BMW M3 Coupe – The Mechanical Bull Dialed Back to 1


By Alex Ricciuti

04.10.2008

You know, one of the biggest disappointments of my life has been that I was not able to fully and properly experience the Country & Western fad of the late seventies. Of course, I was barely ten when the seventies ended and I grew up in Quebec. Nonetheless, some of you may recall movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Urban Cowboy (and other cinematic and TV fare that made the profession of truckin’ look fun), the excessive exposure of Dolly Parton’s breasts and, of course, the mechanical bull, which I never got to ride. I think just about every sit-com in the late 70s had an episode where one of the main characters had to ride one. Actually, the last time I saw this lame comedic tactic employed was on an episode of Sex and the City. Although, I believe I may have hallucinated that so, please, do correct me if I’m wrong. And I would have to have been on some serious drugs to be watching Sex and the City.

But I know what it feels like to ride one. The mechanical bull in question here is the BMW M3 coupe, which looks like a huffing and puffing steer at the running of the bulls in Pamplona and rides like you would imagine a Japanese animatronic version of one to. It straddles and grips the road like a beast of burden and measuredly puts kilometers behind you very, very quickly. To its credit, it is direct in its approach to driving – it is all engine and wheels. The original M3 more than 20 years ago came with a 2.3 liter four-cylinder engine with 200hp. Today it has 8 cylinders, 3999cc that pumps out 420hp at an incredible 8300rpm. It’s all that revving that makes the car a true rocket. And by rocket I don’t mean to employ that word, being the cliché that it is, in a positive sense. After all, a rocket is just an engine and fuel with a singular purpose and nothing else. Where is the personality?

No, this is no wild bull but a robotic one that has been dialed back down to 1. It’s all safe. It’s made for people with more money than driving skills and for 125,000 Swiss Francs (80,000 euros or 120,000 USD) you’re buying the M-brand as much as you’re buying an M3 itself and this cars feels like it was designed to ‘be’ the brand.

It’s not that I object to these super cars on moral reasons but aesthetic ones. Power doesn’t necessarily make something fun to drive. I’d love to see an automaker one day come out with a version of a car that has less horsepower than it’s predecessor but more of the crazy factor. An automobile that matches and balances the engine’s performance to the limits of the suspension and chassis but one that twists and spasms and surprises you. I’ve come to believe that some of these premium brands really get stumped about what to do next with each successive model. Hey, what should we do for the new M3? I dunno. Let’s add some more horses. That’ll impress them.

All that power comes with a cost. As in, about a quarter tank of gas just to get from Zurich to Basel (about 70 km). Every time I touched the pedal, I would warp-speed into another dimension and instantaneously find myself in the next town 20 kilometers ahead. If I had floored it for more than a second I would have shot up to Brussels instead. (And I’m getting a little tired of BMW’s iDrive navigation telling me what to do. I half expect it now to scold me with its female Hal-like voice,”What do you think you’re doing, Dave?” every time I make a false turn. “Dave? You weren’t supposed to turn there, Dave. Dave? I didn’t tell you to turn there, now, did I?…Daisy, daisy…” I guess, it’s my fault for still not figuring out how to turn the damn thing off.)

Anyway, having said all that, I have to say, there is no way you cannot like this car. It’s pure BMW precision. The 6-speed manual transmission puts you in control and lets you have your bursts of power and decompression thrills. Push the engine past 8,000 rpms and it barely seems rattled. You can try to kill yourself by taking a 40km/h turn at 120 and this car will chuckle at you. If I sounded disappointed before, well, the reason is that driving BMWs spoil you. I was looking for spunk and soul and that’s a gratuitous complaint with BMW which can make such perfect performers like this. Yes, sometimes you want to dislike the brand. You hate those pretentious drivers who scurry around in them with smug self-satisfaction. And yet, when I was driving the Z4, which is my absolute favorite convertible ever, and I was getting those looks from people, all I could think was, hey, you would love driving this car too.

The M3 can only be seriously compared to competition like the Mercedes C-Class AMG or the Audi S4/RS6. I will be soon reviewing the RS6 and will post on that. In general, Audis drive like quieter, slightly sounder VWs. And Mercedes’ are always mature, responsible, solid, fast and comfortable. But the M3 owns this segment and easily leads in the driving pleasure factor.

With these kind of cars you have to judge them for what they are, for what they are intended to do and how they rank along with their competition. That means acknowledging that M-series models are still the benchmark that no other automaker has really yet to meet as a whole. But it also means being harsh on a car this expensive and with a brand that promises so much. BMW has set the bar real high with the M3 and that is a compliment in itself.

Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe. He also blogs on all things automotive at eurocarguy.blogspot.com.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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6 Comments

  1. I’ve owned quite a few BMWs, and in the number, two of those were M performance performance models. I look to Audi for my performance thrills these days because I don’t like the way the BMWs look and although I can’t put my finger on it, some of their allure is also gone. I know there are people that buy BMWs DESPITE their looks, and I know there are people that actually like the current looks, but I am not willing to make that sacrifice. I really like my new Audi and it’s wonderful Teutonic soul and splendor.

  2. I love the M3, though – similar to my problem with the Pontiac G8, I can’t accept that kind of fuel consumption.

    It’s eye-opening that the car basically costs twice as much in Switzerland as it does in the US (where MSRP is $60,000+).

    While there is a ton of appeal in having a small car with a powerful V8 that loves to rev, I think I’d probably go for the Pontiac G8 anyway, assuming fuel consumption was equivalent, and save $30,000.

    It had crossed my mind a few times to throw away my “buy a Corvette as a third car” dream and get a super sedan like an M3 or Cadillac CTS-V, but it still comes back to fuel consumption in a car that I’ll drive every day.

  3. Driving an M3 is as close as you can get to Nirvana without having to die.

  4. The styling has gotten funkified on the BMW, but it’s still the best sports sedan in the world. Priced a little dear, it’s true, but worth it in the final calculation.

  5. Yeah, I don’t know if BMW still has the same appeal that it did for me. It was my favorite car company for 20 years, since I was a teenager, but the thrill is not as strong as ti used to be. They just seem kind of watered-down now. Not in performace, because they’re faster than ever. But in their design, their emotional desireability, etc.

  6. BMW is not what they used to be because their focus is diluted with SUV’s and bad styling choices.

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