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Tuesday 9th April 2002


BMW M3

Flash car for the shiny suit brigade or the best compromise in the performance world?

Adam Ryan gives us his verdict

It's 5pm on a sunny Good Friday, we've been on the road 11 hours, covered almost 500 miles, and the screen in front of me tells me I have 10 more to go to our destination; time to sit back, relax and admire the scenery? Not a bit of it.....drop down a couple of gears and in the words of Marc Bolan - get it on!

As anyone with a drop of petrol in their veins will tell you, Scotland has the best roads in Britain so having picked up the keys to a very shiny Phoenix Yellow M3 less than 24 hours earlier, the choice was easy - Stelios could take a running jump (the fact that he had left me stranded in Geneva two days' earlier didn't come into it, honest).

The final ten miles saw me concentrating harder than I'd done all day as I revelled in the twists and turns of an empty A93. I headed towards Glenshee savouring the howl of the 3.2 litre straight-six as the rev-counter needle flicked up toward the 8000rpm red line yet again. And this, in a nutshell, sums the M3 up - here is a car that can carry you, 3 friends, Romans or countrymen plus enough posh frocks and shoes for a week-long fashion shoot, across large distances at speeds which would have plod reaching for the ignition of their dark blue Volvo. It does all this whilst providing enough thrills sans spills to deliver you to your destination relaxed and free from perspiration, grinning from ear-to-ear and longing for the next morning.

                                                                 (Hobson's) Choice?

With the finance due on the TVR after three thoroughly enjoyable and largely trouble-free years, I had decided it was time for a change. Whilst I think a Chimaera is a remarkably practical sports car (I once spent 5 days driving around Wales topless with a mountain bike in the boot), there is still a need for something sensible alongside it and I was getting bored of being stuck behind check-shirted caravaners when driving the 1.6 Golf.

A quick trawl of Evo's The Knowledge confirmed my suspicions that there was very little that could keep pace with a TVR whilst providing the practicalities of the Golf. Would Sir like a 911? Sure you can get a roof rack for a 911 but that alone would cost more than most mountain bikes you would put on it, plus the two-year waiting list means minimal depreciation so I would be looking at a 996 older than the TVR. How about a Maserati 3200? Nice clock, shame about the rear. Audi RS4? I don't need that much space! Tuscan? I'd prefer a straight-six that spent more time on the pitch than a Blackpool bench. M3? Worth a look....at least meJulie would approve!

                                                                 Hens' Teeth

And therein is your first problem - just looking at one, let alone getting a test-drive. Launched last March, the latest M3 is in such demand that there is a two-year waiting list for one new, and used examples are trading above list. Dealers therefore have no incentive to give you a spin in their demo, particularly as these are already pre-sold. I didn't quite realise how difficult getting behind the wheel would be until I booked to drive a year-old silver car at a local dealer at 3pm on a Friday only to arrive at 9am the next morning to find out it had been sold. No matter - the following weekend saw me finally getting behind the wheel of the car in the pictures...

                                                                 Power Bulge

The first thing that strikes you about the latest M3 is how aggressive it looks. Compared to any other 3-series coupe (which are fine as Euroboxes go but are never going to give you neckache from repeated double-takes), this has real presence. Flared wheel arches do little to hide wheels that give TVR's latest spiders a run for their money in the beauty stakes and come in either an 18" or 19" flavour - this one came with 18", the 19" being a £900 extra (vanity has it's price don't you know). The aluminium bonnet comes complete with a Capri-esque power bulge and chrome-louvered side vents, whilst at the rear a subtle boot-lid spoiler and quad-pipe exhaust completes the package, making this in my view at least, the best looking of the current BMW offerings, Z8 included.

Inside, whilst it may not match the grin-inducing quirkiness of a TVR or the sheer opulence of a Jag or Aston, the M3 is none-the-less an extremely pleasant place to be. Special mention must be made of the seats which even Quasimodo would be able to get comfortable in. There are no less than 3 different adjustable lumber supports (including width) plus the usual array of adjustments, the settings of which can be coded into a memory and retrieved just by unlocking the car with a certain key, along with wing mirror position, climate control settings, anti-car jacking measures, automatic lowering of the vanity mirror to check lipstick...

