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There is no better way to find out what a hugely powerful, rear-wheel drive icon like the all-new BMW M3 is really like than by putting it through its paces on a racetrack. And that's exactly what I've just done at the local(ish) launch of the new BMW M3 sedan and BMW M4 Coupe in New Zealand.
But on this occasion there wasn’t just one track. No, we piloted the new non-V8, twin-turbo six-cylinder M3 sedan around two challenging courses – both damp, cold and new to me – as well having a chance to throw the car around on a super wet skid pan surrounded by concrete walls. Yikes.
The first was the Hampton Downs racetrack south of Auckland, New Zealand.
First stop was the Hampton Downs complex which includes a short but technical 2.7-kilometre track made up of only six corners (four right-handers and two left-handers), with a 1.0km-long back straight that has a kink in it (not really a straight, then).
While the cold and damp track conditions meant progress was somewhat subdued (as enforced by safety-conscious BMW staffers), the levels of grip offered by the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres (255/35/R19 fronts and 275/35/R19 rears) was awe-inspiring. Where some other cars would have undoubtedly have seen drivers spearing off into the sandtraps, the measured traction control system (left on for safety reasons) intervened to prevent any such embarrassment.
From a flying start, we saw north of 150km/h on the short straight before slowing and selecting third gear for the first corner, a long sweeper with a late apex. Another short straightaway lead to a slinky uphill S-bend, with fourth gear engaged before the crest in order to effectively channel the twin-turbo engine’s 550Nm of torque (available between 1850-5500 rpm). Its peak power of 317kW kicks in from 5500-7300 rpm, and our instructor suggested short shifts on some of the slippery sections to allay any chance of shift-induced wheel-spin.
In the name of research, I left it in third and powered out, and the shift to fourth – at about 6000 rpm – yielded a sideways kick before the dashboard traction light flashed on to let me know I wouldn’t need to change my pants.
Corner four came after a downhill section in fourth gear, with third gear selected and gradual throttle post-apex as the width of the track became more usable when winding off lock up the hill to the next hairpin, corner five. This is a corkscrew-like doozy with heavy braking – including some ABS squirming -- prior to the crest of the hill before turning in sharply and holding off the throttle until the bend was at its end. The skid marks on the track and gouges in the grassy outfield suggested that some at the most recent track meet had also found this bend daunting – but even when I input a little too much throttle on exit during one of my laps the traction control system ensured things stayed under control.
Another short straight and some further exploration of the manic acceleration of the new six – accompanied by a raspy, voracious soundtrack that will undoubtedly perturb owners of the previous V8 model – lead to the most challenging corner of the track, number six. This long, wide and cumbersome U-bend required plenty of thought – using the middle of the road and applying progressive throttle before shooting up the hill again to the main straight. Smooth, sharp shifts from the gearbox up to the fifth cog, over the start/finish line, and back into turn one.
Despite my face aching from smiling after my dozen (or so) laps of the track, the nearby skid pan was perhaps even more enjoyable. The reigns were let go and I, along with a number of colleagues, enjoyed the idea of turning traction control completely off and to see just how loose the M3 would get.
The answer: very.
It didn't start off that way, though. First was the set-up of the car.
I engaged Sport+ modes for the steering, engine and suspension by hitting one of the two preset buttons (M1, M2) that allow drivers to save their favourite settings, and then upped the Drivelogic double-clutch automatic gearbox to three notches (allowing it maximum veracity) with manual mode engaged. At first, traction and stability control was left on to see how the car would react in a wet road situation.
It felt surprisingly coherent, with that superb rubber offering plenty of stickiness on a soaked skid pan, even with plenty of right foot pressure being applied as I tried to twist around the oval of cones.
Next was M Dynamic Mode, which allows some slipping and sliding at the rear - but not too much. Once the sensors picked up that a spin was soon to eventuate, the brakes would grab the outer wheels and pull things back in line.
