Removing the stick from the hot dog.

by Larry Griffin

BMW's rockety M3, the most able sedanlet around--although it's also a born ticket receptacle--mocks overzealous speed enforcement as ably as any car we know. Now, for pilotes who may prefer less everyday involvement in gearshifting without giving up control, BMW whips out the M3 Automatic. It sports five forward speeds, three selectable shift modes, and way more than the usual BMW knack for inducing cop-curdling hijinks. ("Mr. Letterman, your car is impounded.")

BMW's second-generation M3 dispatches to the rear wheels a caterwauling 240 horsepower from its twin-cam, 24-valve, in-line six. At 3.0 liters, it's a bored, stroked, and breathed-on upgrade of the 325i's 2.5-liter 189-hp engine. The M3's exuberant powerplant, despite redlining at a lofty 6800 rpm, is also torquey down low, thanks to variable valve timing. That makes it ideal for the automatic. When the throttle is closed after kickdown acceleration, we sometimes note a reluctance of the automatic to upshift. That's just BMW's way of holding the revs high, ready to hurl you past even more charter members of the Anti-Destination League. Yet the M3 with the automatic does give up a little:

M3 5-speedM3 5-speed
0 to 301.9 sec2.6 sec
0 to 605.5 sec6.7 sec
0 to 10014.7 sec17.1 sec
0 to 13028.7 sec34.5 sec
1/4-mile14.2 sec15.3 sec
_at_ 98 mph_at_ 95 mph
(All M3s are speed-governed to 137 mph.)

The automatic's three shift modes are labeled E, S, and M. The mode-select button nests beside the shifter. The E mode is for Economy, the electronically controlled transmission's default setting, but could stand for "Everyday driving." For us, the M3 averaged fine fuel economy--24 mpg, the same as the stick-shift M3. You could say that S and M (for Sports and Manual) are the whips-and-chains modes. The M mode is best for picking a gear for pulling away on slick surfaces and then artfully sustaining your momentum, or for holding a steady pace in hills or traffic.

But the M3's automatic feels best in S-for-Sports mode. It delays shift points for quicker throttle response and has a quicker, more direct effect on the car's handling. We wish S could be the default mode, but that would undo the good EPA fuel economy. When you do switch to S, even a touch of throttle can provoke a downshift, and the M3 feels ready to fly.

The BMW Motorsport chassis magicians engineered new bushings, anti-roll bars, springs, and shocks for the M3, which remain unchanged for the automatic. Ditto the huge 5-series brakes, 17-inch wheels, and 235/40 ZR-rated Michelin MXX3s. The M3 and its deft steering really do take to cornering as if trued by magic. When the tires slither past their 0.86-g cornering limit, you can easily correct. The ABS brakes yanked us from 70 mph to a standstill in 165 feet--a few feet more than the manual M3 but, hey, the automatic carries an extra 72 pounds.

Our M3's snug cabin wore eye-popping two-tone leather and trim. The hides stretch too slickly over the firm padding of the seats, providing too little lateral support. We'd opt for BMW's handsome cloth upholstery with Motorsport logos (available at no extra cost). Oh, and under heavy braking, one cupholder hurled an unopened soda can into the front passenger's footwell, where it burst and hosed down the dash, door, and carpet.

This latest M3, outfitted as Bavaria's young-executive express, wears an air dam with a classy slatted intake rather than the original's racy mesh. Angular five-spoke alloy wheels stuff the snug wheel arches. In Ohio, two carwash kids, wiping away droplets as they studied the beefcake BMW, slowly circled the M3 and declared it the best-looking car they'd ever seen.

They didn't know an even wilder M3 is available in Europe. It's bundled in this basic bodyware but makes 317 horsepower. Meant to be the fastest production BMW, it should prolong the M3's reign as the world's greatest touring car. But with this one in our hands now, we took off for 2000 miles in four days, including 24 hours off for romance. Never applauding the automatic more, we found it especially easy to slip into Park--an, ah, activity ever worthy of a capital P on the shiftgate of life.

Vehicle type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 2-door sedan
Price as tested: $45,770 (base price: $38,520)
Engine type: DOHC 24-valve 6-in-line, iron block and aluminum head, Bosch engine-control system with port fuel injection

Displacement182 cu in, 2990cc
Power (SAE net) 240 bhp _at_ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 225 lb-ft _at_ 4200 rpm
Transmission5-speed automatic with lockup torque converter
Wheelbase106.3 in
Length174.9 in
Curb weight 3304 lb
Zero to 60 mph 6.7 sec
Zero to 100 mph 17.1 sec
Zero to 130 mph34.5 sec
Street start, 5 to 60 mph 7.0 sec
Standing 1/4-mile15.3 sec _at_ 95 mph
Top speed (governor limited)137 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph165 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad10.86 g
EPA fuel economy, city driving 19 mpg
C/D observed fuel economy24 mpg

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