BMW marks its centenary this year, though it’s the petrol-hedonists and fans of the Bavarian Motor Works’ go-fast skunkworks, M GmbH, who are reaping the real spoils.
With the ‘M-for-Motorsport’ department clocking up its own 30-year milestone, we’ve been treated to the roundly acclaimed and first-ever M2 coupe and anticipate the forthcoming local release of the extra-special-limited-edition M3 30 Jahre four-door - literally ’30 Years’ in translation of its namesake. Not enough? The track-focused, double-the-price, already-sold-out M4 GTS hits 30 lucky petrolheads’ garages in September.
Wedged in between, the M3 and M4 Competition versions have arrived, sprinkling added fairy dust over the four-door sedan and two-door coupe and convertible versions that have called Aussie terra firma home for the past couple of years.
Details and specifications lobbed way back in January this year, so while the new Competitions bring few surprises in form and features, the six-month lead time has no doubt whetted the appetites of prospective buyers – and reviewers alike – who consider the regular middle-weight M3/M4 breed is left slightly wanting. To date, the M3s and M4s of the current fifth generation have performed admirably in CarAdvice reviews, more often than not scoring 8.5s out of ten…if habitually a half-point short of the perennial nine-from-ten little brother, the M2 coupe.
So does the lift in power to 331kW (from 317kW), the bespoke exhaust system, dynamic hardware and software updates, shiny new forged 20-inch rolling stock, new seats and a lick of blackout paintwork conspire to an exception nine-out-of-ten rating? Or more? And do the Competition enhancements suitably lift the M car game across all three body styles?
Further, is going the Competition route worth the $4000 (in convertible) or $5000 (coupe or sedan) premium over the normal M car? And given the not insignificant price jump up the ladder from the M3 ($144,615) to M4 coupe ($154,615) and further to the M4 Convertible ($165,615), where is prudent money best spent?
The jury remains out on the flip-top. Why? Because there were none to test at the recent launch in sunny Queensland, whereas the sedan and coupe were on hand to sample across challenging back roads, the tight and twisty Norwell race track and a mix of urban and highway cruising. All test cars bar one were fitted with seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions, the loner featuring a conventional six-speed manual arrangement that buyers can option for no added cost, though very few do – BMW Australia puts the take-up rate of three-pedal M3s and M4s to “about 2.5 per cent,” or literally only a handful of delivered cars thus far. A sign of the times, then…
While exterior changes are minimal, they conspire to quite a signature Competition look, though much of the effect is those distinctive, thin-spoke forged 20-inch wheels and, even when viewed from outside through the glass, those gorgeous looking front bucket seats. The extra-wide rims feature fat 265mm front and 285mm rear Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres – 10mm wider than regular M3/M4 at both ends – which enhance the squat stance of either sedan or coupe.
The standard-fitment Shadow Line ‘blackout’ treatment – front grille, side gills, window trims - serves well, right down to the black boot badges, and there’s nary a lick of chrome or alloy look on the outside. The Yas Marina Blue with Silverstone (light grey) interior and carbonfibre-weave roof – a metal lid with sunroof is a no-cost option – is a particularly fetching combination as fitted to our M3 test car.
Having just spent a week in an M2, I’ll lay it on the line: the M3/M4 stuff feels noticeably more upmarket once you climb inside. And so it should. When you’re paying upwards of a $40k premium to jump up segment-size in an M car – a whopping $76k separates M2 Pure to M4 Convertible, at its widest spread – you rightly expect some extra niceties and love.
The race-look buckets, with their distinctive ‘rib holes’ cut-out (said to save weight), blend sports focus and long-haul comfort superbly. The thick, torso-hugging bolsters are electrically adjustable, too, to allow dialing in a snug fit for sporting driving, or a loose fit when you want to cruise. And there’s a huge amount of seat adjustment to dial-in that just-right driving position. The convertible version, though, misses out on these front seats…which is precisely why there’s a grand saving in premium for its Competition version enhancements.
The whole cabin is double-stitched in leather for the main touch points, the dash fascia, lower instrument panel, the glove box door and door skins. Our test cars have a softer Merino leather available in a selection of colours, though an extended choice can be had, as a no-cost option, dipping into BMW’s Individual range with slightly more hardy hide. The seat belts also feature a BMW M tri-colour motif that’s pretty geeky yet very neat.
Standard equipment is healthy indeed: adaptive LED headlights, high-end Navigation System Professional with real-time traffic display, ConnectedDrive bells and whistles (including Internet), cruise control with active braking, DAB+ radio, a surround-view parking camera with front and rear sensors, 16-speaker Harmon/Kardon audio.
Unlike the little brother M2, you get a proper driver’s digital screen with a legible digital speed, a head-up display, light-touch/previewable preset buttons, writing functionality with the infotainment controller, individual button control of powertrain, steering or damper settings…the list goes on. Competition by name, luxury appointments by nature – this is no stripped-out race version. That said, not much of this stuff contributes to a finer M car driving experience.
I’d be lying if I wrote that the extra 14kW hike that lifts the 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged six from 317kW to ‘Competition’ 331kW is obvious from the seat of the pants. Essentially, the power curve is the same as the regular M3/M4 engine, this one just revs 500rpm higher, to a 6000rpm ceiling, to create the output cream. The engine is pretty much carryover, though a Competition gets a different engine bedpan for the crankcase due to its higher-revving nature.
