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.
The carbon fiber roof reduces overall weight, and moves the center of gravity lower.
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.
With the DCT, you get 11 drive programs, which range from Normal to Sport. The DCT can be put into automatic mode for driving in traffic.
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.
You can program the M3's many sport settings to activate when the M button is pushed.
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.
The one nod toward fuel efficiency comes in the form of an idle stop feature, mercifully turned off when you start the car. Idle stop shuts down the engine when the M3 stops in traffic. It happens subtly, so that it takes a moment to notice the lack of vibration and engine hum. Taking your foot off the brake causes the engine to roar back to life, not fast enough to set a new 0-to-60 mph time, but good enough for typical traffic.
When the idle stop feature is on, the M3 will shut off its engine at long stops.
Idle stop is useful at times, but annoying at others. You don't want to use it in stop-and-go traffic, but it's great at long lights or train crossings. But it also requires forethought: if you are stuck at a train crossing, turning the feature on won't shut down the engine. It only works if it is already activated when you drive up to stopped traffic.
Although BMW managed to make the car drivable in mundane situations, it shines in full performance mode. Get the drive program, EDC, Power, and DSC all set properly, and the M3 gets out from under its bushel to show the world its light. And what a glorious light that is.
A launch control program takes advantage of every little erg produced from the engine to move the car, without burning off otherwise perfectly good power by letting the wheels spin. Launches are controlled but fast. The engine's high horsepower-to-torque ratio means the M3 has power at speed, perfect for recovering lost momentum after coming through a turn.
But plenty of cars go fast in a straight line. The M3 takes on corners as if it were the engineer who initially planned the curvature of the roadbed. In Sport mode, the EDC keeps the chassis low to the ground, pushing each tire for maximum contact with the pavement. The steering responds like the most dedicated border collie, going exactly where you point it.
BMW's Active Steering technology changes the amount of input required to turn the wheels depending on the car's speed.
Characteristically for BMW handling, the DSC in Sport mode lets the back end step out a little. Learn how much, and the car rewards you with a predictable pivot at the apex of sharp corners. The brakes allow excellent modulation leading up to a corner, and the DTC makes downshifts as fast as changing channels. Accelerating out of the corner, you can upshift while keeping the gas pedal down firmly, and the car will respond with satisfying power.
The M3 has limits, but it takes some serious driving to discover them. The car performs excellently well on public roads, but a track is the only place to really get the most out of this car.
Of course, the M3 can be had with plenty of electronic gear in the cabin that isn't related to the track experience. BMW offers a top-tier, hard-drive-based navigation system. And the best reason to choose that option is the LCD that comes with it, giving better access to the different performance settings available in the car.
But with the stock radio, BMW does a reasonable job of presenting contact lists and iPod music library information. The two-line display lets you select categories such as artist or album, then scroll down a list of items in a music library. The system also indexes USB drives, presenting the music library in the same fashion as an iPod.
The radio display offers limited space for viewing iPod music information.
The stock audio system produces better sound than many cars' premium systems. Although not bursting with watts, the basic system has excellent balance, overloading neither the highs nor the bass. The speakers have a quality sound, with good distinction for each instrument. Bass is satisfying, but won't rattle the door panels. The audio source selection is good, and includes HD Radio, but Bluetooth streaming is missing.
The Editors' Choice Award-winning 2011 BMW M3 Coupe might seem like a monster of technology, but all that performance gear contributes to amazing driving performance. As usual, BMW's engineers threw every bit of know-how they had into making a superior sports car. They also didn't let fuel economy issues hold them back, as the M3 is all about fine control at high speeds.
Although CNET's M3 left out most of the available cabin tech, we have tested navigation and premium audio in previous reviews, and found little compromise in that area. BMW still needs to bring Bluetooth streaming audio to the M3, and to the entire 3 series, but iPod integration is excellent and HD Radio comes standard.
|Model||2011 BMW M3|
|Power train||Direct-injection 4-liter V-8, 7-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||14 mpg city/20 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||15.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible, single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive (with navigation), USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||16-speaker, 825-watt system|
|Driver aids||Parking distance sensors|
|Price as tested||$68,175|