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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - M3 coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, handling, balance, precision, feedback, styling, value
Room for improvement
No spare wheel, drive-by-wire throttle, PULP diet, rear windows

13 Jun 2002

ITS title is even shorter than "911". Or "CLK". But the philosophy is the same: each is an accomplished interpretation of the attainable super-coupe concept, representing three German automotive giants' commitment to the consummate mainstream supercar.

The world should be grateful for that because it would be a poorer place without the likes of the latest M3, a car whose collectability is bound to perpetuate the model's cult status.

Based around the accomplished but heavy E46 3 Series, the third M3 was expected by many to be softer and more luxurious than both the hard-edged 1986 original (which was never sold here) and the acclaimed outgoing E36.

Instead, remaining true to BMW form, the third M3 pushes the front-mounted/rear-drive straight-six formula to the extreme, easily eclipsing its formbidable predecessor's performance envelope and at the same time offering unprecedented levels of driveability, refinement and technology.

How? First, by subjecting the sleeker, stronger, bigger 3 Series coupe bodyshell to a strict diet, including the extensive use of alloy suspension components, a 40 per cent lighter aluminium bonnet and by removing the spare wheel - instead fitting the M Mobility system, which can repair only small punctures.

Despite substantial weight gains across the E46 3 Series range, the result is a respectable kerb weight of 1525kg - just 25kg up on the previous M3 or roughly the weight of a spare wheel. More importantly, weight distribution remains almost perfect at nearly 50:50.

Next, an aggressive new bodykit - including exclusive new quarter panels with bulging, 20mm-wider wheelarches - is draped over a wider wheel track at both ends and staggered 18-inch performance rubber (eight inches wide up front, nine at the rear) at all four corners.

Just as every kilo counts, so too does very kiloWatt. And the new M3 lacks nothing in that department. Extracting a ClubSport-rivalling 252kW of peak power at a stratospheric 7900rpm - along with a handy 365Nm of torque at 4900rpm - from just 3.246 litres, the latest incarnation of BMW's trademark straight six is just 1.4 per cent bigger in capacity yet produces 6.9 per cent more power and 4.3 per cent more torque.

Consequently, M3's legendary specific power output is up from 74kW to almost 78kW per litre - falling short of the Honda S2000's benchmark but matching many lauded forced-induction engines.

Stretched to its architectural limit, the relatively long-stroke inline six-cylinder design, with 24 valves operated by infinitely variable double overhead camshafts, realises pistons speeds approaching that of a Formula One engine. A technical masterstroke, the all-new engine is six per cent lighter, has a lower centre of gravity, is more fuel efficient and requires less frequent servicing.

In contrast to the M5, it continues the M3 modus operandi of employing a lightweight, fast-revving engine with a short final drive ratio to achieve outstanding results. In this case an improved power-to-weight ratio of 165kW per tonne and a conservative claimed 0-100km/h acceleration figure of 5.2 seconds make the M3 the quickest M-car and a rival for many more expensive performance cars.

But the raw numbers do not come at the expense of tractability. BMW says 80 per cent of maximum torque is on tap from just 2000rpm. And how's fourth gear 80 to 120km/h acceleration of just 5.4 seconds sound? In short, the new M3 engine is a thinly disguised racing engine, offering a seamless wave of forward thrust in any gear, regardless of revs.

However, power is nothing without control, as they say. And for those who want the ultimate in engine control, the technological treat that is BMW's Sequential M Gearbox is now available as a no-cost option on M3.

Offering five progressively aggressive automatic modes and six manual modes - including a devastatingly effective launch control function - the second generation SMGII is vastly better and more sophisticated, and now features F1-style shift paddles to boot.

The larger, more rigid E46 3 Series coupe chassis may have provided the perfect basis for the M division maestros, but the finished product is brilliant even by their standards. Light aluminium track-control arms mounted to new thrust plates in the revised MacPherson strut front suspension, plus specific axle bearings and separate spring and damper mounts, ensure rigid wheel alignment and improve front-end precision and stability.

Similarly, the wider track rear suspension is an evolution of the previous multi-link arrangement, including the substitution of an aluminium upper track-control arm, while the reinforced drivetrain necessitated a modified rear axle subframe and final drive bearing.

Other tricks up the new M3's sleeve include the highly intelligent standard stability control, the new variable differential lock and an M5-derived Sport button, which activates a more aggressive engine mapping stategy along with sharper steering, giving M3 an on-demand Jeckyll and Hyde personality.

Another M5 technology is the variable redline tachometer that alters the redline according to engine temperature, while M3's compound braking system is as formidable as its performance, featuring massive, semi-floating, ventilated and cross-drilled discs.

Needless to say, the new M3's endless reserve of straightline performance at full song is one of motoring's greatest thrills. However, even more commendable is the balance, agility, precision and neutrality with which the refined new car goes about its business, flattering even the most ordinary driver's skills and making enthusiasts feel untouchable.

And of course the stiffer, almost perfectly balanced body, lighter and more refined suspension, larger and more widely spaced rubber - measuring 225/45 up front and 255/40 at the rear - and active differential combines to deliver roadholding that makes a mockery of its highly regarded predecessor. Combining impressive agility with an almost uncanny chassis balance, the new M3 is even more exhillarating, rewarding and confidence inspiring.

Unlike some of its rivals, there are few bells and whistles not found on the M3. Standard equipment includes fully automatic power windows and (heated) mirrors, leather/power seats, climate control, rain sensor, automatic headlights with washers, stability control, eight airbags, in-dash monitor with TV and trip computer, rear parking sensors and a 10-speaker/six-CD audio.

Yet even the M3 has downsides, such as its thirst for expensive premium unleaded fuel, the lack of a spare wheel and the slightly notchy electronic throttle feel that accentuates the driveline snatch when the driver's pedal work becomes sloppy. Make no mistake, the M3 is a serious piece of machinery and requires its driver's full attention.

You'll have to look hard to find further fault. Short of building another four-door version, the new M3 is about as complete as any performance coupe gets. Right now it is hard to imagine any manufacturer even coming close to offering M3 levels of performance and refinement for the money. It is no wonder the first shipment of Australian M3s was sold before it arrived.

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