The V-8 M3 Proves BMW Peaked In The Late 2000s

By automotive-mag.com 12 Min Read

If your group of car friends is anything like the staff at Motor1, you’re probably familiar with the “BMW conversation,” an hours-long, heated discussion arguing over which BMWs are good and which BMWs are bad. These conversations usually end without resolution, only to start back up again as soon as someone in the group chat mentions something about a WBS-coded VIN. 

With so many legendary BMWs to choose from, it can be tough to pick a favorite from the fray. After driving two of the most legendary M3s ever, I think I’ve found mine. 

Enthusiasts were apprehensive about the M3 switching to V-8 power in 2007. The previous two generations, the E36 and E46 M3s, with their beautiful inline-sixes, proved to be two of the most balanced German performance coupes ever made. People worried adding two cylinders would add weight and turn what was once a balanced, expertly measured machine into a brute. 

The E92 M3 was set to compete directly with Audi’s RS4 sedan, which used a 4.2-liter naturally aspirated V-8 making 420 horsepower. And at the time, the M division didn’t believe in turbocharging. Back in 2007 the company told MotorTrend, “cylinders larger than 500cc are less than ideal, so it had no choice but to go to a V-8.”

BMW M3 Lime Rock Park Edition

And what a V-8 it was. Despite having less displacement than Audi’s eight-cylinder, the 4.0-liter S65 made nearly as much horsepower, rated at 414 ponies when new. The M3’s engine could also rev higher, slapping the limiter at a mind-boggling 8400 rpm—still the most revs of any road-going BMW engine ever. The block was made in the same foundry where BMW-Sauber created its Formula 1 power plants, and the finished engine weighed just 445 pounds—33 pounds fewer than the 3.2-liter inline-six that preceded it.

Any worries the V-8-powered M3 might not live up to the iconic nameplate’s reputation were squashed as soon as people got behind the wheel. 

“It’s a car you could drive every day, yet it’s capable of delivering a level of performance that cars costing twice as much would struggle to match,” Evo’s Richard Meaden said in his first drive review. Car and Driver’s now-editor-in-chief Tony Quiroga called the BMW an “astonishingly impressive performer” in a three-way comparison test between it, an RS4, and a Mercedes C63 AMG. Road & Track’s Shaun Bailey said its performance was “downright silly and put many true sports cars to shame.”

Wheeling a V-8-powered M3 in 2024 drives the point home. Even 15 years after its debut, it feels like the best, most complete product BMW M has ever built. It’s more civilized and agreeable as a daily driver than the M3s that came before it, yet it’s faster and more capable on a race track. The balance enthusiasts were afraid of losing shines brighter than ever by modern standards. Its engine is the star of the show, yes, but it doesn’t dominate the experience. The hydraulic steering, while not as outright feelsome as an E46, is beautifully weighted and full of feedback. 

BMW M3 Lime Rock Park Edition
BMW M3 Lime Rock Park Edition
BMW M3 Lime Rock Park Edition

Any worries the V-8-powered M3 might not live up to the iconic nameplate’s reputation were squashed as soon as people got behind the wheel.

Whereas later iterations of the M3 evolved into stiff, tire-hungry drift missiles, this one can truly play the part of a daily-driver 3 Series without any meaningful compromise. There’s real suspension travel that makes this car friendly on broken pavement, but not so much that it feels lazy or heavy on its feet. And there’s enough tech and sound insulation that you don’t feel like you’re driving something outdated. 

Sure, the brakes aren’t the greatest and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic—among the first to make it to the market—isn’t as quick as BMW’s modern eight-speed torque converters, but neither significantly ages the E92 or keeps it from being enjoyable compared to more modern metal. None of the excitement has dulled. This car has been, and will always be, the M3 of M3s.

That balance is more evident behind the wheel of the racing version. The M3 GT, also known as the M3 GT2, shares little mechanically with its street-going sibling, but after about a dozen laps behind the wheel, it’s easy to sense the connection. 

BMW was kind enough to put me in its legendary American Le Mans Series contender during its annual shakedown session at Brian Redman’s Targa 66 event, a high-end track day weekend held annually at Homestead-Miami Speedway where cars worth eight figures are the norm. 

