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.
The lack of traffic makes this an almost perfect road for the M3.
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.
Choose your settings for M Drive, and they will be activated as soon as you push the M button on the steering wheel.
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.
When asked which of these cars we would rather have, the only reply is "both."
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.
The smaller display to the right of the map is the Assistance screen.
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.
This navigation system includes live traffic reporting with data from Clear Channel delivered over radio frequency. We've found that Clear Channel's traffic reporting covers some roads not included in XM NavTraffic. The map screen in the M3 shows traffic flow with direction arrows spaced close together for very slow traffic or loosely spaced for moderately slow traffic. Incidents are shown as icons, although we found no means to select an icon from the map. Instead, we had to go to a different screen to see a list of all incidents. But we were happy to find that, when we programmed in a destination, the navigation system alerted us to incidents along our route. As for destination possibilities, we were pleased to find that the points-of-interest database included a variety of retail and business locations.
Traffic flow is shown by how close the black arrows are spaced over the road, while incidents appear as icons.
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.
This seven-band graphic equalizer lets you fine-tune the audio quality in the M3.
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.
The carbon fiber roof reduces the weight and lowers the center of gravity.
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.
You can't see much under the plastic, but BMW puts cutting edge engineering into this powerplant.
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.