Test Drive: 2011 BMW M3 coupe

BMW is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the M3 this year and each of the four generations of this iconic model has been very active in racing around the world over those years. The first E30 M3 from the late 1980’s was made to homologate the racing version of the car, which dominated European circuits with drivers like Roberto Ravaglia, Johnny Cecotto and Steve Soper. The E36 and E46 versions were raced very effectively by Team PTG here in the U.S. from 1995-2001, with multiple championships that included wins at Sebring and Daytona, as well as the ALMS championship with the fire-breathing M3 GTR’s that were entered by PTG and BMW Motorsport Team Schnitzer in 2001.

The current E92 M3 is carrying on that winning tradition, winning the ALMS team and manufacturer championships last year and going two for two in ALMS competition so far this year. M3’s have also won two out of three races this year in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series (CTSCC) this year, following a 2010 season that saw Fall-Line Motorsports sweep the GS class championships in that series with the M3. The wins in CTSCC are probably more of a testament to the goodness of the M3 road car than the ALMS wins, as the rules in that series don’t allow teams to stray too far from the stock car, especially with the engine, and the CTSCC M3’s all started life as new M3’s on a dealer’s showroom floor.

When it comes to the stock M3, you can’t get any closer to the racing version than the car you see here. BMW sells the M3 in sedan, coupe and convertible flavors, but the coupe is the one that’s racing. All M3’s share the same engine and it’s a fantastic unit – a 4.0-liter, 32-valve V8 that puts out 414hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, which can move it to 60mph in 4.5 seconds. It also loves to rev (it doesn’t make peak horsepower until 8,300rpm) and is so smooth that it’s hard to believe there’s a lot of friction going on inside. It also sounds great when winding it up to the upper reaches of its rev range. Our car had the M-DCT dual-clutch gearbox, which BMW Team RLL driver Bill Auberlen says can change gears faster than the sequential gearbox used in the M3 GT race car. M-DCT has six settings for shift speed and shifts can be made using either the shift lever or the shift paddles that are mounted on the steering wheel. M-DCT also allows the M3 to be driven in automatic mode, which comes in handy in traffic. For those that prefer a clutch pedal, all M3’s are available with a six-speed manual.

 Our M3 coupe test car also had the optional Competition Package (hereafter referred to with its BMW code name ZCP), which will set you back another $2,500 in addition to the $58,900 base price and includes EDC (Electronic Damping Control) with enhanced Sport mode software, DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) with modified programming to allow for a greater slip angle, and beautiful Y-spoke alloy wheels that measure 19 x 9 up front and 19 x 10 in the rear that also give the car a slightly wider track since they have a higher wheel offset than the regular M3. Spring rates are essentially unchanged from the standard M3, though they are shorter to drop the car by 10mm, which also lowers the center of gravity.

The most significant change in handling comes from the adjustment of the EDC “Sport” mode. The EDC suspension has been optional on the E92 M3 since it came out and has three levels – Comfort, Normal and Sport, with Comfort and Normal modes allowing for variable damping, while Sport mode is fixed in a stiffer setting. With ZCP, all three modes, including Sport, are now variable, which actually makes it usable on public roads. Until the ZCP package came along, EDC Sport mode up was pretty much useless unless you were driving on a glass smooth track and those are nearly nonexistent in North America. I’ve driven E92 M3’s with EDC twice before at different tracks and in both cases the Sport mode made the car too jittery. “Sport mode was really designed for autocross more than track days, to tighten the suspension up,” says BMW Motorsport Manager Larry Koch. “We found with the new ZCP package that if we made the Sport mode variable it would enhance the handling of the car when you combine it with lowering the suspension and giving the car a wider stance with the wheels.”

The M3 is a highly entertaining car to drive in any form, but the ZCP package raises it to a slightly higher level, as it feels more planted and stable, especially if you drive it on the track. There’s minimal understeer and the variability of the EDC Sport mode with the ZCP package also makes it more usable on twisty back roads, where it gives the car sharper turn-in on corners and more willingness to change directions, though the M3 is no slouch even with the car set in Comfort mode. We’re all for keeping manual transmission options in sports cars, but the M-DCT dual-clutch tranny in the M3 is pretty incredible, with seamless gear changes and perfect blips of the throttle when downshifting. The brakes also provide excellent stopping power with good pedal feel, though the pads are best upgraded if you plan to track the car.

It’s hard to find fault with the M3, but we can think of a couple. With today’s gas prices, the M3 is on the expensive side to run compared to other cars in this performance range. We managed to get a high of around 23mph on the highway even though BMW only claims 20mpg, but in comparison the 6.2-liter, 430hp V8 in the Corvette gets 26mpg on the highway and the Porsche 911 Carrera S (with the 3.8-liter flat six that puts out 385hp) can get up to 26mpg on the highway. Of course, the M3 costs nearly twenty grand less than the base model 911. We also don’t really think the M3 needs six different settings for shift speeds with the M-DCT transmission, when two or three would do just fine. We can’t think of any reason why someone would buy this car and drive it in the lower shift settings, even in automatic mode.

The dynamic qualities aren’t limited to the M3 with the ZCP package – I’ve driven the M3 sedan with the standard suspension (without the EDC option, that starts at $55,900 MSRP) and would be happy to have that car in my garage too. As far as our test car goes, I can say without hesitation that the $2,500 for the ZCP package is money well spent if you’re buying a new M3 and want a more focused car right out of the box, particularly if you have track days on the agenda and don’t plan to modify the car on your own. The benefits of having the flexibility of the variable damping in the Sport EDC mode is certainly an improvement over the standard car with EDC, and the wider track and lowered suspension contribute to the overall stability of the car.

One of the most appealing things about the M3 is its functionality, as it’s a true sportscar that also performs well as a daily driver if you don’t mind paying for the gas it consumes. Unlike the Corvette and 911, the M3 has a truly usable back seat and a surprisingly roomy trunk. While I had our test car, we took a trip to the ocean with two kids in the back and all our luggage and beach chairs in the trunk, and nobody complained about an uncomfortable seat or a stiff ride the whole way there and back. This car can spend a day at the track and be driven to work the next day, and is possibly the most versatile sportscar on the planet. We all know how good it is as a race car too. At the time of this writing, the M3 was leading all the point standings in both ALMS and CTSCC. In addition to the North American races in ALMS and CTSCC, BMW Team Schnitzer will also campaign a pair of M3’s in the European rounds of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, as well as defending their overall win in the Nürburgring 24 Hour.


MSRP - $61,075 (including destination charge/gas guzzler tax)
Engine - 4.0-liter 32-valve V8 with variable valve timing
Power - 414hp @ 8,300rpm
Torque - 295 lb-ft @ 3,900rpm
0-60mph - 4.5 seconds (with M-DCT), 4.7 seconds (with manual)
Suspension - M suspension with twin-joint spring-strut front axle, subframe, front axle tie-rod and stiffening plate in aluminum, rear axle subframe in steel, track control arm and spring strut in aluminum and lightweight steel construction
Brakes - 14.2-inch vented discs front/13.8-inch vented discs rear
Fuel economy - 14 city / 20 highway
Curb weight - 3,704 lbs.

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