2011 BMW M3 Driving Impressions

This latest generation BMW M3 outperforms all past versions in terms of acceleration, braking, steering and handling, and we've driven all of them. These cars will appeal most to enthusiast drivers who look forward to track day.

The current M3 is a technical tour de force, with all the latest high-performance technology baked in. It's one of those cars that leaves reviewers mumbling for new and unusual superlatives, because it stands head and shoulders above previous-generations in technology, sex appeal and, most importantly, performance.

Its V8 engine is powerful, willing and revs to the moon. The slick double-disc clutch and 6-speed transmission are race quality. The fat, sticky tires grip like slicks, while the chassis and suspension can make ordinary drivers feel like pros. The onboard electronic systems evaluate conditions 200 million times per second so that the car knows exactly what to do next on the road or race track. There's something very different about the way this M3 behaves, and most of that difference is under that menacingly domed hood.

The M3 V8 is a 4.0-liter, 32-valve, 414-horsepower all-aluminum masterpiece that shares much of its design and componentry with the 5.0-liter V10 engines used in the bigger, more expensive M5 and M6 performance cars. The M3 engine features variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves (which BMW calls Double VANOS). It has eight individual throttle assemblies, like racing engines. It makes 22 percent more power than the last M3 engine, and its 8400-rpm redline is higher than any BMW production engine before.

Yet, thanks to aluminum-intensive construction and high-tech features, the V8 actually weighs less than the six-cylinder engine in the previous M3, and it uses less fuel to generate a given amount of horsepower. With a 12:1 compression ratio, it also demands 95-98 octane premium fuel.

Driven for all its worth, this M3 is nothing short of spectacular. Its test-track numbers (0-60-mph in 4.7 seconds, top speed electronically limited top speed of 155 mph) hover in the same territory as exotic, pure-bred sports cars. Indeed, the free-revving M3 delivers a pure-bred, track-tuned feel, and that might merit a warning for the typical consumer. In certain respects the M3 is a more demanding car than BMW's twin-turbo, six-cylinder 335i models, which are outstanding performers in their own right. The M3 makes the driver work a bit harder to get the most out of it, and that's probably as it should be. But for the driver who doesn't typically do the work or seek that extra performance, the M3 might not seem worth the substantial price premium over the standard 3 Series cars. We'd guess that many drivers will be just as happy, and impressed, with the 335i.

Underneath the M3's slick bodywork, its lightweight suspension system is enhanced by one of the most wonderful, linear and responsive power steering systems we have ever used. The differential has a locking feature than can transmit up to 100 percent of the available engine power to whichever rear tire has more traction. The tires are 245/40ZR18's in front, 265/40ZR18's in back, on 18-inch alloy wheels. The Competition Package upgrades to 19-inch alloy wheels with 245/35ZR19 high-performance tires in front, and 265/35ZR19's out back. The 19-inch wheels and tires are also available as a stand-alone option ($1,200).

The huge brakes, 14.2 inches front and 13.8 inches rear, feature iron rotors and aluminum hubs, with ventilated discs all around and ABS. A unique brake energy regenerating system, usually found on hybrids, uses the brakes to charge the battery and shuts off the alternator during acceleration and cruising.

The M3 offers a host of electronic chassis systems such as traction control, dynamic stability control, cornering brake control, a start-off assistant to keep the car from rolling forward or back on grades, and three different shock absorber modes with the optional EDC system. If desired, the dynamic stability control system can be disabled completely for track events. There are two different power steering assist modes, selectable through the iDrive button on the center console.

There's another optional feature called M Drive, and it allows the driver to preset all of the engine, steering, shock absorber and other electronic systems to personal taste. Appropriately configured, M Drive can transform the M3 from boulevardier to near-race car at the touch of a single button. We expect that enthusiast drivers will appreciate this option, and invest the energy required to experiment and settle on the right electronic combinations.

If that sort of investment doesn't sound like a particularly appealing proposition, then one of the other, outstanding 3 Series models might make a better, less-expensive choice than the M3.

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