There is nothing much nice about the M3 Coupe. Its very stance is disrespectful. The striated gills behind each front wheel look like sociopathic tattoos on overdeveloped shoulders. The 18-inch wheels, with their wide, sinewy tires, are poised to deliver the swift kick. When the M3 Coupe is prodded to speak with a turn of the ignition key, its snarl is so vicious you expect flecks of spittle to froth from the tailpipes.
BMW’s M3 Coupe is so thoroughly un-nice that it ranks as one of the best cars in the world. It is so ferocious, so fiercely efficient in its skills, so frightening for the unwary, that the owner of a BMW M3 Coupe has to feel lucky that such a car is on his sideand not arrayed against him. On civilized city streets, the M3 Coupe is as fearsome as one of antiquity’s Scythian horsemen who collected the heads of enemies for trophies.
There is nothing dated about the M3 Coupe, however. Together with the current 2001 model, the 2002 M3 Coupe boasts one of the automobile world’s most magnificent and technically accomplished engines and drivetrains. At the heart of the matter is the car’s inline-six cylinder motor that displaces 3.2 liters, sports twin overhead cams, uses a separate throttle for each cylinder and delivers 333 horsepower at a stratospheric 7,900 rpm.
To do this, the engine deploys BMW’s exclusive double-VANOS variable valve timing, which optimizes combustion over a fully graduated rpm range. (In other words, there is no longer a two-stage power “jump” that M3 aficionados remember from before 2001.) The M3 now features BMW’s highest compression ratio in North America: 11.5-to-1. Its exhaust headers are made from hydroformed stainless steel, and they terminate in free-flowing backpipes and resonators that crack the air with savage barks at each stroke of the accelerator.
In mere mortals’ hands, it would be virtually impossible to master the M3’s brutal acceleration without additional wizardry from BMW. After all, this is a car that can condense a sprint from zero-to-60 into just 4.8 seconds. BMW’s computerized Dynamic Stability Control integrates the car’s anti-lock braking system with wheelspin-reducing traction control and slip/slide-reducing cornering capability. The result is a genuine expression of true sports performance with an authentic Formula 1 racing pedigree. Even so, the M3 Coupe is less remarkable for its sheer prowess than for its ability to cohabit agreeably with lesser cars and constricted streets of the mundane world.
For 2001, the M3 Coupe came equipped solely with a six-speed manual transmission that is ideally suited to the car’s lusty, rev-happy powerband. For 2002, BMW has raided the Grand Prix parts bin and made available its six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) as an M3 option. For $2,400 over the M3’s base price of $45,900, SMG affords a driver the alternative of clutchless manual shifting via console-mounted stick shift or racing-style “paddles” sprouting from the steering wheel. (Fully automatic shifting without driver input, moreover, is also possible with SMG.)
BMW asserts that SMG can routinely outshift any driver who uses the traditional six-speed manual. SMG is not only faster changing gears but also is able to exploit computerization to disrupt the powerband by the least possible amount. In other words, no stalls or missed shifts under pressure. For my own test drive, however, I used the manual six-speed; and although I may flatter myself unreasonably, this traditional sporting transmission allowed me to savor my control of all the performance that the M3 makes available.
It must be said that the M3 Coupe is in many ways not easy to drive. Certainly it starts and stops well enough without any special accommodations. But in traffic, in the neighborhood, during a morning commute, the M3 Coupe is a conspicuously unhappy mount. With every rasping upshift, the car wants to plunge headlong through even the least perceptible gap in traffic. It dares its driver to brake later, corner harder. And when the fork in the road finally appearsshowing the way to an important appointment on the one hand, or offering an escape into the backroads on the otherit takes supreme discipline not to be led astray by the M3’s siren song of an exhaust note.
This car’s warhorse spirit is, in fact, overwhelming. In any other car, BMW’s drum-tight leather upholstery might feel punishingly uncomfortable. In the M3, the feeling is positively Spartan in that most ennobling tradition of martial abnegation. The coupe seats five and abounds in creature comforts like auto climate control and CD sound; but it’s clear that rear legroom for three potential passengers is almost an afterthought in this BMW 330Ci body style. Rear seat access through the coupe’s two longish doors is awkward, although getting past either front seat is greatly assisted by BMW’s clever employment of seat struts that lift and lever forward without disturbing front-seat settings.
At least the car is adaptable to the exigencies of civilian life. There is passenger space, after alltrunk space too. Accordingly, the M3 Coupe is far more practical than the classic two-seater roadster, and this practicality renders the car all the more powerful, or at least compelling, for the realistic enthusiast.
At every cocktail party, over every pint of beer, there is always a variety of contenders for the title of Best Car in the World. I, however, cannot presently think of a single one that looks better in a business suit, sounds more impressive in traffic, yet assails presumed rivals more furiously and relentlessly on backroads than BMW’s pavement-scorching M3 Coupe.
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