There’s something of the ageing supergroup about the BMW M3. Celebrated some two decades ago for its groundbreaking purity and purpose, the M3’s cult appeal has become something altogether different: a vastly lucrative franchise that enjoys growing sales with every subsequent release. No wonder those early core values seemingly count for little in the face of such overwhelming fiscal benefits. Just ask Bono…
We could spend countless pages discussing the merits and pitfalls of the journey from E30 to E92 M3, but whatever your viewpoint there’s something undeniably awesome about the 21-year progression from delicate 2-litre, four-cylinder, 200bhp road-racer to 4-litre, eight-cylinder, 414bhp monster. Few models have gone through such a total transformation, yet the M3 badge’s power to provoke fevered pre-launch speculation and post-launch scrutiny remains as strong as ever.
Subscribe to evo magazine
The UK press contingent is amongst the first to arrive in Malaga for the M3’s international launch and there’s a palpable sense of expectation as we gather for the keys to be handed out. There’s normally a scrum for the best colours, but BMW has saved us from the sight of photographers hitting each other with their tripods by only bringing red cars to the launch.
When ‘our’ car appears I have to confess to being mildly underwhelmed, for as we saw from early pictures, the new M3 isn’t as pumped as the car it replaces. There’s still something about it though, a discreet but tangible potency that makes you look twice. And this fitted with standard 18in alloys rather than the optional 19in rims that will doubtless become the default choice with customers, as they were with the E46. Subtle or not, it still has presence.
The most obvious visual identifier is the so-called ‘powerdome’ – required to make room for the new V8 – with its accompanying intakes that help the new engine breathe (although one of the intakes appears to be a dummy). Add the aggressive intakes on the nose, the unpainted carbonfibre roof and the four exhausts jutting from the rear and there’s no mistaking M Division’s latest product for a lesser model.
Slide into the driver’s seat and there’s less to mark this out as the range-topper. The leather extends to the centre console as standard and the cockpit is of good quality, but it lacks the special ambience of a focused drivers’ car. The excessively fat-rimmed steering wheel provides a tactile clue to the M3’s sporting role, and the seats are supportive as well as comfortable, but in every other respect the interior is a rather uninspiring place to be. Fortunately the view through the windscreen is considerably more impressive, the powerdome providing you with a potent and constant reminder that you’re piloting a V8-powered M3.
There’s preparatory work to be done before you first get underway, though. As with its bigger brothers, the M5 and M6, you feel obliged to dive into the M3’s iDrive system to select your preferred presets for the steering wheel-mounted M Drive button, thus enabling you to switch to your favourite settings for throttle response, stability control intervention, steering weight and suspension stiffness with a single press. It takes a while to navigate your way through the menus (inevitably with a few wrong turns), but once you’ve done it you shouldn’t need to keep fiddling. Unless, of course, you want to experiment, in which case you’ve got a seemingly endless range of permutations to try.
After all that, it’s a relief to start the engine. Bizarrely the 3999cc V8 settles into a dry and slightly busy idle that’s spookily reminiscent of the old 3.2-litre straight-six, and it continues to sound like the old six when you’re shuffling through traffic, but the illusion lasts as long as it takes you to depress the throttle a little further, at which point it emits a more guttural rumble and pulls with early, muscular insistence.
The clutch is light and progressive but the gearshift has that typical slightly springy BMW feel, and if you’re less than smooth when working on and off the throttle you’ll also induce some clumsy-feeling on-off shunt in traffic, which can make urban driving a bigger test of concentration than you might like after a long day at work. You can knock back the throttle response by pressing the ‘Power’ button on the centre console, but should you really need to?
The escape from Malaga is made quick and easy by a smooth and gently sinuous motorway, and it provides an early opportunity to stretch my right ankle and receive some welcome aural evidence of the big V8 up front. With the windows up, the noise is enjoyable but surprisingly muted. It grows in urgency as the revs build quickly, but it’s not as vivid or animalistic as I was expecting. Still, there’s no arguing with how it delivers, third gear permitting a prolonged and increasingly intense rush of acceleration until slower traffic forces me to lift just short of 7000rpm. That’s a whole 1300rpm short of where peak power lies…
A few empty stretches of motorway present themselves before our junction, and though prudence prevents me from probing for the 155mph limiter, the way the M3 hammers up to 135mph is more than enough to convince me that, were it freed from its invisible shackles, this 3-series would seriously spoil a 911 driver’s day on the autobahn. The way the brakes begin to grumble during heavy braking is less impressive, but they work well enough.
The mountains beckon, and as we peel off the motorway the shift from fast sweeps to tight twists is my prompt to thumb the M Drive button. The transformation is less marked than working your way through a Ferrari F430 or 599’s manettino settings, but the combined effects of tensing the dampers, loosening the DSC, sharpening the throttle and reducing the steering assistance is tangible and satisfying.
