Competes with: Audi RS4 Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz AMG CLK 63 Cabriolet
Test Drive: 2008 BMW M3 Convertible
Full disclosure time: Along with many of my colleagues, I think that the previous-generation BMW M3 was just about the perfect car. For years, "an M3" was the default answer for automotive journalists when they were asked about their favorite car. It boasted a near-perfect balance of power, handling, roominess, sophistication and even practicality. Plus, the M3 coupe looked amazing then and now, and remains one of the best looking modern BMWs.
Improving a car with the word "perfect" anywhere near its description is a daunting task for any carmaker. BMW responded the best way they know how: by adding more. More power, more gears, more handling, more technology. Yet as we turned over the keys to the 2008 BMW M3 Convertible with which we just spent a week, we found ourselves more nostalgic than ever for its predecessor.
It's not that the new M3 isn't a good car. It's an astonishingly outstanding car, one capable of acceleration, braking, cornering and everything-elseing that the previous M3 couldn't match. But the heart palpitations we used to feel for the old car are gone. Maybe it's all the gadgetry we're forced to contend with, like adjustable dampers, multiple transmission settings and even a button to improve throttle response. Maybe it's the nearly 300 additional pounds the new car hauls around, or the astonishing $81,970 price tag on our test car. It could even be the V-8 itself, a technological marvel that revs to 8,400 rpm, but lacks the low-end torque we want.
At least part of it was due to the BMW 128i that we had in our offices at the same time, a car that eschews gadgetry for classic BMW virtues of driving pleasure. Here's the curious thing: By far, the M3 is the superior car, thanks to its power, handling and overall performance. However, we also thought that the little 128i was the better BMW.
The V-8 under the hood of the BMW M3 is only half of the powertrain story. The other half is the transmission to which it's connected. BMW fans have likely heard many, many complaints about the company's automated-manual transmission known as SMG. Starting today, we are forgiving BMW for that sin thanks to the company's new version, the DCT Drivelogic. DCT stands for dual clutch transmission, and Drivelogic is BMW's way of saying that it's driver-programmable.
The improvement over BMW's previous automated manual – the single-clutch sequential manual gearbox, or SMG – is dramatic. Around town, tap the shift lever into "D" and just let the M3 do its thing. Off-the-line acceleration feels a little sluggish at first, as if the transmission's computers are overcompensating with clutch slip to make sure it isn't jerky, but otherwise the technology works well. Put the DCT in the manual mode and you can select from any of the seven gears through either the shift lever itself or paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Again, the shifts are quick and precise, with the computer blipping the throttle on downshifts to smooth things out. You can also control how "hard" you want the shifts to be, either cruising-speed mushy or a racecar kick. We preferred keeping it in the softer settings when in Drive, but wanted the full effect when pushing the M3's limits. Curiously, the shift lever doesn't have a "Park" setting; the car automatically puts itself into gear when you shut it off.
The engine connected to this transmission is a dual-personality beast. It's a technological tour de force: 414 horsepower, an 8,400-rpm redline, eight individual throttle bodies feeding the hungry cylinders, and so on. However, it has a flaw: 295 lb.-ft. of torque. That's a lot on paper, but with more than 4,100 pounds of BMW to motivate, it feels downright sluggish at times. To really get the most from the engine, you have to wind it out and keep it in the highest rev range you can. Forget to downshift before a corner, and you'll find yourself thinking you'd trade some top end for more bottom.
Keep Your Top On
If the M3 coupe and sedan's handling is legendary, the convertible has always been something of a poseur. Unfortunately, this remains true today. Cut the top off a closed-roof vehicle and you lose a good chunk of structural rigidity. Despite BMW's best efforts at reinforcing the structure, the M3 convertible still suffers from shake and chassis flex over bumps. This compromises handling, so the car isn't as responsive as the "M" badge suggests. However, even a somewhat flexible M3 is still an incredibly capable and quick car around corners, so much so that exploring the outer limits of its capability on public roads is just plain stupid.
The ride is assisted by BMW's electronic damping control (EDC), which allows the driver to select between soft, medium and firm settings for the shocks. In the soft setting, the ride really is quite comfortable, considering this car's primary mission is handling. The steering is quick and precise, and if you put down the top, slip the car into "D" and just cruise along the beach, the car feels right at home. It would be even more at home if the speed limit along that beach is in the triple digits...call us if you find one.
Look At Me!
Like the rest of BMW's 3 Series line, the M3's styling has its detractors. For example, shoving the V-8 into the engine bay required a big bulge in the hood. While some of us liked the visual expression of power, others thought it looked tacky and out of place. The hardtop convertible mechanism is cool to watch and takes a reasonable 20 seconds to open and close, but it mars the rear quarter of the car, making the profile too long when the top's down, and the joint between the top and trunk clumsy when it's closed up. BMW has also fitted the exterior with the appropriate visual performance cues: wider fenders, big exhaust pipes, fat tires on monster wheels, and of course fender vents with "M" badges on them. Subtlety is nowhere to be found, especially in our test car's brilliant re