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by Dan Carney
“Character counts.” It’s been a slogan in recent political campaigns, but it is just as applicable to cars. At a time when too many legendary performance cars are becoming so perfect that they are losing their souls, the M3 convertible provides welcome relief. BMW’s own fabulous M5 suffers from the perfection conundrum, as does the water-cooled Porsche 911. They are both so smooth and effortlessly fast that they can be unsatisfying to drive.
BMW made the right decision when it chose to keep the M3 a six-cylinder car, rather than stuffing a V-8 into it, because the company’s heritage is in-line sixes. The six-cylinder engine not only gives the M3 a unique sound, rather than being another me-too V-8, the effort of producing 333 horsepower from a 3.2-liter six is evident. Yes the engine is strong, and yes it sounds good, but just as importantly, it conveys the impression of effort. This engine works for a living, not like the loafing V-8s that never break a sweat.
The mechanical clatter under the hood recalls a Ducati V-twin superbike, another machine that sounds like it is straining to equal (or top) its multi-cylinder competitors. Air-cooled Porsches enjoyed the same quality. The note from the M3’s dual exhaust even recalls the 911 a bit in its tone at lower revs. At higher engine speeds, the exhaust takes on the sound of a shop vac, so an aftermarket muffler would probably be a nice change.
The M3’s engine and six-speed gearbox provide a texture that engages the driver, emphasizing the activity of driving. The lack of involvement in so many new cars is probably a contributor to the plague of cell phone use while driving – “I’m not doing anything now, I might as well talk on the phone.” The M3’s driver will never feel like he or she isn’t doing anything.