BMW M3 (2020) International Prototype Drive

The new BMW M3 and its M4 coupe sibling are just months away from production, but international correspondent Greg Kable has already been behind the wheel of a very-nearly finished version of the business-class performance sedan. He drove it on the Sachsenring circuit in Germany back-to-back with the old model. Has the new version moved the game on? Find out here...

BMW M3 render image credit: Duwyne Aspeling - Cars.co.za

Despite the broad disruption to its operations brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, BMW’s M division still plans to reveal both the all-new M3 and M4 this September, prior to the start of production and sales by the end of the year. Before they get that far, though, there’s a final phase of development testing to be completed and a validation sign-off by the BMW board later in the summer, ahead of which we’ve been invited to drive them both in prototype form here.

Wearing heavy camouflage, the high-mileage M3 and M4 development units that BMW M has brought to the Sachsenring have clearly had a hard life, but we’re assured they represent the latest technical standing of the car. Ignore the heavy cladding and plastic wrap in our pictures and you’ll be able to make out certain styling elements, including the new, deep kidney grille and the widened front and rear wing panels, necessitated by the adoption of wider tracks and some rather serious-looking wheel and tyres.

Also read: BMW M2 CS (2020) International First Drive

Spotting the new Ms


The M3 will likely get a bigger grille, but not like that of the 4-Series.

As they stand in the pitlane, both cars have a squat, hunkered-down stance that instantly marks them out as something a bit special. They’re quite a bit larger than their predecessors: the 5th-generation M3 and 1st-generation M4, too. Each takes on its own distinctive form: the 2021-model year M3 appears significantly more upright next to its lower M4 sibling. The rear-wheel-drive saloon and coupe models here represent only half of the planned body styles for BMW’s mid-level M-car line-up. As before, there will be an M4 cabriolet by the middle of next year and, for the first time, a new M4 Gran Coupé introduced around the same time. 

10 Cool Things: BMW 4 Series & upcoming M4

In a continuation of familiar BMW M derivative strategy, standard and Competition versions of both the M3 and M4 are planned. The promised rise in performance comes after the introduction of the four-wheel-drive M340i xDrive and M440i xDrive, which plug the gap to the rest of the 3 Series and 4 Series line-up. At the heart of each new model is the M division’s new S58 engine. The twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder successor to the longrunning S55 unit delivers 353 kW and 600 Nm in the standard M3 and M4 – 21 kW and 50 Nm more than the outputs of the outgoing models. 

The rear-wheel-drive derivatives will come with the choice of either a standard 6-speed manual or optional 8-speed (torque-converter, not dual-clutch) automatic transmission in combination with BMW M’s electronically controlled M Sport locking rear differential. In the new M3 Competition and M4 Competition, the output is increased by a further 22 kW to a headlining 375 kW through what BMW M describes as “some specific software changes”, although torque remains at 600 Nm. That will make the top-line versions of the BMW M3 and M4 a match for any of their direct rivals on peak power. 

Unlike the standard models, though, the M3 and M4 Competition will be sold exclusively with the 8-speed auto-box and, in a big break with tradition, they will be offered with the option of BMW M’s fully variable xDrive four-wheel-drive system. It will be the first time that either the M3 or M4 has been sold with anything but traditional rear-wheel drive.

Aural pleasures 


The new 6-cylinder engine sounds deeper, more brutish.

As we hit the starter button on the centre console and set the M3 prototype to ‘M1’ mode (the first of 2 preset driving modes accessed by buttons on the new multifunction steering wheel), it’s reassuring to hear that BMW M’s latest inline 6-cylinder produces a more evocative exhaust note than the engine it replaces...  It’s less raspy in character than its predecessor, with a deeper, more guttural tone. 

We amble past the pit garages in 1st gear and head out on to the circuit. First impressions? The new M3’s S58 engine is quite a bit sharper than the old S55 unit. Not only does it sound great, with a soaring combination of hard mechanical thrashing and a resounding exhaust as the revs rise, but it also punches with real purpose in lower gears. With added torque concentrated across a wider rev range and a useful lift in power at the top end, there’s both greater urgency and even more linearity to the delivery than the last M3 offered (which was already a particularly even revving performance engine). 

