For better or worse the BMW M3 has grown up. The Alpine White four door M3 we tested for a week could not illustrate this any better. From its (relatively) compliant ride to the 3726 lbs curb weight, the E90 four door M3 is a completely different animal from what came before it. Yet as a concept it has held true to its motorsports roots. The engine noise, the ability to configure your driving experience, its the little things that add up to the special feel only an M product can deliver.
We tested the E90 four door M3 in and around Chicago as well a couple long distance drives around the midwest to get a clearer picture of how the M3 has changed and ultimately if it lives up to the badge and the M brand. What we found is a car that defines the word sport sedan perhaps better than anything ever made while offering creature comforts that BMW owners have come to expect.
Our test car came fully equipped with about every option other than the always popular (and much missed) sunroof. While I could have done without the sunroof in the coupe, (as it eliminates the carbon roof) it was missed in the sedan since it doesn’t get the choice and in place of non-existent sunroof was simply more Alpine White sheet-metal. I’m all for saving weight but the choice of a sedan probably means that a small weight penalty isn’t exactly top of mind anyway.
The one option that is notable and exclusive to the M3 is the technology package with EDC. The option allows the driver to fully configure the M driving experience from throttle response to steering ratio to even suspension stiffness. It sounds completely gimmicky but I can tell you from both road and track experience (thanks to my time at Leguna Seca last February at the M3 launch) that the option is essential if you take driving M cars seriously.
But there are many other things that set an M car apart. Most notable is usually the power-plant. This latest generation of M3 is perhaps the best example of this to date as it defines this car’s experience more than any M3 before it. On a cool morning the V8 starts up rough and idles louder than you’d expect. The redline indicator slides down to 6k to make sure that the engine is full warmed before high-revs are even possible. A quick jab of the accelerator and you realize that this is far from an ordinary 3 Series. This all adds up to something much more special than simply hitting the starter button. its these small yet tactile experiences that make the M3 so special.
The special touches continue on throughout the interior. Once in the cabin you see the white lights on the gauges and the ultra soft leather on the seats, doors, steering wheel, shift lever and ebrake handle. The M3′s cabin is a dichotomy of old school and new tech. Where the 135i we tested recently has nothing more than an idiot light for oil levels, the M3 has an electronic level indicator. Elsewhere the shift knob looks like the same one the M division has used on cars since the early 80′s (with the exception that the knob itself is covered by a single piece of leather than also becomes the shift gaiter). It’s much different than what the 135i or 335i has as standard or in “M” accessory guise as on the 135i. The steering wheel is a combination of soft leather (the same that is found on the seats) massive amounts of foam padding and the famous M colored stitching along the inside of the rim. Even the iDrive knob is machined aluminum.
Living with the M3 day to day is less of a chore than some might think. With the technology pack and the included EDC, the M3 can go from a hardcore track-day tool to a firm but livable daily cruiser. its packed with all the typical creature comforts found on a $60K luxury sedan and can perform flawlessly in something as mundane as bumper to bumper commuting.
As with all of the latest generation BMW 3 Series sedans, the four door M3 is one of the more inherently attractive modern BMWs. And unlike the last M3 sedan (available from 1995 through 1999 in the US market) this new M3 sedan has been shaped and massaged to be a much more special edition of the standard 3 series shape. M designers have endowed their version of the car with wider fenders and the sort of styling details that speak performance in hushed tones. All the main styling points have been carried over from the M3 coupe including a unique front end styling treatment. That means the E90 M3 (yes E90 is BMW-speak for the current generation 3 series four door) gets a front facia almost identical to the current 3 series coupe. A nice touch and something sure to keep the M3 line-up a little more exclusive then your run-of-the-mill E90 335i.
However where the M3 really shines is in performance. Forget that complaint that modern BMWs understeer, the M3 is inherently neutral when pushed. With M Dynamic Mode on, the M3′s software allows for the car to swing its business-end around with the kind of ease that gives you Schumacher like aspirations. And with the servotronic setting on sport, the steering is beautifully weighted and direct. It may not have the feel of some previous M3′s but its ability to follow every flick of the wrist with precision is simply uncanny. The 135i may be a great car, but the M3′s ability to react to inputs with instant precision is in another league.
While the M3 has a host of computers to help with ultimate performance and tail-out hoonage, they never get in the way of the driving experience. The car feels completely fluid even with M Dynamic Mode (which features a reduced level of DSC). The point at which the computers take over and rein the car in is subtle and always seemingly at the last possible second. its as if the car refuses to let you make an idiot of yourself.
The M3 still has its faults. Well to be honest its hard to consider them faults and more character points. For instance its easier to get in a 135i and immediately be fast. The M3 isn’t as tricky to drive fast as an older Porsche for instance, but it does demand a little respect and knowledge from the driver. Power and torque build progressively and the engine doesn’t truly comes to life until you wind it out. It suits the character of the car and of the M division but it won’t suit all potential owners. A 135i or 335i is simply an easier car to live with day to day. It has more torque and a more flexible drivetrain. Further the M3′s manual transmission isn’t for the weak. Its throws are short and its effort (especially from 1st to 2nd) can be high in aggressive situations.
And then there is fuel economy. In city driving I only saw an average of 14.5 mpg. On the highway things were a little better with an average of around 19 mpg. However anyway you look at it, the V8 powered M3′s numbers are decidedly less efficient than the 15/22 mpg the previous six cylinder version recorded. With fuel prices on the rise throughout the world, you can’t help but feel that this is the last M3 that will be less efficient than the one before it.
Finally you’ve got the mass of it all. At over 3700 pounds its not a lightweight by any means. Even with the measures the M division have taken to reduce the weight (see our previous M3 coupe review), it’s still a beast. And while the engineers have done a great job at hiding that mass through weight distribution and clever suspension tuning, it will rear its head from time to time in aggressive driving.
All that said the M3 flatters like few other cars out there once you come to terms with what and how it delivers its performance. The way it corners effortlessly and how everything just feels so precise, the E90 M3 is simply an M car for the modern era. It’s the ultimate sports sedan and one of the best BMW’s made to date. While the M3 sedan may be relatively heavy and lacking a some of the feel associated with previous M3′s, it’s the best M car to date when it comes to being all things to all kinds of enthusiasts.
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