2000 BMW M3

Earlier this year, it was mano a auto, as I took another German champion, BMW's new M3 sports sedan, out for a trial on this famous circuit.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, Spain — Duel in the sun. Blood on the

sand. Here in this ancient Andalusian city, this scenario

usually means "mano a toro."

In 1997, it was "mano a mano" at the European Grand Prix, as

the young upstart Jacques Villeneuve pulled off a move worthy of

Manolete, the Wayne Gretzky of matadors, to wrest the World

Driving Championship away from Michael Schumacher, despite the

German's attempt to thrust a sword stroke through the bullish

young Canadian's shoulder blades.

I think I mixed a metaphor in there somewhere. Never mind.

Earlier this year, it was "mano a auto," as I took another

German champion, BMW's new M3 sports sedan, out for a trial on

this famous circuit.

The test was not really a contest of man versus car. If

anything, it was man AND car, versus the challenging, dangerous

circuito. For BMW has assured that every piece of technology

known to automotive mankind was on my side.

I'd need all the help I could get, because the 3.2L,

twin-cam, 24-valve inline six generates 343 hp at 7,900 rpm, and a

lusty 269 lbft at 4,900 rpm, at least 80 per cent of which is

available from 2,000 rpm on up.

I could get into trouble in any of the six gears in this


First among the face and carsaving alphabet soup

technologies is, of course, ABS. But the M3 also has EBD

electronic brake force distribution to ensure that each

braking wheel is being used to its greatest extent, and CBC

Cornering Brake Control to adjust brake pressure to individual

wheels to reduce the chances of a spin, should the car detect

that it is in a corner.

Even Villeneuve can't make his brakes work like this.

The M3 also has DSC — Directional Stability Control — which

helps direct the car back on course, should it determine on its

own that it is not going where the driver intends. As if I knew.

Still, the truly macho man — and I'm trying to play this role

here — turns this off while on a race track. New on this car is

an automatic locking differential that lets you hang the tail

out to a degree, but locks up gradually if you overcook it.

More on that later.

We're only supposed to take three laps, but I've been in this

game long enough to know how to, um, make the rules somewhat


After each lap, we are required to come back into pit lane to

give the brakes a chance to cool off. I don't even think about

cheating on this rule; no roadgoing car's binders, not even

spectacular brakes such as those on the M3, are designed to

stand up to repeated hammering on a race track.

I've driven here before, in a lesser 3-Series, but I have no

desire to be enthroned in the Automotive Journalists' "Jerk Hall

of Fame" by wadding up one of these lovely cars.

It's a very technical track.

Turn one and two, both righthanders, LOOK like they're

90-degree corners. If you turn in based on this assumption,

you're in the gravel at the exit because you run out of pavement

they're both sharper than that.

Turn Two: Curva Michelin is critical. From here through the

high-speed left-hand bends leading to the Curva Sita Pons, a

smooth-flowing rightie, it is all flatout — assuming you're as

brave as Villeneuve.

Blow turn two and you've pretty much blown the first half of

the lap.

From Sita Pons, it's hard on it down the longest straight on

the course, to the Curva Dry Sack righthand hairpin. Another

fast left — flat out once I get brave enough — followed by a

harder flat left, then another pair of almost-ninety-degree

rights, and a chicane not worthy of its name: Curva Ayrton

Senna — designed to bring us down to earth prior to the pit

entrance which bypasses the lefthand hairpin back onto the

front straight.

One of the many things that separates real racers from us

pretenders is their ability to find out how fast a car can go in

a very few laps.

I usually reach my limit before the car does. This car

flatters, possibly to deceive. Make a little bobble, and it

recovers, without so much as a metaphorical wag of the finger.

I enlist the aid of a couple of BMW press officers, Friedbert

Holz and Thomas Gubitz, to show me their lines. They've been

here for several weeks, and as the racers say, there's nothing

like seat time.

Except maybe talent.

Holz shows me that the quick way around the right handers is

to put the left front wheel over the raised curbing on the

inside of the bend. Think about that where exactly would the

right front wheel be? Don't ask.

The objective is to straighten the corner as much as possible

so you need to cut speed as little as possible.

My turn again. It works.

Except that now I'm carrying a LOT more speed than I was

earlier, and I get it Major League crossed up coming out of

Curva Angel Nieto. Maybe "Angel" is on my shoulder; a couple of

heroic or lucky thrashes and I've managed to keep the car on the

Iberian Peninsula.

Thank goodness, some years ago, BMW threw conventional wisdom

about steering out the window. No need for heavy effort in the

name of "feel" they found a way to get communication and

lightness into the steering gear simultaneously. When you're

going this fast, you don't want arguments from the car about

where you want to point the front wheels.

Gubitz notes that the previous-generation M3 — by any

standards, a remarkable car — was much less controllable at the

limit, which I had clearly exceeded in my exuberance.

Had I goofed up like this in last year's car, we'd have become

part of the scenery.

As accomplished a race track performer as the M3 is, it is

primarily a roadgoing express. As such it is sensationally

comfortable, roomy, smooth, quiet and well-appointed, as I found

out earlier in the day with some cross-country and in-town work

to and through the ancient white-washed villages of Arcos de la

Frontera, El Bosque and Grazalema.

Will it work as well in Aurora, Bolton and Georgetown? For a

mere $69,800, you'll be able to find out early next year.

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