For BMW aficionados, an M3 badge was once the holy of holies, but since the 4 Series and M4 came along, it no longer is. Not only is the M3 lumped with its coupe sibling's controversial grille design, but the Munich-based brand’s next model is likely to make the super sedan obsolete.
New Coke. It’s the most storied corporate blunder in modern history. In 1985, Coca-Cola infamously reacted to a successful campaign by its competitor Pepsi and decided to change the recipe for-, and branding of, the world’s bestselling soft drink. This marketing broadside was met with an unprecedented public outcry and plummeting sales. The extent of the disaster was such that 78 days after the launch of New Coke, Coca-Cola reverted to its old formula and launched Classic Coke.
The original (E30-generation) M3 was the progenitor of BMW's touring car championship-dominating race car in the '80s.
Subsequently, a saying developed in the industry: “(You) don’t mess with Coke.”
In the automotive world, and more to the point, the sportscar market, the Porsche 911 is the closest equivalent of Coca-Cola. Launched in the Sixties (considered for replacement by the 928 grand tourer in the Seventies, but that never happened), the 911 is a rear-engined coupe that (to be unkind) looks a bit like a stretched VW Beetle; with or without turbos, air- or watercooled, rear- or all-wheel-drive, Porsche’s definitive sportscar’s basic packaging and elemental driving experience have remained constant. That is why it is a motoring icon.
A 4-door M3 is not a new concept, even the 2nd-generation (E36-based) M3 had a sedan variant.
BMW M3, from hero to whipping boy
For BMW, the M3 badge is hallowed, at least it was. Launched in 1985, the boxy E30-generation M3 became world-famous by virtue of its giant-slaying abilities and touring car championship successes around the globe. When the 2nd generation (E36-based) M3 came out, BMW introduced sedan and cabriolet versions to broaden the sportscar's already considerable appeal, then skipped the sedan version with the E46-generation, only to offer the E9x version in all 3 configurations yet again; they were endowed with the same motors and ‘boxes; an M3 was an M3, no matter what body it had.
When BMW decided to can the 3 Series Coupe and Convertible nomenclatures and replace them with 4 Series variants in 2013, including the Gran Coupe, which, incidentally, became the best-selling body shape in the range, “M3” became a rather awkward topic of after-dinner conversation.
Having gone to the trouble of splitting the 3- and 4 Series, the front end of the first M4 (left) looked identical to that of the M3 (right).
You see, the “3” was supposed to denote a sedan product under the new naming regime, so from that point onward, an M3 badge could only feature on a 4-door M car, nothing else.
The sedan and convertible variants of the M3 have always played second fiddle, in terms of sales, to the svelte coupe versions, so BMW effectively decided against leveraging its most revered nameplate by making the M3 exclusively a sedan. Then, after cooking up all the fuss and fanfare about differentiating between 3 Series and 4 Series, the previous generation M3 and M4 (co-launched in 2014) looked virtually identical from the front anyway, so there really was nothing going for the M3 apart from “space for kids”, which, for something as utterly indulgent as a performance car, is not a USP in the least.
Okay, so BMW launched the new M3 and M4 recently and, having risked so much and been so ballsy to festoon the 4 Series with those “tall kidneys” (ostensibly to truly set it apart from the buttoned-up 3 Series sedan), the M Division slapped the grille on the M3 too, which reduced the once-beloved nameplate to variant status once more. BMW may argue that buyers wouldn’t want to drive something that looked like just another warmed-up or M-badged 3 Series and, apparently, that twin-turbo 3.0-litre I6 needs the extra cooling that only that gaping maw of a grille and air-scooped bumper can provide.
As with the previous generation M3 and M4, the new models' (G80 and G82) front ends look identical.
WTF: Why The Face
Oh, whatever… Enough has been written about that grille; there’s little point to revisit the topic, but, for what it’s worth, yes, it looks better in the metal and, in combination with a dark exterior finish and when "blacked out", the kidneys look really distinctive. The biggest problem that the new (G80-generation) M3 has, in fact, is that it may soon be superfluous… irrespective of its dramatic front-end treatment.
Remember that nugget about the 4 Series Gran Coupe (GC) being the best-selling variant of the previous 4 Series (the new one technically debuted with the unveiling of the i4, but that’s another story)? When the next iteration of the 4 Series GC comes out in the near future, and we have this on good authority, there will finally be an M4 version of it. For the M3, this is a major problem: the M4 GC will a) have that front-end treatment too, b) have a sportier silhouette than the 3 Series sedan – on which the M3 is based and c) usurp the M3’s only real selling point: its multitude of doors.
Camouflaged pre-production units of the 4 Series Gran Coupe have already been photographed. There will be an M4 too.
An opportunity missed
If you thumb through marketing material for the new M3 and M4 (figuratively), it’s all a blur of contrasting colours, red buttons and paddles, gaping vents/scoops and brash carbon-fibre embellishments; BMW’s M Division is going through its second puberty and it’s not pretty – even a trifle unbecoming. Some reviewers say that the new M3 has become “the new M5”. Well, it could only wish to measure up to the rapid-but-restrained M5s of BMW’s past.
If BMW had done something refreshing, instead of grille-a-fying its sports executive sedan out of sheer hubris, the M3 could have been something unique. Imagine a potent-but-understated M-car, which is what it used to be. Consider the appearance of the M340i xDrive, which yes, probably skirts the limits of good taste anyway; now picture that 3 Series sedan dialled up to 10. I’d want a car like that.
Why could the BMW M3 not look like a more muscular version of the M340i xDrive?
Back to Coca-Cola…
The western world’s favourite soft drink has, of course, diversified through the years (I still can’t figure out why Coke Light/Diet Coke and Coke Zero exist in the same universe), just as the Porsche 911 has. However, their monikers/brands still signify exactly what they used to.
Not so the M3. When shopping for a classic car, it’s striking that the convertible, coupe and even estate versions of models seem to be the most collectable. In years to come, I think I might have trouble explaining how an M3 is the dog’s proverbials, but only up to 2014, after that, you should shop for an M4. The cool kids are going to say I’m a crazy old coot.