Even in the rarified domain of the automotive icon, the BMW M3 occupies a very special place. South Africans may have missed out on the first-generation car, but we made do with our locally developed 325i, 333i and Shadowline models. When the E36 M3s finally arrived, putting near supercar power (at the time) in the hands of Joe Public, they were eagerly snapped up and often promptly crashed. The E46-generation model continued the legend, adding sophistication and even greater desirability that will ensure it the type of classical status that the E36 is unlikely to ever be bestowed. And now the E90-generation BMW M3 has arrived, promising giant-slaying performance and handling. Can it live up to the benchmark set by its illustrious forebears?
V8 thunder for BMW M3As the focus usually quickly moves to engines when M3s are discussed, let’s go there first. After all, the new BMW M3 has something rather special under that bulging bonnet. The all-new, 4,0-litre, 32-valve V8 engine has been a controversial choice, not only because it replaces such a stunning straight-six, but also because of concerns of extra weight hung over the front axle. BMW has been quick to squash any such worries. The new V8, they say, is actually 15 kg lighter than the straight-six, yet delivers massively more power, 309 kW of it in fact (as opposed to 252 kW). Perhaps even more impressively, torque is rated at 400 Nm, and 85 % of that figure remains available throughout the rev range, promising brilliant flexibility. In this age of dual-clutch and semi-automatic transmissions, enthusiasts will be happy to see that the BMW M3 can still be had with a proper six-speed manual transmission, sending power to the rear wheels via a variable M limited slip differential.
The straight-line performance is sizzling. The 0-100 km/h dash takes a blistering 4,8 seconds, and the top speed is limited to 250 km/h. What helps the acceleration time is that the BMW M3 can get past 100 km/h in second gear, so there’s no need to shift to third before the benchmark is reached. And before you ask… yes, the new BMW M3 doesn’t have that charismatic straight-six sound, but the V8 is pleasant to listen to in its own way. There’s always the underlying threat of typical V8 thunder, but it never quite erupts and seems a little more metallic than some other V8s, especially those of Mercedes-Benz.
Pin-sharp dynamicsAlthough the BMW M3 looks like a muscular version of the current 3 Series coupe, the changes are far more significant. In fact, 80 % of its components are unique, and a lot of effort has gone into lowering weight and especially the centre of gravity. To this end it even features a carbon-fibre reinforced roof. Furthermore, the suspension boasts a lot of revisions, nearly exclusively making use of lightweight aluminium components. Available as a (pricey) optional extra is MDrive, which allows the driver to electronically customise the suspension using three settings.
Like most sporty BMW 3 Series models, the steering is heavy and the low-speed ride quite firm, yet like all its siblings, the BMW M3 is never a harsh machine, retaining composure beautifully even when the road surface deteriorates badly. The promise of a great driving experience starts with the seating position. The steering wheel is a nice, thick-rimmed item that is very pleasant to hold, and the electrically adjustable seat offers superb lateral support. Fire up that V8, sit back for a moment or two to take in the growl, engage the somewhat stiff clutch to select first and you’re ready to rock. Even with lots of grip from those fat rear tyres as well as traction control, being too aggressive with the throttle and clutch could result in the BMW M3 breaking traction anyway. Certainly, switching off the electronic aids will see you paint long black lines of expensive rubber.
Like previous M3s, the key to this car’s unique appeal is its adjustability and precision. At 2,3 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is massively fast and it responds with immediacy and eagerness to driver inputs, whether your aim is precision, or just to let it “hang out”. It’s hard to think of another car that can be so blistering fast around a track and against a stop watch, yet can also be so loose and entertaining when the driver just wants to have fun. There really is only one minor point of criticism, and that is the transmission, which can baulk during very fast (snap) shifts.
Luxury and styleSo, the BMW M3 certainly lives up to the heady expectations thus far, but what about the looks and cabin? During our time with the M3, it attracted huge attention, and comments were always positive. The BMW M3 looks very muscular with that power bugle on the bonnet, narrow slits in the front fenders, flared wheel arches, rear diffuser and two pairs of shiny exhaust outlets to blast out its particular brand of music. Smart 18-inch wheels are standard, but the shape looks infinitely better when stretched over the optional 19-inch items.
Inside, the BMW M3 is no stripped-out road racer. You get climate control, auto lights and wipers, radio/CD player and leather upholstery among other items. There are also M logos everywhere to remind you that you’re seated in something special, as if you’re likely to forget. The instrumentation is also quite special, with the rev counter boasting a variable warning field that changes as the car warms up.
BMW M3 - VerdictAt the price, the BMW M3 is almost impossible to fault. Yes, perhaps an Audi RS4 or Mercedes C63 is more practical because of their four doors, but that’s about it. The BMW M3 is hardly uncomfortable in the back, and its boot remains of a useful size, too. Far more important for this genre of motorcar is the performance and handling on offer, and here the BMW M3 remains untouchable. The new engine is a marvel, a definite future classic that boasts not only superb outputs, but also great flexibility and responsiveness. And then there’s the handling. You’ll have to buy a Porsche to come close to matching the M3’s precision and poise. If you were worried that the new BMW M3 would be a heavy, compromised luxury performance car in the way that AMGs tend to be, then relax. It’s more focused than ever before.
- Aggressive looks
- Phenomenal performance
- Superb dynamics
- Standard specification
- Gearbox could be smoother
Engine: 4,0-litre, V8, petrol
Power: 309 kW @ 8 300 rpm
Torque: 400 Nm @ 3 900 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 250 km/h
0-100 km/h: 4,8 seconds
Fuel economy: 12,4 litres/100 km
- Audi RS4: A stunning competitor that not only looks and sounds the part, but is also good fun to drive, even though it can’t match the rear-wheel drive antics on offer from the BMW M3. Four-door body boosts practicality. Ride/handling balance well judged. Steering somewhat lifeless.
- Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG: A really hardcore machine, almost shockingly so for a Mercedes C-Class saloon. Sounds like thunder and goes like the clappers but lacks the finesse of the BMW M3 and the daily driver appeal of the Audi.