Car review: BMW M3: Believe it – 3 is greater than 4
No dilemma which M-car to go for. This time around it’s the M3 saloon, not the M4 coupe, which is the superior model
Date Reviewed: May 12, 2014
Spinal Tap’s guitarist Nigel Tufnel would doubtless disagree, but going one higher is not always the best decision. Sometimes it really is just better to make 10 louder, rather than go all the way to 11.
That certainly is the case with the newest members of BMW’s M family. Because the marketing department doth dictate it so, the new coupe version of the iconic M3 sports saloon is now an M4. The M3 will from now on be strictly available as a saloon. Confused? Yes, you probably will be, at least until we get a couple of generations further down the road and we’re more used to the 4 Series name.
Still, the good news is that you don’t really need to agonise over which to go for, the M3 or M4. Quite apart from the fact that so few of us will be able to afford the €100,000-plus price tag on the M4, the dilemma is solved for you right from the get-go: the M3 is the superior car.
Part of that is quite likely down to the name: M4 just has no resonance as yet. Part of it is most definitely down to the looks. While a 4 Series coupe out-poses a 3 Series saloon every time, in the M-world, the positions are reversed. With the wider track from the 4 Series fitted, and massive wheel arch blisters to wrap the bodywork over those sticky 19in Michelin Pilots, the M3 just looks harder and meaner than the M4. It may be only by a few degrees, but it’s the small things that make a legend.
Which is possibly just as well, as the engine is smaller this time around. The old M3 used a 4.0-litre, naturally aspirated V8 engine. It was a glorious unit, all snarls and crackles and endless reserves of power. For the new M3 and M4, though, M-Sport has taken the existing 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six and cranked up the power and torque. The worry is, can a smaller engine, with its exhaust note muffled by not one but two turbochargers, possibly be as spine-tinglingly exciting as the old V8?
The bald performance figures don’t assuage your apprehension. Peak power is only up slightly over the old V8, at 424hp, while peak torque is now a whopping 550Nm, and all delivered at low, diesel-like engine speeds. Oh dear. Worse still, BMW is happy to inform you that this is the most efficient M3 engine ever, bettering 30mpg on the combined fuel economy cycle and emitting a surprisingly reasonable 194g/km of CO2.
All of which tells you nothing about what this engine is actually like to drive with. It revs with ferocity around its 8,000rpm cut-off and on the way sounds as if a Gruffalo is under your bonnet, gargling with propane. BMW’s engineers assured us that the built-in electronic engine sound generator only adds a final three per cent of polish to the engine’s note, but frankly, you wouldn’t care anyway, so good does it sound. Better than the old V8? Yup . . .
In spite of that low torque peak, power is delivered in a much more linear way, making the car more enjoyable to drive – you can lean on it and exploit it as you go. Mind you, you’ll be in licence-losing territory pretty quickly. As we found on a morning session test track, the M3 is at its happiest cruising along at about 150-160kmh. The steering, which along with the gearbox and throttle can be adjusted through Comfort, Sport and Sport + modes, has some occasionally odd weighting, but terrific feel and response when you get a little lock on. For an electrically boosted power steering system, it is remarkably talkative and accurate.
You can, if you like, drive the M3 like an utter hooligan (on the test track, of course), turning off the traction control to scribe long, lazy powerslides, converting those Michelins into a smoky haze. Leave the electronics on, though, and the clever M-Differential slung between the rear wheels acts like an on-board racing instructor, helping you to find grip, traction and poise long after you’ve reached the limits of your own abilities. On the road, it’s simply devastating, but not without a sense of fun and enjoyment.
It may seem somewhat perverse in this day and age to be granting a hugely expensive, ludicrously fast German sports saloon a five-star rating, but this is about more than simply recommending or enjoying a specific car. The new M3 is now a performance benchmark against which all others, the lowly and the mighty, will have to be judged.
3.0-litre straight-six petrol turbo, 424hp @ 5,500rpm, 550Nm @ 1,800rpm
0-100km/h in 4.1secs
Claimed 8.3l/100km (34mpg)
194g/km ( motor tax €1,200)
OUR VERDICT: Epic performance, sound and yet still practical and useable