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Click to view road test review picture gallery“For many sporting
  car aficionados the
  last generation M3 was
  the performance car
  to aspire to. Now, BMW
  have replaced its
  peerless 360bhp six-
  cylinder engine with
  a 420bhp V8.
  Chris Rees has driven
  the new M3 — the most
  powerful road-going
  M3 ever...”

HOW DO YOU GO 'ONE BETTER' when the car you're replacing is one of the all-time great performance icons? Let's be in no doubt about one thing here:
the E46 BMW M3, produced until last year, was one of the performance greats — especially in lightweight CSL form.

But one better BMW have managed to go. With the new, fourth- generation E92 M3 Coupé. And, very bravely, BMW has decided to ditch one of the world's finest six-cylinder engines in favour of — for the first time ever in an M3 — a V8. Whether that's a riposte to
Audi's brilliant V8-powered RS4 (perhaps the first Audi genuinely to challenge BMW's might in this niche) is a moot point. Whatever —
it's a phenomenal engine.

BMW's V8 is a 4.0-litre unit pumping out 420bhp. That's a very sig-nificant 60bhp more than the most powerful 'last-shape' M3. More than anything, it's the torque that makes this engine stand out. While you had to rev the old M3's 'six' to within an inch of its valve-life to get
the best out of it, the V8 has such a huge spread of torque — 85 per cent of maximum torque (295lb ft), spread evenly over 85 per cent of the rev range — that it's ready to tug like a stump-puller wherever
you are in the rev band. It will pick up from 2,500rpm with an instan-taneous kick and just keep on going.

It also sounds unlike any other V8 engine. That's partly down to just how high it can rev: it will pull 8,400rpm comfortably, at which point it's screaming away like a Formula 1 car. That's perhaps no surprise,
as the all-alloy engine is cast in the same Landshut factory as BMW Sauber's Formula 1 engine. Its note is very much like the M5's V10 unit: fabulous, guttural, hard-edged and truly thrilling.

The M3's speedometer is calibrated to 200mph and my rough calculation shows that its theoretical top speed is pretty close to that ceiling. BMW, however, has limited the top speed to 155mph. Acceleration through the gears is, predictably, phenomenal.

Speaking of the gears, the M3 — unlike the M5, which only has a sequential-manual gearbox — sticks with a pure manual. Is that a good thing? Well, the six-speeder certainly has well-chosen ratios and
a good, clean action although the lever could do with a shorter throw. That said, I'm actually a fan of BMW's SMG sequential shift gearbox
(as were most old-shape M3 buyers: 70 per cent of them bought the SMG version). The manual transmission also suffers from some drive-line shunt, which can make things a little uncomfortable unless you're super-smooth with your gearchanges. This, though, is the single most serious flaw I could identify with the new M3.

There's a little button on the steering wheel — innocuously marked 'M' — that can totally transform the driving experience.

Without the 'M' button pressed, the M3 works in its softest set of parameters — albeit parameters that allow it to be a ferocious per-former. But it's actually very easy to drive. I'd be perfectly happy
to hand the keys to an inexperienced driver and feel confident that they could drive it.

There's really quite a decent ride, too; the throttle is not too sharp and the steering has a chunky feel. Press the 'M' button and Dr Jekyll becomes a very intimidating — hairy — Mr Hyde! Exactly what happens when you press the button is kind of up to you. You can select dif-ferent parameters — throttle response, steering assistance, the amount of help that the DSC traction control gives you — and tweak them to your own tastes. In consequence, the M3 can be any one of
a number of different machines.

I particularly like the fact that you can select a 'halfway house' 'MDynamic Mode' setting on the DSC that allows some wheel slip before the traction control kicks in: in other words, you can hang the tail out on roundabouts without the rear end ever feeling like it's going to bite you. The exceptionally fine handling is helped by the M3's variable differential, which uses a torque-sensing diff-lock to channel power to the rear wheel with the most traction. Extremely handy when there's some dampness on the road.

