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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

the company.

"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

the subsidiary.

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.

Again.

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

6000 r.p.m.

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

durability.

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

litre.

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

want?

SOMETHING MISSING

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

power.

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

much alike.

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.

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