BMW raises the bar with latest M3


There’s more of everything including a V8 under the bonnet, but one thing BMW die-hards will miss, writes Philip King | September 29, 2007

BE prepared for a shock, BMW aficionados, because the new M3 misses something many owners obviously regard as vital: foglights.

If you buy the latest version of BMW’s signature performance car, then you’ll have to make do without them. Driving in daylight around the suburbs might never be the same again.You’ll have to do without them because they’ve gone to make way for two more air intakes set deep in the front apron. This M3′s engine — a V8 for the first time — needs airflow so huge that the front apertures have to be even more aggressive than usual. One of the bonnet vents also helps it breathe.

Throw in the naked carbon-fibre roof and there’s little danger that this M3, unlike earlier forms of the car, will be mistaken for a standard 3 Series Coupe.

With this car BMW moves the M3 concept further away from its starting point than ever before. Aside from the base structure, the only shared bits are the lights, doors, windows and bootlid. Even the familiar M styling cues of side gills and quad pipes have a bit more bling in the E92, as this generation is known.

As with almost any model, the latest M3 increases in size, power and complexity.

Compared with the previous E46, the E92 grows substantially, especially in length. The wheelbase and front overhang are longer but much of the 12cm increase sits behind the rear axle, giving a disproportionately long tail.

Other dimensions also increase, but not by as much. So it’s only a little wider and just 4cm higher. The boot is a few litres more capacious and occupant space improves — although the rear seat is now sculpted for two instead of three.

As in other recent BMWs, the centre console controls are angled towards the driver — just like they always used to be.

Larger dimensions mean more mass, and BMW has shaved weight to redress the balance. This includes the engine itself, which uses an aluminium-silicon alloy block for a 15kg reduction over the previous six-cylinder. The carbon-fibre roof loses 5kg, aluminium rear suspension 2.5kg, plastic bumper supports 6kg and plastic ski-hatch 7kg.

This strenuous diet was clearly essential as the E92 tips the scales at nearly 1.6 tonnes before anybody gets in. It effectively starts with one additional passenger over the E46, at 85kg heavier. However, weight distribution remains 50:50 and the overall shape is slightly more slippery, with a drag coefficient of 0.31.

The centrepiece of the E92 is its engine, derived from the V10s in the M5 and M6 and built at the same factory where BMW assembles its Formula 1 V8s. This 4.0-litre unit boasts the complete portfolio of BMW engine tricks, including variable camshaft timing, eight throttle butterflies and a special exhaust. The whole orchestra is conducted by an electronic control unit which performs 200 million calculations a second. This car also employs a brake energy regeneration system to charge the battery, which means the energy draining alternator can be decoupled from the engine most of the time.

Giving the M3 two more cylinders means there’s now a level playing field with its rivals from Mercedes, Audi and (soon) Lexus. It’s also a significant landmark in BMW’s history: its signature straight six-cylinder engines can no longer be tweaked enough to keep up the competition. While there’s no doubting the appeal of a V8, BMW has abandoned one of its key points of difference.

With two more cylinders and a capacity increase, power output rises 57kW and torque 35Nm. This V8 revs higher and harder, too, than the six — with peak power arriving at 8300rpm, above the previous unit’s maximum speed. Meanwhile, maximum torque arrives 1000 revs lower than before, at 3900rpm.

After allowing for the E92′s extra weight it still outperforms the E46 by some margin. Every kilowatt now has to propel just 5.1kg instead of 6.1kg. The result is a 0.4 quicker sprint time to 100km/h (4.8 seconds).

Other figures put things in perspective. Power output per litre of capacity is actually down slightly. Fuel economy is worse (12.4 litres per 100km against 11.9) although proportionally less than the power increase. Top speed is the same — electronically limited to 250km/h.

Better acceleration is mirrored by improved stopping power. Both front and rear brakes stick with single-piston floating caliper set-ups, but the discs themselves are bigger. BMW claims the E92 can pull up from 100km/h in just 34m.

An upgraded version of the previous six-speed manual remains the standard transmission, although the new automated gearbox promises to be an interesting development. While BMW has yet to confirm details, it’s expected to be a double-clutch system similar to the one already used by Audi. Due next year, it marks a retreat from BMW’s sequential manual gearbox, or SMG, which was heavily criticised for its jerky operation and complexity.

However, complexity is second nature to BMW and in that respect, this M3 follows the same path as the last. The redesigned chassis employs electronically controlled dampers for the first time and they have three selectable settings. That’s where the driver-programmable part of the car just begins. There are also two levels of steering assistance, three throttle settings and three degrees of stability control intervention.

Buyers of this generation will have to get used to a price rise as well, with the M3 going up by $17,000 to $157,000. BMW says most of this can be accounted for by the additional features in the car. These include adaptive headlights, voice recognition, loads of leather, parking radar, BMW telematics and heated front seats.

Other road users will be grateful there’s one omission: those foglights.

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