Five years after its introduction, the BMW M3 remains a brilliant compact luxury sports car - looking its best in coupe form.
A new-generation M3 is due in 2013 that will follow other cars such as the M5 and 1M from BMW's performance division, switching to a smaller-capacity (six-cylinder) engine with turbochargers.
So the current BMW M3 is one of the last opportunities to own one of these legendary cars powered by a normally aspirated engine.
BMW hasn’t replaced the E46 CSL, but the current M3 with Competition Package will suffice - and it’s also considerably quicker than the six-cylinder CSL.
The M3 looks track-ready even when it’s standing still. The Coupe sits low to the ground on a set of superb 19-inch M light-alloys (18s are standard), designed to allow maximum airflow around the brake rotors, and one of several features included in the Competition Package.
Our test car was in Alpine White. It’s a non-metallic paint that sets the various carbon-fibre accents off beautifully.
The super light carbon-fibre roof, which was a key feature of the CSL, is now standard fitment on this fourth-generation E92 M3. It effectively lowers the centre of gravity and shaves five kilos off the weight of the car.
The quad exhaust tips that were introduced on the previous model M3 certainly look the business, but I can’t help thinking that matte black tips would provide greater differentiation over the standard M3’s polished chrome tips.
Apart from the side skirts, front apron and split rear diffuser, the overall body panels are clean and uncluttered, but for the characteristic gills on the front side panels of the M3, which remain a key highlight of all ‘M’ cars.
You can’t miss the special ‘M’ plate on the door sills either, or the embossed ‘M’ in the hand stitched M sport leather steering wheel, which I rate as possibly the finest sports tiller on the market for its grip and feel, while the detailed stitching with ‘M’ coloured thread is a nice touch too.
From the very moment you strap yourself into what really must be considered the best sports leather seats on the market, you know you are sitting in a truly focused performance car. It’s the way that they prevent your torso from any lateral movement even in a high ‘G’ corner, much like a racing bucket and yet with so much comfort.
This is what an M3 is all about, all the right equipment for exceptional driver control.
The interior trim isn’t what I’d call fancy like an Audi interior, but it’s sensible and uncluttered. There’s no lack of creature comforts in the M3; this is every bit the executive express with all the trimmings you would expect in a car in this price range. Highlights include Adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights, Comfort Access System, Park Distance Control (front and rear), High Beam Assist with auto rain sensors, as well as all the functionality of the latest iDrive system, which is dead easy to operate and thoroughly intuitive.
While Bluetooth phone connectivity is standard on the M3, and pairing with an iPhone is completed in less than a minute, Bluetooth streaming for music is not yet available on the M3. However, there is a USB interface for iPhone/MP3 connection. It’s not the ideal solution, but according to BMW Australia, the streaming issue appears to have been a homologation problem, and will soon be introduced on the 5 Series. It’s about the only problem I have found with the car, so far.
For such a focused performance machine, the M3 offers an inordinate level of practicality far greater than the likes of Porsche’s 911 coupe. There’s plenty room for two reasonably sized adults in the individualised rear seats, and that includes a good deal of legroom. And let’s not forget this car has a proper boot, with enough space for several soft bags back there.
At the end of the day though, you’re not going to put down $155,000 for an M3 for its luggage capacity or rear seat legroom. You’re going to write that cheque because you want to own one of world’s most exciting driver’s cars, outside that of a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera. The fact that you can also pick up the kids from school is called spousal leverage.
And to that non-boosted gem of a V8. Tap the Start button and the four-litre V8 fires up with an angry race car-like idle, before settling down to a more subdued engine note. Floor the accelerator and you'll find the potent 4.0-litre V8 under the bonnet likes nothing better than spinning out to 8300rpm before the need to shift cogs.
Standard fit on the M3 is a six-speed manual box, but if you want to properly exploit all 309kW and 400Nm, then you best tick the box that says; ‘M double-clutch transmission with Drivelogic’. That means seven forward gear ratios and lightning fast shift times quicker that Sebastian Vettel could manage if he were driving the manual.