DWBurnett-LRPM3-Joy-9797

Like in the street car, the M3 GT’s soul lives under the hood. While displacement is the same 4.0 liters, every part in the aluminum “P65” V8 engine is bespoke to this application. The lump is bolted directly to the chassis and revs to 9500 rpm thanks to forged internals. There’s also no counterweight to balance the flat-plane crankshaft, meaning a swell of vibrations trying constantly to rearrange your organs. 

Those vibrations disappear once you put your foot to the floor. Like the S65 in the street car, this motor was born to rev. It comes alive over 5000 rpm, delivering big, smooth power as it screams to redline. By the end of its career, this engine was making 500 hp — not a lot in a world where four-figure-hp supercars are the norm, but in a car that weighs around 3000 pounds with me in it and enough downforce to flatten an elephant, it felt like the fastest thing this side of a fighter jet. 

Where the M3 GT differs most from its road-going counterpart is the transmission. Instead of being bolted directly to the back of the engine, the six-speed sequential gearbox is mounted in the differential area out back in a transaxle format. This allowed engineers to shift weight towards the rear of the car, which in turn allowed more space near the bulkhead to tuck the engine as low and as close to the center of the car as possible. In all, BMW was able to get a 45/55 front-to-rear weight balance, ideal for cornering and acceleration. The gearing is also incredibly short; I found myself grabbing first year multiple times per lap to keep the engine spinning quickly enough to stay in the powerband through slower corners like turns 3 and 8. 

DWBurnett-LRPM3-Joy-8468
DWBurnett-LRPM3-Joy-8433

There’s no counterweight to balance the flat-plane crankshaft, meaning a swell of vibrations trying constantly to rearrange your organs. 

The steering, while not as quick as the modern M8 GTE I drove the same weekend, is still quicker than any road car by a mile. It’s incredibly precise and perfectly weighted, making it simple to point the front end like a guided missile aimed at the heart of every apex. The brakes come without ABS, but if you’re going fast enough you can still stand on them before having to bleed off pressure. And because they’re unassisted, pinpoint modulation is easy.

The E92 led to the golden age of BMW’s endurance racing success in America. The M3 GT won the 2010 and the 2011 ALMS championships, with seven total wins throughout its career in the U.S., including a victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring. A version of the car also won the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring in 2010. 

“Best car they ever made,” longtime BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen shouts as he emerges from a session behind the wheel. No arguments here.

Whether on road or track, the V8-powered M3 is the north star to BMW’s golden age. But it wasn’t the only product that gave the company its flawless late 2000s reputation. The M5 and M6 were treasures in their own rights, equipped with god’s own naturally aspirated V-10, inspired by the company’s Formula 1 efforts. The engine delivered over 500 hp and, like the M3’s engine, redlined at more than 8000 rpm. It’s especially wild to think about how such a high-strung motor could make its way into a comfy luxury sedan. It was a once-in-a-lifetime combo that we’ll surely never see again.

2001 BMW 7-Series head on 760li
2007 BMW M6 front three quarter
2007 BMW M5 Touring Silver front three quarter

There was also the 7 Series. Though critics scoffed at design chief Chris Bangle’s polarizing pitch for the E65-generation car introduced in the early 2000s, it was a sales hit. The departure from its comparatively conservative competitor, the E38, got people through the door. By the end of its run, the E65 was the best-selling 7 Series ever. Other Bangle-designed cars, like the M5 and M6 mentioned above, were considered controversial when they were new. Now, the car community remembers them fondly as turning points which shaped vehicle design thereafter. I consider the era Peak BMW. 

Perhaps the clearest sense of how greatness sometimes isn’t recognized until years later can be gleaned from former Top Gear host Chris Harris. In a 2014 Jalopnik article defending Bangle, he says he originally considered the E60-generation 5 Series a “crime against Bavaria” when it debuted in 2003. Now he owns one. 

Such is the nature of the BMW conversation. Some people might agree with Harris, though I’m sure an equal amount think he’s as wrong as can be. Some people might also believe that BMW was at its best in the ‘80s with cars like the E30, M1, and the Z1. Others might think BMW has yet to reach its peak. Having driven countless BMWs spanning decades of progress, I’ll stick with the 2000s.

Share This Article
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *