Long Term: 2011 BMW M3

I have friends who say that free beer and pizza tastes worse than suds and pie you buy for yourself. I’m skeptical: free food is delicious! Regardless of who’s right, it’s true that I lost my taste for BMW ownership once my extended warranty expired and my free lunch at the BMW service center ended. It took about six months from the end of the warranty to the first serious cascade of dash lights, but once they were lit, I beelined for the exit!

And that’s why 86,014 miles is as far as my 2011 M3’s odometer will turn on my dime. (A failing ABS module was one of the ultimate faults, so the odometer was frozen at 86,014 anyway!) While the breakdown catalyzed my divestment, my parting ways with the M3 was not unexpected. All year I’ve been shopping for a replacement sports car. I just didn’t expect to ditch the M3 before the replacement was found.

(All car enthusiasts seem to think their car is special, better than the rest, and thus worth a bit more than the next. Well, forgive me, because I’ve sinned the same sin.)

My M3 was special because it was a 2011 build, the last year of the E90 sedan, and because it was equipped with the Competition Package and a slick roof (no sunroof). As an E90, it got the screaming BMW S65, a legendary V8 engine that revved to 8,300 RPM. The Competition Package strengthened the M3’s performance chops with a lowered suspension, retuned dampers, and upsized 19″ wheels. And for tall guys who like the racetrack (me), the slick roof was a double boon because it lowered the car’s center of gravity and made clearance for a helmeted head.  

Working against the uniqueness and rarity of my M3 was its DCT transmission and luxury features — extended orange leather, carbon leather trim, keyless entry, navigation, heated seats, and rear sunshades. Yes, most people (including yours truly) appreciate such luxury niceties, but hardcore Bimmerphiles want the lightest, least complex E90 possible, so stripper E90s command a premium price.

I estimated that a clean and pretty M3 with my car’s vintage, build spec, and comprehensive service history would be worth $22k on the private market. But my M3 was far from clean. It had high-ish miles, paintwork on three sides (plus more body damage yet unfixed), and a display of dash warning lights bright enough to illuminate Times Square.

To bring my M3 closer to the ideal, I’d have to address its cosmetics. Street parking had taken the most significant toll. There was a nasty parking dent on the front passenger door ($1,000 as an out-of-pocket repair or $500 as an insurance deductible), a bent and paint-chipped front bumper (another $1,500 or $500 deductible), and a scraped front driver’s fender ($700 or $500 deductible). Two wheels were deeply gouged, and a third was color-mismatched due to a sloppy straightening and repaint ($700). Then there were a few dime-sized dents and many small scratches that I had no intention of fixing.  

The interior was in better shape as the leather and plastics wore well. Only the leather lining on the center console was starting to unglue ($200), and the start button’s lettering was flaking away ($100).

It had taken me several years to accumulate the cosmetic flaws, but equally serious were the mechanical issues that had just appeared. The actively illuminated dash lights indicated that the car needed a throttle body actuator ($1,000) and an ABS module ($2,000). Additionally, the weather sealing for both front doors needed replacement ($800). (I knew this from the way the water seeped on to the carpets after rains and car washes.) I suspected but had not confirmed that the LSD was brewing up another bill, as it had recently started to scrub the tires in tight turns. At best, it needed another fluid change ($300).  

Then there was the maintenance that was rapidly forthcoming on my 86k M3. The E90s are known for rod bearing wear, and proactively replacing them would cost $2,500 to $3,500. Equally infamous were the throttle body actuators; the second TBA would inevitably fail too and inflict another $1,000 in damages. Plus, it wouldn’t be long before the M3 needed new shocks, bushings, hoses and cooling components. And that’s not accounting for the expected unexpected: BMW’s finicky electronics had a habit of “surprising” me two or three times a year with costly headaches.

I was facing well over $6k in work — and additional claims on my insurance record — to turn my M3 into a dent-less mechanically sound $22k car, and another $4k to make it (momentarily) flawless and somewhat future-proof. So on Nov 12, 2020 when CarMax offered me $17k for the M3 — as-is with battle scars and Christmas lights illuminated — I signed the paperwork and went on my merry way. I figured they could fight the good fight for my M3, and the next buyer would have the opportunity to purchase an excellent CarMax extended warranty as protection.  

(As it turns out, CarMax decided to punt as well. They fixed the bodywork and the warning lights, then in early December, they sold the M3 to a local independent dealership for $24k. As of Jan 5, 2021, it’s still for sale with an asking price of $27k.)

Which isn’t to say that I won’t miss my M3. More than anything else, I loved its maniac engine, which felt ripped from a racecar. Nearly as great were its feelsome steering, balanced chassis and handsome looks. And it was practical too!

For daily driving, the orange seats — the most comfortable seats of any car I’ve owned — and woven “carbon leather” trim added upscale and light-hearted touches to the interior. The adjustable suspension calmed down enough for around-town use, and the well-insulated cabin kept out the wrong noises and let in the right ones. With comfortable seating for four and a generous trunk, it was hard to fault!

At the racetrack, the V8 screamed to the redline with orgasmic urgency: the final 2k RPM was an eye-widening delight. Its steering and chassis twittered with telepathic feedback. (Especially when compared to BMW’s modern, and mute, EPAS steering.) The M3 and I were in our happy place when flying past apexes with poise…and sometimes with heapings of oversteer.

I took the M3 to Streets of Willow, the Auto Club Speedway Roval, Thunderhill East, Sonoma Raceway, and Laguna Seca. Running high-performance street tires in the stock sizing of 235mm front and 265mm rear, the M3 felt balanced and predictable. (While the forum boys like to upgrade the front tires to match the width of the rears, the stock understeer-biased front axle never bothered me, and I never suffered interminable understeer or snap oversteer.) The E90 M3’s single-piston sliding-caliper brakes were a source of forum worry, but only formidable Laguna Seca stressed them to fading. They held up fine to 25-minute sessions on all other tracks, thanks in part to the PFC 08 endurance pads and high test RBF 600 brake fluid.

The only place I really wanted more from the M3 was in the canyon switchbacks. There, I wouldn’t rev the V8 quite as high or wring the chassis quite as hard as I would at a track day, and the M3 felt over grippy (or under torqued) for hamfisted hooning in the hairpins. 

And that was my E90 M3: A near-perfect luxury sports sedan with an engine from the gods. It brought my daughter home from the hospital, comfortably covered LA commutes and long weekend getaways, and drove with hair-on-fire at the racetrack. It only went because it was so high maintenance, and I wanted to scratch the new car itch. Hopefully, someone with a big checkbook will take it under his wing because it is the best damn sports sedan I’ve ever owned!

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