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New models - BMW - 3 Series - M3 coupe

First Aussie drive: M3 is disappearing fast!

Rare breed: BMW's finest is finally here, but only for a lucky few.

High on performance, low on price: the new M3 bristles with technology

BMW logo21 May 2001

FINALLY, for a select few, the wait is almost over.

That's right, after production delays following its overwhelming success in Europe and the US, the first local examples of BMW's latest super-coupe, the blistering new M3, are just weeks from being delivered to well-heeled BMW performance enthusiasts Down Under.

The two-door 3 Series supercar will claim the title of quickest BMW on offer here when the first six-speed manual customer cars arrive in June, the stove-hot six-cylinder coupe reasserting its status as BMW's performance flagship for the first time since the M5 sedan set new benchmarks in 1999.

As the final, highest profile 3 Series variant to appear before the Compact's arrival in November, the third generation M3 accelerates to 100km/h in a claimed 5.2 seconds - 0.2 seconds sooner than the M5 or about the same as Porsche's standard setting 911 and Mercedes-Benz's upcoming four-door AMG C32.

Rest assured, though the 3.246-litre engine's specific output of 78 kilowatts per litre falls shy of Honda's S2000, the M3's power-to-weight ratio of 165kW/tonne should ensure the M3 will trouble all but a $300,000 Turbo 911.

Yes, with almost seven per cent more power than its predecessor - 252kW at a bone-tingling 7900rpm - and 80 per cent of its 365 Newton-metres torque peak available from just 2000rpm, expect this 'practical supercar' to dispatch quarter-mile passes in little more than 13 seconds.

And it will do it time and again thanks to BMW's outstanding second generation sequential manual transmission. M3s fitted with the vastly improved, BMW WilliamsF1-developed SMGII technology, which comprises no fewer than 11 driving programs ranging from a smooth-shifting fully automatic mode to a quick-shifting manual mode and even an F1-style launch control program, will arrive in August.

Previously an expensive option - albeit a hugely popular one - SMG can now be had for the same price as the conventional six-speed manual M3, which remains available as a no-cost option.

Of course, all M3s come equipped with a full leather interior, six-CD stacker, Xenon headlights with washers, rain sensing wipers, Park Distance Control, Dynamic Stability Control and usual 3 Series features like eight airbags, cruise control and an on-board monitor with trip computer.

Extensive weight saving, such as the aluminium bonnet, reduces the M3's kerb weight to 1525kg - a substantial saving over its closest cousin, the 330Ci coupe, and just 25kg more than the previous generation M3.

Biggest surprise, however, is price. Spec for spec, at $136,500, BMW's new performance leader is actually six per cent cheaper than the model it replaces. What's more, there's a choice of 10 paint colours and six interior hues, and the obligatory BMW options list extends to polished 19-inch alloys, a sunroof, confort windscreen, rear sunblind and much more.

But of course, there is a catch. BMW Australia's 2001 allocation of 150 cars is already spoken for, meaning you'll need to wait until well into 2002 to secure a new M3. Get in quick: so much performance rarely comes so cheaply.

DRIVE IMPRESSION

From the moment you see the E46 M3 in the metal, its bulging bonnet and guards wrapped around purposeful 18-inch alloys and super-wide wheel tracks, it's apparent this isn't just another M car.

Unlike previous M3s, there's a different bodyshell, and with the most potent straight six ever, the world's most advanced manual transmission and an array of driver aids, this M3 the most exhilarating car to drive in recent memory.

But we expected that. This is M Division's new M3, after all. What we didn't expect was steering so precise and communicative yet so effortlessly light. Or brakes so powerful and punishable yet so full of feel. Or a paddle-shift SMG so quick and effective yet so refined and intuitive, if so desired. Or a chassis so perfectly balanced that understeer and oversteer arrive almost in unison, yet not even then does it feel out of control.

A treacherously wet launch program served to illustrate both how much fun BMW's finest sports coupe can be, and how much has changed in the few short years since the E36 M3 was the yardstick for two-door performance.

After back-to-backing them, it's clear the second-generation M3 has no answer for the new model's mid-corner grip, steering precision or sheer forcefulness.

Not simply from the new engine, which feels stronger right across the rev range, but from the improved SMG's ability to apply to the road quickly and efficiently at all times. A lazy-man's automatic function, M5-style jeckyll-and-Hyde 'Sport' button and the foolproof variable differential lock are simply icing on the cake.

The original M3 SMG was not that enjoyable. Now, with a clever new driving experience on offer at no extra cost, there's no reason not to have an M3 SMG.

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