The steering is surprisingly heavy. And that's a real change compared to the previous M3. Again this is something that's adjustable through the 'M' button and it's possible to get your ideal set-up for individual conditions. There's little to criticise here, although the helm gives the impression that the front-end feels somewhat heavier than the old car (for the record, the V8 engine is some 15kg lighter than the straight-six).

The optional 19-inch alloys of my test car (18-inchers are standard) do produce a lot of road noise but their ultra-low profile rubber (245/40 front and 265/40 rear) is ultra-grippy and the bigger wheels don't seem to affect the ride quality too much, as is often the case.

You can order optional EDC (Electronic Damping Control) at a cost of £1,295. Seems reasonable... Either by pressing the 'M' button, or a separate EDC button on the console, you then have the option of setting the Electronic Damping Control to one of three settings. The ride becomes quite jarring on the hardest setting, but there's no deny-ing how much more alive the chassis feels with the suspension set to 'board-stiff'. I suspect that most drivers will use the normal setting for town driving, then slip straight into the most extreme setting for the twisty stuff, ignoring the mid-way setting as a compromise — the same comment, in fact, applies to all the 'M' button parameters.

On the twisty Pau Arnos circuit in the south of France, where BMW left us to play, the M3 emerges as a very useful track car. You need to have the traction control turned off — or at least in M-mode — to get the real feel of the chassis. And it's a peach. Yes, its suspension is less hard-edged than the old M3. But interestingly, the E92 is at its quick-est on this tight and tortuous track when the adjustable damping is on one of its softer settings.

Let's now turn to how the E92 looks. Slightly larger than the old E46, it's very obviously an M3 but it has its own unique detailing. The mir-rors, quad exhaust pipes and side grilles look superbly evocative but the biggest change is the aluminium bonnet. To clear the new engine, the M3 has a bonnet bulge — or, in BMW parlance, a 'power dome', which sounds like a cross between 1950s Americana and Mad Max.

Inside, the cabin is pretty much 3 Series Coupé but with deeply con-toured sports seats and lots of 'M' detailing. As ever, the M3's passport to being an all-rounder is its generous cabin space and huge 400-litre boot.

Climate change has even got to BMW's M division, it seems, and BMW is keen to present the new M3 as a 'green' machine. Actually, that's not too paradoxical. The M3 may only do 22.8mpg on the combined cycle, but that's eight per cent more fuel-efficient than the outgoing model.

The improvement is down partly to lightweight materials — for in-stance, the roof is made of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, like the old M3 CSL. The better fuel consumption is also partly down to BMW's clever Brake Energy Regeneration technology. Less welcome is an annoying gear indicator in the speedo that tries to tell you when to change up and down gears to maximise fuel economy.

At the French launch, BMW had bravely brought along an E46 M3 CSL for us to drive back-to-back. Brave, because the CSL remains one of the best driver's cars ever made. With its ultra-lightweight spec, near-race suspension, razor-nervous throttle and sequential gearbox, it feels very much the raw, focused projectile. Its six-cylinder engine wails like nothing else and its 360bhp feels every bit as quick as the new M3's.

But is it a better car? Not in the round — No. The latest E92 M3 has its own individual strengths: it's much easier to drive and live with, it's far more practical — and, crucially — it has those vast reserves of torque, which make it a far less frantic steer.

In a way, the CSL was there to hint at how the new M3 may evolve. Surely there will be a lightweight version at some point and, as for an alternative gearbox, BMW hints that it has several irons in the develop-mental fire, whether it be an SMG sequential 'box, a DSG-style device or perhaps something more radical. For now, you can order your new E92 M3 from 8 September at a cost of £50,625. And we wouldn't blame you if you had to sell your soul to raise the money — Yes, the M3 is that good. — Chris Rees

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BMW M3 Coupe | £50,625
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 22.8mpg | Power: 420bhp | Torque: 295lb ft

CO2 295g/km | VED Band G £300 | Insurance group 20
Visit BMW's website Click to go there now

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