BimmerFile Review: M3

The fourth generation BMW M3 is the largest, fattest M3 ever created.Yet it ‘s also the fastest and most tenacious while being entirely livable as a daily driver. In creating this new generation of M3, BMW has built a car that is as close to everything to everyone as anything on the market. Whether it be at the track, on the highway or making a coffee run, the M3 handles it all with ease. But can a car that is all things to all people be a true M3?

The moment I pushed the start button and laid eyes on the M menu in the iDrive I knew that this M3 would be dramatically different than all those that came before it. For better or worse, a different kind of technology is at play with this car. From M Dynamic mode, to the much celebrated M Differential Lock, BMW has given the new version of this iconic car the tools to help the typical M formula of performance reach new heights.

Our day started out with some track time at the famed Laguna Seca racetrack. The track is home to one of the most famous turns (or series of turns) in the world. The corkscrew (as it ‘s reverently known) drops six stories in the matter of seconds all while trying to send you through the seat of the car. If you ‘ve driven it on a video game or even the reproduction at Ascari, you haven ‘t really driven it. Nothing really prepares you for the combination of braking, dropping and accelerating that it demands.

Yet the M3 made it deceptively easy. With the M Differential, EDC and DSC set to their highest levels, the car flatters even the most ham-fisted driver. A 414 hp car doesn ‘t have a right to be as easy to drive and forgiving as the M3 can be. Reigning in the car from a drift in turn four was effortless. And when I found myself pushing the car through turn five a little too hard (a turn much different than any video game portrays it) the M3 used its processors to bring the car back into line so subtly that no one but the driver knew a mistake had been made.

Some purists may scoff at the notion of fine tuning suspension and throttle settings via a large knob in the center of the console but the results speak for themselves. Through this, the M3 was able to power out of Laguna Seca ‘s corkscrew as easily as it was able to soak up road imperfections on the road. Cars equipped without the optional technology package (including EDC and a host of other ways to fine tune your M3) didn ‘t feel composed in the corners and thus wasn ‘t quite as fast around the track.

The M3 now features a 4.0L V8 rather than the inline six found in the last two generations. But don ‘t expect the wizards at M to create a burbling V8 like everyone else. High revving and exceptionally light weight (at 331 lbs it ‘s lighter than the inline it replaces), the engine has exceptional character. While it ‘s down on torque to its rivals, the power builds to a crescendo at redline that is nothing less than addicting.

Managing it and all the other technology is a new CPU that was developed in house at the M division. The V8 also has double Vanos and individual throttle bodies – both slightly different in concept than the previous engine ‘s same technology. And to help the engine get the enormous amount of oxygen required, BMW has created a number of scoops and air-inlets (including one in the hood itself) that help deliver 600 ft of air a minute.

The car is also differentiated from the more pedestrian 3 Series (and even the mighty 335i) by a suspension that, save for one component, is entirely new and made from aluminum. Elsewhere the M3 has added structural bracing and, in turn, more torsional rigidity for better control, response and performance. Specifically M has added a reinforced strut plate and thrust plate to the front of the car and a V strut in the rear. This is not just a 335i with a different engine. The M3 is a completely new car focused on ultimate performance.

Outside the car only carries over the doors, glass and rear light cluster from the 3 Series. The effect is an M3 that ‘s a little less subtle than the E46 M3 without looking too boy-racer like.

In order to save weight (and to prevent the first 4000lbs M3 coupe or sedan) the M3 coupe uses several key weight saving measures. The most noticeable is a carbon fiber and plastic reinforced roof that saves 12 lbs, helping to bring the center of gravity lower for improved handling. The car also has a lighter aluminum hood, lighter brakes and wheels and an engine that is moved even further back than the 335i.

On the aero side of things the bottom of the M3 is completely covered helping to reduce lift at high speeds. Even the redesigned mirrors lend a hand producing 3lbs of downforce on each side.

All this helps the M3 differentiate itself from the already excellent 300hp 335i. So extensive are the modifications to the M3 that comparing the two cars is almost pointless on the face of it. Where the 335i is meant to appeal to the public at large, the M3 is a much more focused machine. The M3 revs quicker, shifts quicker, steers more precisely and overall feels much more special. While the 335i is a quick car that handles well (it is 130 lbs lighter), the M3 is a fast car that handles exceedingly well.

