| First Drive | Ascari Race Circuit, Spain | BMW M3 Coupé |
Opinions are like arses; everyone has one. But sometimes it sounds like the former is coming out of the latter. This is especially true in the case of reviewing a car (a fairly inexact science at the best of times), in particular when a new model has been hyped up so much that expectations are incredibly high. The latest BMW M3 falls into this category.
How could it not? The M3 lineage began in 1986 with the E30-based model, developed and sold as a road car only to homologate BMW's new Touring Car racer. Twenty years later, BMW has sold an incredible 180,000 M3s worldwide, 56,000 of those accounted for by the outgoing E46 Coupé
. Projected sales figures of the new car are even higher. We're not talking about an average family car here; this is a high-performance rear-wheel drive sportscar that can hold its own against a Porsche 911.
The details of the new M3 were released early on; with the fitment of a V8 engine no shock. BMW's official figures for the new 4.0-litre powerplant surprisingly don't pip those for the Audi RS4
, the M3's biggest rival (until the C 63 AMG Merc
arrives). Peak power for the M3 is quoted as 414bhp at a heady 8,300rpm, while maximum torque is a little down on the Audi's at 295lb.ft, produced at 3,900rpm. Before driving the M3, you'd be forgiven for expecting an engine that needs to be revved to keep on the boil, but dig a little deeper into the unit's specification before making that judgement.
A glance at the torque curve indicates that 85% of the maximum torque figure is available from 2,000rpm to the red line at 8,400rpm. This is made possible by the use of double-VANOS. Variable Nockenwellen Steuerung is the German name, or in English, continuously variable valve timing on both inlet and exhaust camshafts. Another significant development is the elimination of standard vibration-measuring knock sensors. Instead, BMW uses the spark plugs to detect and analyse the ion current in each cylinder, allowing the engine's computer to maximise the spark advance for any given condition. A higher compression ratio is then possible, which in turn leads to greater thermal efficiency, more power and less fuel consumption. On top of that, BMW fits individual throttle butterflies to the inlet ports, said to enhance engine response.
Enough technical mumbo jumbo I hear you say; what does it feel like? In a word: awesome. There is not a single hole in the engine's delivery and you never feel short of go. Use every last horse and all the rev counter and you are rewarded with ferocious pace accompanied by a spine-tingling, hard-edged V8 exhaust note. Just like the old car, the rev counter seems to go on forever. Not in the mood to wake the dead? That's ok, the M3 is no slouch when you slot a higher gear either, moving from a quiet, high-speed cruise, to illegally fast in one swift shove on the big pedal. It's a very flexible unit, so much so that we found second gear to be pretty useless most of the time, on road and track.
Our two days at the wheel included a few hundred miles on challenging mountain roads, topped off by about twenty laps of the Ascari race circuit. On the road, the M3 proved to be formidable, with huge grip afforded by the new Michelin Pilot Sport tyres and a wonderfully throttle adjustable stance. An early review of the car suggested that it suffered from excess understeer, but we reckon this was due to a sector of the test route that was coated in a thin layer of dust with precious little grip. Even at low speeds, the M3 slithered around on this road, although it was a lot of fun and perfectly controllable.
BMW did admit that it asked Michelin for a front tyre compound that promoted initial stabilising understeer, which is present, but get the car turned in with the weight over the nose and use the throttle sensibly and there is nothing but delicious neutrality to the car's stance. There is plenty of torque available to edge the rear end out if desired and laps at the circuit showed how controllable the new M3 is in a gentle four-wheel drift, even at high speeds. Serious drifting fans will be glad to hear that the new car features a new Variable M Differential, which has the ability to feed as much as 100% of the engine's output to the rear tyre with the most grip, though this plays a major part in regular 'enthusiastic' cornering too.
As with the M5
, the owner of the new M3 has a wealth of customisation options to hand. A so-called 'MDrive Manager' groups the settings into one mode the driver can choose with a single button on the steering wheel. Throttle and power steering calibrations may be chosen, as can the level of traction control. An optional extra will be the Electronic Damper Control (EDC), with three selectable levels. The test cars in Spain all had this feature and we think it's invaluable, allowing the M3 to be just as comfortable as any other 3 Series Coupé until you want that little bit more body control. Even on its hardest setting, the car is not uncomfortable and the system certainly helps the M3 feel light on its feet.
Where the extra weight will tell is on tyre and brake wear, especially with prolonged track usage - though we're not so sure how many M3 owners in UK or Ireland venture onto a circuit with their pride and joy. We had no problem on the road in Spain (other than a characteristic rumble from the discs when hot), though our own road routes back home will be a better test of the brakes. Next month, we'll get the chance to give the car its full shakedown in right-hand drive format, including a trip to the Nurburgring, a circuit the M3 was developed extensively on.
Some of the first reviews of the new M3 have suggested that the writers' expectations were not met. It was recommended by some that punters wait for the 135i Coupé
rather than opt for the new M-car. This advice seems to centre on the fact that the new M3 is heavier, larger and more expensive than the much-loved outgoing model.
Yet the facts are these: the new M3 is based on the safer, more refined, more comfortable, and more capable E92 3 Series Coupé
. Yes, it does weigh nearly 100kg more than the previous car, but it substantially out-performs it, uses less fuel and emits less pollutants. Yes, it does cost about £5,000 more (€12,000 more in Ireland), but I suspect that if you offered owners of the current car an upgrade package that brought their car to the elevated level of the new M3 in all areas, they'd bite your hand off at twice the price. Well that's my opinion anyway. You can make up your own mind from September, when the new BMW M3 goes on sale.