The unchanged 550Nm torque peak clocks on at 1850rpm and holds station until 5500rpm, so while this new M3 launches as boldly as the ‘regular’ version, it sounds a whole lot fitter, mostly due to the new exhaust and revised “flap management system” that adds boldness and volume to the note. It heightens the sonic fanfare, though the actual timbre still falls short of pulling those heartstrings in ways great sounding engines truly do.
BMW claims 4.0sec for either sedan or coupe marching to 100km/h from a standstill which, yet untested, remains to be seen. Both certainly feel swift to march, though neither is more lightweight than the ‘regular’ M3 (1560kg) or M4 (1540kg), and the extra oomph comes at a penalty at the filling station, each a half-litre thirstier at a claimed 8.8L/100km for the combined cycle.
No surprises from the dual-clutch transmission: it’s smoother on the move that in start-stop traffic, the second-to-third gap is still quite wide, and it’s a razor-sharp ally when set to its more visceral setting, which can be adjusted via a button on the centre console. It’s still the quicker A-to-B option than the conventional manual, but the old-school cog-swapper is a real joy to use, if more demanding of the driver on a twisty bit of road not through the action of gearchanges, but because the disruption of torque to the rear wheels more easily unsettles the chassis.
So, to the crucial dynamics, the one area this current era of M3/M4 has copped a fair amount of unfavourable heat. On paper, the Competition enhancements – which can be cost-optioned on regular M cars in overseas markets – are anchored by 15 per-cent stiffer springs, while all adaptive damper modes (Comfort, Sport, Sport+) are firmer across the board. The calibration of the M Adaptive differential is also sharpened, while the steering, suspension and stability settings have all been recalibrated. And both hardware and software is identical between the sedan and coupe, according to BMW. Sounds good, right?
At low-speed and when cruising, the ride is pretty average on Australia’s less-than-average road surfaces. Comfort is downright terse. So why? Why didn’t BMW tune the Comfort setting softer and make the Sport/Sport+ stuff, as they have, firmer than before?
Interestingly, the M3 and M4 become more compliant – and pleasantly so – the swifter they move across a country road. The weight of the car and faster the suspension movements suit the general ride and handling tuning brief. They become more settled, their handling becomes more confident, grip generated becomes more assertive. If there’s a venue where the Competition models feel tailormade, it’s in the thick ends of third and fourth gears, holding a chosen line through a curve without any rapid direction changes or sudden weight transferal between the four tyres. It’s here, in the hot-paced grand touring, that they feel both fast and comfortable, and their most communicative with the driver.
Both cars are fun, if less adept, at firing between hairpins up or down a narrow mountain pass, threading between Armco and rock face while shuffling between second and third gears. In Sport+, the throttle is so sharp in the engine’s mid-range that it's easy to unhinge those wide rear tyres, and the regular ESP setting clamps down hard and early, robbing corner exit drive when you need it. Activating the ‘loose’ MDM stability mode just allows the rear to snap harder. But, like the regular M3/M4, it really keeps you on your toes and, across damp patches or decent bumps, the tail shimmies around without much communication through the driver’s hips.
The steering on our M4 test car was, frankly, a little average. Off centre, the wheel is quite inert, and with lock, the weight and feedback wasn’t quite up to ‘ultimate driving machine’ standards. It certainly didn’t point nor communicate like, say, an M2 does, or perhaps a real M car should. Strangely, however, the steering of the M3 we swapped into was noticeably better: better feel off centre, more accurate to small adjustments, more informative to what was going on between the front tyres and road surface. A difference in tyre pressures? Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure…
The Norwell race circuit is hardly what you’d call a ‘power circuit’ that favours output and high-speed stability rather than low-speed agility. It’s got two fourth-gear sweepers and through these either M3 or M4 – in either manual or DCT transmission – not merely feel right home but well and truly alive and brimming with engagement. But the theme continues on circuit as it does on road: through the tighter stuff, the M cars aren’t quite as comfortable being manhandled, as their tails get loose without much provocation and their noses demand to be kept reasonably tidy.
If there’s an overriding sense, it’s that the suspension set-up that can feel overly firm on back roads can become slightly soft and ‘loose’ at a hot-lap pace. Oh, they can be incredibly quick, but they demand patience, particularly on the throttle exiting corners, and under brakes they can squirm around in a less-than-settled manner.
There are shades of improvement to what are already highly accomplished driving machines. Good fun, though not quite the great stride forward in dynamic character and a sense of red-misted purpose that the Competition label might otherwise suggest. These are no M4 GTS substitutes, though that car – already sold out before it lands in Oz – commands around double the price of a regular M4.
Instead, a mere five-grand hike is less than a five per-cent premium to step up from a ‘normal’ M3/M4 into Competition territory. And it is a premium well spent for a car range improved, if incrementally so. BMW Australia forecasts that, moving forward, this new version will represent around 84 per cent for sales. And when asked why the Competition versions aren’t simply the new regular M3s and M4s, the response is that “some customers just prefer the regular models’ black wheels”.
Our personal pick of the new crop is the M3 dual-clutch version. Why? It’s ten grand more affordable than the M4, it seats five instead of the coupe’s four-seat arrangement and, highly subjectively, it looks a little tougher in the flesh. And the DCT transmission is not only a quicker method point to point, it suits the package a little better than the more ‘purist’ six-speed route.
It’ll be interesting to see how this particular M car goes up against logical rivals from Germany and abroad…