BMW's M3 carries an illustrious badge but can live up to it, especially in 'Competition Pack' guise. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The latest generation BMW M3 ups the ante in a number of regards. It's quicker, cleverer, better looking, offers better value and more equipment. You even get the option of a manual gearbox. Offered solely in saloon guise (for the coupe version you'll need the M4 model), it even returns to the classic straight-six engine configuration. And there's an uprated 'Competition Pack' version with even more power. What's not to like?
When it comes to performance car icons, the BMW M3 is firmly positioned at the top table. There aren't too many sports models that can boast a bloodline or a competition record to match the M3's, a history that goes right back to the 1986 E30 M3, the car that set the template.
There has been some revisionist history surrounding the M3 though. Many remember that original car as being some sort of pure-bred racing machine, but most were very well equipped with sunroofs, stereos, air conditioning and such like. Yet the myth of the M3 being a stripped-out racer for the road endures and BMW has been beaten over the head with it upon every subsequent M3 launch. The current car is an M3 through and through. It's fast, capable, hugely exciting, reasonably practical, wholly desirable and a model that reflects the politics of its times. We think you'll love it. Especially in uprated 450bhp 'Competition Pack' guise.
Enthusiasts will exult at the fact that unlike many modern sports models, this M3 is offered as standard with a six-speed manual transmission. It'll even throw in throttle blips on downshifts too. BMW's M Division engineering chief Albert Biermann apparently viewed a manual transmissions as a "non-negotiable part" of the package. There is a seven-speed dual clutch 'box available as an option and it's sure to be popular, but for the hardcore, there's no substitute for three pedals and a stick.
Otherwise, buyers have two options. Either to go for the standard 431bhp model. Or to choose this car with the 'Competition Package' option, which increases power to 450bhp. In both cases, you get the same twin turbo 3.0-litre straight-six that does its best work from just 1,800rpm, offering a huge advantage in real world driveability thanks to the massive 550Nm torque figure - an increase in torque of 40% over the old M3 Coupe model. There's a choice of a manual gearshift )thank goodness) or a dual-clutch paddleshift auto transmission; with the latter installed, the sprint to 62mph takes just 4.1 seconds - or 4.0 seconds with the 'Competition Package' model.
The dual-clutch auto gearbox offers a launch control mode and there's even a 'Smoky Burnout' setting you can switch to if you really want to get breathalysed. There's also an Active M Differential to help improve traction and an M Dynamic Mode in the stability control software, which allows owners a degree of slip angle without turning the safety net off completely. The steering is an electromechanical set-up featuring three modes: Comfort, Sport and Sport+.
The 'Competition Package' includes Adaptive M Suspension, extensively tuned to the enhanced performance and handling. It features new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, along with a reconfiguration for the driving modes. The standard Active M Differential on the rear axle and DSC Dynamic Stability Control are likewise configured to match the upgraded dynamics.
Design and Build
Unlike in the last generation of M3, where the coupe model got the sexy carbon fibre roof and the saloon had to make do with metalwork up top, this time the M3 four-door gets the CFRP roof treatment. This brings weight-savings of 5kgs and lowers the vehicle's centre of gravity, the highest part of the car being the point where additional weight is most keenly felt. Although the four door body will never have quite the sleekness of the long-doored coupe shape, BMW's stylists have done a very good job here and you might need to double-take to check whether it was an M3 or an M4 that had just blown by. The coupe-like line of the roof and the low stance look anything but utilitarian.
The interior is beautifully executed, with front seats that take inspiration from the bucket seats fitted in racing cars, and feature a full-size single-piece back panel. There's electric adjustment and heating as standard, while the upholstery is segmented and has some lovely stitching and perforation details. The seats are slim fitting and even feature an illuminated BMW M logo. The rear seats are built from a lightweight composite material and can be folded 60:40 if you need extra room for luggage.
Market and Model
The M3 retails at just under £57,000 - or just under £60,000 in upgraded 'Competition Pack' form. Either way, the list price will save you around £500 on the M4 coupe variant. Of course, as the two cars are mechanically identical, it's only fair to see them priced so similarly, although historically, that hasn't stopped BMW pitching cars that are broadly similar under the skin at vastly different prices. M5 and M6 anyone? Nevertheless, just over fifty-six grand might seem quite a whack for a fast BMW 3 Series and some will ask whether the M3 is really worth all the extra over the quite extravagantly talented 335i M Sport. Others will look at what Mercedes wants for a C63 AMG or what Lexus charges for an IS-F and conclude that the BMW might just be the bargain of the bunch.
Standard kit includes adaptive M suspension, 19-inch M light alloy wheels and front and rear park distance control, exterior-folding mirrors, 'Shadowline' exterior trim and a full BMW Professional Media package with upgraded Bluetooth system. Options include BMW Individual paint finishes, Merino leather and interior trim elements. A bit of fun is the free BMW M Laptimer app, which allows owners to analyse their personal driving style. Once their smartphone is hooked up to the car - via USB cable or the car's snap-in adapter - drivers can operate the BMW M Laptimer app using the iDrive Touch Controller. The app then records speed, longitudinal and lateral acceleration, engine revs, the gear engaged, steering angle, accelerator position and fuel consumption. The data can subsequently be analysed via graphic displays on a smartphone, including driver reaction times.
Cost of Ownership
BMW has made great strides in improving the M3's economy and emissions and to put those figures into perspective, let's wind the clock back a bit to the previous six-cylinder M3, the E46 generation. That car, which was only retired in 2006, emitted 287g/km and managed a combined fuel economy figure of 23.7mpg; this from an engine that developed 340PS. This current F80 generation M3 develops a massive 431bhp yet can see 34mpg and 194g/km when fitted with the twin-clutch transmission. That's not 10 per cent better economy. That's a hoofing great 43 per cent improvement in fuel consumption.
Insurance is as expensive as you'd expect from a car with that sort of potency under the bonnet, so younger drivers ought to ensure they can get halfway sensibly priced cover first. Residual values should hold up well too. This isn't a tired old platform that's being rolled out for one last hurrah. Used demand for this generation M3 should prove very healthy indeed.
It's tempting to think of this car as a retrenchment, that it might be an M3 that has dialled back the extremity of its predecessor. While the straight-six twin-turbo engine doesn't deliver quite the aural dynamics of its eight-cylinder normally-aspirated predecessor, that's a small price to pay for a car that's just flat-out faster, especially in upgraded 350bhp 'Competition Pack' guise. It's quicker and more talented in corners too, thanks to a better chassis and less weight to lug. Faster, more composed and far more efficient as well. And better equipped and better value. You can see where we're going here. Did we mention it's faster? It's certainly a better car and if in becoming so, you need to make one or two compromises, then perhaps that's a reasonable trade.
BMW has moved adeptly with the times with this model and should be rewarded for doing so. The company is interested in building performance cars for a real and rapidly changing motoring environment and that's what it's done with this M3. It has embraced efficiency improvements while still offering old-school interaction - via three pedals and a stick should you want it. It's a very smart blend of the traditional and the modern and looks to move the game on by quite some margin.