1997 BMW M3
The best car I ever drove?
That'd probably be the 1991-93 BMW M5 sedan. Fast, nimble,
roomy, luxurious, strong, beautifully finished, even a relative
bargain there wasn't much a car enthusiast would want that
this car didn't have.
Why was it so good? My guess is because it was developed by
people who race cars for a living.
Now, nearly every carmaker participates in motorsport. But few
transfer the lessons learned therefrom into production vehicles
better than BMW. Its corporate slogan is, after all, "The
Ultimate Driving Machine."
BMW's "M" division (formerly "Motorsport", the derivation of
which should be clear) operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of
"M" — no wonder a BMW was featured in the last James Bond
movie — has as its main function the development and campaigning
of race cars. Most often the emphasis has been on
production-based Touring Car racing, of the sort so popular in every
foreign market in the world, and which got a start this year
with the North American Touring Car Championship.
Also: M runs the BMW-engined McLaren F1 cars in Le Mans-type
endurance racing; BMW had a successful run as an engine supplier
to Formula One in the early 1980s; and, if the rumors are
factbased, they may be returning to F1 in 1998 with perpetual
constructors' champion, Williams.
Unless you hold an international racing licence though, the
M-car you are most likely to drive will be one of M's
production models, cars developed and, in some cases built, by
Sadly, the M5 is no longer with us. The last-generation
version succumbed here to emissions laws, and they haven't got
around to doing one yet on the new-generation 5-series. (They
will. The open question is whether we'll get it.)
But Canada does, finally, get its little brother, the M3.
We got the first-generation M3, a raucous little Boy Racer
special, in 1988-91. In 1994, we got exactly 45 examples of the
European M3, which were snapped up immediately and, I
understand, still command top dollar on the previously loved
(a.k.a. used) car market.
The Americans couldn't sneak that M3 past their country's
emissions laws, so they had M develop a U.S.legal M3,
effectively the Euro car with a hotrodded, bored-and-stroked
version of the 2.8 litre inline six.
Launched in 1995, it didn't have the slide throttles and
ultimate peak horsepower of the Euro car, and some purists
thought it was debasing the currency to call it an M-car when it
wasn't the genuine article.
Maybe. But it had better bottomend torque, was even more
driveable, and, most to the point, smog-legal. Considerably
cheaper too, which is never totally beside the point.
For 1997 BMW Canada has added the U.S.spec M3 to its roster,
initially as a two-door coupe, with the four-door sedan due any
day. They are priced identically at $61,900.
The engine has been bored and stroked yet again, raising
displacement to 3.2 litres (from 3.0). The proffered reason is
to further increase peak torque 236 poundfeet is 5 per cent
more than before, and it arrives at 3800 r.p.m., 450 r.p.m.
sooner. Never a bad idea. Peak output remains 240 horsepower at
My speculation on a second, subliminal reason for the
displacement hike is that the European M3 got a larger, 3.2
litre motor last year. I suspect BMW North America is still a
trifle sensitive about comparisons between the two among their
savvier customers. This gives one less point of differentiation
they have to defend.
Not that this engine needs much defending. It goes like hell.
Great acceleration. Crisp throttle response. Silky refinement.
Noise that treads the fine line between nice and nasty.
And you can drive it any way you like. This is one
high-performance engine that doesn't mind being slogged around in
top gear. It'll pull smoothly from as low as 1500 r.p.m.,
without stumble or hesitation.
Of course, it's more fun if you rev the whee out of it. If
you're paying attention to the tach — not easy to do, because
you're going to be busy hanging on — you may notice that there
are two red lines: 6800 r.p.m. in first and second gears, 6500
in third through fifth. The theory is to provide quick runup
through the gears, but restrict top-end revs for extended
The only downside compared to the European M3, which I had a
brief chance to enjoy two months ago during a Michelin tire test
in France, is the deficit in peak power. When you exceed 160
km/h, the North American car is beginning to think, "Just one
more dance, then I really must be going."
In the Euro car, you get the feeling the acceleration will
never end. Mind you, we can never approach these speeds legally
or sanely on this continent. If the choice is our M3 or no M3 at
all — and it is — I'll take this one, gladly.
Overall gearing feels a little short: you'll be well over
3000 r.p.m. in most freeway cruising, and you may be tempted to
shift into the next higher gear (there are five). The exhaust
note is pleasantly subdued, but you will be aware of the engine
is spinning merrily away.
It doesn't seem to affect fuel consumption, though. The larger
motor actually records better numbers than last year's 3.0
The transmission is light, quick and precise. If you try a
dragracing start, you may get the sense that the clutch is
slipping a little; apparently, there's some sort of damper in
the clutch that protects it against ham-fisted (ham-footed?)
application. Not that I'd know . . .
By the way, the Americans can order a five-speed automatic
transmission on their M3 sedan; Canadian cars will be all
manuals, at least for the moment.
The M3 suspension is nothing short of brilliant. Firm, sure;
tushes used to Cadillac plushness probably won't like it. Their
loss. It handles big bumps with aplomb; small irregularities are
but minor annoyances. The car sticks to the road like, well,
choose you own cliched metaphor.
The steering is like a sharp scalpel, carving the line with
unerring accuracy. The brakes, BMW's new racing-derived
floating-disc type, are stupendous.
The rest of the car is pure 3-series, with subtle body
modifications, unique wheels and tires, and discreet badging.
There are minor differences in spec between two and four-door
M3s; read the brochure carefully, then have fun winning bar bets
with your friends.
The interior suffers grievously from the changes inflicted on
all 3s in 1996, the all-push button ventilation system being the
worst. I've whined about this before; I can't bear to elaborate
again because it's just too depressing.
It isn't so bad, however, that the rest of this car's virtues
can't compensate. The M5 is dead; for the moment, the M3 remains
probably the best single car an enthusiast could want.
"But wait," you BMW aficionados might exclaim. (Well, you
might.) What about the new 540i? It can be ordered with a
six-speed manual transmission; when you do so, it comes with a
sports suspension developed by yet another BMW subsidiary,
MTechnik, whose mandate is similar to the Motorsport division:
apply to production cars advanced technology which, in this
case, may or may not be racing-derived.
The result is a thoroughly modern, mid-size sports sedan, with
a terrific 4.4 litre four-cam multivalve aluminum V8 engine,
282 horsepower, enough torque to run a Lake Ontario freighter.
Doesn't that sound like the best single car an enthusiast could
Sounds that way. It just isn't, that's all. And it's hard to
say exactly why.
The new 540i is a better car in most objective ways than the
old 5. Lighter. Roomier. More rigid. Faster. Better cornering
There is just something missing.
It's not as distinctive looking, for starters. It looks
smaller than the old one, even though it's not. A not-unrelated
concern is that from a distance, it's hard to tell it from a
3-series. Not a problem per se; the 3 is a lovely car. But BMW
is falling into the Acura trap, making all their cars look too
One of only two mechanical concerns is that I found it
difficult to coordinate the long-travel clutch and the very
light shift lever. Nothing wrong, really, but not as of-a-piece
as the best manual gearbox/clutch combinations.
Second, I've never liked vehicle-speed sensitive steering gear
much, and I like it least of all in this car. BMW has stayed
with a recirculating ball system on the V8 5s (the six-cylinder
528 uses rack and pinion). The 540i's front suspension also
follows the layout of the larger 7-series, except it uses more
aluminum to reduce weight.
Together, they don't communciate with the road in that
nearly-telepathic sense that the best sports sedans do.
If steering and transmission are two of maybe five essential
elements in a sports sedan, the 5-series has two strikes against
it before it steps up to the plate. (You get five strikes in
this game; suspension, brakes and engine are the other
essentials, and the 540i is first-rate on these scores.)
Peripheral concerns are, again, the giant leaps backward BMW
has taken with ergonimics — yes, that ventilation system again.
I can only presume that since Lexus has push buttons, and the
market research boys say people like Lexuses, then BMWs must
have push buttons.
Maybe it's the entire marketing-over-engineering philosophy
that has pushed this BMW off my must-have list.
Or maybe my antipathy towards the new 5-series stems solely
from the fact that I liked the old one so much.
I do tend to be flying solo on this one; just about everyone
else loves this car, and BMW Canada says they're selling them as
fast as they can unload them off the boat.
Do you remember that TV ad a couple of years ago for Piat d'Or
wine? It ended with the gorgeous brunette woman whispering, "
Eet ees, how you say, dry, wizzout zee edge."
I thought of that ad when I drove the 540i: dry, without the
edge. Yeah, maybe that's it.