As a maker of sport luxury vehicles, BMW is on the cutting edge of car electronics with navigation systems featuring high-resolution 3D maps, true high-fidelity audio systems, and new smartphone application integration. But the 2011 M3 Coupe tested by CNET emphasized another aspect of BMW's technology: performance gear.
Lacking much in the way of cabin electronics, this car was optioned for the track, with such features as Electronic Damper Control (EDC), a carbon fiber roof, and Double Clutch Transmission (DCT). And at the heart of it all is a 4-liter V-8 using BMW's innovative Double-VANOS engine control technology and direct injection.
The M3 can also be had in sedan and convertible forms, but the coupe is the perfect body style to showcase this performance technology. The lack of rear doors or a retractable roof reduces weight and allows for the carbon fiber roof option. Manually adjustable sport seats are lighter than power seats, although the car still comes with handy seatbelt butlers that automatically push the front seatbelts into arm's reach when you get in the car.
Purists may scoff at all the high-tech performance gear in the M3; for them, BMW offers the base M3 with a manual transmission and a fixed suspension. But there is no getting away from the technology with the M3's 4-liter V-8, which is a far cry from pushrod engines of the past. BMW fits butterfly valves at every cylinder to control fuel flow, technology borrowed from racing. An anti-knock system uses sensors on the spark plugs to determine when knock occurs, and subsequently will adjust the ignition profile to stop it.
High compression gives the engine a redline of 8,400rpm, and an output of 425 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Direct injection lends to the efficiency. This engine delivers its tremendous power smoothly, and gets the M3 to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds, according to BMW.
Despite the efficient engine, the M3 wasn't designed for fuel economy, so its 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway earn it the dreaded gas-guzzler tax. The car readily dips below that 14 mpg mark in hard driving, although ample freeway time helped CNET's M3 turn in an average of 15.1 mpg.
With the DCT optioned, the M3 has a very clean look in the cabin, the little shift knob barely rising above the console and no clutch pedal. That shift knob shows a D, S, and plus/minus signs, but the S does not stand for Sport. Rather, it indicates manual sequential shifting. In practice, you won't need to use the shift knob much, as the steering-wheel paddles work with F1-like precision to enact gear changes.
BMW's DCT has seven gears and two computer-actuated clutches. Inside the transmission, the computer is constantly moving the non-engaged clutch between the gears that sit up or down from the current gear, using accelerator input and other factors to determine whether you are likely to make an up or down shift. The result is faster gear changes than you could ever accomplish with a manual. And each gear change grabs hard, as there is no torque converter.
The transmission makes the car's intent felt from the start, as you shift from Neutral to Drive; a push to the right, and it defaults to manual shift mode. If you want it to shift automatically, you have to push it to the right again. The harmony between transmission and engine shows during downshifts, as the car automatically blips the accelerator to match revs. Each blip produces such a glorious growl from the engine that you will be downshifting a lot.
A feature of the DTC, not found in cars with the manual transmission, is a rocker switch by the shifter that runs through the car's different drive programs. The M3 has five drive programs in automatic mode and six in manual mode. It also has a button for changing the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) profile. A Power button on the console sharpens the accelerator input, and the EDC option adds another button to the console that lets you switch the suspension between Comfort, Normal, and Sport modes.
The M button on the steering wheel works as a programmable control, letting you tie one performance profile to it. As implemented, the M could stand for macro. The M button always puts DSC into Sport mode, but you can also program one of the 11 drive modes, the EDC mode, and the Power mode into it, making a preferred performance profile available with the simple touch of a button on the steering wheel. At this point, any automotive purists should be clutching their knees, rocking back and forth, and dreaming of simpler times.
Leave the Power and M buttons off, put the suspension in Comfort mode, and dial down the drive program to its first setting, and you still have a competent sports car, but this one you can drive easily in traffic. Pushing it hard around a corner, we found the car exhibits a little body roll, but still has an engaged-steering feel. The engine doesn't roar up quite as fast when you hit the gas as in a more sport-oriented mode, but it gets there eventually.
In city traffic, the M3 occasionally wants to lunge, but slow takeoffs from stops become possible. The DTC shifts up to its top gear, which happens to be seventh, quickly. However, seventh is not a particularly tall gear, as the engine will still be running at a relatively fast 3,000rpm when the car is traveling at freeway speeds. BMW kept its focus on performance, not fuel economy, when specifying the gear ratios.