We spend a lot of time discussing The Road. As soon as we know what cars we’re shooting and why, the next topic of conversation is The Road. Strangely enough it doesn’t have to be that long, just quiet and as bent out of shape as possible. I like bumps and compressions to test out body control, a good mix of slow and medium-speed corners and, most importantly of all, no traffic. We love driving but we don’t really enjoy upsetting locals with our noisy engines and big rear wings.
Much as the doomsayers predict the end of driving enjoyment, you often don’t have to look too hard to find these quiet, challenging routes – although I have to admit that in the last few years most decent stretches of tarmac in Europe have become suffocated beneath thousands of acres of Lycra and a baffling level of indignation from those wearing it. Anyway, The Road. For this particular twosome we’ve travelled some distance to visit a couple of absolute belters in the Pyrenees. The NA-137 from Isaba in Spain that runs up to La Pierre Saint Martin in France, and the NA-2011 north of Izalzu in Spain that becomes the D26 at its peak when you cross the border. We’re staying in Roncesvalles, 30 miles west of these incredible roads, and soon it becomes apparent that driving to The Road involves driving on roads that could well be The Road. This area is full to bursting with simply staggering driving routes.
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So why are we here? Mostly because we want to re-examine the BMW M3 GTS and M4 GTS. These cars represent the M division as it wants to be seen – with motorsport and driving excitement at its very core. Cars that care more for tactility and handling balance than anything else. They are the ultimate foil for models such as the X5 M and demonstrate the M division’s passion for creating real drivers’ cars. More tellingly, they span an era where the M division really has changed.
The M3 GTS arrived in 2010, just after the launch of the X5 M and X6 M and before the 1-series M Coupe. Back then the M3 was still called an M3 in four- or two-door form and still had a naturally aspirated V8, while the M5 and M6 had normally aspirated V10s and all BMWs still had an internal codename starting with an ‘E’. All of these cars routinely whipped the equivalent Mercedes-AMG or Audi RS in group tests, just as it ever was. Simple times.
Now the M3 coupe is an M4 and has a modified production straight-six twin-turbo engine rather than a bespoke screamer. It’s not even that good. The M2 is better but still slightly muddled. The M5 and M6 are storming but they only come alive at great speed. The X5 and X6 M are actually annoyingly brilliant, but if M’s stars are two hulking SUVs, the world is horribly out of whack. So the M4 GTS is more than just a slightly irrelevant road-racer. It should tell us whether M division still has the magic.
Now, the M3 GTS hasn’t won the universal affection of something like Porcshe’s 997 GT3. There was a sense at launch that it was cynically priced and lacked authenticity. On the face of it that conclusion was justified. Here was an M3 stroked to an extra 362cc and 30bhp, seemingly stripped back to the bare essentials and yet weighing just 50kg less than the standard car. And back in 2010 the M3 GTS cost £117,630 when an M3 Competition Pack was £55,365. Crazy. Of course, it didn’t help that the M3’s roots were in real motorsport and that the E30 M3 had become so utterly iconic that an orange V8 coupe weighing 1530kg and with zero racing provenance was a perfect pantomime villain. The thing is, if you drove an early M3 Sport Evo and this car back-to-back, it’s probably the V8 imposter you’d remember most…
You see, the M3 GTS does feel authentic. Completely. I’ll admit the little rear wing that looks strangely back-to-front is a bit meek. But otherwise the GTS radiates a toughness and a complete lack of pretence. It looks small, crouched low to the ground, and the matt-black wheels and minimal ride height create a look that’s refreshingly free from artifice or decoration. Swing open the door and it’s the same story. There is a bit of carbonfibre trim on the dash and an orange roll-cage, but the no-frills vibe is further enhanced by the simplicity of the dash architecture and the small, fat-rimmed and perfectly round steering wheel. Ahead, the rev counter is marked yellow at 7800rpm and red at 8500rpm.
That 4361cc V8 generates 444bhp at 8300rpm and 324lb ft at 3750rpm and runs through an M DCT ’box that was specially calibrated for the GTS and hits harder and faster than the contemporary M3’s does. It is a quite wonderful motor. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Push the oblong key into the slot on the left side of the steering wheel, press the start button above it and the V8 rips into life. It’s not especially loud (certainly not compared with the M4 GTS, which is a real ear-bleeder), but there’s a quality to the sharp-edged noise that streams from the titanium silencers. Select first with the paddle and it clunks into gear, then you scrabble away, rear M Differential grabbing and shunting. It feels very different to the mannered car on which it’s based and early signs are that the driving experience will be as honest as the tough-guy aesthetic.
