and as a result, the V-8 actually weighs 33 lb less than the old six. We've covered the detailed engine specifications in previous stories, but the important numbers are very impressive: 4.0-liters, 414 horsepower, 295 lb-ft, 8400-rpm redline.
Press the start button, and the V-8 barks to life instantly with a tinny clatter from its thin-walled, equal-length headers. Eight individual butterflies minimize the distance between the throttle butterflies and intake valves, so the engine responds instantaneously to prods of the accelerator.
Though the clutch is a twin-disc design (the first in an M3), the pedal is soft and easy to modulate. The shifter is familiar 3-series, which is to say precise and satisfying, if slightly rubbery.
Mash the loud pedal, and the quiet V-8 turns into a screaming demon. Thrust builds gradually until 3900 rpm (the torque peak), but never falls off. In fact, the engine's note becomes more and more hysterical as the tach swings clockwise. From 6000 to the 8400-rpm rev limiter, it sounds angrier and more ferocious than any V-8 you've ever heard this side of Maranello. The soundtrack is nothing short of magic.
Thanks to our tester's Electronic Damper Control, ride quality is phenomenal. On Spain's smooth roads, it seems far more complaint than the previous M3's, and yet body motions are perfectly controlled. The new M3 understeers mildly, but that's easily fixed with a nudge of the right foot: in second gear, the rear will easily step out into a controlled power slide. In faster corners, lots of throttle induces gorgeous four-wheel drifts.
The biggest letdown - and it's a huge one - is the steering. Whereas other 3-series (and all previous M3s) read the road surface to your fingertips, the M3 is frustratingly numb on center. It transmits only the largest of messages, and effort is too light and doesn't build naturally. The ratio is wonderfully quick but, to add insult to injury, the M3's turning radius feels vastly larger than any other 3-series.
Brake feel is excellent, but pedal effort rose precipitously during lapping of the 26-turn Ascari racetrack in Spain despite aggressive (read: noisy) pads. Even though we had to pull into pit lane for a few minutes after each lap, brake fade set in after a few laps. The M3's hefty curb weight is to blame - we expect it to weigh more than 3,700 lb when it arrives stateside. And while BMW has gone to great lengths to keep curb weight down - the carbon fiber roof, a huge cost item, saves eleven pounds - the fact is that the M3 has gained almost a half ton in twenty years.
The list of 3-series parts redesigned and re-engineered for M3 use is staggering - the V-8 car shares surprisingly few parts with those with a six-cylinder under the hood. BMW isn't known for frivolous modifications, and all of the changes serve a performance purpose. Unfortunately, they seem to also dilute the driving experience. Once a direct, raw, and frenetic monster, the M3 has morphed into a polished and refined grand tourer.
The original M3 was a track-ready, high-strung performer that made no excuses in its performance. As fun in a 15-mph school zone as it was at ten-tenths on a race track, it dominated everything that came its way. And while it's likely that the new M3 is faster around the Nordschleife than its competitors, it's lost a good bit of the driver involvement that has made previous Ms legends.
At the end of the day, we don't just expect fast lap times from an M3, we expect it to put a big smile on our faces. And this time around, the smiles just aren't as big.