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Review: 2002 BMW M3 SMG Coupe,Plus High Performance BMW Driving School

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SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide


    Williams-BMW Formula One drivers Ralf Schumacher and Juan 
Pablo Montoya don't have to use a shift lever and a clutch pedal 
when they shift gears. Why should you?

    You don't, if you opt for the sequential manual gearbox (SMG) 
available for the 2002 BMW M3. It adds state-of-the-art racing 
technology to the benchmark sports sedan. While not inexpensive at 
$2,400, the SMG is about half the price of a similar unit offered in 
previous-generation M3s in Europe only. The gearbox is the same 
six-speed Getrag as is found in the regular M3, but with Formula 
One-inspired electronic-hydraulic control via paddles mounted 
behind the steering wheel and/or a lever on the center console. 
Unlike the systems found in racing cars, the M3's has several 
manual and automatic modes, for use in varying conditions.

    The SMG is more than a novelty. It is a very functional device 
that can take some of the annoyance out of stop-and-(don't)-go 
traffic and also improve lap times in competitive events. In recent 
weeks, I spent a week driving an M3 SMG on the highways, city 
streets, and (sometimes trafficless) back roads near my home, and 
also had the opportunity to attend BMW M-School, where regular 
and SMG M3s were used for a high-speed autocross. The SMG 
worked well in the world of speed limits, and even better when the 
only laws to obey were the laws of physics. It puts the M3 even 
farther ahead of its competition.

    A few words on BMW's driving schools: BMW takes driving as 
seriously as building high-performance cars. And so it offers a 
number of one- and two-day driving schools at the BMW 
Performance Center, near the Spartanburg, SC plant where X5 
sports-activity vehicles and Z3 (and soon Z4) sports cars are built. 
These range from new driver programs for young, newly-licensed 
drivers (a wonderful idea!) through street-oriented car control skills 
classes, including one especially for women, the ``Other Roads'' 
program for X5 and other SUV drivers, and the high-performance-
oriented M-School. Although they are BMW-oriented, these 
programs are open to all licensed drivers. See full Driving School article
below or call (888) 345-4269 for more information.

APPEARANCE: Although to the casual observer the M3 looks 
little different than any other 3-Series coupe, it is immediately 
recognized by enthusiasts. Huge air intakes in the flat front fascia 
and quad exhausts at the rear, wider fender flares filled with 18-inch 
wheels and tires, 507-inspired fender vents, and an aluminum hood 
with a noticeable ``power dome'' differentiate the M3 from any 
regular 3-Series coupe. Yet the changes are understated, best 
exemplified by the rear spoiler. It's a small, nearly unnoticeable 
ducktail, and that is all that is needed as the body, especially the 
underside, was designed and tested for maximum aerodynamic 
efficiency and drivetrain cooling without scoops and wings.

