Pros: Thrilling V8 power; sounds like a German Ferrari; better-than-you handling; comfortable ride; excellent high-speed cruiser
Cons: No sedan for 2012; this is probably the current M3's last year of production
Think of the 2012 BMW M3 as a greatest-hits compilation from BMW's past and present. Like every M car before it, the M3 is powered by a high-revving normally aspirated engine designed expressly to put grins on drivers' faces. Its standard transmission is a six-speed manual-the purist's preference. Its hydraulic power steering system is blissfully free of electric assistance, and the base model doesn't even come with iDrive. First and foremost, the M3 is a focused tool for drivers.
Unlike the more elemental M cars of yesteryear, however, this one is also a bona fide grand tourer. You can load it up with all of BMW's latest technology if you want, including a dual-clutch automated manual transmission and, yes, a wide-screen iDrive display with features galore. Cruising down the highway, the quiet, supple M3 does a convincing impression of a luxury coupe. It's a fully modernized BMW with the soul of a sports car.
But here's the thing-the current M3 is actually the last of its breed. All of the other M cars now are turbocharged, and the next M3 will be, too, not to mention packed to the gills with high-tech knickknacks. M cars will continue to be insanely fast and capable, but there will be no more purpose-built engines with 8,000-rpm redlines, no more single-minded focus on driving excellence. Like the best greatest-hits compilations, the 2012 BMW M3 is a treasure, but it leaves us worried that the music's never going to be quite this good again.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 BMW M3 is available as a coupe or a hardtop convertible; the sedan model is no longer available due to the debut this year of the next-generation 2012 3 Series sedan. Standard features include 18-inch alloy wheels with staggered-width tires, a limited-slip differential, a carbon fiber roof for the coupe (which reverts to steel with the no-cost-option sunroof), xenon headlamps, cloth and leather upholstery, manual sport seats with power-adjustable side bolsters, dual-zone automatic climate control and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. If you want to keep things simple, you can stop right there. In case you don't, BMW offers a raft of options, including 19-inch wheels, a lowered suspension, electronically adjustable dampers, keyless entry, extended leather upholstery, heated seats with full power adjustments, iDrive and a 16-speaker, 825-watt sound system.
We'd like to take the M3's standard seats with us in every car we drive. They're supportive in all the right places and power adjustable only where they need to be: at the side bolsters, so you can dial in just the right amount of lateral support for enthusiastic driving. The full power seats are exceptionally comfortable too. The M3's gauges are classic white on black during the day and orange on black at night, as in every BMW we can remember. Materials quality is superb. Our only quibble in the M3's cabin is that the optional iDrive screen adds an unsightly hump atop the dashboard (a problem that has been solved in the new 2012 3 Series sedan).
Rear passengers will find an agreeable amount of room in the coupe but somewhat less in the convertible. Even in the droptop, though, it's pretty remarkable that a car with this kind of performance potential can actually haul four adults around in some semblance of comfort. The coupe's trunk has a useful 11.1 cubic feet of space, while the convertible has an impressive 12.3 cubic feet with the top up but just 7.0 cubic feet with it down.
Speaking of the convertible, the standard power-operated hard top doesn't do the car's styling any favors, but the added security and all-weather versatility are reasonable compensation.
BMW has finally made iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity standard on every 3 Series model for 2012, and that includes the M3. But the technological heart of this car-if you choose to pay extra for it, that is-is the iDrive system, which has improved enormously from its early days. Remember when everyone loved to criticize it for not having enough buttons? BMW learned from that experience. The screen is wide and crisp-one of the best on the market-and the simplified interface employs a number of physical buttons alongside the console-mounted knob for direct access to common pathways. Furthermore, iDrive is now hard drive based, so processing speeds are much higher, and you can store 8 GB of music.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The rear-wheel-drive M3 is powered by a 4.0-liter V8 rated at 414 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The default transmission is a six-speed manual. This engine and transmission tandem is among the most satisfying at any price; the slick manual shifter and the screaming 8,400-rpm redline are a perfect match. If you don't want to work a clutch in traffic, there's also a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual, which works almost flawlessly and serves up racy rev-matched downshifts.
Fuel economy is 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway except for the six-speed convertible, which rates 13/20 mpg.
The 2012 BMW M3 comes with standard stability control and four-wheel ABS. The coupe has six airbags (front, front side, full-length side curtain). The convertible loses the side-curtain bags.
The government has not crash tested the 2012 3 Series, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2009-11 fixed-roof 3 Series-which lives on in the 2012 coupe and wagon-its highest rating of Good in all categories except roof strength, in which it garnered the second-highest Acceptable rating. The 3 Series convertible, however, received the second-lowest Marginal rating for side impacts, even though frontal offset protection was deemed Good. These ratings don't apply perfectly to the M3, which has unique body panels, but they are an indicator.
The M3 is the rare car that's so capable, it's a little frightening. If you've got a favorite back road with familiar curves, prepare to dispatch them with unprecedented ease. With its laser-precise steering, robust brakes, and seemingly endless grip, the M3 is unflappable. That makes the M3's civility during normal driving all the more remarkable. The convertible does exhibit some cowl shake over bumps, and it's generally a little less composed than its fixed-roof sibling, but unless you're a professional racing driver, that's splitting hairs. The M3 is more at home in a wider range of scenarios than perhaps any other car on the market.
Other Cars to Consider
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG: The baby AMG has never had the finesse of the M3, but you might find the intoxicating hand-built 6.2-liter V8 more than adequate compensation.
Nissan GT-R: Thanks to all-wheel drive and some serious computer wizardry, the nearly 4,000-pound GT-R handles like an exotic, and it's exceptionally user-friendly.
Porsche 911: The new "991" Porsche 911 comes closest to the M3 in raw athleticism, although it lacks the M3's everyday civility and true four-seat practicality.
We love the base M3 so much that we wouldn't change a thing; just give us the base coupe with the carbon fiber roof and the manual transmission. Well, all right, maybe we'd tack on that 825-watt sound system.