August 04 2010   Story: Bryan Joslin

When it comes to BMW’s M cars, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that the “M” stands for “motorsport” and not “money.” They suffer from the same paradox that afflicts most other pure driving machines that are expensive by nature of their advanced materials and sophisticated hardware — the guys who know how to drive them often can’t afford them, and the insufferable pricks who can easily drop coin on them typically equally can’t drive them. But the mad men of Garching, the suburb of Munich where BMW’s M division is headquartered, don’t sit around dreaming up new ways to design trophies for trust-fund kids and rock stars; they still build serious machines for serious drivers. If you need proof, look no further than the 2010 M3 coupe with the optional Competition Package.

Nothing new can be said about the current M3 that hasn’t already been put into words. In case you’ve been asleep for the last three years, here’s the summary. The 416-horsepower naturally-aspirated V8 wears its motorsport heritage on its sleeve, sounding like a ferocious racecar engine winding out to a ridiculously high 8400-rpm redline. It’s not the torquiest mill, but it loves to ride the full length of the powerband. The six-speed manual that comes standard is a so-so ‘box, nothing special but nothing wrong. The optional seven-speed, self-shifting dual-clutch transmission (M-DCT) is better on paper, but less satisfying for real drivers. The chassis, like all BMWs, is brilliantly balanced. The brakes, while underwhelming in spec, actually work quite well for the street, though they could use a bit more serious hardware for genuine track duty. Styling, both inside and out, is so mildly different from a standard 3-series that it won’t cause a ruckus at the valet stand. Sure, there’s the power bulge in the hood, vents on the front fenders, and those re-contoured and fully functional front and rear bumpers; but the sum total of all those cosmetic enhancements is still rather subdued. It’s physical appearance is best described as toned rather than buffed.

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Starting with that rather hearty foundation, the M3 coupe (as well as the M3 sedan, but not the convertible) can be enhanced for competitive driving missions — autocross, track day, performance driving school, etc. — by ticking the option box labeled ZCP. For the $2500 it costs to check that option, you end up with a 10-mm-lower suspension, 19-inch cross-spoke alloy wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sport II performance rubber, enhanced stability control programming, and electronically controlled dampers. In other words, the perfect setup for serious driving.

The example we drove was pretty close to being the prefect driver’s car. As far as M3s go, it was fairly lightly laden with luxury options. No sunroof, leaving the carbon fiber roof panel intact and keeping thirty extra pounds out of the highest point in the car. No wood trim, no premium package, not even full leather seating. The two concessions to the gods of options were a technology package (keyless access, sat-nav, and “M Drive” programmable drivetrain parameters) and the seven-speed M-DCT gearbox. The heated seats and iPod adapter aren’t really so much options as they are modern necessities that cost extra to obtain. All told, our car tallied up at $69,925 with Gas Guzzler tax ($1300) and destination ($875).

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We have to admit that there’s something very pure about the part-cloth/part-leather sport seats that come standard in the M3 coupe and sedan. Not only do they grip clothing quite a bit better than a full hide, they also infer that not every M3 is a slave to fashion. Cheers to BMW for keeping it real. The titanium-look shadow trim that adorned the dash and door panels is similarly austere and purposeful, allowing the driver to focus on the job at hand.

Our feelings are split on the M-DCT. On the one hand, we’re actually diffiedent fans of dual-clutch gearboxes in general, and the M-DCT is a far better solution for everyday driving than BMW’s old self-shifting manual, the SMG. Compared to the six-speed manual, the dual-clutch shifter is actually quicker, getting to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, a healthy two-tenths fewer than the full manual. And there’s no penalty in fuel economy either, thanks in part to the extra gear. The gearbox can still be shifted manually, bumping either the stubby knob on the center console or the individual up and down paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. Yes, it rev-matches perfectly on every downshift, and no, it won’t allow you to over-rev if you accidentally botch a shift. But it also seems a little reluctant to accept inputs that, while aggressive, should still be safe for the engine and transmission to digest. It just feels a bit fragile and self-preserving, not as savage and ready-to-attack as we would prefer under the most demanding conditions. Still, on the daily commute, it was nice to simply throw it in drive and not have to deal with awkward, jerky shifting a la SMG. We think we’d save our $2900 for replacement tires, which inevitably becomes a factor when owning an M3.

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Our only regret is that we didn’t actually have a chance to take this M3 to the track while it visited. Past experiences tells us we could have spent an entire day discovering the nuances of the various powertrain and chassis combinations while exploring the limits of the Michelins’ adhesion. The Competition Package demands track time, and it could care less about the trophy collectors, unless they were won on the tarmac.