COMFORT: The purpose of the M3 is serious driving, and the 
interior is designed for that. Interior styling is typical conservative 
BMW, tastefully minimalist, with little basic difference from the 3-
Series coupes. Don't let that lead you to believe it's Spartan and 
uncomfortable. On the contrary, driver comfort and the correct 
driving position are essential for safe driving, at any speed, and so 
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you will find excellent, supportive, well-bolstered but accessible sports seats in the front, and a contoured rear bench that can hold two medium-sized adults, or three iff necessary. Manual front seats are standard, with power optional; in either case the perfect driving
position is easily attained, and visibility is very good. In regular- shift cars, the gear lever is perfectly-placed, with smooth, short- throw action. The SMG uses plastic paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, or a short lever in the regular place on the console. The paddles are easiest to use except when the steering wheel is turned sharply, as they move with the wheel. If you must shift in a sharp corner, use the console lever. SAFETY: Excellent handling and stability, four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes and dynamic stability control ensure active safety, and the M3 has all of the passive safety equipment expected of a modern sports-luxury car. ROADABILITY: As with the bodywork, the M3's suspension similar to but not identical to that of the 3-Series. Almost all components of the front MacPherson struts are stronger and more rigid, to better deal with the M3's higher speeds and cornering forces. Likewise, the rear multilink suspension is redesigned to handle both the increased speed potential and the M3's significantly greater power. The tuning is firm, very firm, but without the harshness that characterized older high-performance cars. Without any modification, the M3 is extremely capable in time trial, performance driving school, and autocross situations, yet it is also comfortable enough for daily use. PERFORMANCE: The M3's engine is a 3.2-liter inline six, but it's not at all related to the similarly-sized engine found in the 330. Like BMW's incredible 1.5-liter turbocharged Formula One engines of the 1980s, its block is cast iron, not aluminum, for compactness and strength with minimal size. The twin-cam, 24-valve head has a lightweight valve train with a specially-modified version of BMW's ``Double VANOS'' variable valve timing that works on both the intake and exhaust cams. Like a competition engine, each cylinder has its own throttle butterfly for instant response - and if that's not enough, the electronic throttle control has two modes. Normally, the throttle pedal has average sensitivity, good for everyday driving. In performance mode, it's much more sensitive to small movements, producing quicker acceleration for a given amount of pedal travel. Although the engine has a very high specific power output, with 333 horsepower at 7900 rpm, 262 lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm, and an 8000 rpm redline, it has healthy, useful power at all speeds and very linear response. No surprises as the throttle is depressed, just ever more power. The standard shift is pleasantly smooth and quick; the SMG is faster and usually even smoother. Its manual modes excel on the track, while it works remarkably well in traffic and around town in the automatic modes. CONCLUSIONS: The BMW M3 combines exotic car performance and technology with everyday drivability. SPECIFICATIONS 2002 BMW M3 Coupe Base Price $ 45,900 Price As Tested $ 55,695 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6- cylinder with variable valve timing on intake and exhaust camshafts, 6 individual throttles with dual mode settings Engine Size 3.2 liters / 198 cu. in. Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 262 @ 4900 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual with electronic- hydraulic shift control Wheelbase / Length 107.5 in. / 176.9 in. Curb Weight 3415 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 10.3 Fuel Capacity 16.6 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires Front: P225/45, Rear P255/40 ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock and DSC standard Suspension, front/rear independent strut / multilink, sport tuning Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 24 / 18 0 to 60 mph 4.8 sec (mfg) OPTIONS AND CHARGES Titanium Silver Metallic paint $ 475 Cold Weather Package – includes: heated front seats, headlight washers, ski bag $ 700 Premium Package – includes: moonroof, power front seats with driver's-side memory, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic headlight control, Nappa leather upholstery $ 3,200 Bi-Xenon headlights $ 700 Harmon Kardon sound system $ 675 Sequential Manual Gearbox $ 2,400 Destination charge $ 645 Gas guzzler tax $ 1,000
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M School Is In Session
BMW M-School ``You're braking WAY too early!'' shouts the voice over the two-way radio in my BMW M-Coupe. ``You're not out on the street, the car can go much deeper into the corner, come on, go for it!.'' So I go back around the short return road to the beginning of the emergency lane change/slalom/basic cornering course and try again, waiting a little longer before hitting the brake pedal. This is not High School Driver's Ed. This is BMW M-School, the flagship program in a series of street, off-road, and performance driving classes held at the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina. M-School, named after the M cars used in it, combines elements of a high-performance street and a basic racing techniques course. In two and a half days, students are given some introductory theory, and plenty of seat time in the fastest BMWs and individual instruction from accomplished professional driving instructors. M-School starts on arrival day with an short classroom session that introduces the program and covers performance driving basics. The school uses a building-blocks approach, so that material learned early on prepares students for later exercises. If it's short on theory, that's not a problem as the important facets are covered, and covered well, with examples, during the driving days. There are plenty of books available covering the more theoretical aspects of high-performance driving. Application of that theory is the hard part, and this is where M-School excels. The next two days are all seat time, eight-plus hours per day with a break for lunch. And so, after a tasty German dinner, off to bed to awaken before dawn and head for the Performance Center's track. BMW's Performance Center is a wonderful modern facility, with a museum, archives of BMW literature, and more, but there will be no time to see any of those. We're here to drive. Day One starts with a lesson on proper seating position - back upright, arms bent, not outstretched, to the wheel, for maximum leverage. Legs should be bent, too, with reach reserve with the pedals fully