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To follow the recent Pirelli Classic Marathon, JW opted for the quickest and biggest production four cylinder from BMW: the 154 mph Evolution M3.

How many £34,500 four-cylinder cars can there be in the world? For that sort of cash we expect six to eight cylinders; in fact a svelte XJ-S would be yours for £34,200. But that is just the point of homologation or evolution specials, they do not have the raison d’etre to anyone but the most dedicated marque loyalist or alert speculator.

For myself, faced with the delightful task of keeping in touch with the Stirling Moss and Paddy Hopkirk Pirelli brigade (or the co-driving presence of our own WPK) the latest twist in the Evolution BMW M3 theme was perfect for my purpose. The 238 horsepower BMW remained effortlessly in contact with those legendary names in their 25 year old cars, all whilst returning an average 22.7 mpg and unrelenting driving pleasure.

Over 14,000 BMW M3 derivatives of the 3-series have been made since their 1986 debut and a 2.3-litre version remains in production at £28,200 in Britain. The proven front DOHC, 16v, cylinder quartet and modification of every key area with competition in mind has produced a two-door saloon that has raced repeatedly to World, European and national championships against more powerful turbocharged rivals. But for BMW the priority must always be their highly publicised domestic Deutsche Rennmeisterschaft, the 1990 series falling nothing short of wheeled warfare between Mercedes, BMW and the competitive Audi V8 saloon of Hans Stuck jnr.

Requiring further armament in the struggle against Mercedes — who have fielded the 2.5-litre version of their original 2.3/16 Cosworth unit since 1989 — BMW decided that both motor and aerodynamic improvements would be offered on 500 Evolution variants of the M3. Britain has received just 50. All were in left-hand drive that has remained a BMW handicap, despite the presence of a right-hand drive Mercedes 2.3 and 2.5/16 in the UK.

Paul Rosche, father of so many BMW sports engines in the years since the retirement and death of Alex Falkenhausen, had been seconded to unspecified mainstream BMW Ag duties (as has M3 chassis creator Thomas Ammerschlager) so Franz Zinnecker cheerfully led BMW Motorsport engine engineers into the 1989 development fray. A contemporary of Rosche in 1967, Zinnecker reported of the 2467cc (95 x 87mm) stretch for the original 2302cc (93 x 84mm) “our racing target was to start just beyond the 320 bhp level of the 2.3-litres, and not to lose more than 1000 revs to the 9800 we have safely used in the racing 2.3 litres. This we have achieved, so our teams are happy, but I think you will find it is also fun to drive as a road car” quipped Herr Zinnecker. It certainly was, but when I first saw the red demonstrator (the only other colour offered is black) I wondered if they had gone too far with the “road racer” theme?

In fact the large four-cylinder, without the benefit of contra-rotating shafts but featuring extraordinary iron block and steel crankshaft strength, proved an amenable road companion. Bosch-BMW digital motor electronics are a great help in this fuel injection DOHC four, but to acknowledge fully current engineering expertise it is also worth emphasising that 3-way catalytic conversion is employed and that the 10.2: 1 compression ratio BMW ran entirely on normal lead-free throughout our trip.

The production of 238 bhp at 7000 rpm sounds forbidding, as does maximum torque sniffing close to 5000 rpm on a road car. In fact, any competent enthusiast will find the torque peak of 176 lb ft at 4750 rpm is easily managed, being just 150 rpm and 10Nm up on the 215 bhp “ordinary” M3 of 1990.

The racing Evolution Sport was first shown at the annual winter BMW Motorsport press conference and has subsequently been used successfully by an army of BMW drivers, including Britain’s Steven Soper who is currently squabbling over the lead of the German series in his Bigazzi-prepared version. Such cars are bored out 0.5mm further to 2492cc and have been rated at 330 bhp (132 bhp per litre) at 8500 rpm in full catalytic convertor trim by a German magazine. The 12:1 compression ratio racing unit released 213 lb ft of torque at 7500 rpm and the 2288 lb machine could accelerate from 31 mph to 124 mph in just 13 seconds, the only valid acceleration test that could be made since rolling starts are a feature of this racing category.

In truth, the Sport Evolution carries the “racing car on the road” appearance further than any saloon of my previous experience, and that would normally have been enough reason to seek other transport for the London-Bridge Cortina D’Ampezzo run. Yet the basic upright sobriety of the 3-series does not bait the police in the way that the original 3-door Ford Sierra RS Cosworth achieved, even when three-position spoilers extend front and rear. Said spoilers adjust by soft headed bolts that may be regarded as virtually tamper-proof for all but those of the most delicate mechanical persuasions. The press car was set up with a compromise downforce setting, which simply meant the rear flipper wasn’t fully upright and the front extension not fully extended.

Further aerodynamic assistance comes from the venturi front spoiler (credited with speeding enough air below the car to create “slight” downforce in association with those top spoilers). Enlarged steel wheelarches house standard 7.5J x 16 inch alloys and equally plump 235/45 ZR MXX Michelins.

This M3 looks chunkier than ever, but unlike the marketing orientated mass producers, it all seems to serve a purpose and some clever detailing is evident. For instance the bonnet shut lines are now sealed in the same way that bumper/body lines would be; even the “kidney” grille and headlamp apertures surrounds also feature subtle streamlining traits.

Unusually the fuel tank capacity is reduced to 62 litres, now back to the capacity of a 320/325i and a contribution, along with lightweight spoiler and bumper materials, to retaining the weight in the 1200 kg zone of a now 215 bhp production M3 of 2.3-litres.

The interior has received attention, and again the appearance was not entirely tasteful, but (again) it all proved efficient under duress.

I did not like the look of the red “MG Metro/Maestro” marketing ploy of red seat belts or the studied pose of scuffed leather steering wheel rim, handbrake and gear lever surround, but the shapely rim proved notably slip-free to handle in hot conditions and the centre section speaks of road car safety not mock racer. A sturdy footrest was appreciated, as was the legible 160 mph speedometer, 8000 rpm tachometer and temperature scales for both water and oil, the latter incorporated into the 7300 rpm redlined rev counter.

The gearchange pattern is thoughtfully illuminated for strangers in the night (thieves?) and is along the old racing lines of isolating first closest to the driver. I say old fashioned because the British Prodrive M3s have six-speed gearboxes these days and BMW already promise six speeds in the 850i, so perhaps the M3 will be the next to wear a fashionable sextet of ratios?

The seats of the example I borrowed were in black leather (stripy cloth is normal on the home market) and are notable for providing the most shoulder support I have encountered upon a road car. They also have the correct fittings for a full harness to be accommodated.

As you would expect of a current electronically managed motor, starting is prompt under all conditions and idle speed is a regular 900 rpm. This from a unit that develops 96.5 bhp per litre, the most I have experienced in production bhp per litre amongst the normally aspirated classes.

The Evolution BMW follows the German tradition in making most of the civilised features part of the homologation specification. This M3 comes with items such as power steering and central locking as standard, whilst the test car had the optional extras of an electric sunroof (£745) and front windows (£430) so it is no surprise to find that good quality Blaupunkt in-car entertainment is provided . . . . and you can hear it, if you want to, all the way to the 7300 rpm redline. Personally I’d rather listen to the engine over 5000 rpm, but since 5000 rpm in fifth shows an indicated 110 mph you have a wide choice of cruising and listening speeds.

The large four-cylinder does have harsher resonance periods, but BMW have cleverly confined them to the lower rpm registers. In fifth the engine note deepens and coarsens under load between 2500 and 3500 rpm (roughly 55 mph to 77 mph), but the general refinement of its 900 rpm idle or a sustained 5000 rpm at just under 85C was deeply impressive. Particularly as I came back to the 1.6 Ford Fiesta RS which failed to maintain an idle and became audibly distressed beyond 5000 rpm with far smaller cylinders.

Even with a weighty but cooperative competition gearbox and heavy duty clutch, the car was not remotely embarrassed by traffic running and proved as agile and torquey as you would hope of a design whose purpose is to race on the most crowded race tracks of Europe. The only vision restriction was the upright flipper of the rear wing, but you had to pay heed to both the hidden front spoiler against kerbs as well as the width of those wheelarches.

871 miles required four tankfuls which worked out at 22.68 mpg, the worst consumption coming over German autobahnen (21.09 mpg) and the best in a comparatively gentle stroll across Austria (25.9 mpg). These figures were a credit to such a highly developed 2.5-litre since the German section included hours travelling at speeds between 110 and 135 mph.

One close encounter with a Mercedes 190 2.5-16 took us up to the giddy realms of 158 indicated mph, just short of the 7300 rpm redline before the silver Mercedes even thought about receding into the mirror. The sights, sounds and sensation of the red BMW tackling yet another 120 mph curve with complete stability whilst the Mercedes also clung confidently to the tarmac were a match for a wet outing around Spa tracks (ancient and modern) the previous evening. Whether it was damp or whether it was on the Stelvio pass, with its eight miles and 48 first and second gear hairpins, the traction exhibited by the BMW was uncanny. You really had to throw the M3 at a corner with more than road-going aggression to break traction, although the front would naturally run wide if you over-estimated the possible entry speed.

Other attributes that came over strongly in this extended mileage were the ride, steering and braking qualities of this astonishing chassis. The quality of ride provided makes mockery of the manner in which many mass manufacturers extort a harsh ride from their allegedly sporting offerings; here is a genuine 150 mph road racer which covers all but town lumps with an amiable grace that is at least the equal of more mundane 3-series derivatives.

The power-assisted steering has a usefully brisk ratio that cuts the usual 3-series shuffle into a manageable figure, beneath four turns of the wheel. Carefully graduated, variable feedback to the driver’s palms is perfection for sensitivity, freedom from undue road shocks and maximum driving pleasure.

BMW specification charts tell me that I enjoyed four wheel discs (only the fronts vented) with electronic ABS, but cannot tell us that front units the size of old Mini wheels simply kill any excess velocity without fuss. And if there looks like being a rumpus (one hard-braked wheel on kerbside dirt, perhaps) the anti-lock action only comes in at the last resort and calmly guards against premature wheel lock without upsetting the car’s composure.

The BMW 850i coupé was a recent disappointment; the M3 was the antidote. Meeting some of the engineers who were responsible for this, and earlier, developments of the M3 theme partially restored the faith; driving the car over the most satisfying test route I have ever covered proved the point. There was not a rattle or a squeak in the car, whatever outrages were perpetrated, and its appetite for stable speed in a simple rear-drive layout convinced me that nobody does the handy sports saloon better than BMW.

I hope I have identified some drawbacks for potential buyers, but if I had £34,500 earmarked for a motor car that would give me maximum pleasure and minimum depreciation over 10 years, I would be pushed to name a more convincing home for that sum than the 2.5-litre BMW M3 Sport Evolution. JW

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