At least it was white. Not molten magma red or sunburst metallic yellow. All beautiful colors, yes -- but when you're driving BMW's 333-hp M3 high-performance sport coupe, it's much wiser to limit the attention you call to yourself.
Because, let's face it, there's just no way you can own a hellion like this and not use it as its designers intended. How ludicrous to plod along in a minivan-led left lane conga line at a cruise-controlled 55-mph. One sharp tap on the gas pedal, and it's all behind you -- though if you're not careful, the next thing you'll find behind you is Johnny Law and his pad full of payin' paper.
That is the only negative any lover of superlative machinery can level at the 2002 M3. Other than its potential to get you into trouble with your insurance company and the law, it is arguably the perfect high-class, high-performance sport coupe. The Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG -- similar in concept and cachet -- costs far more ($54,900 vs. $45,900 for the M3 coupe), only seats two and is automatic-only. BMW not only equips the M3 with a six-speed manual gearbox, you can order an absolutely state-of-the-art "sequential manual" (SMG) version of this same tranny for $2,400 extra that shifts for itself. No other super coupe in the under six-figure class offers this technology. (Toyota's MR2 offers something similar, but much less sophisticated; only Ferrari comes close -- but the cost differential makes comparisons meaningless.)
The SMG does not eliminate the clutch but it does eliminate the third pedal. The computer handles engaging and disengaging the clutch, and does so far faster (just .08 seconds, according to BMW) and much more smoothly than most human drivers could. There's no need to declutch and move into neutral when rolling to a stop; the computer and electro-hydraulic actuators handle that for you. Punch it, and the system feathers the engagement into first, and you leave the line in a proper haze of sizzling tire smoke.
But what makes the BMW SMG unit so neat is that the driver has full manual control over the up and downshifts -- no computer overrides or forced upshifts -- and can adjust the quality and speed of the gear changes and clutch actuation (from soft and pleasant to hard-core race-style firmness) simply by selecting, via the touch of a button, from one of six available DriveLogic programs.
Turn off the traction control (DSC) system for the most aggressive acceleration in DriveLogic program number six and you'll get tire-barking, slam-you-in-the-seat upshifts that'd do Ralf Schumacher proud.
And get this: There's even a fully automatic function for those days (and traffic conditions) where you'd rather just leave the gear changes to the computer. In other words, this true manual six-speed gearbox can be set to operate like a conventional automatic -- but without the parasitic power loss (and also loss of driver control) that comes with an automatic and its torque converter. The automatic mode also has five different DriveLogic settings -- ranging from sedate and smooth, with second-gear starts -- to high-rpm, very firm gear changes when it's time to make some fast moves. It even handles downshifting for you during passing maneuvers and will hold the transmission in a lower gear during hard cornering.
To operate the SMG, you select either the full manual "s" mode or fully automatic "a" mode -- then tap the console mounted button to tailor the shift quality from mild to wild. If you're in manual mode, just pull back on the shifter handle to move up through the six forward gears -- or use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, marked "+" for upshifts, "-" for downshifts. The tachometer even has a lighted scale that blips at the appropriate engine speed to let you know it's the best time to upshift for maximum performance; the same progressive series of illuminated indicators also serves as an engine speed warning during warm-up. The lights gradually go out as the engine comes up to full operating temperature, letting you know it's now okay to rev the thing to redline.
How fast is she? Zero to 60 can be dispatched in a scalding 4.8 seconds. Third gear alone will get you past 100 mph -- and you're not even starting to stretch your legs yet. The M3's much-breathed-on 3.2 liter DOHC straight six now spins to 8000 rpm before you get into the red -- comparable, incidentally, to my KZ900 sport bike. There is so much torque at almost any engine speed, though, you'd swear on a stack of connecting rods it was a lunking V-8 under the hood. Ninety-miles per hour is just right -- though 120 still feels as smooth and relaxed as 20-year- old scotch. Only the ever-present fear of being caught keeps you in check.
See why white is good?
Footnote: The M3 is also offered as a convertible, but the added weight really slows the car down -- to about 5.4 seconds to 60 mph. That's still more than fast enough to whup a stock Mustang GT and even keep non-Z06 Corvettes in their place. But getting under the 5-second range is what separates the hair-raising fast from the merely fast. The M3 coupe is hair-raising fast. And from the enthusiast driver's viewpoint, ripping up the pavement is of far more importance than feeling the summer breeze as you coast on down the road. Besides, you can always order a sunroof in the M3 coupe and not lose almost a full second to 60 mph.
The convertible version of the M3 is also pricey at $53,900 -- making it almost a dead heat, at least in terms of cost, with the 349-hp supercharged Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG ($54,900). And remember that you'll lose the peformance advantage the M3 coupe has over the Benz -- as the heavier convertible version of the M3 is slower than the SLK32 AMG (about 5 seconds flat to 60 mph). For your performance dollar, the M3 coupe seems a much better choice. It's quicker and cheaper than the Benz -- and you get to shift your own gears, too. Plus, there's that cool SMG gearbox, which you can buy and still be way ahead of the game money-wise.
As far as other fast two-doors go, the Porsche Boxster S has comparable cachet at a similar price ($51,600) but you only get 250 hp to play with.
Chevy's Corvette, most notably the ferocious 405-hp Z06 version, is about the only similarly-priced performance coupe that can easily outrun the M3 in a straight line (an absolutely searing 4-seconds to 60-mph) but it's still a Chevy, after all --and simply can't manage the upmarket cachet of the BMW.
As it has in the past, the M3 stands alone as one of the very finest examples of extreme performance in an upmarket-branded car you can buy. If you insist on ordering it in red, make sure you have an understanding insurance agent.
2002 BMW M3 SMG
Base price: $45,900
Engine: 3.2-liter in-line six, 333 hp
Drivetrain:Six-speed manual or six-speed sequential manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 176.8 x 70.1 x 54.0
Wheelbase: 100.0 in
Curb weight: 3415 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 16/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking, four-wheel traction control, stability control
Major standard equipment: Cruise control; 10-speaker premium audio with CD player, limited slip differential, unique Motorsports trim and 18-inch wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles