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2008 BMW M3 coupe

Somewhere in its 20-year history, the BMW M3 went from being a track-focused special, built to satisfy some obscure requirement so the carmaker could take the 3 Series racing, to being a real mainstay of the company's lineup.

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Somewhere in its 20-year history, the BMW M3 went from being a track-focused special, built to satisfy some obscure requirement so the carmaker could take the 3 Series racing, to being a real mainstay of the company's lineup.

The M3 took the company's core modeland turned it up to 11, with pumped-up styling, luxurious interiors and high technology.

BMW purists – those who drove their M cars at the track and who rallied round the M inline-six's competition pedigree – probably gasped when BMW first offered the M3 as a convertible.

They probably shook their fists when an automatic transmission was offered. And some of them, upon hearing that the latest M3 would ditch the iconic straight-six for a big V8, probably felt like throwing up their hands.

The new car may have a carbon-fibre roof to shave weight and lower the centre of gravity (so long as you don't spec a sunroof), but without that inline-six, could it still really be an M car?

Don't worry: it still is – in all senses of the word. The 2008 M3 still makes those racy noises, still revs like it has no flywheel, still handles like a dream. It's more of an M car than ever, in the speed department.

But it's also more of an M car in the sense that it's more luxurious, more interesting to look at, packed with more gadgetry and features than you may know what to do with initially. It's sort of an automotive irony: a car that is at once more focused and more mainstream, all at the same time.

The M3 driving experience is still dominated by its engine. And what's interesting is that, despite its two extra cylinders and its extra displacement, the character of the old M3's engine is intact.

Sure, at low revs, there's more torque and thus a lot more flexibility when you're loafing around town. Sure, there's a bit of a rumble to the way it starts up and idles, with a lovely backbeat when you're lugging it around in a higher gear.

But the more you lean into the gas, the harsher and more metallic the sound gets – right up to the 8400 rpm redline, where the 414 hp M3's buzz-saw rasp is almost indistinguishable from the old car's.

It handles, too, with accurate steering and nearly endless grip from the huge 19-inch Michelins, but some of the edginess, the tactility that defined the previous M3, has faded away a bit; the new car is faster and grippier but a little smoother around the edges and much more stable as a result. On tightly twisting roads, you're also aware that this is a substantial car, reminded by the big bulge in the hood, the way the fenders flare and the high sills of the windows.

While I'm a big fan of high tech, accessing it isn't quite as easy as it used to be. Like the M5 and M6, the new M3 presents you with a multitude of setup choices, which you have to program into the iDrive system. There are three different settings for the stability-control system, two settings for the servotronic steering system and – get this – three settings (unchanged, sport and sport plus) for "power." (Why would you buy an M3 and not want all that power all the time?) Order the adaptive dampers and that's another three settings to fiddle with.

Fortunately, my tester was equipped with the MDrive package (for a whopping $3,200), which at least allowed all of my preferred settings to be programmed into one "M" button on the steering wheel like a radio preset, so I didn't have to go through the whole process each time I started the car up.

The M3, then, is no different from many high-end cars now in the way that it requires a fairly extensive setup and familiarization process – one that extends to the way the car drives, as well as programming in your radio presets, seating position and favourite navigation destinations.

Once you've done all of that, though – for me, it took about three days – the car becomes quite easy and transparent to operate. The iDrive controller has been much derided by some of my colleagues, but it certainly does clean up the interior, consolidating many less-used controls into a single easy-to-navigate menu system.

The rest that surrounds you is fairly plain, but of obviously high quality: soft, low-sheen plastics on the dash, console and door panels; carbon-fibre effect leather accents and pin-sharp instruments mark out a cabin that's designed to make you and the drive its focus.

More evidence of that? The seats are comfortable on long hauls, but have adjustable side and thigh bolsters to hold you firmly in place; the sightlines are terrific and the mirrors (fancy M ones on two folding struts) are huge.

All of those cues also serve to remind you that, when you're not screeching around a racetrack or blasting away from stoplights, the M3 remains, at its core, a 3 Series BMW. It's comfortable (with usable back seats), practical (the trunk is wide and deep) and drivable all year (if you fit a good set of winter tires).

It's something that feels exotic and familiar all at the same time – and in its price class, that may well be its downfall.

The Porsche Cayman has polarizing looks, but is undoubtedly less common. But now, Nissan's thundering 480-hp GT-R (if you can find one), lives around the price point where you'd find a loaded M3, and comes with even more technology.

Of course, being based on a more mainstream vehicle, the M3's closest competitors are more likely to be cars like the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and Audi RS4. Against those cars, it fares considerably better.

The Benz – I have, unfortunately, yet to drive it – may be a lot more powerful and very aggressively priced, but it doesn't offer the BMW's manual transmission, while the M3's pumped-up wheel arches, bulging hood and side extractor vents give it a more aggressive look.

The Audi is as thrilling a ride as the M3, but its back seat is nearly useless and you just know that a new version isn't that far around the corner, what with the company having recently introduced a new A4 (the Audi is also, at almost $100,000, a lot more expensive).

Factor in the fact that you will soon be able to choose from M3s in three different body styles – there's a sedan as well as a convertible with a folding hard-top – and will also soon be able to spec a twin-clutch, seven-speed sequential transmission, and the BMW's pricing and packaging starts to look pretty sweet.

The M3 is hardly a perfect car, but it's a car that does a lot of things very well, while doing nothing badly. Thanks to all the setup choices (order the fancy gearbox and you get 11 different kinds of shifting), it can be exactly the car each owner wants it to be. Which helps explain its continued and expanding popularity, as well as its continually improving performance.

Freelance auto writer Laurance Yap can be reached at yap@mac.com

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