And the sound. The glorious sound of the M3 ‘s 4.0L V8 coming down the front stretch of Laguna Seca is tattooed on my brain for eternity. The V8 ‘s soundtrack is addicting to the point of absurdity behind the wheel. And the sound isn ‘t like a typical V8. Instead it has a motorsport like mechanical quality to it that gets increasingly frenetic has the revs swell to redline.

The M3 isn ‘t without fault however. It ‘s 3700 lbs for God-sake. And while the brakes had begun to fade towards the end of my track time with the car, I don ‘t consider that too surprising considering the cars were all using street pads and stock fluid. However the most noteworthy issue beyond the excess weight is a slight (most won ‘t notice it) loss of steering feel as compared to the E46 M3. And, as much as I love the new V8, there was just something overtly visceral about the previous inline six made for such a great package. However antiquated it might be, I ‘ll miss it. All of this adds up to the new M3 feeling slightly less involved than the previous iterations.

But these downsides are forgotten the moment you go from 3rd to 2nd while blipping the throttle. This car, on the right road, is like an automotive symphony and you ‘re conducting. You ‘re in control of everything and there are no surprises. The car is always there and ready for more. More grip, more power, more brakes and what seems like a super computer behind it all invisibly helping you look like the next Lewis Hamilton.

The M3 ‘s limits are so high that you quickly come to terms with the fact that you can ‘t possibly approach them on public roads. Instead, it ‘s best to just head for your favorite road and settle in for what will surely be a profound experience.

My time in the M3 driving down West Carmel Valley Rd. just east of Laguna Seca was one of those kinds of experiences. A beautiful day on an exceptional road with no traffic can be a rare thing. And in a car like the M3, it can be nothing less than moving.

Bringing it all back to earth is the price however. The four door rings in at $54k while the two door (the lighter of the two) is just a hair over $58k. That ‘s two well equipped MINI Cooper S ‘s. Or one nice 135i plus a used E36 M3. But this new M3 almost defies those kind of comparisons. Instead you should think of it as a 911 competitor with more power, two extra seats and a real trunk.

And it ‘s when you consider it in that regard it begins to make sense. This new M3 is one of those rare cars that is as at home on the track as it is on the road. It ‘s exceptionally comfortable without being soft. It ‘s wickedly fast while still being accessible to drivers of all skill levels. And on top of it all, it still has the intangibles that makes an M3 the car that so many lust after.

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  • brad.

    can’t wait to see it in ALMS. so long at it beats the P-cars, i’ll be happy. if it squeezes by a ferrari or two that wouldn’t be bad either.

  • Jon

    Nice job M, think they have another winner in this car. Can totally agree Gabe that the sound from that V8 is addicting.

  • CiaoBoy

    I’d love to see a comparison of the M3, 335xi with xDrive, and 135i.

  • I’d love to see a comparison of the M3, 335xi with xDrive, and 135i.

    I can tell you right now that anything with xDrive doesn’t belong with the two other cars you mentioned. BMW doesn’t believe (rightly so IMHO) that an AWD vehicle should be meant for sporty driving so they don’t offer even the normally optional sport suspension on those cars. A RWD 335i would be an interesting comparison but I can tell you that the M3 is a much more focused performance car and would easily be my pick of the two if money wasn’t an object.

  • greg

    I had a ’94 325is. It was 189 hp and a five speed. Funny but that was supposed to be fast at the time. I like the exterior styling of bmers now and the power is impressive but the interiors are BLAND. Although I liked the interior of my ’03 Z-4 3.0

  • CiaoBoy

    The reason why I am considering the 335xi for my next purchase is because I have seen regular rear-wheel drive 335i’s spin their inner rear tire hopelessly during autocrosses. They produce so much torque down low, but they lack a limited slip differential, so they simply can’t put all that power down onto the pavement effectively. I was hoping xDrive would make the 335 a better autocrosser.

  • emtrey

    Nice review. Can’t wait to test drive one and see how much better the next gerneration has become. Its awfully heavy and steering number than the E46 is a scary thought. I thought my wife’s old 528 steered much better.

    However, having come from an M roadster and E46 M-3 to a 911, I really don’t see the cars as competitors. If you need the storage space, and the extra seats and want to save some rather serious $$ difference, the M-3 is an outstanding choice.

    But the 911 is a sports car designed to be one from the ground up. P has honed that chassis over 40 years and its obvious within the first few miles behind the wheel. The 911 is a surgical driving instument. Amazing brakes, steering and balance in all its inputs.

