Most stereo functions are also controlled with the iDrive, with just a volume knob, mode button, and six disc/preset buttons on the dash. The stereo offers quite a few music sources, with HD radio, satellite radio, six-disc changer, and an iPod/USB connection. The audio quality from the many HD radio stations available in the San Francisco Bay Area was very good, and did justice to the solid audio system in the car. HD radio signals deliver strong, clear sound, although they are subject to the usual range limitations of radio frequency broadcasts.
The six-disc changer plays MP3 CDs, although it doesn't have a very good interface. It will let you see a list of folders on a CD, but it won't display ID3 track information. You can also play MP3 tracks from a thumbdrive plugged into the USB connector in the console, but the interface is the same. Our preferred music source while driving the BMW was through the iPod integration, which also plugs into the USB port. With this interface, we could choose music from our iPod based on artist, album, playlist, genre, or track name. Our big complaint about the audio interface is the lack of a default screen showing the currently playing track.
We had the base audio system in our M3, and, as we've found in most BMWs, the audio quality is very strong. The 10 speakers deliver palpable bass and clear highs. But as an alternative, you can upgrade to a premium system with 16 speakers and an 825-watt amp. Even with the base system, the audio control interface is excellent. While there are standard bass and treble controls, there is also a seven band graphic equalizer, plus surround presets for Theater and Concert Hall effects. Finding the audio settings is the only difficulty, as you have to go into the car settings menu, separate from the Entertainment area of iDrive.
As our last major area of cabin tech, we give high praise to the Bluetooth cell phone integration offered by BMW. We had no problem pairing our phone to the car, and the system quickly downloaded and made available the contact list from our phone.
Under the hood
While we were impressed by the cabin electronics in the 2008 BMW M3, they didn't quite come up to the level of the performance tech, which sets a very high bar. To keep the weight down, and lower to the ground, BMW equips the M3 with a carbon-fiber roof, which explains why there is no sunroof, a standard feature in most BMWs. The carbon fiber also makes for a nice styling cue. Further saving weight, the hood, with its impressive bulge in the middle, is aluminum.
This is the first M3 to use a V-8 engine, and BMW applies its usual engineering expertise to this powerplant. This 4-liter engine uses BMW's double-VANOS system for fuel and valve management, plus each cylinder gets its own throttle butterfly, engineering common on race car engines. According to BMW, the throttle butterflies contribute to faster valve response, making the engine work well at low speeds and give immediate acceleration when called for. We can believe it after driving this car. All this engine technology combines to produce 420 horsepower at an astonishing 8,300rpm and 295 foot-pounds of torque at 3,900rpm.
Although this engine is impressive, BMW takes things to the edge in its performance technology with its electronic control unit. The engine computer in the BMW also handles those nifty M adjustments for the steering, suspension, and clutch. We're talking a serious engine computer. To power its electronics, the M3 uses regenerative braking, feeding juice to the battery. Under driving circumstances where regenerative braking provides enough power, the alternator is actually disengaged so as not to bleed power from the engine.
The M3's electronic damping control is a suspension management technology with three settings: Comfort, Normal, and Sport. EDC is one of the settings under the M menu, and you can hit the EDC button next to the shifter to cycle through the different settings. The Sport setting stiffens up the suspension considerably, while you can feel a little body roll in the Comfort setting. But handling in any setting feels good in the M3. We commented above on the car's behavior in hard corners. You can adjust the Dynamic Stability Control from Normal to M Dynamic Mode, or turn it completely off. DSC can also be preset under the M menu.
The only criticism we have to offer is on fuel economy, but even that isn't so bad. The EPA rates the 2008 BMW M3 at 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. Over a wide range of driving conditions, we pulled in an average of 15 mpg. It's not great, but we got much worse mileage with the Audi R8, which has the same horsepower. For emissions, the M3 gets only the minimum LEV II rating from California's Air Resources Board.
With a base price of $56,500, the 2008 BMW M3 goes for about $15,000 more than the standard BMW 335i, an excellent car in its own right. Our significant tech options included the $3,250 Technology Package, the $1,900 Premium Package, $350 for HD radio, and $400 for the iPod and USB adapter. The Technology package not only includes the navigation system, but also the M Drive button and settings plus EDC, making it a must-have feature set. Bluetooth is part of the Premium Package. With a few other options and the $775 destination charge, the total price for our car came out to $63,650.
One thing we like most about the 2008 BMW M3 is its all-around versatility. It's a car you can drive to the track, and then take on the track. It will be very comfortable for a daily commute, though somewhat expensive in gas, and fantastic for weekend drives through the twisties. Its performance technology makes up for its mediocre fuel economy, such that we're giving it a top rating in this area. We are also generally impressed with its cabin technology, although various interface issues, keep it from a perfect score in this area. Finally, while it is a great-looking car, it doesn't earn a top design rating as it's not a complete head-turner.