Thanks to our tester's Electronic Damper Control, ride quality is phenomenal. On Spain's smooth roads, it seems far more complaint than the previous M3's, and yet body motions are perfectly controlled. The new M3 understeers mildly, but that's easily fixed with a nudge of the right foot: in second gear, the rear will easily step out into a controlled power slide. In faster corners, lots of throttle induces gorgeous four-wheel drifts.
The biggest letdown - and it's a huge one - is the steering. Whereas other 3-series (and all previous M3s) read the road surface to your fingertips, the M3 is frustratingly numb on center. It transmits only the largest of messages, and effort is too light and doesn't build naturally. The ratio is wonderfully quick but, to add insult to injury, the M3's turning radius feels vastly larger than any other 3-series.
Brake feel is excellent, but pedal effort rose precipitously during lapping of the 26-turn Ascari racetrack in Spain despite aggressive (read: noisy) pads. Even though we had to pull into pit lane for a few minutes after each lap, brake fade set in after a few laps. The M3's hefty curb weight is to blame - we expect it to weigh more than 3,700 lb when it arrives stateside. And while BMW has gone to great lengths to keep curb weight down - the carbon fiber roof, a huge cost item, saves eleven pounds - the fact is that the M3 has gained almost a half ton in twenty years.
The list of 3-series parts redesigned and re-engineered for M3 use is staggering - the V-8 car shares surprisingly few parts with those with a six-cylinder under the hood. BMW isn't known for frivolous modifications, and all of the changes serve a performance purpose. Unfortunately, they seem to also dilute the driving experience. Once a direct, raw, and frenetic monster, the M3 has morphed into a polished and refined grand tourer.
The original M3 was a track-ready, high-strung performer that made no excuses in its performance. As fun in a 15-mph school zone as it was at ten-tenths on a race track, it dominated everything that came its way. And while it's likely that the new M3 is faster around the Nordschleife than its competitors, it's lost a good bit of the driver involvement that has made previous Ms legends.
At the end of the day, we don't just expect fast lap times from an M3, we expect it to put a big smile on our faces. And this time around, the smiles just aren't as big.