With all the safety nets cut away, the real fun started. The back of the car would flick around, with gentle dabs of throttle keeping the power fed to the rear tread which was churning in its attempts to secure some semblance of grip. The brilliant steering allowed plenty of provocation and excellent response, though there were plenty of spins. After a dizzying dozen laps attempting to link the two drifts (and coming within centimetres of doing so, honest!), it was time to hit the next track.
In between Hampton Downs and Taupo Motorsport Park, our entourage spent roughly four hours negotiating winding, slippery mountain roads. While I explored my limits on the track, it was good to see what the M3 was like in a more sedate setting.
The ride was comfortable for a sedan with such sporting pedigree, and the steering just as precise and direct through sharper bends, with Sport mode for the engine, gearbox and suspension proving the most amendable for me. The Efficient setting on the engine simply made its throttle doughy, while the Comfort steering felt wobbly on centre. The ride was perfectly liveable in Comfort, Sport or Sport+ settings, the latter never proving uncomfortably sharp.
What wasn’t so liveable was the road noise intrusion through the wheel-arches. Over coarse chip surfaces similar to those seen across Australia, the racket was so prominent as to require raised voices, even between those in the front two chairs.
An overnight stay in Taupo lead to a leisurely 8:45am start - which was unfortunately accompanied by even worse weather. The rain remained, and the temperature was hovering at just 3 degrees Celsius upon our arrival.
The setup for the second track day involved more time on the circuit at Taupo Motorsport Park, a 3.3km course with 16 corners in the layout we tested and much more open space to explore, including a 1.2km straight at the back of the course.
After a number of sighting laps in the M4 Coupe – which felt more lively at the back end, which no doubt had something to do with the lack of heat in the road and the rubber – I donned a helmet and once again clambered behind the wheel of the M3.
All of the settings stayed the same – maximum throttle, shift, firmness and steering response, with traction on.
Running anti-clockwise, the main straight was littered with slippery start markings, which caused the back treads to scramble and triggered the traction system into action. Corner one is a hairpin which required heavy braking and left-hand lock in third gear, with the key to a smooth movement being through throttle modulation.
Exiting one, third gear remained engaged through turn two and the snaking three, with a chance for some weight application to the right pedal before easing off for a wide entry and narrow exit in turn four. Heavy brakes into turn five, with third gear remaining the cog of choice and plenty of throttle leading to the requisite rear-end wiggle down the hill to six. Turn seven, a slow-speed hairpin, followed quickly, with another traction control-activating exit up the hill.
The long, cautious sweeper at turn eight in fourth gear ran out quickly as we took a hard right into a set of S bends before an additional slalom, then a quick right-hander towards yet another slalom that highlighted the balance of the car, not to mention the precision at which the front-end performed any task allocated to it.
Corner 13 required a dive towards the back side of the bend under brakes, before a firm left tug on the wheel and subtle throttle upon exit as the lock was wound off and full throttle was engaged.
The head-up display showed the revs climbing and shift lights prompting each snap of the right paddle. Full throttle and the roar of the engine accompanied 210km/h flashing up on the windscreen, before just as much force was required on the brake pedal with about 200 metres to squirm to corner 14.
A subtle S peppered by lubricated white guidelines allowed a further chance to sample the electronics, before the traction flickered on over the position markers and onwards to the start/finish line.
Lap after lap, the M3 showed itself to be up to anything thrown at it. Only a light sweat graced my brow as I pulled into pit lane, again with sore jaws and cheeks from teeth clenching and grinning.
Does it live up to the M3 name? Let’s get this straight - the old V8 M3 arguably offered more character and probably more involvement – but the new M3 felt inherently easier to drive, and perhaps more importantly, it didn’t feel scary to drive.
The combination of superb steering, terrific balance, reliable braking, linear acceleration with effortless low-end torque and precise throttle control – not to mention the generally classy cabin treatment, long standard equipment list and five-seat sedan practicality – meant the smaller engined BMW M3 had everyone at the launch wishing we could find another track: preferably a dry one, and preferably by way of another brilliant mountain road.
Click the Photos tab for more images of the BMW M3 and BMW M4 on both tracks and at the skid pan.
Photos: Matt Campbell