By Steve Walker
There's a special aura that surrounds the BMW M3, one that's replicated by precious few other cars. It's composed of ethereal stuff like the knowledge of the other great models that have carried the badge, the passion of the engineers who created them and the embarrassment in the supercars they've out-classed on race circuits around the globe. In fairness, and certainly by the time this V8-engined E90 series model arrived in 2007, the M3 probably was a supercar. It's just that this is a supercar with real everyday practicality and running costs that make used models accessible to the masses. With the realisation that you could quite conceivably own one, the M3 aura grows.
The E30, E36 and E46 generations of BMW's 3 Series executive car all spawned M3 versions and from the moment the E90 generation car arrived in 2005, speculation was rife as to the details of the inevitable M3. The size of the 3 Series had increased steadily through the generations and so had the power deemed necessary to give the M3 versions a suitably devastating punch. Kicking off with 200bhp in the weediest iteration of the E30 M3 and reaching 360bhp in the ultimate CSL version of the E46 model, M3 outputs had risen fast facilitated by the switch from four to six-cylinder engines for the E36 generation. The thinking was that for the E90 version to continue the M3's upward horsepower trajectory, it was going to need a V8.
When the E92 M3 Coupe made its debut in 2007, the hotly anticipated V8 engine was installed and pumping out 420bhp. That car was followed early in 2008 by a saloon version (E90) and there was a convertible (E93) hot on its heels, one with a folding hard-top roof no less. All used the same powerplant.
The range was expanded in mid 2010 by the launch of the M3 Coupe Edition which offered a 10mm lower ride height plus a series of styling accessories and equipment upgrades. It was the M3 GTS that really set pulses racing though. This was a specialist track-focused model with power upped to 450bhp, the dual-clutch paddle-shift gearbox as standard, extensive use of carbonfibre in the bodywork, no rear seats and numerous other weight saving measures. The price, at over £100,000, was almost more of an eye-opener than the performance.
What You Get
The M3 is packed with intriguing design features but the most important one for many is that it looks the part. There was barely a dissenting word uttered after its unveiling and most observers judged that BMW had got it spot on, providing a canny balance between sophistication and testosterone-fuelled aggression.
The blistered wheel arches house 18-inch rims as standard, although many owners upgraded to 19-inch rims. The front bumper is punctuated by a gaping honeycomb centre grille, flanked on either side by intakes that help cool the engine bay and front brakes. A power dome on the bonnet hints at what lies beneath. Move around the car and there are intricately formed side sills, while at the back, there's ventilation to draw hot air away from the differential. Four chrome-tipped exhaust pipes leave others in no doubt as to what's just blown by.
Weight crept up slightly compared to its predecessor but a 77bhp increase in power more than made up for this. The fact that the power output is identical to the Audi RS4 of the same era is significant as BMW was keen to demonstrate that it makes better use of its available horsepower than the upstarts up the road in Ingolstadt.
Whether you choose two or four-door versions, six airbags are standard, along with leather trim, 18-inch alloy wheels, auto lights and wipers, a full-colour DVD-based sat-nav system, electric seats and mirrors, plus rear parking sensors and automatic air-conditioning. Claims that this is a usable everyday car aren't off the mark with high levels of comfort in the cabin and decent rear legroom in the saloon version.
What to Look For
Very few people will buy an M3 and treat it with kid gloves. It's a car that demands to be driven hard but it's designed to cope with such treatment. Track use will take its toll on brakes, tyres, clutches and gearboxes, so pay particular attention to these areas when inspecting the car. Also look out for accident damage and for kerbing of those alloy wheels, particularly the optional 19" items. A BMW service history is a must.
(based on a 2007 M3 Coupe) Brake discs kick off at over £200 for a front one with the rears only around £30 less than that. These prices are indicative of what you'll pay for other components (quite a lot) but then this is a highly specialist car.
On the Road
The V8 engine plumbed beneath the bulging bonnet of the M3 had a lot of commentators a little worried at first. The balance of the six-cylinder E46 model was so exquisite that the prospect of a big four-litre 'bent-eight' shoehorned into the svelte 3 Series shell smacked of an almost Mercedes-like obsession for power at any cost. Seems we needn't have worried. BMW was quick to point out that the weight of the V8 is, at 202kg, a full 15kg lighter than the old 'six'.
The aural signature from this engine is like no other road car powerplant. The cause is the induction system which features an oscillating tube fed by eight lightweight intake funnels. Add a fruity exhaust blare and you have a car that will swivel heads from a long way out.
BMW quoted a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds and an electronically limited top end of 155mph although it is said to nudge 180mph with the software nanny unshackled. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, with a seven-speed SMG sequential box available as an option. With a stiffer body, carbon-fibre reinforced plastic roof and an even more aggressive version of the legendary M-diff hydraulic centre differential, the M3 isn't just all about that astonishing engine.
There haven't been many duffers in the M3 family and the V8-engined E90 cars weren't about to fall short of the mark. The first V8 M3 could easily have got the mix wrong but the end result is a masterpiece combination of extraordinary pace, balance and usability. It's a formidable car and resisting the lure of a used model is a challenge for any keen driver.