A numbers game

2008, BMW, M3 Coupe

Automotive performance never goes out of fashion, but it does go through cycles. For the 2008 model year, V8 power and rear-wheel- drive are back in vogue at Pontiac after years in exile. For the Gen-4 version of BMW's sizzling M3 coupe and sedan, it's not so much the rear-drive, front-mounted V8 combination that raises eyebrows but a stratospheric 8,400-rpm redline that tickles the funny- bone.

Clearly, Pontiac is demanding to be taken seriously again by delivering ripping performance and four-door, five-seater practicality for under $30,000. BMW, on the other hand, has pulled out all the stops by endowing its venerable pocket-rocket with a supercar's sophistication and personality for a price. At a time when neo-Puritanism seems to be shaming aficionados into angst-ridden doldrums, Pontiac and BMW are standing tall and declaring for all to hear: Let the good times roll!

2008 BMW M3 Coupe

It's no coincidence that the engineers assigned to Pontiac's new G8 set out to benchmark their chassis design against BMW's ride and handling capabilities. But it's one thing to aim for a BMW; it's quite another to drive one, particularly when it's a no- compromise thoroughbred like the new fourth-generation M3 performance coupe.

The stat-sheet alone is enough to drive gearheads to paroxysms of frenzy: 414 hp from a 4.0-liter twin-cam V8 (up from 333 hp in the Gen-3 model); a 3,700-pound curb weight that plays a significant role in sprints from zero-to-60 in 4.7 seconds; a six-speed manual transmission whose gutsy gearing is tailor-made for an 8,400-rpm redline that many motorcycles might envy; cross-drilled floating- rotor disc brakes that can haul the M3 to a complete stop from 60 mph in just 105 feet.

The M3 is a driver's car, and its complement of driver-oriented tools includes 11 different programmable modes for tailoring torque, traction and suspension settings to driver preference and road conditions. With no tongue in cheek whatsoever, one of BMW's intended road conditions for the M3 is the racetrack, and at the car's debut at Laguna Seca Raceway outside Monterey, Calif., journalist-piloted M3s were soaring, cornering and drifting like a demented, parti-colored flock of seagulls.

The interior of the M3 coupe is a masterpiece of Bavarian comfort and efficiency: taut leathers, crisp actions from well positioned instruments, readable displays. Only BMW's iDrive telematics controller continues to subject a driver to potential distractions with its layers of screens and unorthodox readouts. Passenger comfort is exceptional; seats are well-bolstered against centrifugal forces to the sides, and rear buckets for two maximize both legroom and torso space.

And then, of course, there is the price of technology. The M3 Coupe starts at $57,275, and a sedan version arriving later in the year is slated for $54,757. (This assumes the dollar-euro exchange rate doesn't deteriorate to even more perverse levels.) Then, to feed all those fiery rpms, the M3 requires premium fuel which it nevertheless manages to consume at a rate of 14 mpg/city, 20 mpg/highway. Perfection, after all, is never cheap, and near-perfection's no bargain either. But where BMW's new M3 is concerned, it's not whether you can afford this car, it's whether you can live up to it.

Pontiac's new G8 sedan is like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. Just one look, and what seem like 20 years of ever-deepening anonymity and irrelevance simply fade away. The name G8 may not evoke the kinds of emotions that Firebird and Tempest and Trans-Am once did, but its back-to-basics powertrain pairing front engine and rear- wheel drive certainly get the juices flowing.

There are two basic iterations of the new G8. The $27,000 base model boasts a 3.6-liter V6 producing 256 horsepower, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The GT version is the bigger news, however. Its 6.0-liter pushrod V8 cranks out 361 hp through a six- speed auto, yet it still manages to achieve 15 mpg/city and 24 mpg/ highway thanks to computerized cylinder de-activation. (The V6 model is rated 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway). Even with its hi-po V8, in other words, the G8 GT is capable of 420 miles per tankful of fuel. With a sticker price of $29,310, this G8 is arguably the under- $30,000 performance champ in the contemporary auto marketplace.

Like the reborn (and laid-to-rest) GTO coupe that never quite endeared itself to enthusiasts, the Pontiac G8 bears an Aussie pedigree thanks to its sibling relationship with the Holden Commodore from Adelaide. Styling, however, is Yankee Doodle Dandy, with the snorkel scoops, wheel flares and subtle flip spoiler that hearken back to Pontiac's muscle-car heyday. Ah, but there's an important twist: This is a Pontiac that can handle as well as accelerate; that's as reassuring under braking as it is flagrant doing burnouts. Finally, All-American muscle meets four-wheel independent suspension and front-to-rear disc brakes. If you toss it, the G8 can take it which isn't the fond memory many Boomers tend to harbor about their Pontiacs of yore.

Inside, the G8 boasts one of the more refreshing design makeovers in automotive annals. Seat comfort, particularly up front, is a paragon of comfort; and a roomy rear bench generously accommodates three adults. Moreover, an 18 cubic-foot trunk swallows ample luggage. Gone are Pontiac's lumpy, pudgy control knobs that resembled nothing so much as Fisher-Price playthings. The G8's instrumentation and switchgear are all grown up, tasteful and easy to use and understand. Deep red read-outs are still frustrating to us members of the color- blind minority (but sometimes it's better not to know how fast you're going when 361 hp are in charge).

What Pontiac has accomplished with the G8 bodes well for a General Motors division that's fighting to stay viable. At last, here's a practical, real-world and even affordable sedan with both the styling and the chops to validate Pontiac's once-revered reputation as the "GM performance brand."

By Marc Stengel

More BMW car reviews?

Images of the 2008, BMW M3 Coupe

2008 BMW M3 Coupe front shot
2008 BMW M3 Coupe front shot
2008 BMW M3 Coupe interior shot
2008 BMW M3 Coupe interior shot
2008 BMW M3 Coupe dash
2008 BMW M3 Coupe dash
2008 BMW M3 Coupe rear view
2008 BMW M3 Coupe rear view