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BMW M3 (F80) – the car world's greatest misses

It may have looked the part from the off, but the first turbocharged M3 took a while to find its feet

BMW M3 F80

From the fine-handling E30 original to the sensational V8-powered E90, there wasn’t a generation of M3 that didn’t hit the spot. And then along came this, the no-E-numbers-please F80. Out went the lovely V8 and back came a straight-six, this time puffed up by a pair of turbos boosting power to 425bhp, an increase of 11 horsepower over its predecessor, and soaring torque from 295lb ft to 406lb ft. From this you could gather that the M3 had shifted from sharp-edged rev monster to thick-wristed slugger, no longer demanding that you kept it pinned as the revs soared towards the illuminated red line. In place of this enjoyable sensation: the less pleasant feeling of enormous oomph arriving early and all at once. 

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More troubling was the chassis control, or rather the lack of it. The first rumblings of this came with the coupe version – in this generation badged M4 for the first time – and in particular the off-kilter damping of its driven axle. As Dan Prosser noted when reviewing it against a Nissan GT-R and 911 Carrera in evo 199: ‘The rear end seems to be fighting its own cause.’ Nonetheless, when the four-door M3 came along later in 2014 there was no question it should be in the starting line-up for evo Car of the Year, taking place in the Scottish Borders, because, well, it was an M3 after all.

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Unfortunately, the news from Scotland was not good. In fact, it was pretty bloody awful. The M3’s steering felt unnatural, its front end was hard to read, and the over-stuffed torque delivery led to regular bouts of unsolicited oversteer as the rear heaved and pogoed no matter which chassis setting you chose. And this was in the dry. When rain came the M3 was downright unpleasant, constantly threatening to let go at one end or the other without giving you much sense of which axle might slip first, or when. ‘We were all frustrated and at times spooked by the M3’s strange mix of blunt-instrument clumsiness and spiky on-limit handling,’ concluded Henry Catchpole in his eCoty story as the butch-looking BMW lurched home second-to-last, dodging the wooden spoon by a single point. 

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What was sad about the M3 wasn’t just its oafish power delivery and uncoordinated chassis. The really tragic thing was that where its predecessors were set up to please people who loved driving, this one seemed designed to delight those who just liked the idea of a BMW M car. It felt artificially meaty and sporty and serious at low speeds but when you asked it to dance along a gorgeous Scottish B-road its entire act fell apart. We should have known something was up when we saw the light-up M badges in the seat backs. 

Fortunately, the F80 M3 wasn’t a disappointment for its whole life. In 2016 BMW introduced the Competition Package, with different springs, dampers and anti-roll bars plus recalibrated drive modes to make it, as John Barker said when comparing it with the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio in evo 237, ‘the car it should have been from the start’. The standard car received a raft of (unannounced) chassis tweaks at the same time so that it too felt a lot better. And so the F80 saw out its days as a respectable M car, mercifully taking away the nasty taste of what had been the first duffer in M3 history. 

This story was first featured in evo issue 316.

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