MARBELLA, Spain – In balancing its high-performance legacy with growing calls for efficiency, the fourth edition of BMW M GmbH’s M3 sport coupe emerges with a powerful display of V-8-enriched techno-think wrapped in the body of a grand touring car.

Honed from motorsport nearly 25 years ago, the first M3 arrived in BMW’s stable in 1986 as a feisty giant-killer. Sporting a Formula 1-derived 200-hp 4-cyl. and weighing less than 2,700 lbs. (1,225 kg), the first of the anabolic 3-Series launched the M road cars into serious contention for sporting purity.

Over its next two iterations, the M3 swelled into a proper 6-cyl. performance car and continued to earn respect – both on track and off – solidifying its iconic status in sports-car lore.

True to form – and the first to feature an 8-cyl. engine – the new ’08 M3 is a very quick and rewarding drive. Its screaming 4.0L V-8 punches out 414 hp at more than 8,000 rpm, while the rest of the car bristles with refinements made on the world’s most demanding racetrack, Germany’s Nurburgring Nordschliefe, or “North Loop.”

Overall, BMW says 80% of the M3 is all new compared with the 3-Series coupe on which it’s based.

And it looks the part, too. Three large, low-hanging air intakes scowl at the road ahead, while the vented powerdomed hood appears shrink-wrapped over the all-aluminum engine. Side vents flaunt the M3 badge and vent excess engine heat, while the puffed up haunches shoulder the bulging 18-in. rolling stock (19-in. alloys are optional) like a weightlifter sucking up his chest.

A carbon fiber-reinforced plastic roof, as on the previous M3 CSL and current M6 coupe, adds to the competitive nature of the car, while also reducing weight and lowering the center of gravity.

Some of the menace is lost out back. However, the integrated diffuser (for the smooth underbody), quad exhaust pipes and tiny trunk spoiler should be enough indication for those left in the M3’s wake.

But the M3 has never been about flash; checkered flags and dripping victory champagne best accentuate its conventional 3-box shape.

Heading into the mountains of southern Spain, one can’t help but notice how much the M3 has matured. Four adults now comfortably fit within its leather-wrapped confines, while the chassis and drivetrain can be adjusted for various levels of comfort and performance.

Motoring smoothly along with traffic, the strengthened body feels rock-solid and the entire car exudes confidence with every movement of the perfectly weighted, fat-rimmed M-sport steering wheel.

It’s almost anticlimactic, this new M3; all the elements are present, but it seems to be missing the magic of previous generations. That is, until all its electronic tomfoolery is employed.

With one press of the MDrive button on the steering wheel, the M3 goes into full-attack mode. The Servotronic steering sharpens to a knifepoint, the optional Electronic Damper Control suspension, along with the standard limited-slip M differential and Dynamic Stability Control, default to preset performance settings and the engine is uncorked to become even more responsive.

As the MDrive system is optional, individual buttons on the center console also can adjust the performance parameters of the car, which is helpful, given that preprogramming the setup must be performed through the still-maddening iDrive infotainment interface.

The standard 6-speed manual’s lightweight, twin-plate clutch is tricky to engage at launch but makes cog-swapping a true joy. BMW plans to offer an all-new 7-speed dual-clutch, paddle-shift gearbox in the near future, allowing the M3 to become even quicker and easier to drive.

Out on the private track of the nearby Ascari Race Resort, the M3 enters its element and astounds in its ability to keep its hefty 3,649-lb. (1,655-kg) curb weight in check. The front/rear weight balance in fast corners is perfect, the new aluminum suspension never loses its composure over curbings and the engine wails to redline like a nuclear Cuisinart.

BMW officials say the new car is considerably quicker around the Nurburgring than the previous model, with a 0-62 mph (100 km/h) time of 4.8 seconds and electronically limited top speed of 155 mph (250 km/h). Unleash it from the fun-governor, and it should hit about 186 mph (300 km/h), they say.

Unfortunately, the new M3 is lacking some of the fundamental, hard-wired-to-the-pavement feel of its predecessors.

Another sticking point are the large, compound disc brakes, which BMW had fitted with optional dealer-installed racing pads for the drive. Although they worked well all day long, the brakes constantly squealed in protest and did not offer a clear feel of the stock setup’s abilities.

’08 BMW M3 Coupe
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive 2-door coupe
Engine 6.2L (6,162 cc) 4.0L (3,999 cc) DOHC V-8 aluminum block/ aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 414 hp @ 8,300 rpm
Torque 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 3,900 rpm
Compression ratio 12.0:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 92 x 75
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 108.7 ins. (276 cm)
Overall length 181.9 ins. (462 cm)
Overall width 70.9 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 55.9 ins. (142 cm)
Curb weight 3,649 lbs./ 1,655 kg
Base price range Low $60,000s
European fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 13/26 (17.9/9.2 L/100 km)
Market competition Audi RS4, S5, Lexus IS-F, Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG

Also troubling are the special Michelin Pilot Sport tires, which were co-developed with BMW and worked fine prior to overheating after a mere five laps on the track, resulting in excessive understeer.

Inside the cabin is a familiar 3-Series coupe decked out with special gauges, deeply bolstered sport seats and a plethora of M badges. The leather interior can be equipped in three styles of varying degrees of luxury, with trim choices including titanium and aluminum hues, as well as carbon-patterned leather and wood.

Other highlights include an optional 825-watt BMW Individual stereo and adaptive bi-xenon headlights, as well as six standard airbags and a reinforced safety cell.

After a long day at the track, the once-sprightly M3 feels slightly tamed, which may be for the best, as BMW is aiming to surpass the approximate 90,000 deliveries of the previous model.

European M3s go on sale this fall, equipped with a regenerative braking system for powering the on-board electronics. U.S. models arrive in spring without the hybrid fanfare and will be priced in the “low $60,000s,” BMW says, noting the regenerative brakes may be added at a later date as the technology proliferates throughout its various model ranges.

U.S. fuel economy figures, which BMW pegs as 8% better than the previous model, will be released closer to launch.

Also yet to come are sedan and convertible variants of the M3, along with a probable track-oriented version in the mold of the M3 CSL.

Although it lacks the edginess of past M3s, the new coupe admirably pays homage to its forbearers, which performed so well they left BMW with little choice but to take the new car’s performance and refinement to new levels.

It’s just a shame the essence of the M3 has to hide beneath so much technology.

msutton@wardsauto.com