Thursday, March 13, 2008

First Drive

The 2008 BMW M3 is either a complete winner or a big disappointment. It all depends on your expectations.

If you're looking for a supremely fast, incredibly capable back-road stormer, you won't be disappointed; the E92 is even faster than the previous E46 M3.

If, however, you think the M3 should be more than just speed, you'll be disappointed. After only a few seconds behind the wheel, it becomes obvious that the M3's engineers traded some driver involvement in return for more speed.

More speed, in this case, comes from the retirement of the inline-six cylinder engine that has defined the previous two generations of M3s. As it turns out, there was no more power to be had from a block with six holes in it. The previous 3.2-liter developed 333 horsepower, and the only way to add more ponies would have been to add more displacement. That sounds easy enough, but it wasn't - the engine block was already bored to its maximum, and increasing the stroke would have reduced the engine's maximum RPM. Thus, the engineers had no choice but to add two more cylinders.

The new V-8 is anything but a half-hearted attempt at fixing the problem. It is, after all, based on the powerhouse V-10 from the M5. Whereas the old inline-six was iron, the V-engines' larger bore spacing allows them to be made of aluminum, and as a result, the V-8 actually weighs 33 lb less than the old six. We've covered the detailed engine specifications in previous stories, but the important numbers are very impressive: 4.0-liters, 414 horsepower, 295 lb-ft, 8400-rpm redline.

Press the start button, and the V-8 barks to life instantly with a tinny clatter from its thin-walled, equal-length headers. Eight individual butterflies minimize the distance between the throttle butterflies and intake valves, so the engine responds instantaneously to prods of the accelerator.

Though the clutch is a twin-disc design (the first in an M3), the pedal is soft and easy to modulate. The shifter is familiar 3-series, which is to say precise and satisfying, if slightly rubbery.

Mash the loud pedal, and the quiet V-8 turns into a screaming demon. Thrust builds gradually until 3900 rpm (the torque peak), but never falls off. In fact, the engine's note becomes more and more hysterical as the tach swings clockwise. From 6000 to the 8400-rpm rev limiter, it sounds angrier and more ferocious than any V-8 you've ever heard this side of Maranello. The soundtrack is nothing short of magic.

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