BMW M3 Is Back, But It’s Heavy

April 30 (Bloomberg) — Talk about love affairs gone bad. A number of guys I know — and they were all guys — were infatuated with BMW’s previous-generation M3, the more passionate version of the already saucy 3 Series coupe. Of those who got involved, one clumsy driver burned up a succession of clutches; a second let it languish in the shop after several fender-benders; and a third never got it over 85 miles per hour, claiming he was “still breaking in the engine.”  

All clear cases of reading too many swooning reviews in auto-buff magazines and ending up buying a fire-breathing sports car that’s both less comfortable and too powerful for your real life. It’s the equivalent of investing in an expensive espresso maker when you actually drink regular old Joe.

So here comes the latest M3, the most powerful yet, with a V-8 engine rather than an inline six and a massive helping of extra horsepower — 414 versus 333. Unhappy M3 lovers, don’t give up just yet, though. This is the kinder, gentler M3.

Don’t get me wrong. With the power bulge in the hood, performance tires and a low front fascia, it’s no pushover. The time it takes to go from being stopped at the red traffic light to being stopped by flashing red lights in your mirror is plenty fast — 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, in fact.

Still, unlike one M3 owner I know, most drivers won’t keep extra tires in the garage just for track days. In fact, most won’t see the track at all. So “reality” factors such as how bumpy it feels on the way to the shopping mall and how many bags the trunk will hold matter as much as “fantasy” factors like the engine that revs up to an insane 8,300 rpm.

BMW has figured this out, I think. The major tip-off is the M3 is once again available as a four-door sedan. (A convertible will soon be available as well.) And overall, it’s an easier, less demanding drive.

Low-Key Looks

Since the first 1986 “E30” iteration, the M3’s mythic status derives partly from its almost ordinary looks. No scissor doors, no unnecessary bling. The most striking aspect of the fourth-generation version is the front fascia, with an open- mouth expression that appears primed to eat road. Also take notice of the very sci-fi-looking carbon-fiber roof, used to save weight. The rest of the body is more voluptuous, less aggressive.

The interior of my test car, a coupe, is beautifully fitted together, with metal details and black leather — though the 3 Series’s plastic dash is still there too. The steering wheel is thick, almost formal, encouraging you to keep hold of it with both hands and take it seriously. Outside, I don’t like the too- small side mirrors. Sleek and aerodynamic they may be, yet they serve their function poorly.

Scary-Sounding No More

The last M3, available from 2001 to 2006, had a 3.2-liter, six-cylinder engine that elicited a scary, high-pitched scream when revved. I adored it. Start this new car up and notice the throb-like hum, more subdued than an American-style V-8 burble. A bit disappointing. Yet it has a phenomenal range of torque, and whatever gear you’re in, there’s a big chunk of power on tap.

The clutch on the older version could be tight and cranky, a headache in traffic. The new clutch is much easier to modulate, and the six-speed manual almost too easy — I find myself losing track of the gears. The suspension is also more forgiving on rough asphalt. This really could be a daily driver.

On back-country roads, it’s as capable and fun as you’d expect — you’re not likely to test the outer limits on a Sunday drive. Yet BMW promises more from an M3 — that fantasy factor. What could you wring out of it, given the chance?

I get my chance on 10 laps around Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, near Monterey, California. The track offers a lot of elevation changes and one very nasty corkscrew. Testing a car on the track means you can really play with its handling and balance, exploring the edge without worrying about oncoming traffic.

Sport-Tuned Suspension

My lesson? The sport-tuned suspension is a wonder. The M3 handles abrupt directional changes easily, almost intuitively. I’ve never driven Laguna Seca before, and at first my lines around the corners are sloppy. No worries, goose the gas a bit and the back end slides out just so, allowing me to sneak around. Predictable and not scary at all. Once I get my groove (on the next-to-last lap, sadly), I’m going for the gusto.

The M3 coupe starts at $56,500; not cheap yet attainable. As is often the case, it’s the add-ons that get you. My test car has both premium and technology packages, 19-inch wheels and other bits that take it up to a hefty $67,250.

I loved the previous-generation M3. To my mind it was a little better looking, a bit more attitudinal. Of course, I didn’t have to drive it every day. The new M3 just might be the ideal blend for both the fantasy racecar-driving you and the one who has to run errands.

The 2008 BMW M3 Coupe at a Glance

Engine: 4-liter V-8 with 414 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city; 20 highway.

Price as tested: $67,250.

Best features: Versatile, powerful engine; subtle yet strong exterior.

Worst features: Lousy side mirrors, heavier than previous M3.

Target buyer: The motorist who wants maximum performance and minimum of sports-car hassle.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)