How other drivers usually see a BMW M3, the car that defines “sport sedan.”
Pure performance addicts generally shun convertibles because sawing off a car’s roof weakens the entire structure, which leads to flexing, shuddering and other unpleasant behavior over bumps or under high loads. Engineers can stiffen the car back up with extra bracing, but that adds weight, which performance addicts don’t like either. On top of that, here there’s the mass of a complicated folding hard top, made of steel and glass instead of cloth and plastic. An M3 Convertible weighs an awful 400 pounds more than the coupe version, with its fixed carbon-fiber roof.
The thing is, though, from behind the wheel you can’t feel the added heft; and it isn’t till you remove the top and wind this high-tech 4-liter V-8 toward its outrageous 8,400 RPM maximum that you discover just what an angry and vocal little car the M3 really is. Angry or maybe Italian.
It’s a mad machine, as akin to your accountant’s svelte 328i as a T. Rex would be to the Geico gecko—and the M3 begs to be driven in ways that would have the gecko calling to cancel your insurance.
Still, it looks somewhat sane, at least to the casual eye. The cognoscenti, however, will spot the power bulge in the alloy hood, the subtly flared fenders and the fat tires within, the gaping, air-sucking maw at the front and the four shiny pipes at the back, where ordinary 3-Series have just two. And the M3 seems to crouch a bit—grrrr!
Inside there’s a fat little steering wheel and form-fitting front seats. Stab the ignition button and the motor lights up with a chuff! A shiver of energy ripples through the car, and it sits and grumbles till you toe the accelerator; then first or reverse suddenly grabs. There is nothing tentative about this car.
Yet fierce as the M3 is, driving it is a piece of spicy cake, thanks partly to a 7-speed, dual-clutch automated (pedal-less) transmission that removes any risk—also any lag time—from high-speed gear changes. The driver can shift it with the paddles behind the steering wheel, or just let the computer decide when to select the next gear, up or down. The transmission has Drive and Sport modes, adjustable in five steps from lazy to frenetic; throttle response can be sharpened too, with the “power” button next to the shift lever. There are some other tricks as well, but let’s save those for the track.
With “only” 295 pound-feet of torque and rear-wheel (as opposed to all-wheel) drive, an M3 takes almost five seconds to bolt to 60 miles per hour—and the heavier convertible a tick more—but 414 horsepower and that stratospheric rev limit give it the top-end behavior of a race car. Put your foot in hard while wailing along a mountain road at 80 or so, and this gearbox will abruptly slam down two notches while the tachometer needle jerks upward and the car gathers itself and then lunges ahead. If the top is open, the demented blare of the motor will drown out the wind, stun your passenger and probably flatten the walls of Jericho.
A certain edginess always remains, even with the transmission and throttle dialed back to just Defcon 1. With the extra-firm ride, this makes the M3 not ideal for those evenings when your brain is mush and you just want to get home in one piece. A normal 6-speed gearbox, with a clutch and a stick, is available instead; shift it as hard or as gently as you wish.
The steering—light in town, firming up as speed builds—is instinctual, and the M3 can brake hard enough to rupture blood vessels. With its upright driving position, all-around visibility, and racetrack balance and reflexes, the M3 inspires enormous confidence. Next to BMW’s bigger, heavier, more powerful and somewhat imperious M5 and M6 über
cars, it’s simpler, less expensive and more exuberant, a $75,000 bottle rocket with four seats and a naughty gleam in its adaptive Xenon eyes.
It’s also likely to be the last one of these with a V-8. BMW’s next M3 will have a lighter, more fuel-efficient 6-cylinder motor, turbocharged to churn out even more power. That car will surely go on a diet, too. But it’s a year away. For now, let’s revel in what we’ve got.