The change in character is subtle – but noticeable. And the throttle response is improved, too. It is not exactly rabid, but offers greater sensitivity to inputs for more precise metering of reserves. Less well resolved is the manual gearshift. It’s quite long in throw and rubbery in feel.

Traditionalists will argue, but the truth is that the conventional 6-speed is a long way from matching the speed and precision you’d expect from a gearbox on a car bearing the BMW M badge. And that’s a pity, because the rest of the driveline feels wonderfully engineered and full of focus. 

Potent performance


Plenty of choices now with RWD or AWD with manual or automatic gearboxes.

Although we have yet to see any performance claims, you can expect a 0-100 kph time under 4 seconds and, in combination with the traditional optional M Driver’s package, a top speed approaching 280 kph for the standard rear-wheel-drive version. But while the engine impresses, it’s the chassis that really moves the M3’s game along. It’s described as being all new and largely bespoke, with only the pickup points for the suspension – which will come as standard with adaptive damping – being shared with the 3 Series. 

In a familiar move, BMW M has developed a new engine strut brace, which serves to stiffen the entire front end structure quite significantly, providing the basis for even more fluidity and handling poise than with standard 3 Series and prototype versions of the 4 Series we drove recently. At the same time, it has given the new M3 a much wider front track than ever before. 

As it did on the M3 CS, BMW has also fitted staggered forged aluminium wheels front and rear – 19-inch front and 20-inch rear as standard – in the search of added steering response. They wear 275/35 and 285/30 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, making for more rubber on the road than any M3 or M4 has had previously.

In a development first unveiled on the M8 and recently brought to the facelifted M5, the new M3 and M4 gain a function that gives access to the individual driving mode options for the engine, suspension, steering and brakes via the iDrive controller. On four-wheel-drive xDrive models, it will also allow you to alter the apportioning of the drive to give you pure rear-wheel- drive qualities on a track when desired.

 
The interior is still well under wraps, but don't expect it to have any surprises in store.

The steering of our rear-driven M3 prototype is excellent – precise in action and weighted to perfection for the more demanding sections of the Sachsenring circuit. Having run a number of laps in its predecessor to form a benchmark earlier on, we can confidently say the new M3 offers greater driver involvement than the car it replaces, even in its most basic form. True, the new model lacks the compactness that once marked the M3 out among its 4-door performance car rivals; but it’s extraordinarily agile for its dimensions, with an incisive change of direction and a very direct feel to the way it turns in to corners. 

There’s added grip as well. The wider front tyres deliver great adhesion, allowing the new model to carry high speed up to the apex and beyond with impressive neutrality and superb body control despite a quite heady weight transfer. There’s a generous amount of wheel travel given the performance car billing, but the car feels magnificently settled and well within its limits when hustled hard through the Sachsenring’s Castro Omega curve – a tricky off-camber downhill constant-radius right-hander that exits uphill into the equally challenging Sternquell curve. 

Push the chassis hard and the car’s M Sport differential does its usual neat trick, apportioning drive to each individual rear wheel in search of optimum traction. All of which allows you to exploit the inherent balance and assuredly work up to and, with the DSC turned off, beyond the limits. And because of its added muscle and improved response, the M3’s new engine can be relied on to alter your cornering line on the throttle. 

Summary


Set to arrive in SA in 2021, the new M3 looks likely to be a firm challenger for best-in-class.

It’s always tricky attempting to form an accurate impression of a new car from a handful of miles on a smooth-surfaced circuit. In this case, though, we’re confident BMW M has succeeded in injecting its revered business-class performance sedan with an added dose of performance and handling prowess. There’s still a lot to learn about it but, in back-to-back runs with the old model, it felt not only a good deal faster in a straight line – but also a more accommodating car to drive at or near its limits thanks to a new-found sense of handling delicacy. We’ll know for sure when we get to test a production version on the road later this year, but you might just be looking at the most dynamically accomplished M3 yet – one that’s bigger and heavier than ever before but, on the strength of this first encounter at least, also inherently more exciting to drive.

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