Originally published August 11, 2003

Story and photos by Paul Williams

While women’s magazines continue to ponder the age-old question of “What Men Want,” let me introduce their editors to the 2003 BMW M3.

I quit counting the number of men who simply stood in awe next to my Petrol Mica, Individual Collection M3 test car, with its killer Ecru Pearl Nappa full leather interior and magnificent 19″ alloy wheels (the Individual Collection is an $8,900 package of BMW options to personalize your car).

At a local cruise night, I swear I showed the M3 to a couple of hundred inquisitive men of all backgrounds and ages (and a few women of taste, I should add). They arrived in a never-ending procession, like pilgrims on a march to the automotive holy land.

Wherever I parked – at the supermarket, in the street, in my driveway – glassy-eyed men would appear, and we’d nod together, knowingly.

“Yeah,” I’d mumble. “Yeah,” would be the reply.

Honestly, the damned thing’s a Guy Magnet!

There’s something about this car. The balance of its lines, the confident stance, the double power bulges of its aluminum hood, the brooding headlights, the ripped fenders, the sculpted flanks, the delicate spoiler and the chunky four-tip exhaust conspire to completely melt the hearts of men, car enthusiasts or not.

From the Vault: 2003 BMW M3 Coupe car test drives bmw
Click image to enlarge

And the wheels. Is there a better-looking wheel on any car today than the optional 19″ M3 double-spoke alloys on this car? I don’t think so.

Let me try to describe this M3 to you in more detail. Petrol Mica is the deepest of blues, the colour of a heaving Pacific Ocean far from shore. The Ecru Pearl full leather interior is a creamy, ivory colour of fine texture that perfectly contrasts with the car’s dark, dramatic exterior. Virtually everything inside is leather, including the door panels, the dashboard, the centre console, the shift gaiter and the seats, although there’s special soft leather for the seats.

The interior is further accented with Anthracite Birch trim and chrome highlights. The thick-rimmed, bi-coloured “M” steering wheel is leather-clad, and all other fabrics, surfaces and carpets are of the highest quality. The interior of this car is, quite simply, sensational. Every once in a while, its intoxicating smell causes you to stop your starting sequence, close your eyes, and simply breathe it in.

From the Vault: 2003 BMW M3 Coupe car test drives bmw

From the Vault: 2003 BMW M3 Coupe car test drives bmw
Click image to enlarge

The speedometer tops out at 300 km/h and the tachometer redlines at 8000 revolutions per minute (r.p.m.). The car’s top speed is a limited 250 km/h.

Front seats are full power, with additional adjustments for the driver. They’re designed to provide maximum support and comfort, while holding you snugly in place, ready for the job at hand. Which in this car is the six-speed SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) whose chrome shifter, sparkling in the sunlight like an exotic jewel, is located on your right, or accessed with paddles, Formula 1 style, behind the steering wheel.

Under the hood, a non-turbo inline six-cylinder engine, long the preferred arrangement for BMW, with a capacity of 3.2-litres, 24 valves, and six individual electronic throttles, will make 333 horsepower and 262 lbs.-ft of torque for the lucky driver. It’ll reach 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds

Numerous “M” technical enhancements contribute to the cars’ performance, including M driving dynamics control for throttle response, M3 specific sport suspension calibration, M variable differential lock, a high-performance tuned anti-lock braking system, plus a range of sophisticated and effective electronic stability controls for acceleration, cornering and braking. Handling is superb, with a front/rear weight distribution of almost exactly 50/50.

You might be sceptical about the transmission. I know I was. Formula 1 or not, I like a clutch and a manual shifter, and a sweet six-speed manual is available for this car (perhaps unexpectedly, you get better mileage with the SMG). However, I’m prepared to adapt, and ultimately I was won over by the capabilities of the SMG technology (although if I was writing the cheque, I’d lean toward the six-speed).

First of all, this isn’t an automatic transmission with a manual override, like you see on many cars today. This is a manual gearbox, with a clutch that’s electronically and hydraulically controlled to shift the gears up and down, but there’s no clutch pedal. There are six DriveLogic shift modes, from least to most aggressive, and you can choose an automatic setting when you don’t want to use the shifters.

In practice, both the automatic and manual settings work better (and are way more fun) when you choose a more aggressive shift mode. But this means you’re driving at higher revs, with higher speeds, and quicker acceleration, most of the time.

Downshifting is performed automatically in both settings, unless you intercede. Either way, you can hear the SMG match engine speed, even double clutching, as you decelerate. It’s quite something.

It’s also a bit confusing if you forget what gear you’re in. You’ve only a small display in the dash to tell you, and its symbols are somewhat arcane.

Be that as it may, you continue to have a great time under hard acceleration or deceleration while using the paddles to shift. That’s because in the more aggressive modes it shifts so quickly, and even though you’re not using a clutch, the shifts can give you a real kick.

There’s one more feature associated with the SMG transmission that drivers may wish to know about. It uses the same launch control technology as found in the Williams BMW Formula 1 racing cars. To access this feature, you select the most aggressive DriveLogic shift mode, turn off the Dynamic Stability Control, push the shift lever forward and hold it there while flooring the accelerator. Let go of the lever and you’ll get computer-assisted maximum acceleration from a standing start.

This is not in the owner’s manual, by the way, and BMW does not acknowledge or comment on this feature.

Some people might think it’s incongruous to have so much racing-style, hi-tech performance in such an indisputably luxurious package. But that’s exactly what the M3 is: beauty, brains and brawn.

From the Vault: 2003 BMW M3 Coupe car test drives bmw
Click image to enlarge

Along with the sometimes-puzzling transmission mode display, the car does have some features that could be improved. The instruments are on the small side and the doors open with a thin-sounding release that belies the car’s rigidity; the interior and exterior mirrors could be larger, some of the controls are fussy, the less-aggressive DriveLogic modes shift too slowly, and can be unpleasant.

However, the BMW M3 may just be the finest coupe on the planet. In appearance it’s just about perfect, and its performance is nothing short of thrilling. It looks every bit the exclusive, desirable, exotic and special car that it is. BMW should think many times and hard before they tinker with this automotive triumph.

Standard features: 18″ light alloy wheels, climate control, Harmon Kardon audio system with in-dash CD player, M multifunction steering wheel, leather interior, power sport seats, bi-xenon headlamps, tilt/telescope steering column, Dynamic Brake Control, Dynamic Cornering Control, Dynamic Stability Control, six-speed manual transmission, variable M differential lock, power conveniences.


Technical Data: 2003 BMW M3 Coupe

Base price $73,800
Price as tested $92,390 including Individual Collection Combination ($8,900) includes special paint, upholstery and trim; SMG with DriveLogic ($4,900), 19″ double-spoke M rims ($2,900), bi-colour M sport steering wheel ($290), rain sensor with auto headlamps ($150), adjustable seat width with lumbar support ($1,100), electric rear sunshade ($325), rear side airbags ($525).
Type 2-door, 4 passenger coupe
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 3.2 litre inline six cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves, VANOS
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm
Transmission sequential manual gearbox with paddles
Tires Michelin Pilot Sport, 225/40/ZR19 front; 255/35/ZR19 rear
Wheelbase 2731 mm (107.5 in.)
Length 4492 mm (176.9 in.)
Width 1780 mm (70.1 in.)
Height 1370 mm (54.0 in.)
Fuel consumption City 13.3 l/100 km (21 mpg); Hwy 8.8 l/100 km (32 mpg)
Warranty 4 years/80,000 kms
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