The turbochargers are coming, and it sure seems like they'll soon be under the hoods and bonnets of every high-performance machine on the road. Consumers demand more power, legislators demand better emissions, and forced induction is the way to make it all happen. BMW is not immune, and even its most storied model, the M3, has fallen for the charm of the impeller.
The latest M3 has sharper looks and far more oomph -- 11 more horsepower, up to 425, and a whopping 111 pound-foot jump in torque up to 406. It also has a higher cost, at $63,500 to start. It's the most powerful and refined M3 yet, but is it the best?
Retooled, not quite rebooted
For previous generations, the BMW M3 was available in both four-door sedan and two-door coupe configurations. But, to bring things in-line with the rest of its numerical naming conventions, the M3 is now exclusively available with four doors. Don't worry, you can still get a coupe if you want. Just know that it'll say M4 on the back.
The same 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine drives both cars delivering 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. That power exclusively hits the rear wheels via your choice of a six-speed manual (as on this car), or a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with flappy paddles behind the steering wheel.
Differences between M3 and M4 are small when it comes to handling and performance. Having spent plenty of time on the track in both, I can say that neither offers a disappointing ride, so choose the one that fits better with your lifestyle. Four doors certainly adds a fair bit of practicality for those who'll be hustling passengers on a regular basis. The M3 also saves $2,200 over the M4, which is enough to get the M adaptive suspension and the upgraded 19-inch wheels.
They have a spidery, open-air appearance and offer that deep-dish, high-offset look that's come to define BMW's M cars over the years. They're well worth the extra money and they also do a great job of showing off our car's optional carbon-ceramic brakes -- which, actually, may not be worth the upgrade.
For starters, the brakes cost a whopping $8,150. They do provide prodigious bite and performance, just lightly brush the middle pedal and you start scrubbing off speed in a hurry, but they're almost too sharp on the street. However, everything changes on the track.
The M3 has always been all about driving dynamics. However, as is the way of the world these days, the character of the new M3 has as much to do with which buttons you press as which pedals you press. Our car included the optional $1,000 Adaptive M Suspension. It's well worth the cost, giving you a choice of three stiffness settings to suit your mood.
You can also sharpen up the throttle response, stiffen the steering and, crucially, mix and match any setting you like thanks to dedicated buttons that nestle down next to the shifter. And, once you get a setting you like, you can assign it to one of two favorites buttons on the steering wheel.
For the first, M1, I chose the softest across the board, which is perfect for cruising to work in the morning. For M2 I chose the sharpest throttle to get the most from the engine, firmest suspension to get the greatest feedback from the road, but still kept the softest steering setting, so that I wouldn't have any artificial resistance in my way. This would be my racing home from the office setting.
The M buttons can also reconfigure the car's traction and stability control modes. The standard mode is just fine for daily driving, while the slightly-racier M Dynamic Mode allows for more wheelspin and sliding before reining in the fun. MDM also works well on a fast-flowing circuit, just taking the edge off of things but still giving you more than enough power to drive through perfect lines.
However, on a tighter course, when you need and want the car to be moving around to hustle it from one corner to the next, I found even MDM to be far too conservative. Charge hard into a corner and the system cuts back the power enough to turn the car into a bit of an understeering bore, front sliding wide past the apex every time. That's not exactly what I had in mind.
Turn the traction control fully off, however, and things come alive in a big, big way. It's only then you realize just how hard the TC is system has been working to keep that power under control. With all the aids off, the M3 is an incredibly balanced monster, but a monster nevertheless. When it starts to go around it does so in a hurry, and with no electronic nannies to save you, you'd better be on your game.
And those carbon-ceramic brakes? They're faultless on the track. That sharp bite means precise engagement in every braking zone, and lap after lap after lap, you won't find a hint of fade. Get hard on that brake pedal and enjoy the feeling as the unweighted rear of the car wiggles left and right like an eager puppy, just waiting for you to power through the apex and on to the next straight.
Interior and technology
BMW's iDrive system is proof that persistence can pay off. In my book it's among the best infotainment systems on the market. The single rotary dial in the center console controls everything short of the HVAC system, letting you quickly and seamlessly jump from selecting a destination in the nav system to cranking up SiriusXM '80s on 8.
It's quick, booting instantly with the car and only making you wait another five seconds before the GPS system is initialized. There is a bit of a learning curve, but it's a short one, yet the system still retains enough power to not feel restrictive.
That said, the lack of Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto is disappointing. BMW has said CarPlay at least is coming to some of its models later this year. One hopes it'll be spreading across the line soon.
The optional heads-up display is a nice touch, wide and bright and dynamically reconfiguring based on what you want out of the car. Road tripping? It'll make sure you don't get lost. Hot lapping? It morphs into a big, blinky rev counter doling out plenty of visual feedback for perfectly timed shifts.
And you may need a little visual feedback. Gone is the screaming fury of the last M3's V-8, replaced by a rather more subdued howl from the turbocharged six. Yes, it does sound properly nice at full song, but it's hard to ignore the knowledge that at least some of that sound is coming out of the car's speakers, not the exhaust.
The rest of the interior delivers on the experience, our car featuring sumptuous black leather and a number of carbon-fiber highlights inserted here and there. Materials are very nice and seats quite supportive for on-track duty, yet plenty plush for the road. Even the rear seats are reasonably comfortable -- though any full-grown adults stuck in the back would likely wish for a bit more legroom.
As is the case with most BMWs, you can spend a lot on an M3 if you like. The base price of $63,500 gets you a real nice ride, but as with most German cars if you have more to spend you can do even better. The $1,000 M Adaptive Suspension is well worth it if you plan to cover some miles in your M3. The heads-up display augments the experience in every driving mode, but isn't strictly necessary, though it comes along with the $3,500 Executive package, which includes plenty of other niceties (like a heated steering wheel and rear-view camera).
While we'd advise skipping the $8,150 carbon-ceramic brakes unless you'll be hitting the track a lot, the $1,200 sport wheels look fantastic and give the car an amazing stance. If you have the coin, go for it.
Matured, but not relaxed
Has a turbocharger hurt the M3? The prodigious power it brings certainly makes for monstrous performance, but it's hard not to miss the banshee song of its predecessor. Meanwhile, in terms of dynamics and performance, the M3 is more than enough to make any scenic drive a thrilling one, but you'll need quick hands and a bit of bravado to get the most out of it on the track.
A great car? Yes, a great car, but that extra hint of maturity might just be too much for some. Bring on the M2, then.