The new and highly anticipated 2008 BMW M3 embodies many qualities that made BMW's reputation. This rear-wheel-drive slugger leaves a little room to play with the handling, so expert drivers can learn to work with the car on track days, yet it works perfectly well in the daily commute, with many creature comforts, such as cutting-edge cabin tech, and fine low-speed drivability. With its sizable trunk and usable rear seats, you could even make the argument that it is practical, as long as you ignore the fuel economy.
Test the tech: M3 and R8
In our review of the Audi R8, we wrote about driving both the R8 and the BMW M3 on a sport driving jaunt north of San Francisco, where we found some excellent turns to test both cars' handling. Now we will look at that trip from the M3's point of view. Although these cars share some specifications, such as their respective 420 horsepower eight-cylinder engines, the $60,000 difference in price suggested we don't put these cars in a head-to-head competition. Instead, we noted the differences as we went from driving one car to the other.
For our drive, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge and turned off the freeway at Lucas Valley Road, then followed a series of winding roads through valley farmland until we got to the coast side village of Tomales. From there we turned south on Highway 1, trying out the corners and admiring the scenic vistas over the ocean.
When we first got off the freeway, we quickly hit the M button on the BMW's steering wheel, which activates a series of suspension and throttle response settings. The M button is nearly magical. Pushing the button accelerated the car up to 40 mph, where we had been cruising at 35 mph. The M button is actually a shortcut to a set of performance preferences that you can choose in one of the M3's onscreen menus. There are four parameters you can change, which affect the handling and throttle response. There are also buttons next to the shifter that let you quickly change the settings for the suspension and throttle.
The roads we traveled had turns marked with 25 mph signs, and a mistake meant a 30-foot drop into a farmer's field, a 100-foot drop into the ocean, or a slide into deep mud around a bay. On our first hard corner, we felt the rear tires of the M3 slip to the side. However, through a few more turns we found that this behavior is completely controllable. The electronics in the M3 let it slip out just enough to assist in the turn, as long as you know what to expect. It acts very differently from the Audi R8, which uses its Quattro all-wheel-drive and midengine balance to keep the tires glued to the road. However, where we noted the R8 had a little understeer coming into a turn, the M3 felt perfectly neutral.
We had no complaints about the M3's acceleration--we controlled the engine's smooth power delivery with the six-speed manual transmission and gas pedal. In just about any gear, we felt significant acceleration when we hit the pedal, but what really made the M3 very drivable on the winding roads was the fact that we could keep it in third gear over a wide speed range. In a short straightaway we blasted it up to 75 mph, and then hit the brakes for moderate turn, powering the car through at 40 mph. For the really hard turns, we dropped it down to second gear, and on longer straightaways we brought it up to fourth gear to save a little gas, but third turned out to be the go-to gear. The R8 actually had a shorter power band for third gear, and we found ourselves upshifting to fourth much more frequently.
Finally, the BMW M3 completely blew away the Audi R8 in cabin electronics, with its excellent navigation system and stereo. Also, as we found out in our drive back into the city, the M3 proved much more drivable in traffic than the R8, where we dealt with frequent stops and the need to creep along at 15 mph. As we were driving in San Francisco, we were happy that both cars had a hill start feature.
In the cabin
Our 2008 BMW M3 came fully equipped with the Technology Package, which brings in a wide-screen LCD at the top of the instrument panel and an iDrive controller on the console. There is also a pretty effective voice command system, which we found convenient for entering cities and streets into the navigation, much less tedious than using the iDrive controller to select one letter at a time. We found some operations of the navigation system slow, such as when it looked up addresses or points of interest, because of the fact that it is a DVD-based system. We've gotten spoiled by some hard-drive-based systems recently.
BMW puts two LCDs in the car, a main screen with a smaller screen off to the side. BMW calls the smaller LCD the Assistance screen, and you can set it to show the map or trip computer. We would also like the option to show the current music selection, as we prefer to have the map up in the main display. The maps themselves look very good, with high resolution and either flat or 3D perspective. One problem with this system: the map doesn't show up by default when you go to the navigation function. Instead, you have to push the iDrive controller down twice, and then push it in to select the kind of map you want to see. We would prefer a quick, one button access to the map.