Before you read any deeper into this BMW M3 review, let me declare some bias.
I’m more of an M3 person than an M4 one. It’s not just about the four-door practicality, as most M3 generations sold in Australia have been coupes; or the fact the M3 saves you $10K over the M4; it’s also about that badge.
M3 carries a heritage that will turn 30 in 2015, and I’ve had some pretty special experiences in previous generations.
I did the majority of my performance driving training in the E46 M3, and a few years ago I made a high-speed, trans-European trip in the E90 – painted in a sinister black that prompted Belgian police to pull me over on suspicion of being a gun smuggler (I was tempted to say there was some serious weaponry under the bonnet but thought better of it).
My expectations, then, are elevated for this new, fifth-generation BMW M3 – which even carries its own codename (F80 to the F30 3 Series sedan) where the previous models shared with the donor cars.
M3 engines started as a four-cylinder (E30), growing to straight-sixes for E36 and E46, before hitting the V8 configuration for E90/E92 last time out.
Most readers will know by now that instead of growing into a V10 the latest M3 reverts to a six-cylinder – but with turbocharging (multiplied by two) for the first time.
As with its bigger brother – the twin-turbo V8 M5 – it denotes a major change to the performance arm’s decades-old high-revving-engine philosophy.
If you adore exocet-like acceleration, the new M3 monsters its predecessors for performance. It clocks up the 100km/h mark in 4.1 seconds – seven-tenths quicker even than the old V8 model. However, it’s also the rolling response that startles and delights in equal measure.
Accelerate through the gears with your foot flat to the floor and you’ll even see the orange traction control flicker.
The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is super-quick to respond to flicks of the paddle levers, the speed of gearchanges determined by the driving mode selected. (There’s also a separate button as before for adjusting the shift speed.)
Accompanying sounds are also entertaining to a point, though despite the M3 revving to 7000rpm and having its engine note piped into the cabin via the audio speakers (as with the M5) it can’t match the addictive tune performed by the previous model’s V8.
However, a BMW M3 has always been about the chassis primarily – and it’s no good being quicker between corners than before if things go pear-shaped when the bitumen starts to veer left or right.
The first (medium-speed) corner of our test track bodes well, as in response to a turn of the steering wheel the front end of the hot-shoe 3 Series is pulled towards the inside as if the apex were magnetised.
S-bends further up the road confirm this is still a car with exceptional balance, and the enlarged brakes are stupendously good at scrubbing speed – as they need to be with the vastly increased pace.
How well you exit corners, however, will depend on which driving mode you’re in. In Comfort the stability control is especially intrusive (this is an M car remember), and it still nibbles in Sport Plus. Combined with throttle response that is impressive for a turbo engine but still not as razor sharp as the old V8, it sometimes presents a challenge for getting the M3’s power down.
M Dynamic Mode is the pick for drifters who still want some form of safety net, allowing more wheel slip but not switching off stability control entirely.
Switching ESC off via the separate button, however, instantly made it easier to drive the M3 quickly while being smoother.
This throws up another test for the driver, though. The shortage of feedback coming through the steering wheel makes it difficult to judge the limit of grip at the front. And while the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres have immense grip, once they let go the rear end can snap – and you’d better be ready.
Some might argue such edgy handling means the new M3 is a proper test of driver ability, though the previous two M3s were far more progressive in the way they would slide … yet they certainly weren’t idiot-proof.
Whatever speed you’re doing, those sticky Michelins can make an absolute racket – and road noise is almost deafening on the coarsest road surfaces.
Stick those variable dampers in Comfort mode and the new BMW M3, while not as compliant as the previous model, is easy to live with. The suspension can make a bit of a din over bumps and potholes, but driver and occupants remain sufficiently shielded from surface nasties.
The vastly better tractability of the new engine also makes driving around town more effortless, and overtaking a case of not so much judging a passing manoeuvre but calculating how many cars you could pass in one go.
If you’ve noted the comparison references so far to the previous M3, there’s no chance of the positive thoughts on that car being clouded by rose-tinted spectacles. We drove old and new back to back, albeit with a clash of body styles courtesy of E92 M3 owner Terry Karkazis.
An afternoon on some brilliant roads leading out of Canberra confirmed the new M3 is significantly quicker point to point, though it also backed initial thoughts that it doesn’t quite scale the same heights as a driver’s car.
The E92’s steering is vastly more intimate, offering feel for front-end grip that is sorely lacking on the F80, and the handling on country roads is more fluid courtesy of a suspension less prone to becoming twitchy or bottoming out over bumpier sections of bitumen.
It’s a lesser contest for engine response and sound. Throttle response is sharp yet linear in all driving modes of the older car, while the elasticity of the six-speed manual’s third and fourth gears is impressive on the winding road. The real joy to behold, though, is that 4.0-litre V8 as it changes octave at 4000rpm and sounds increasingly manic as it heads to its 8400rpm cut-out.
There’s also a more comfortable and quieter ride around town and on the freeway, though as an overall package today’s M3 still has to be considered a terrific car.
E92 owner Terry (pictured above) was blown away by the F80’s mighty brakes, raw acceleration and the speed of the dual-clutch transmission’s gearchanges. He also wished his car had the (optional) head-up display feature, the M version of which also includes rev counter.
And the interior is brilliantly executed because it feels far more special than the cabin of a regular 3 Series – beyond the multiple M badges found on the door sills, steering wheel and sports seats.
There’s the blue and red M stitching, carbon fibre trim sections, while Merino leather is standard, though our test car had ‘full leather upholstery’ version that for $2700 extends the amount of cow-hide on show.
Options were limited on our test car though that's not to say some of them couldn't be standard on what is the flagship Three (and the Audi RS4 is cheaper). Key extras included internet ($1200), adaptive LED headlights ($2360; bi-xenons standard), and head-up display ($1700).
Inclusive tech includes Harman Kardon surround sound system, rear view camera, (best-in-segment) navigation via iDrive, digital radio, and surround view monitor.
A BMW M3 ultimately has to be judged on the way it drives, though.
The latest generation feels very much like a junior M5. But where the change of philosophy made to the bigger M car could arguably be justified by the older demographic it typically attracts, applying the same approach to the M3 seems less convincing.
In fact, our overall rating could be determined by the type of buyer. For those coming to the new model as previous M3 owners, we’d go 8 out of 10 … but lift that to a 9/10 for customers coming in free of expectations.
We’ll split the difference here, then. The new BMW M3 is a pretty special car, but it has lost some of the magic of its lineage.