depressed. Brace the left foot on the footrest when not using it on the clutch. Then, to the track. There are quite a number of events to go through. I started with the lane change - slalom - corner braking combination, in an M- Coupe, in full street driving mode. Meaning that I was far too gentle with the car, especially in braking. Reset attitude...go deep, but not too deep, this is not an off-road driving course. This event teaches car control in a sharp cornering maneuver, transitions, and into a corner. This will all become very useful, I am assured. Next up is heel-and-toe practice. This is a technique used by racers to operate the gas and brake pedals simultaneously. It's tricky, especially with my small, narrow feet. It's made even trickier by the fact that I'm now in a 400-horsepower M5 sedan on a tight, narrow road course with elevation change and a fast slalom. Smoothness and rhythm are important. And I'm beginning to push the car more. Then the wet skidpad, in an M3. I tiptoe in the wet in the real world. Here, the object is to orbit around a well-watered circle of asphalt with the tail out, countersteering to balance. And not spin. Riiight.... When I did actually get the tail out, I usually lost it within half a lap, or 10 seconds, whichever came first. It takes experience and sensitivity to tell what the car is doing on the edge of control. About that time, professional BMW racer Bill Auberlen gave a demonstration, hanging the tail of an M3 out for as long as he pleased. It can be done, but it takes practice. And don't try if you have a queasy stomach.... Lunch break. Hey, I'm hungry. Well, yes, this is strenuous activity. We're not cruising the shopping mall parking lot looking for a parking space. We are also reminded constantly to drink plenty of water. South Carolina summers are warm, to say the least. Fortunately, BMW performance is not adversely affected by use of the air conditioner. After lunch it's time for more wet skidpad practice, then more times around the heel-and-toe course. The first day finishes with timed laps around another variation of the multi-configurable Performance Center road course, incorporating slaloms, chicanes, and the wet skidpad. Everything is starting to come together, and everyone is feeling more in touch with their cars and their abilities. Then back to the hotel, dinner, and as much sleep as possible. This is high-energy activity. Day Two: Up even earlier, and off to the Michelin test track an hour south near Lorens, SC. Lessons learned yesterday will be put to use today. First up is a long, relatively fast second- and third- gear autocross, in an M3. We have a choice of regular or SMG cars; I choose the SMG, thereby negating yesterday's heel-and-toe practice. Hey, the little guy in the box downshifts much better than I can, and this is how the F1 guys do it anyway. And this is an environment in which the SMG excels. First we practice with the dynamic stability control (DSC) on, which keeps the cars mostly pointed the right direction, as DSC pulls the plug when one gets too sideways. Then with DSC off. I'm better at feeling when the car approaches its limits, and those limits are very high, indeed. And I'm on about 10 acres of asphalt, so a spin, which can hurt on the street or on a race track, will have no consequences beyond a bruised ego. This is getting to be big- time fun. And I keep it pointed in the right direction anyway. Then over to another wet skidpad exercise, with M-Coupes and Roadsters. This one is a figure-eight, with both left and right turns. The trick is not to lose time by hanging the tail out too much or spinning, but to steer out of the corner with the throttle - four- wheel steering the way it was intended to be. This takes practice, of which I need more. But getting a little sideways is feeling better. Then off to a long, very wet, very tight handling course. In M5s. 400 horsepower in slime, fun. Smoothness counts in all conditions, but nowhere more so than in slippery ones, especially with a serious excess of power. There is almost an inch of standing water in some places. With DSC on, the DSC wants to be on all the way around. Back off, feel what's happening at the wheels, and tiptoe. Much better. Now try it with DSC off. Plenty of spin practice. Hey, this car has Michelins and this is a Michelin test track, bet Michelin sells lots of tires to BMW after this! Lunch break, than do the morning's activities again, with the element of competition. Meaning we're timed. I was hopeless in the figure-eight, but got third fastest in the autocross. Thank you, SMG. Surprise, I had the fastest time in the wet autocross. How did I do it? Smoothness, finesse, and talent, of course...naw, that lap was my first, exploratory one, with DSC on and me tiptoeing gently and smoothly, not even trying to go fast. Whenever I'd feel the DSC, I'd gently back off. Be gentle, don't use the brakes hard, just be smooth. Then it was time for a team relay race around the autocross course, and hot laps with the instructors driving in some Z8s, BMW's premium exotic sports car. And then it was over. My feelings? I've had the opportunity to take several one and two-day driving schools, and, during car introductions at race tracks have had instruction from pro drivers, some of whom are very well-known. M-School is the best program I've encountered because of the way in which it is taught, and what is taught. I've never had so much experience in high-performance wet-condition driving, and never had so much seat time during a driving school. Lessons learned are applicable to everyday driving, to give drivers confidence and skills in emergency maneuvers, bad weather, and in fast but safe driving. It's not a race-preparation school, but the lessons learned can prepare you for racing school. The downside? None, other than the cost. Like a BMW, it's not inexpensive, but the cost includes meals and accommodations, unlike most other driving school programs. There really is no other program like it. Other classes offered at the BMW Performance Center include: A one-day New Driver School and two-day New Driver Camp for teen drivers, great ideas considering how minimal most student driver-training programs are. X5 School, for drivers of all sport utility-type vehicles, not just BMW X5s. It incorporates driving on wet and dry pavement and dirt and gravel. One-day beginning and two-day advanced Car Control Skills Clinics, featuring driving theory and the effects of weight distribution and weight transfer, and driving on accident avoidance, slalom, autocross, and skidpad situations. The two-day class sounds like a less-intense version of M-School. Women-only driving school. For women, taught by professional woman drivers. These courses are priced very competitively with similar programs at other locations, and are open to drivers of any vehicles, not just BMWs. Currently all are offered only in Spartanburg, but BMW will be opening a similar center somewhere in the West, sometime soon. For more information, please call the BMW Performance Center at (888) 345-4BMW (4269). (c) Carey Russ 2002