Sleek, speedy, and still six-y.

by Dan Carney

“Character counts.” It’s been a slogan in recent political campaigns, but it is just as applicable to cars. At a time when too many legendary performance cars are becoming so perfect that they are losing their souls, the M3 convertible provides welcome relief. BMW’s own fabulous M5 suffers from the perfection conundrum, as does the water-cooled Porsche 911. They are both so smooth and effortlessly fast that they can be unsatisfying to drive.

BMW made the right decision when it chose to keep the M3 a six-cylinder car, rather than stuffing a V-8 into it, because the company’s heritage is in-line sixes. The six-cylinder engine not only gives the M3 a unique sound, rather than being another me-too V-8, the effort of producing 333 horsepower from a 3.2-liter six is evident. Yes the engine is strong, and yes it sounds good, but just as importantly, it conveys the impression of effort. This engine works for a living, not like the loafing V-8s that never break a sweat.

The mechanical clatter under the hood recalls a Ducati V-twin superbike, another machine that sounds like it is straining to equal (or top) its multi-cylinder competitors. Air-cooled Porsches enjoyed the same quality. The note from the M3’s dual exhaust even recalls the 911 a bit in its tone at lower revs. At higher engine speeds, the exhaust takes on the sound of a shop vac, so an aftermarket muffler would probably be a nice change.

The M3’s engine and six-speed gearbox provide a texture that engages the driver, emphasizing the activity of driving. The lack of involvement in so many new cars is probably a contributor to the plague of cell phone use while driving – “I’m not doing anything now, I might as well talk on the phone.” The M3’s driver will never feel like he or she isn’t doing anything.

Analogy time

To use the motorcycle analogy again, BMW’s bike division strayed from its heritage of horizontally-opposed “boxer” twins and fell on hard times trying to sell in-line-engined bikes like the ones other companies sold. Upon returning to its roots, the company enjoyed a renaissance. Lets hope BMW’s car side doesn’t stray too far from its in-line six-cylinder heritage. The need for that seems unnecessary when we observe the prodigious amount of power available from the M3’s 3.2-liter unit. Surely, bigger six-cylinder engines are possible for even more power, if it is needed.

The six-speed shifter and clutch feels sturdy and positive, but lacks the precision and light touch of less powerful BMWs. It may be that the heavy-duty components needed to withstand the M3’s power output aren’t conducive to the silky feel more typical of BMW products. Sadly, the result is a gearbox that does not beg the driver to find excuses to shift, as is usually the case with BMWs. That isn’t to say that the shifter or clutch are defective in any way, they just suffer by comparison.

The differential merits a mention because the “M Variable Differential Lock” puts the power to the ground with amazing efficiency. Hard launches invoke just the slightest amount of wheelspin to keep revs up, without toasting the tires. Maybe it is secretly the launch control system from the Williams-F1 race cars.

The small-diameter, fat-rimmed steering wheel, in contrast, is nearly perfect for sporty driving, and it looks racy to boot. The no-nonsense instrument panel conveys the necessary information in clearly arrayed analog gauges, with only a small information panel as a bow to the requisite techno-gimickry.

The dash lights were a disappointment, however. At the very dimmest setting, the instrument lights were just about right, though a little dimmer might have been better. For some reason, the lights don’t dim all the way down. Also, the instruments aren’t backlit, which provides better clarity with even less light. The instruments themselves are a bit dated in their styling. Some cars have equally simple-looking analog gauges that employ electroluminescent needles and backlit markings for exceptional nighttime clarity.

Clarity of purpose

The Harmon-Kardon stereo produces the kind of sound one would expect from the brand, and it provides the bonus of exceptional radio reception. To lower the convertible top the driver need only press and hold the button below the radio. There is no releasing of latches, unzipping of back windows or snapping of tonneau covers. One button releases and lowers the top and hides it under a rigid cover that is finished to look like a traditional soft boot cover. Another button reverses the process.

The glass rear window will never yellow, and its embedded defroster will help clear frost in the winter. Such features might seem obvious on a $57,000 car, but their necessity has escaped Porsche so far. The top itself is thickly lined and luxurious. As other cars move toward heavier folding hard tops, the BMW’s soft top may be the best of the remaining soft tops on the market.

The M3 convertible features the styling cues of the standard M3; bulging fenders and a power dome in the incredibly light aluminum hood, but adds a bit of swoop to the rear fenders that lends the car a low, taut appearance that should appeal to BMW fans.

A less-visible aspect that could be considered styling is the appearance of the M3’s incredible engine. The company doesn’t hide the engine under a silly plastic “beauty” cover, so enthusiasts can enjoy its industrial beauty. The six fuel injection throttle-bodies look like nothing so much as a row of old side-draft Stromberg carburetors. Most new cars, even sporty ones, simply have nothing interesting to see underhood. This is emphatically not the case with the M3. Only the replacement of the intake plenum with six individual air filters would improve the view, though it would probably cost horsepower.

The new 3-Series is clearly derived from the popular family line, and the latest, hottest model, the M3 convertible is plainly a branch in that family tree. This is a good news, bad news situation, because it looks so similar to older models that the car turned no heads on the street, aside from those of young aspiring BMW owners in slammed Civics, who waved and pointed. In a bit of cross-pollination, the clear turn signal lenses and side marker lights pioneered by Generation Y Honda pilots appear on the M3.

Compared to the zoomy Lexus SC430 and the sexy Jaguar XK8 convertibles, the BMW attracts much less notice. But at $57,220 as tested, the M3 is significantly less expensive than those cars, which cost about $80,000. It also enjoys vastly superior performance and handling, and has a back seat that can actually carry adult humans. The Lexus and the Jag aren’t even suitable for carrying children in their back seats. They might be better for instigating their creation though, because women swooned for those cars and steadfastly ignored the Bimmer with its surprisingly roomy back seat. Another likely competitor will be the Mercedes CLK55 convertible, which goes on sale this fall, and will cost about the same as the Lexus and the Jaguar.

 

2001 BMW M3 Convertible

Base Price: $54,045; as tested, $57,220
Engine: 3.2-liter in-line six, 333 hp
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 107.5 in
Length: 176.8 in
Width: 70.1 in
Height: 53.7 in
Weight: 3781 lb
Fuel economy: 16 city/ 23 hwy
Standard safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, Dynamic Stability Control system, dual front and side airbags
Major standard equipment: air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, leather trim, M Variable Differential Lock, 18-inch alloy wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection

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