The pair of BMWs on these pages represents the type of thing we at european car love seeing. Devoid of stickers, chrome and extraneous bling, they are both understated and powerful. They are meant to be driven rather than paraded.

Personally, I've always had a problem with the M3 cabriolet. I've always regarded it as something of a betrayal to M Technic's high performance lineage.

I don't feel like that anymore.

Brad Otoupalik of Evosport seems to have assembled this car to challenge my rigid M-spec sensibilities.

It's kind of funny driving a car you're certain you'll hate. You tend to drive it harder, hoping it'll do something stupid and make you hate it even more. Therefore, as I exited the parking lot I ripped the clutch and let her fly, hoping it would pirouette in a perfect 180 so I could easily re-park it. No such luck. It actually did a blazing 360 and had me pointing towards the open road. OK, it's got some beans.

I still hate it though, and therefore rev the piss out of every gear change. The tach arcs wildly to 8300 rpm before the pop-pop-pop of the limiter kicks in. The shortened throws of the shifter feels like you're chambering a 30/30 round: snick, snick, snick. Deep into fourth gear it becomes apparent the familiar braaaang of the M3's exhaust note has been replaced by a deeper, more menacing tone. I keep trying to find the sweet spot on the torque band. The problem is that this thing pulls forever, and I'm suddenly staring at a gigantic pile of sulphur. I hit the Rotora binders so hard it leaves burn marks on my shoulder where the seat belt is. If I wore contacts, they'd have popped off of my eyeballs. OK... it's got good brakes and it's pretty fast. I still hate it.

The Long Beach freeways are perhaps the worst in the state, comprised of a series of concrete plates battered and broken by thousands of semi trucks hauling rocks, dead fish, manure--that sort of stuff. I'd driven a few tightly sprung cars here after the Long Beach Grand Prix and spent more time in the air than on the ground. Given the slammed appearance of this M3, I figured it would fly off into space. It doesn't. Like all current BMWs its handling is absolutely predictable, even when the suspension is fully loaded and the pavement sucks. I suppose some credit must be given to the Bridgestone rubber underneath--it just doesn't give up. And while I don't fully understand how the Praxis airbags can imitate coil springs, I've gotta admit this car feels very smooth and well heeled.

I still hate it though, especially as I come to an incredibly steep incline that promises to rip the Vorsteiner airdam from the nose. Otoupalik reminds me that the Praxis airbag suspension is on its lowest setting; a few moments later the chassis rises, lending another three inches of clearance. The M3 crawls over the gap like a Unimog.

"Installing the Praxis airbag suspension is a bitch," Otoupalik says. "It takes us two full days of labor to get the system in place. And then we fine-tune it to our own specifications. I've taken this car to the track a few times and I have to admit it does very well."

Brad continues to point out features in the cabin, a few so subtle I don't even notice them. In particular are the factory-spec CSL door panels wrought from carbon-fiber and some sort of organic/synthetic leather. The steering wheel is culled from the same lot and features the type of ergonomic contours racers love. And as much as I dislike extraneous vents and louvers, the Vorsteiner bits, especially the vented hood, look very good. However, it is what's under the hood that's really interesting. Evosport's lead tech, Gary Karamikian (a huge-brained physicist) managed to replace the original HFM system with a full carbon-fiber unit that supplants the BMW's mass airflow system. The massive, organic-looking unit funnels huge amounts of air directly into the S54's individual throttle bodies, working with special code created by Powerchip specifically for this application.

"The biggest challenge was to make all the factory electronics work right, things like cold start, idle, AC compensation, low-speed drivability," Karamikian explains. "The key part was deleting the factory air mass meter and recreating the mass air signal back to the DME while using a map sensor and setting up the car to run Alpha N. One of the things we were able to do was take control of the factory O2 sensors and manipulate how they work. We found that the BMW DME is very smart and would shut down the car if the signals received did not check out with what it was expecting to see. The DME will just put the engine in a default, limp-home safe-mode. Once we were able to get the air mass simulation down the rest fell into place rather quickly. Although I only had 48 hours to get it to work, it turned out very well. A few more days in development and this thing will really scream. This might make a great new Evosport product."

The engine also wears Evosport's power pulleys, headers and a Maganaflow exhaust. At the end of the day, the M3 cranked out 324 hp (up from 285 hp) at the rear wheels. Do the math--it's impressive, especially considering the car is normally aspirated. And given nature of the highly-strung S54 engine, this treatment is very much in line with its original design.

Otoupalik is trying to tell me how this is the ultimate So Cal car, the perfect rig for cruising PCH. Yeah... whatever. I can't help but think how much a roof would tighten up the chassis. To its credit however, the cabrio feels solid, virtually devoid of cowl-shake and various convertible-specific maladies. I guess the H&R anti-roll bars and Evosport cross braces actually add rigidity (imagine that).

In hindsight this BMW Cabrio the most developed car of its kind I'd seen in 20 years. Did I still hate it? Of course. But I sure as hell have new respect for it.


2002 BMW M3 CABRIOLET

*LayoutLongitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

*Engine3.2-liter inline six, dohc, four valves per cylinder, Evosport carbon-fiber Race Box, Evosport header and pulleys, Magnaflow exhaust, Powerchip/Evosport software

*TransmissionSix-speed manual

*SuspensionBridgestone Praxis air suspension, H&R anti-roll bars

*BrakesF: Rotora six-piston calipers, 14-inch rotorsR: Rotora four-piston calipers, 14-inch rotors

*Wheels and TiresBBS RS-GT, 8.5x19 (f)10x19 (r)Bridgestone S03, 245/35-19 (f)275/30-19

*ExteriorVorsteiner V-CSL front bumper array, boot lid and rear diffuser, Vorsteiner VRS GTR carbon-fiber hood, Evosport carbon-fiber headlight inserts, side gills and kidney grilles, O.E. LED taillights

*InteriorO.E. CSL door panels and center console, Breyton shift knob and e-brake handle, Alpine audio system

*PerformancePeak Power: 320 whp/385 bhp

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