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BEHIND THE WHEEL

BMW's M3 Leaves the Rest in the Dust

July 22, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most automobile upgrades are a tickle and a tightening that improve middling performance to slightly better than normal. Or usually to what the vehicle should have been in the first place.

With BMW's 1995 M3, the conversion is alchemy; an enormous transformation elevating an excellent car into a superb sports coupe with performance once thought to belong only to exotic two-seaters.

Be warned. Dispassionate prose will never surround this well-fed, exhilarating, sophisticated subspecies that went into BMW's mechanical make-over room as a showroom stock 325i.

It emerged as an enthusiast's fancy that would make Faust out of a preacher. Here is a five-seat, rear-drive gazelle in a tiger suit that exhausts most adjectives, superlatives, hyperbole, grandiloquence and all action hero exclamations.

That's before you've driven it.

OK, so there isn't a cup holder.

Its competition seats may be a squeeze for those broad of kidneys.

Some body colors--including a lemon chrome that in people usage would be good for 30 days in quarantine--will definitely intrigue those fun guys who wear gold helmets and ride motorcycles in short-sleeved shirts.

But you'll have to poke hard and deep and reeeallly like Buicks to find anything else worth dissing on the M3.

It was 1988 when BMW decided to work its Motorsport division on weekends and stuff Formula 1 technology into its street cars. Hence the M3 with a tweaked four-cylinder engine that never quite delivered the fury its sound promised. An unyielding suspension also posed an enormous threat to loose dentures.

But a cult formed faster than lines at traffic court. Performance tuning was expanded to Bimmer's more expensive coupes. And the discreet magenta-purple-and-blue striping of M-car badging and upholstery--even stitching on the leather steering wheel--was adopted as overt colors of the rascal enthusiast.

Now, with most of BMW's 3-Series powered by a 2.5-liter, six-cylinder engine, comes a faster, far more serious, much more exciting second generation M3. It's also more car at its 1991 price of $35,800. Would that the cost of ground round remained as stable.

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It would be a mistake, however, to measure the appeal of this five-seat sports car by its smoking clutch and trail of digits-per-mile. Actually, the M3's electronically limited top speed of 137 m.p.h. is slower than an Acura Legend LS or a Toyota Supra.

But it's the getting there. . . .

The joy is in maneuvering a machine engineered for our choking freeways and over-policed interstates, not the freer pace of motoring across Europe where 160 m.p.h is legal in some parts and the Jungrau becomes a blur.

So the 325 engine has been bored and stroked to 3.0 liters, which provides an impressive 240 horsepower--but with its pulling power concentrated in the low to mid ranges. That translates to a 0-60 m.p.h. time of 6 seconds. Or a freeway entrance time quicker than a V-8 powered Ford Mustang.

It's the handling. . . .

A system of electronic valve timing--similar to the process that adds so much muscle to Honda's relatively small engines--optimizes power in the upper range of engine effort. So passing at freeway and highway speeds becomes a quick, safe, split-second blast through the clutter of those who never move over. Then you can be gone at a really humiliating rate.

It's the stopping. . . .

The M3's brakes are 12-inch ventilated discs front and rear--one-inch larger than the BMW 325--and adapted from BMW's 5-series of heavier, faster cars. They certainly are good for long, hard, hot, downhill, fade-free braking while having fun and games on Angeles Crest Highway.

It's also the platform. . . .

The suspension has been lowered by one inch, which allows the car to corner flat and firm. Springs and anti-roll bars have been stiffened so that whatever information chassis components are gleaning from the road and wheels is loyally translated to the seat of a driver's pants. Or skirt.

And with low-profile tires set flat on 17-inch wheels peculiar to the M3, this is a vehicle sliding nowhere until pushed within a whisper of its limits. Which, we must add, are many measures beyond the limits of even intermediate drivers.

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This is a very organic car, which has nothing to do with growing tomatoes in the wheel wells. It has everything to do with systematically interrelated parts--brakes, steering, chassis, suspension and engine--built to perform together.

Unlike other vehicles, the M3 is not assembled with fingers crossed in the hope that only a minority of its parts turn out to be strangers. All pieces form the concert. That way, the whole is elevated from user friendly to driver loyal.

There will be no mistaking an M3 at rest or on the run. Its front wears a deep apron with a mesh-covered intake for engine breathing and flanking nostrils for cooling the front brakes. The rocker panels are aerodynamic, channeled and notched.

All this, again, smacks of most uncivilized behavior and raw handling. But it certainly isn't the final manner of the M3.

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