We nose out of Roncesvalles and then turn east onto the NA-140, the quickest route over to our chosen roads. Within ten minutes our destination seems completely by the by and I’m up to my neck in the M3 GTS – everything that it does and everything that it demands. The road rolls gently at first and then plunges into dense woodland and chases through a valley, the turns coming thick and fast and the GTS mainly stretching out in third gear with the odd foray into fourth and gratuitous downshift to second for the tightest corners. You need to rev it to really get the car flowing fast, but the rewards are rich and plentiful, and the performance right up at the top sparkles clean and true. The M3 GTS is capable of 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds and does 190mph all out… It doesn’t feel that fast at first but when you really commit, it grows in stature and intensity.
The same can be said of the chassis. The M3 feels narrow and very light. It changes direction beautifully and the way it communicates through steering and seat encourages you to push and push at the front end. Because the motor isn’t a torque monster, every corner is fully linked. Don’t turn in slow, wait a split second and then feed in the power, just throw it into the turn then jump on the gas. Even in M Dynamic Mode the stability control remains slightly too restrictive; with dry, warm roads and a chassis this balanced, it’s almost surplus to requirements. Best to turn it off and let the car go, carrying speed, gently working in a malleable phase between gentle understeer on corner entry and then exquisite, almost imperceptible oversteer as it exits. There’s something seamless but deeply satisfying about how the M3 deconstructs a road. It feels sensationally fluid. I’m hooked.
We take a breather near Ezcároz and top up the cars with super. The M4 in particular drinks fuel at a staggering rate, so we want it brimmed before heading up into the mountains. Much as I love the slimmed-down look of the M3 GTS, I must admit the more brazen M4 GTS appeals, too, and the sculpted bonnet is a beautiful mix of art and anger. The rear wing still needs work, though. Inside it’s infinitely more polished than the M3: the steering wheel is huge and quite fat, but there’s lovely stitching everywhere, Alcantara draped over most surfaces and the same Recaro seats are now shelled in shiny, perfect carbonfibre weave and trimmed in leather and Alcantara. If you backed off the dampers a bit this could almost feel like an everyday car.
It certainly doesn’t sound like one, though. The titanium exhaust really adds a layer of character to the otherwise slightly dull 3-litre twin-turbo straight-six. It howls and crackles and is very definitely OTT, and perhaps its sheer volume is an admission that this engine needs lots of aural drama to ramp up its flat delivery, but it’s hard not to smile when you select Sport or Sport+ mode to get the full noise.
The engine itself isn’t wildly different to that of a standard M4 – same internals, same turbos. However, the water-injection system decreases charge temperature significantly, reduces thermal load and allows boost pressure to be raised from 1.2 to 1.5bar for a maximum output of 493bhp (up from 425bhp) at 6250rpm and 442lb ft (up from 406lb ft) at 4000-5500rpm. The carbon bonnet, carbon-ceramic brakes, titanium exhaust and the loss of rear seats and other lightweight bits result in a kerb weight of 1510kg, just five less than the standard car. Blame the cage and the water tank and plumbing for the water-injection system for that.
Like the M3 GTS, this M4 has adjustable KW suspension and you can tweak ride height, bump-and-rebound and camber. The splitter and rear wing are also adjustable. A 7min 28sec Ring time says this thing is fast, but can it match the flow and interactivity of the old charger? The NA-140 takes us east, past one of our chosen roads, the NA-2011, to the NA-137, but guess what? The 140 is brilliant, too! Soon I’m chasing the M3 and giving the newer car everything.
The M4 shares some traits with the M3 but it feels wider and more stable, carrying even more speed to the apex and then allowing outrageously early throttle application on the way out. Considering there’s much more torque, it’s seriously impressive, and the M4 can steal time on the M3 in terms of exit traction and because of its excellent ceramic brakes. There are surprises, though. The old car might lack for torque but it has reach, and if the road opens up and Henry Catchpole can wring the 4.4-litre V8 right out, it holds the M4 GTS at arm’s length, maybe even slipping away ever so slightly.
It’s fascinating watching the gap ebb and flow over this road but outright speed is barely worth worrying about. Both cars get a move on and maximising their performance carries risks that are too high even on a road as fantastic and quiet as this. What is of consequence is the quality of what the M4 GTS is doing. And it’s sky-high. The damping is supremely controlled, holding the car in this lovely zone where you’re connected to the road completely but it’s also absorbing all the nastiest bumps and keeping wheels and body in perfect check. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres offer astonishing turn-in speed and cope with the motor’s big hit of low-end torque. You can shock the car into oversteer but it takes some effort and strangely it doesn’t feel right.