For the first few turns the M3 feels woolly and wayward. Something’s not right, but it only takes another corner to conclude it’s the road not the car. Polished to a high sheen and covered with dust, the surface feels like ice, and while it’s fun to feel the car slither and slide almost in slow motion, it’s a relief when the Michelin Pilot Sports (made to BMW’s own specification) find some fresh, grippy and super-smooth EU-funded tarmac.
There’s still a softness to the M3’s initial steering response. It’s not understeer – although BMW says it has set the car up to do so very slightly at the limit – rather it’s a lack of feel for the first degree or so of lock. It’s similar to the E46 M3 in this respect, and though a more intimate sense of connection with the front wheels would be welcome during that crucial initial phase, there is feel and grip to be found once you get the nose loaded and a little more steering angle applied. It takes faith to find it, but once there the M3 is clearly more talkative.
On the positive side, there’s little body roll and the chassis’ balance is pleasingly neutral, with plenty of front-end grip to lean on as you begin to feed-in the abundant power of the high-revving V8. Fitted with an M differential, the M3 digs hard for traction, although it’s easy to awaken the stability control even in its most relaxed mode. Fortunately when you disengage the system the M3 remains intuitive and easily steered on the throttle.
One big improvement is the eradication of the infamous M3 fidget, which would often have you bouncing gently in your seat as the car seemed to get out of phase with the road surface. The last-and-best M3 CS was largely cured of this problem, but the E92 is more convincing still, although it should be said that all the test cars came with optional EDC (Electronic Damper Control) suspension – a £1295 option. Once again the specific nature of the test route’s roads make a definitive judgement impossible to call, but all indications are that body control is far better without any penalty in ride comfort.
The brakes – often a cause for complaint in previous M3s – aren’t particularly inspiring by Porsche, Mercedes or Audi standards, but they manage to resist fade admirably on our mountain road, despite grumbling audibly when stopping from high speeds.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the undoubted highlight of the new M3 is the engine. Sticking to BMW’s ideal cylinder capacity of 500cc, an idea first seen in the 5-litre V10, the M3’s V8 is a terrifically advanced power unit that uses knowledge gained from Formula 1. The secret to its high-revving ability is an impressive reduction in mass – the new eight-cylinder engine weighs 15kg less than the six in the E46.
The block, which comes straight from BMW’s Formula 1 foundry in Landshut, is served by a pair of oil pumps that feed lubricant between the engine’s two sumps. An individual throttle butterfly for each cylinder ensures a fast, precise throttle response, while the Double-VANOS valve-timing system optimises performance across the epic 8400rpm rev-range.
Also new for the M3 is BMW’s Brake Energy Regeneration system, which ensures the alternator only generates electricity during braking and overrun phases, rather than feeding off the engine under power. A noble intention I’m sure, but as our car averaged a fraction over 11mpg during our (admittedly hard) test drive it’s hardly a paragon of planet-saving greenness…
Still, if you’re going to burn fossil fuels there are few more deserving recipients than this searing motor. Beating to the frenzied rhythm of F1, every gear presents you with the opportunity to enjoy a seamless, savage surge from tickover to the red line. This is a 4-litre V8 that spins with the hunger and ferocity of Honda’s finest four-cylinder VTEC units and shades both Audi and Mercedes-Benz’s highly rated normally-aspirated V8s for instant throttle response and sheer appetite for revs. To be completely honest it won’t be until the second day of our test that I get into the habit of regularly extending the M3’s engine beyond 8000rpm, for it really doesn’t seem possible that a 3-series Bee Em will rev like a mid-engined Ferrari. In truth it feels plenty quick enough if you shift up at around 7500rpm. However, its only when you’ve felt the intoxicating rush continue for another 900 blissful revolutions can you claim to have experienced the V8 M3 in all its glory, as it takes this high-performance icon to an altogether different level. How often you’d work it this hard is debatable, but, in those situations where you can, it makes this car very special indeed. The only disappointment is that the engine sounds better from the outside than the inside, bystanders treated to an incredible, punchy, hard-as-nails howl while you’re left with no option but to wind the windows down to enjoy the full effect.
With the possible exception of the engine, which is more spectacular than we’d dared hope, the new M3 has thrown us no great surprises. It’s quicker – much quicker – than the car it replaces, and more hardcore in its delivery, yet the chassis is more rounded and liveable with than ever. More steering feel wouldn’t go amiss, but the M3 works happily at or beyond the limit. Assuming you could afford the fuel bills, it’s a car you could drive every day, yet it’s capable of delivering a level of performance that cars costing twice as much would struggle to match.
|Engine||V8, 3999cc, 32v|
|Max power||414bhp @ 8300rpm|
|Max torque||295lb ft @ 3900rpm|
|Top speed||155mph (limited)|
|On sale||September 2007|