While I’m all for old-school six-speed shifters, they don’t make a lot of sense if your daily drive route includes the peak hour crawl. More importantly, the M double-clutch option will get you from 0-100km/h in a blistering 4.6 seconds, down from 4.8 seconds for the manual.
For my drive out of the city, I’ve engaged full auto mode. It seems less jittery at low speeds than the Volkswagen DSG transmission, and perfect in these stop/start conditions.
That reminds me, you’ll need to get used to the Automatic Start / Stop function, which is now standard fitment across the M3 range. Basically, when you are in traffic and not moving with your foot on the brake, the engine simply cuts out. It’s a fuel saving function that also reduces emissions, so in theory it’s a worthwhile thing. In practice, it’s a little annoying, but the whole engine on/off process is entirely seamless. The moment you lift off the brake pedal, the engine fires up for a smooth getaway.
Up ahead, there’s some clear road so I flick the miniature ‘M’ shifter to the right, engaging manual mode, and drop the throttle for a taste of what this engine has to offer. It’s not just the sound of that V8 winding up that sounds the goods; it’s more those instant race-style shifts that will have you begging for more.
I can’t help notice how good the all round vision is in the M3. The beltline swoops low, which allows for a seemingly unobstructed view to the sides. It’s unusual these days, with so many cars being designed with high beltlines, which reduces the glass area.
You don’t have to be going quick to feel how well balanced this chassis is. It’s not any one thing either. It’s the steering response, which is perfectly weighted at any speed. It’s the lightweight suspension in the form of a double-strut design on the front axle and the five-link rear suspension, which provides that perfect balance between ride and handling. It all works so well in the M3.
There’s a reasonable level of compliance in the suspension, which provides a firm but entirely comfortable ride for passengers, and potholes are dispensed with without any harshness through the body.
Once you clear city traffic you’ll probably want to engage the paddle shifters, as the double-clutch transmission will quickly default to seventh gear in the interests of reduced fuel consumption, but I’m not too worried about that at the moment.
I’ve engaged ‘M Drive’ via the steering wheel button before opening up the M3 on an eight kilometre stretch of twisty road in the middle of nowhere, and the traction through these extra tight bends is off the charts. So too is the grip from these Michelin Pilot Sport tyres under what I would call extreme loads.
There’s a host of settings you can dial up for optimal driving dynamics, but there’s almost no need to fiddle around with that stuff unless you are heading to the track, so the M button will do fine.
At 8200rpm the gearshifts are impossibly quick, yet remarkably smooth. I could drive up and down here all day long just listening to the music from this DCT transmission as it rapid-fire shifts up and down through the ratio range.
Have I mentioned the throttle blip? Braking on approach to corners produces the most perfect double de-clutch you’re ever likely to hear, only the M3 has a beefed-up version with a few extra decibels thrown in for that complete surround sound experience.
There’s no such thing as body roll with an M3 either, and it doesn’t seem to matter how sharp you turn in, or how hard you push, the M3 sits bolt upright through the bends at all times.
At close to 1600kg, the E92 M3 is significantly heavier than the specialised CSL I drove, but oddly enough, it still feels razor sharp on the road, despite being choc full of luxury kit. It’s a tremendous effort by BMW engineers, and a veritable rolling study in the art of automobile dynamics.
Throttle response out of corners is what I would call potent, as is the M3’s torque-rich in-gear acceleration as the 4.0-litre V8 spins towards the 8300rpm redline.
While you won’t find any fancy red brake calipers from Brembo or AP Racing on the M3, the single piston swing-caliper stoppers over steel rotors rein in speed exceptionally well and you won’t have to worry about brake fade – there isn’t any.
Cruising back to the office in ‘D’ (auto mode), you start to realise just how accomplished and flexible the M3 really is. This is the everyday supercar that does it better than most sports cars costing twice this amount. The bonus is that you don't have to take the family SUV to sport on Saturdays.
Driving an M3 is a special kind of experience. It almost leaves you speechless with joy; in its ability to perform at the peak of the graph, on so many levels.
BMW M3 Sedan: $141,700 (Manufacture's List Price)
BMW M3 Convertible: $173,300 (Manufacture's List Price)