That isn’t to say it’s all proficiency and no fun. It’s just that the enjoyment comes from the car’s neutral balance, the sense of agility and the rollicking soundtrack. It’s not quite as tactile as the M3 GTS and the multifunction steering wheel isn’t great to hold, but there’s this inner strength to the experience that’s so exciting. I also know that playing with the suspension can uncover a playful side, because the last M4 GTS I drove was more eager to relinquish grip and felt very natural to control beyond the limit. By the time we get to the NA-137 I’m enjoying myself so much that the fuel gauge is worryingly low and the ceramics are starting to feel the pace. Yep, the roads are that good.
Henry looks happy, too. ‘Wow. Just wow,’ he says. ‘I was worried this car wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, but if anything it’s better. It feels so agile. If you had to point to a car with the perfect balance of performance and grip then the M3 GTS might just be it. It dances. It really does.’
The 137 is fantastic, starting fast and open and gradually coiling in on itself as it climbs. The surface has a few rough frostbitten sections but mostly it’s textured and grippy but not bumpy. Both cars rise to the challenge. The M3 GTS is all fast-twitch response and creamy progression; the M4 GTS feels like it’s ploughing furrows into the surface, such is the grip it generates. It nearly bites me once out of a long uphill left, grip disappearing suddenly and then reasserting itself even faster, but for the most part it feels ludicrously within itself. I wish the engine had the top-end rush to match the mid-range muscle (and the soundtrack), but while it loses out to the M3 on that front, it scores with a much faster and more decisive DCT gearbox and its sheer relentlessness.
France announces itself loudly and rudely with a sudden drop in surface quality. The road narrows and is cracked and dilapidated, so I grab the M3 GTS again for the return leg towards our other target road, the N-2011, and we decide not to run in convoy, just to ensure nobody gets carried away. Jumping from the newer car to the older one and vice versa over and over again highlights something different each time. This time it’s the steering. I’m not going to pretend it is the last word in detail, but after the slightly mute M4 system, the M3’s breeds such confidence. Sure, the limit of grip is lower (this feels down to the less-aggressive Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres), but you can drive right up to it and then choose to back away, hold it there, or jump up and down all over it and bring the rear into play. With so many revs to play with and no turbos in the way, everything comes together to create a platform of endless options. It really flies when you can use all of those revs, too. And the noise!
The NA-2011 is narrower and steeper than the 137 and I know the M4 GTS would cope better up here. There’s not the visibility to deploy the V8’s top-end power and it can feel a little breathless running out of the slower turns. Even so, the M3 emits all the right noises, and it feels special as the tight diff locks up and the M DCT ’box hits another gear home. I park up and wait for the M4. Dozens of griffon vultures are circling overhead and then soaring to a feeding spot on a steep drop a hundred yards from the road. It’s all vaguely bizarre and I know that this area really is magical when a group of cyclists stop for a chat and seem happy to see the M3 GTS and the M4 that’s just pulled up. Incredible scenes.
Henry and I are both in agreement that these cars are absolutely in their element. The M3 GTS motor is probably, all told, the star of the show. ‘Once the V8 is on song, the older car actually feels the faster,’ says Henry. ‘It’s not that it just sounds faster, the rush of revs at the top end really does feel like it’s pinning you to your seat harder.’ I reckon he’s right but I’m more dialled-in to that grip-to-power ratio. It’s so sweetly judged in the M3 and that means you can drive it at maximum attack while enjoying everything else that’s happening. There’s balance shot through this entire car.
The newer GTS, at least with this setup, is more aggressive, less keen to slide, and you need to raise your game just in case all that torque takes hold of the rear wheels. I like its edge but know you can find more progression in this chassis just by fiddling with the dampers. I’d say this one is 90 per cent there for road driving but places too high a premium on outright grip. However, on these roads and on this day, neither car leaves you feeling short-changed in the slightest. I know the M4 GTS is a divisive beast but up here there’s no questioning the challenge it offers, or the rewards.
Fat chewed, we head on to the border. The road climbs again and soon we reach the peak. Cloud hangs thick below us, the sun is gone and suddenly we’re in the rainforest, on another continent, in another time. By now we’re genuinely speechless. What a place. The M3 GTS and M4 GTS match the location, if anything on four wheels really can. Something of the purity of the old car with its hard-edged engine and delicate handling has been lost, but the brutally effective M4 GTS shows that the M division still understands. But we need a regular M-car with this level of excitement and ability now, please. We know you can do it, M.