    BMW will sell a ton ( or many tons LOL) of M-3s and the inevitable comparisons to the 911 will continue just like when the E 46 M-3 came out.

    IMHO….the M-3 is amazing sports sedan BUT the 911 is an amazing sports car.

  • eto

    It is amazing to me how well I know Laguna Seca even though I’ve never stepped foot on the track. Thanks Gran Turismo!!! 😀

  • Lee L

    Wow, those things sound like something that should be in NASCAR. Those engines make the sound of POWER.

  • Jon

    The engine note was not what I was expecting. I guess with the really high redline, I thought it might sound higher pitched, almost like a Ferrari V8 or something similar. It still has a lower, more gutteral sound to it. I think I like it, but I’m not sure yet…

  • TC

    Gabe- You are converting me from a MINI fan to a BMW fanatic. Great article.

    Quick question for you. The M3 looks impressive, but for ~$2000 you can have Dinan reprogram the ECU of a 335i and give you 384 hp and 421 lb/ft of torque and still have $ leftover. Which would you recommend?

  • mpezzullo

    Gabe,

    NIce review! Sounds like this car is a giant bag of technology and plenty of ponies… which will definitely set it apart from the competition and its family members.

  • Craig
    The reason why I am considering the 335xi for my next purchase is because I have seen regular rear-wheel drive 335i’s spin their inner rear tire hopelessly during autocrosses. They produce so much torque down low, but they lack a limited slip differential, so they simply can’t put all that power down onto the pavement effectively. I was hoping xDrive would make the 335 a better autocrosser.

    That is something that boggles my mind. Why wouldn’t BMW at least offer LSD as an option on the 335i? That is a HUGE handicap for a car with such a large and immediate level of torque.

  • CiaoBoy

    The philosophy is that only the M-cars come with limited-slip differentials. The lesser cars are less sport-oriented and more luxury-oriented, so they don’t get them. An LSD is one thing that sets an M-car apart from a non-M-car.

    I agree, an LSD should be an option, just like it’s an available option for the Mini Cooper S. One doesn’t have to get a full-blown JCW kit to get an LSD; it’s available separately as a stand-alone option.

    It’s true that the 335xi doesn’t have the sports suspension, but that is at least more easily rectified by changing the stock suspension. Adding on 4wd to a regular 335i is a much more difficult task. 🙂 That’s why I’m leaning more towards a 335xi, whose suspension I can mod later.

  • Gabe, Money not being an issue, Which would you prefer; the new M3 or the M5?

    All of those videos are awesome. Looks like you had a fun time. I know that I would have.

  • Doug
    BMW doesn’t believe (rightly so IMHO) that an AWD vehicle should be meant for sporty driving so they don’t offer even the normally optional sport suspension on those cars.

    Gabe, I was under the impression that BMW couldn’t offer a sports suspension on their AWD cars because their AWD set-up didn’t allow it.

    I was told their AWD design limits the car from being lowered sufficiently for a sports-suspension. Something about the axle being in the way.

    The reason it sounded plausible is that it’s sort of puzzling that BMW would intententionally deny customers a true AWD sports suspension for philosophical reasons, as you suggest, and grant Audi its one and only claim to fame over BMW for winter drivers, which seems to pretty much keep them Audi business.

    Is BMW hesitant to do AWD cars “too well” and dull/confuse their RWD heritage? Is it a must-offer for the market, but not a main focus?

    (When I say too well, I mean that Audi offers high hp AWD cars like the RS4, while BMW seems to limit their AWD car offerings to the lowest engine.)

    I’ve always wondered about this, and your comment touched off this flurry of questions–really, the same question. Thanks for reading.

  • Rubber Ducky

    Got to drive one Thursday. 12 miles, city streets. Mind-boggling. Sounds wonderful, driver’s position and controls perfect, shifter super-smooth, steering precise. Floored it from a red light in first and bang – 8400-rpm limiter in incredibly short time. In all, maybe the best drive for the buck on the planet.

    Then drove home in my year-old E93 335i. Compared well, still a superb car … but it ain’t an M.

    Keep your eye out for BMW Drive For The Cure at nearby dealership. The fleet touring Florida has the M-3 to drive (and an X6 to look at – The Incredible Hulk). Had a 1-series, but was pulled from fleet to keep from overshadowing model’s launch.

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