Worth the weight?



Behind the reborn BMW performance flagship lie at least four years’ development graft and 50 prototypes. Replacing the familiar old four-cylinder warrior is a very much smoother six-cylinder M3, but the 155 mph newcomer is a very much heavier, plusher machine. It is more akin to a replacement for BMW’s old six-cylinder CSi coupe. This time, British customers will be offered rhd from May 1993 at predicted prices in the £33-34,000 band, depending on the exchange rate and what items from the considerable options list are incorporated as part of standard UK specification.

No agreement has yet been signed to import the M3 to North America, where predicted prices look uncomfortable in a Japanese-dominated market.

Nothing but the badge and its origins in BMW Motorsport really link the new M3 to its predecessor. The 0.32 Cd body is based on that of the current 3-series coupe and much of the running gear has been developed from the 24-valve, dohc 325i.

Furthest from its 325i base is the engine. A new iron block and two-part alloy cylinder head are, statistically, very different. The 24v dohc principles are substantially modified by a variable valve timing system (VACC for English speakers, VANOS is the acronym used by Germans) that works on the inlet camshaft only. Its electrohydraulic actuation modifies camshaft action between 80 and 120 crankshaft degrees and allows exceptional torque to accompany the generation of 286 bhp at 7000 rpm.

BMW credits its latest M50-coded three-litre (it’s actually 2990 cc, 86 x 85.8 mm) with a world record in bhp per litre (95.6) at this capacity, though Honda might like to query that. The Civic VTEC manages 98.8. . . BMW has, however, overcome Porsche’s previous benchmark for torque in the normally aspirated, three-litre class. The M3 pumps out 236 lb/ft at 3600 rpm. The most remarkable facet to that torque capability is that the peak figure is sustained all the way to 5800 rpm. Furthermore, the engine remains remarkably suave at either end of its 7280 rpm range, be it 700 or 7000.

The unit is mated to a 525i ZF five-speed, a sextet of ratios being ruled out by Germany’s target price ceiling. The bulky motor is installed with at least two of its in-line cylinders forward of the axle line, and one can see why BMW and the organisers of the German Touring Car Championship came into such bitter dispute over the engine location. The company claims that 50-50 weight distribution is retained on the road, but it does not look like that in the flesh; before withdrawing from further GTCC involvement, BMW Motorsport wanted to run a lowered and relocated (moved back by 15 cm) version of the motor.

For road customers the 325i chassis has been substantially overhauled, but the principles of MacPherson strut front and ZI -derived multiple-link back axle remain, albeit with typical detail reinforcements. These centre on a 1.22in reduction in ride height after the adoption of replacement gas-filled damping, shorter and stiffer coil springs, thicker front anti-roll bar, stiffened suspension mounting joints and a ZF limited slip differential operating a 25 per cent torque preloading. The steering features a variable ratio that is not offered elsewhere in the 3-series range. The back trailing arms are physically strengthened and 850i Coupe wheel bearings are adopted, all to resist the ravages of cornering forces that have been measured at up to 1.2G.

The biggest handling advantages come from more obvious modifications: 17 in wheel diameters are adopted with 7.5 in rims (8.5 in is a forged alloy option) and 235/40 ZR covers from the Michelin MXX3 range mare prominent. Behind such large diameter wheels lurk equally impressive vented discs, effectively monitored by Teves ABS.

BMW makes much of the new M3’s stopping abilities. It claims that it takes just 8.8s to go from rest to 62 mph and back again; six of those seconds are spent gathering velocity, and just 2.8 scrubbing it off.

The body has none of the old car’s extended wheelarch character; even a rear spoiler is only allowed as an option. The most notable M3 panel is an extended front spoiler with under bumper grille, but detail modifications also abound, such as prominent side sills and an extended, stylised rear apron, which wraps around stubby twin exhausts. BMW Motorsport sales personnel did feel that more M3 identity was needed, and the ‘racing’ mirrors, badges on each door and the kickplates reflect that lack of confidence. Originally they were going to put an M3 badge within the sacred kidney grille, but corporate defenders of the faith vetoed that intrusion, leaving the bootlid as the only place to put such a motif.

The interior is not inspired, but it does carry an individual Motorsport trim alongside the ponderous air bag steering wheel (intricately hand-stitched in bright threads around the inside circumference of the rim) and an oil temperature gauge continues to replace the econometer of the usual 3-series. Red needles record 7300 as the limit on the 8000 rpm scale and 270 km/h (168 mph) as the maximum indicated speed, but, as with all current high performance BMWs, an electronic device interferes at 155 mph.

The engine has all the hallmarks of BMW breeding, whirring along at low rpm, where there is plentiful torque available, and gradually taking on the note that encourages lazy colleagues to recall the “turbine smoothness of a BMW straight six.

Whether humming along melodically at 87 mph (less than 4000 rpm in top), or sprinting between second gear curves at 7000 rpm, the seductive engine is reason enough to buy. BMW engineering legend Paul Rosche told journalists: “I know of no better engine.” We would endorse that for the combination of civilisation and accessible power.

Other M3 abilities that set new benchmarks are those enormous brakes and a beautifully absorbent ride, especially when you consider the 40 per cent aspect ratio tyres.

What we were not so impressed by was the communication between car and driver over roads with differing degrees of adhesion. On dry surfaces there is enormous grip, and the Michelins awaken the steering from its apparently well damped torpor to tell you that initial understeer has been traded for old fashioned power oversteer. When, as for our trip, surfaces go from dry to damp to wet and back to dry, the M3 is far from convincing. The driver — despite adjustable shoulder and headrest sections to the unique seats — is not made to feel at one with the car. The steering fails to relay either the drop in bite being achieved by the front wheels, or the disquieting speed with which the rears will now want to overtake their forward comrades. It was not the kind of hair-raising experience, or general unease, that 911s and Skodas used to generate in their original formats, but the new M3 is hard to balance in its new, heavyweight guise.

I am not advocating a traction control device, which Motorsport eschewed but is now working on again for this model, but the kind of alert feedback that characterised its 527 lb lighter four-cylinder progenitor. The new M3 can’t match the old when it comes to seeking pleasure on a twisty road. It was a similar story when the 3.8-litre M5 supplanted the original.

The truth may be that journalists and purists enjoy these original Motorsport devices, but the buying public always want further equipment. Such bulk soon ruins handling pleasure, as well as putting a dent in acceleration curves and making affordable fuel consumption a challenge. In the latter respect, BMW points to a likely overall average of 31 mpg; we recorded a best of 18.7 and the most probable UK averages will be close to the urban quote 21.7. It runs on 98 RON super unleaded.

I would put the new M3 on my personal wanted list, but I wonder how many others amongst the 17,000-plus buyers of the first M3 will be amongst the 24,000 anticipated customers (over the next five or six years) for the new one? I suspect many more old 6-series clients are going to be interested, in which case the machine could have been most accurately described as a 3.0 CSi.

That would prevent purchasers gaining the false impression that the new M3 is as raunchy a driving machine as the original.