Tune an already superb 3-series chassis to M level, add a 414-hp V8 heart stopper tied to a supermanageable seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, toss in a spectacular interior, and what could possibly be missing? Maybe a hardtop convertible roof? Got it. This car seemingly has everything. OK, so you’re saying at $78,000, it ought to have everything including the kitchen sink, and it’s hard to disagree. But for BMW buyers who don’t need the M5’s bigger cabin, it’s hard to argue with the M3’s dynamic abilities, pure power and fun-to-run value. Drop the top, drop the hammer, and drop your cares on the pavement receding in the rearview mirror.
Some might argue for a manual, but I’m coming to terms with BMW’s dual-clutch box. If you’re looking for smooth starts and relatively smooth shifts, dial the transmission’s controller down (if you’re at a stop, it shifts from first to second when you dial it down for smoother takeoffs). For spirited driving, punch up the trans action, or take over shifting with the steering-wheel paddles. It’s the best of both worlds--the solid connection of a clutch-actuated manual gearbox with the real-world ease of an automatic when you want it. You might wish for the control that a foot-operated clutch gives, but you won’t miss that third pedal when you’re fighting traffic.
MOTORSPORTS EDITOR MAC MORRISON: I would not opt for the convertible, as the car is still plagued by the shakiness of the standard 3-series drop-top. Plus, while the folding hardtop looks better than a cloth roof, the car loses its badass profile. And look at that curb weight! This weighs almost as much as a Mercedes SL. It’s a good thing the engine is so potent and the chassis so well sorted, but that number is insane for what is intended to be one of the world’s most nimble corner carvers.
The real story here, though, is the dual-clutch gearbox. Compared with the steaming disaster known as SMG in the old M3, this may as well be alien technology from Nebulon 12. With the shift speed dialed to the max and a heavy foot, the gear engagement is still brutal, with the tires chirping when you snap the right-hand paddle to shift from first to second. But you can soften that by lifting between shifts or by dialing back the shift speed with the associated switch. When you do so, the gearbox shifts smoothly and predictably in both manual and automatic modes. The engineers made a huge step here, and this system is up there with the market’s best, giving buyers a legitimate alternative to the six-speed manual.
SENIOR EDITOR KEVIN A. WILSON: This is a great engineering achievement. Not a great experience. I can’t get over how heavy the car is and feels. To this old-school driver, the mass of this feature-laden “luxury” car is entirely out of keeping with the M3’s origins as a compact screamer, and adding the folding roof makes it worse.
Also, the car isn’t fun to drive slowly. It used to be that you’d compare a M3 with a pretender, say a Lexus, and note that the pretender was fine all the way up to nine-tenths, then couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. The performance emphasis--perhaps in combination with the mass--seems to have flipped that equation some. If you’re not driving hard, the BMW is clunky. If you’ve got the bit between your teeth and you’re working up a sweat, instant turn-in and ultracrisp shifts are just the thing. If you’re just trying to get to the drugstore, it’s a pain. I said I was an old-school driver, and we remember when performance came with a penalty in comfort. That’s not what I’m objecting to so much as the sense that this car is trying to be all things to all people, loaded down with all of the toys and all of the tech in shifting, ride control and driver aids, and that makes it neither fish nor fowl. Strip it down, give me a basic 3-series and only the M gear that makes it faster--not heavier, not more complicated--and leave all of the 7-series rubbish at the curb.
2008 BMW M3 CONVERTIBLE
In fleet: Oct. 21-Nov. 4
As tested price: $77,970
Drivetrain: 4.0-liter V8; RWD, seven-speed sequential manual
Output: 414 hp @ 8,300 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
Curb weight: 4,145 lb
Fuel economy (EPA/AW): 15/15.4 mpg