                                                                 Back on the Road

The next morning saw us heading North past Glenshee ski area, past Balmoral, and up towards Inverness. Once again, clear blue skies and empty roads reminded me that there are still some places in this country you can enjoy a high-performance car to the full, and in this environment the M3 did not disappoint. Peak power of 338bhp isn't hit until 7900rpm but on the road this doesn't really matter as power delivery is incredibly smooth, pulling continuously from 3000rpm through to the red line at 8000. The lack of any notable thump in the back makes this car deceptively quick - something which is underlined by the handling.

The suspension is very firm (one Griff-owning passenger commented that he thought it harder than his TVR), yet with just the right amount of compliance, helping to stick the car to the road. Even on bumpy B-roads the M3 has a great ability to follow your chosen course without giving you that uneasy feeling you could be pitched sideways into a hedge at any moment. As a result, you find yourself driving 20mph quicker than you had thought, making cross-country speeds into 3 figures a relatively relaxing experience (for the driver at least).

Twisties

Through the twisty stuff, the M3 flows with a sure-footed precision that belies its' gizmo and safety-induced 1½ tonne weight, but it is also here that it shows one of its few weaknesses - the steering. Whether it's down to the 3-series heritage (although it is 6% quicker than the 330Ci's and the power assistance has been remapped for greater feel) or because I'm more used to TVR's directness, to me the M3 doesn't provide enough feedback and is not quite quick enough, on occasion resulting in the front-end pushing wider into a corner than I'd anticipated. And while we're on the negatives, gear-change from the 6-speed 'box feels soft and notchy but again I guess, little short of a Ferrari would give you the same satisfaction as cradling a stubby cold aluminium TVR stick and flicking it across the gate. Maybe the F1-style SMG system would improve things and I'm keen to try it as reports suggest it is currently the best out there, Ferrari included, but finding a suitably-equipped car at a friendly dealer could be tricky.

Despite BMW's reputation when it comes to build quality, there have been a few niggles including a parking sensor that sees imaginary brick walls and a and Sat Nav Sue cannot always be trusted - like the time she suggested a 5-mile off-road rally stage to reach a Yorkshire village!

Slowing

An area which doesn't disappoint is braking. Massive cross-drilled discs front and rear linked to ABS instils a high level of confidence - reassuring really given you are probably travelling 20mph quicker than you thought you were!

Talking of electronic driver-aids, the M3 comes with enough acronyms to have your average QUANGO going moist at the gusset. Only this, being the ultimate "ultimate driving machine" allows you to switch some of them off. Whether you want to or not is another question. On a track I would probably switch the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) off but back in the real world, I'd prefer to leave it on for those unexpected patches of gravel and oil my blurred vision didn't managed to spot. It also helps that the latest version of DSC seems to have been programmed for enthusiastic drivers in mind so it will allow the tail to swing out somewhat leaving your passengers thinking you've had a McRae implant overnight rather than a sudden bout of Elephantitis.

                                                                 Perfect?

So is the latest M3 the perfect car? Well for what I wanted then yes. Whilst you don't get that great feeling of driving an out-and-out sports car, the M3 still feels special, managing to turn heads when both stationary and on the move, particularly when decked out in the best yellow I've seen in the automotive world and swathed in kiwi leather (trust me on this last one).

Importantly, it has strengths in all areas: the 1400 mile Easter trip to Scotland highlighted how comfortable this is as a long-distance tourer with the sort of acceleration that makes short work of Numpty-hopping. Deserted Highland roads gave rise to an adrenalin rush and satisfaction that only truly great cars can give - I can't wait to get it on a track.

I'll Stop

I could go on about the practicalities of the M3 - 25mpg over the trip, German build quality, 3-year manufacturer warranty, automatically recharged key-fob batteries, blah, blah, blah - but that's not what you want to hear. At the end of the day, here is a car that has enough of a hooligan streak running through it that allows you to experience the thrill of a super-quick, great-handling car whenever circumstances allow, whilst leaving your (probably still-sleeping) partner safe in the knowledge that her outfit for tonight's dinner will still be crease-free when you arrive at your destination. That alone may justify it...

BMW Links, www.bm3w.co.uk