What I'm Driving At: Driving in 3/4 Time

Some days, everything snaps into place. All the sensations of touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sound knit themselves into a supple, seamless fabric of experience. You feel like you want to feel; things do what you want them to do; the world unfolds before you in a symphony of coordinated events and emotions. Someday, you may find yourself behind the wheel of BMW's M3/4 sedan, and it will occur to you that, for the duration of your commute at least, you are not merely driving; you are conducting an orchestra of motion in lovely three-quarter time.There is no one car for everybody, of course (and thank goodness for that). In any given year, however, there is one car that combines poise, price, and panache in such amounts and proportion that it becomes a benchmark. The M3/4 is that car for the 1997 model year. Derived from the more narrowly focused M3 coupe, this new four-door expression of BMW's "M-for motorsports" brio blurs the line between such traditional category distinctions as coupe vs. sedan, performance vs. practicality, commuter car vs. sport-tourer.While almost all the car's attributes are impressive, individually, they cannot account for its uncanny gestalt. In other words, this car is more than the sum of its parts list and, for that matter, its $39,950 sales price (as tested). Its 240-horsepower rating and its less than 3,200-lb. curb weight, for example, can justify but really don't do justice to the car's lighting-crack pace from zero to 60 in just 5.7 seconds. The unique way its straight-six, twin-cam, 3.2-liter engine whistles while it works simply must be taken into account as well.It goes without saying that any car with this price and these pretensions features four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. BMW further enhances the package with roguish 17-inch wheels wearing ZR-rated tires in sliver-thin, high-performance sizes. There's switchable "All-Season" traction control and a limited-slip differential; and there's a crackerjack five-speed manual transmission that, in top gear, boasts a meaningful and rare 1-to-1 ratio.But all the hard facts and hard parts in the world cannot convey the cello-string tautness of the M3's handling: the way this sedan's anti-dive front suspension encourages hard, late braking and a quick, settled turn-in after snap-shifting down two, staying right in the powerband. Surely, you'll have already disabled traction control so that the first stirrings of new acceleration out of the corner will settle the car back upon its anti-squat rear suspension and induce a wisp of controlled drift just past the apex for a magic carpet ride across the top of a cloud. Then the tires hook up sure and solid, and it's allegro all over again--up-shift from three, to four, to five....But all the hard facts and hard parts in the world cannot convey the cello-string tautness of the M3's handling: the way this sedan's anti-dive front suspension encourages hard, late braking without pitching forward all out of sorts. When you flick the wheel, the car turns into the corner fast and flat; you downshift two times and get back on the gas, feather-soft at first. With traction control off (surely you remembered to do that), the rear end breaks gently away from the road in a silky, controlled slide as you clear the apex of the turn. You're hangin' out, surfing the crest; it's like skimming the tops of the clouds. Then you get back hard on the gas; the tires hook up; the car settles solid on its anti-squat rear suspension. Upshift to fourth, snick; upshift to fifth, snick. Allegro--you and the car are making beautiful music together--allegro con molto gusto....While Walter drives, the Mitty family of five snugs securely into a leathery lap of luxury. As evidenced by every BMW model, plushness is apparently not a Bavarian concept. Instead, it's more important for driver and passengers to be comfortable than to be ensconced. Switches and controls are meant to be functional, not frilly. Window switches in the M3/4's center console, for example, give both front occupants one-touch control over all four windows (i.e., auto retract and raise). Multiple manual seating adjusters make minute, sometimes unexpected, alterations of position.Space, much too valuable to be wasted in any of BMW's 3-series cars, is saved at every opportunity. Sometimes that means the control you're looking for isn't where you would first expect it, as is the case with the all-door lock switch in the dash. Beware, moreover, the Teutonic predilection to locate reverse gear in a left-most position (similar to first) instead of in the right-most location that we Yanks usually expect.It always seems as if a "neat freak" has been in charge of arranging the interior of any given BMW, but this obsessiveness generally pays off. In the M3/4 especially, rear seating may not be extravagant, but it is certainly ample. What's more, of course, the backseat is accessible from rear doors that the original M3 coupe didn't offer. Trunk space--at just 10.3 cubic feet--is perhaps the real victim of the overall layout. But at least it benefits from fold-down rear seats that can accommodate the occasional oversized stash.It risks misinterpreting BMW's accomplishment, however, to distill the M3/4 into a inventory of line items for ranking "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down." True, the car is smaller than other sedans costing 40 grand. True, there are a number of more powerful four-doors prowling the market--and, for some tastes, more cozy and over-stuffed interpretations of interior comfort. For the current model year, however, it's hard to imagine a more well-rounded, spirited, yet eminently livable car than the M3 sedan. It's a genuine sports car that makes few performance compromises--but look! It's got four doors! It's a family car that hauls kids and cargo--but listen! It smokes the tires at will! It's relatively affordable--for the upscale professional, at any rate--but it's a showcase of luxurious appointments and build quality typical of cars twice the price.In short, the BMW M3/4 zeroes in on the aficionado who dreams of high performance but lives in a real world where function overwhelms fantasy. Instead of imposing sacrifices, the M3 sedan indulges a private appetite for whim. With the mere addition of an extra set of doors, this new M3 opens up a wide range of possibilities for the serious, enthusiast driver who has to have his sedan but wants his sports car too.Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.[Image] Practically extravagant: '97 BMW M3/4 sedan, 4-door, 5-pass., RWD, 3.2-liter inline-6, 240 HP, 20/28 MPGs; $39,950

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