Test Drive: 2010 BMW M3 sedan

Potent 3-Series sedan stands ready for demanding road trips, with performance to spare and delightful handling talents

by James M. Flammang

2010 BMW M3

Performance has long been a hallmark of BMW motorcars in general, and "M" models in particular. Special products that hail from the BMW GmbH facility deliver an extra dose of power and control, aiming to satisfy the driving enthusiast. Other European sport-luxury automakers have similar high-performance divisions, including AMG for Mercedes-Benz models and "S" editions from Audi.

"M" editions of BMW's compact 3-Series and midsize 5-Series are available, dubbed M3 and M5, respectively. Introduced in its current form in 2008, the four-door M3 joined a line of M3 models in other body styles, dating back to 1986 (1988 in the U.S. market). The first M3 sedan debuted in 1997. Since 2002, M3 models have been offered with BMW's Sequential Manual Gearbox as an alternative to the conventional six-speed manual transmission. Today's editions have an optional M Double Clutch Transmission that incorporates Drivelogic operation. The close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox works with a twin-disc clutch.

Shared with the M3 coupe is BMW's "high-revving" 4.0-liter V-8 engine, generating 414 horsepower at a swift 8300 rpm, and 295 pound-feet of torque at 3900 rpm. That makes this generation the most powerful four-door M3 ever. BMW engineers have worked continuously to refine the M powertrains, to extract the highest levels of performance. Thus, the V-8 is loaded with modern technology.

Revisions for 2010 are modest, including newly standard HD radio and newly availble automatic high-beam headlights. BMW promotes the M3's "balanced chassis, designed to be 'faster than its engine." Driver-adjustable settings are available for steering, damping, and stability. Many comfort/convenience functions make use of BMW's iDrive controller, which is markedly easier to use than early version of that setup.

Loaded with exuberant energy, ready for the taking, BMW's M3 sedan qualifies as a superior road car in most respects. Even better, the M3 delivers serious expert handling skills to accompany that stunning level of performance.

As usual, BMW's manual gearbox is especially easy and inviting to use. Coupled with such helpful clutch action, it's not as likely to get tiresome in commuter driving as some manual-shift models.

Noisier than the norm, at least when idling or accelerating, the M3 quiets down somewhat at cruising speeds to become a rather refined tourer.

Front seats are serious indeed: firm and rather snugly bolstered, but comfortable enough for long-distance travel. Head, elbow, and leg room are okay, but hardly excessive for what appears from the outside to be a relatively sizable midsize sedan. Gauges are familiar to BMW fans, and just right for this sort of vehicle. BMW's iDrive control system is almost intelligible - far easier to use than early versions of the system. Not all buttons are logically marked, however. Simply trying to tune the radio can turn into an ordeal.

The back seat is not inviting, even at the side positions. Space is adequate,including toe room. But the seats are excessively firm and don't feel comfortable at all. The center seating position is so hard as to be out of the question for any reasonable rider, worsened by the tall tunnel that one would have to straddle.

Visibility is satisfactory all around. The trunk is deep, but narrowed at the sides.

Sticker price for the M3 sedan is $56,275 (including destination charge).

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang