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The third generation BMW M3 is automotive evolution turning full-circle.

Classical coupe styling and six-cylinders make the M3 of today the natural successor to the mid-1980s 635 Csi, the car which preceded the original M3 as BMW's racing weapon of choice till 1987 when Group A Touring Car racing got really serious.

In 2001 the link between M3 and racetrack is much less direct. Certainly the giant-killer status of the original four-cylinder M3 no longer applies as the Porsche-conquering ALMS Series M3 GTR packs a V8 under the bonnet.

In some ways it disappoints me that BMW has devalued the 15-year-old underdog reputation attached to the M3 badge by giving the race car a V8 engine. They really should have raced the M5.

Not that current racing formulae really matter to any driver lucky enough to slip behind the wheel of the road-going version of the third generation M3.

It's a $143,900 thoroughbred delivering supercar performance and roadholding combined with acceptable five-seater accommodation and decent boot capacity.

The M3 looks striking with the sleek E46 3-Series Coupe shape getting muscled-up with a ground-hugging stance, deeper front airdam with larger central air duct, a powerdome alloy bonnet, flared wheel arches and chromed side vents.

Either 18 or 19-inch wheels are fitted while at the rear a minimalist lip spoiler contrasts with four prominent exhaust outlets to send somewhat mixed messages about understated subtlety and extrovert muscle car themes.

Impressively, in spite of the fat tyres and the bodyshape changes the M3 still manages to slice the air with a 0.29 drag co-efficient.

Behind the wheel this car is everything you'd expect of a flagship high-performance bearing the race-track pedigree of the BMW M badge.

Crisp and perfectly weighted steering, firm suspension, massive cornering grip and traction, superb seats and adjustability and a gearshift that needs only the gentlest guiding hand to find its way among six ratios are among the first impressions.

But the arena where the M3 exceeds expectations is the engine. The all-new S54 power unit sets the standard for larger capacity naturally-aspirated performance cars, achieving power-per-litre figures which only the likes of Honda's S2000 and Integra Type R screamers can match.

But the BMW does it with two extra cylinders and about 60 percent more displacement.

From 3246cc of in-line six-cylinder the new M3 develops a storming 252kW at 7900rpm. Peak torque is 365Nm at 4900rpm.

In one respect the M3 remains a giant-killer. The new S54 powerplant not only shades the previous generation M3 Evolution in all respects but can only be rivaled by turbo cars or large capacity V8s. It takes 5.7-litres of Gen III muscle for HSV cars to make either 255kW or 300kW, depending on model.

With the M3 being lighter than an HSV GTS 300 it will will sprint from standing start to 100km/h in 5.2 seconds - almost a full second quicker - with its hydraulic M-Lock limited slip differential gaining maximum bite out of the road surface. It also matches the pace of the brutal 280kW, but heavier, Audi RS4.

Low friction technology is a key part of the S54 formula. In racing engine fashion it breathes through a composite airbox feeding six individual inlet tracts and throttle butterflies.

It snarls like only an in-line six can do when it's provoked into hard acceleration yet proves immensely tractable and not in the slightest intimidating when you only want to glide smoothly through the busy city traffic.

BMW claims 80 percent of peak torque is available at just 2000rpm. Certainly a big serving of torque arrives early in almost V8-style and allows the M3 to cruise through 50km/h zones in fourth gear using about 1750rpm and show no hint of labouring.

Two gee-whiz features are attached to the S54 engine. The tachometer includes a series of warm-up mode LED lights which signal a 4000rpm rev limit when the engine is started from cold and then adjusts to the 8000rpm red-line as the engine warms up. It's a feature borrowed from the M5.

And there's a dual mode throttle which in sport setting makes the drive-by-wire throttle more sensitive.

The car always starts in normal throttle mode and sport mode must be activated from a switch on the lower centre facia just ahead of the gearshift. Under part-throttle acceleration hitting the button brings an instant change of engine note and urgency.

I succumbed to the temptations of sport mode and accelerated hard in the lower gears simply to enjoy the engine note. And at times I also changed down one gear too many to make overtaking manoeuvres: I liked the push in the shoulder blades as the M3 surged forward.

Yet I still managed to achieve 10.6 litres per 100km fuel economy. Try that in any turbo car or V8 capable of giving the M3 a hurry-up.

Matched to a 63-litre fuel tank it gives the M3 a useful range and a true long distance Grand Touring ability rather than something that sprints between refueling stops.

Another indicator of the pace of the M3 is that it will exceed 100km/h when there are still four more gears to use. The precision-shifting six-speeder is matched to a somewhat heavy clutch and there's a 1:1 fifth gear and mildly over-driven 0.828 sixth gear.

The gearing permits 100km/h at a relaxed 2350rpm in sixth gear, 2900rpm in fifth or 3500rpm in fourth if you really need to hurry that overtaking blast.

The BMW New Zealand road test car was fitted with the optional 10-spoke 19-inch alloys which seem to have been a popular choice among Kiwi M3 customers. The optional rubber is 225/40 ZR19 dimension at the front and 255/35 ZR19 to apply the power to the road.

Sports suspension is standard and the tuning is firm to control lateral body movement very effectively, but without harsh low-speed impacts. The ride can feel abrupt over the worst level changes at city speeds but once the 70 to 80km/h range is reached the car feels taut rather than rigid and delivers an impressively compliant ride for 19-inch wheels and ultra-low-profile rubber.

Pushing the M3 towards its limit to explore its high-end handling is work for the environs of a test track rather than the open road where this test was conducted.

I gave the M3 a chance to stretch its legs a little when conditions were appropriate but the capabilities of this car are well beyond the New Zealand public road environment.

At no time while trying to carry some enthusiastic corner speed did the abilities of the chassis and tyres feel anything other than confidently rock-solid.

Fortunately, though the M3 is autobahn rapid and race-track responsive you don't have to drive it absurdly quickly to gain enjoyment from driving a very special car.

And anyway there's the latest generation of electronic driver aids helping to keep all that performance manageably restrained through the interaction of ABS brakes with Corner Braking Control plus the DSC+T stability and traction control system.

Accompanying the M3's vivid performance is a plush appointment level to help justify the $143,900 pricetag.

The sports seats have full leather trim and the standard specification includes climate-control air-conditioning with pollen filter and automatic recirculate mode, remote central door-locking, power windows and mirrors plus a multi-function steering wheel with cruise, phone and audio controls.

There's the BMW Park Distance Control proximity audible warning system, brilliant Xenon headlamps, a six-disc boot-mounted Compact Disc stacker audio and an alarm and immobiliser security system.

Passive safety features comprise six airbags - frontal, front side impact and inflatable side curtain head protection - plus seatbelt pretensioners and a pyrotechnic battery terminal disconnection system.

A range of six colours can be chosen for the interior leather, allowing owners to effectively customise their M3. The cabin in the test car is classic black with stylish high-gloss dash and door trim insert, some subtle chrome highlights complimenting the high quality Montana leather.

The seats are designed for serious driving with prominent side bolstering, ample cushion length to provide under-thigh support and power adjustment of the cushion height and angle, recline and slide position plus a three position memory function. The thick-rimmed steering wheel has reach and rake adjustments.

If you were going to seriously hammer the M3 up and down mountain passes you might choose the optional alcantara/leather or fabric trim for that little extra co-efficient of friction between seat and clothing.

Inside the M3 delivers considerably better than a cramped 2+2 accommodation.

The E46 3-Series coupe cabin has a realistic five-seater configuration with better headroom than you'll find in most two-door shapes and reasonable kneespace although the footwell room is rather tight. If you put three passengers in the rear they can all be restrained by three-point seatbelts.

The rear seat doesn't have a fold mechanism but does have a ski-pouch. With a useful 410 litres of load space the M3 is already well ahead of most coupes in the practicality stakes.

Flat tyre? Don't go searching the boot for a spare wheel.

Instead consult the owner's manual where four pages are devoted to the M Mobility inflation system - a sort of super Tyre Pando which will apparently get a punctured 19-inch tyre back into something resembling shape and then allow 80km/h progress to wherever you can find a tyre repairer or someone with a new 19-inch tyre in stock.

But after three years sitting in the boot waiting to plug the gap in an emergency the M Mobility pack must be renewed. Sometimes a full size spare wheel and little less load space just seems like too simple an answer.

Hopefully the RDW tyre pressure monitoring system gives adequate warning of deflation before major damage is done to the tyre.

The third generation M3 is a superb combination of high octane driving excitement and luxury refinement that's rivalled only by a handful of equally special cars.

Performance figures are on par with the Porsche 911 Carrera but practicality and price are on BMW's side.

For about half the money a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution or Subaru Impreza STi will rival the M3 in a sprint through the twisty stuff (and can't be beaten in the slippery stuff) but they don't have the long legged, effortless power delivery and the sound of the straight-six. Or the luxury substance.

Other rivals to this Munich masterpiece provide a contrast of bodystyles. The Nissan Skyline GT-R offers a coupe alternative. Audi goes twin turbo V6 with its S4 sedan and the S4 Avant and RS4 estates. Mercedes-Benz takes the sedan route with the C32 AMG which uses supercharging to achieve similar performance from its 3.2-litre V6.

And in this corner of the world HSV is the M3's other direct competitor.

The impending arrival of Coupe GTO and GTS models will see the pricetag for top-shelf HSV motoring move another step closer to the world of German high-performance cars.

AutoPoint road test team. Story and pictures by CM.

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