In 2019, I drove the previous-generation BMW M3 CS and listed “sure to be bested by the new M3 very soon” as one of the old car’s potentially less desirable traits.
Maybe ‘soon’ wasn’t as quick as it was supposed to be, but now two years later, the 2021 BMW M3 and M4 have arrived in Australia in two flavours, with a third to follow later in the year.
Right now, you can get the BMW M3 and M4 in ‘unbadged’ entry-level manual variants, or up-specced M3 Competition and M4 Competition guise, which bring more power and an eight-speed automatic.
Later in the year, the range will be joined by M xDrive models, which feature all-wheel drive to help better cope with the additional power and torque delivered in the new models.
For their Australian introduction, the new models were launched at Phillip Island. No road drive – just straight onto the track.
Would the hardcore setting be gruelling enough to show off the limitations of the new chassis? Was this a stunt to prove that the M3 Competition and M4 Competition might be all but useless without the all-wheel-drive system due later in the year?
Well. No. Straight off the bat, I can tell you that sticking with rear-wheel drive has not left the new M3 wanting in any way.
Due to differences in shipping timing, the only vehicles available for us to test were the rear-wheel-drive Competition models. The lower-powered manual versions and all-wheel-drive Comps haven't yet landed in Australia, so we'll follow up on those when we can.
The range starts from $144,900 for the M3 manual and adds $10,000 to step up to Competition specification. If a two-door M4 is more your cup of tea, prices are $149,900 and $159,900 respectively, all before on-road costs.
|2021 BMW M3 Competition|
|Engine||3.0-litre twin-turbo inline six-cylinder|
|Power and torque||375kW at 6250rpm, 650Nm at 2750–5500rpm|
|Transmission||Eight-speed torque converter automatic|
|Drive type||Rear-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim (combined)||10.2L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||Not tested|
|Warranty||Three years, unlimited kilometres|
|Main competitors||Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, Mercedes-AMG C63 S|
|Price||From $154,900 plus on-road costs|
While there’s no Pure badge attached this time around, the opening mid-size M-cars twin an enthusiast-pleasing six-speed manual with rear-wheel drive and motivation provided by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder delivering 353kW and 550Nm.
Benchmarked against the just-M3 models of the previous generation, that’s 36kW and 50Nm more from the same capacity. The engine is ‘new’, but has already been seen locally in the X3 M and X4 M SUV range.
Moving up to the Competition grade brings a small selection of extras: 375kW and 650Nm outputs (50Nm more than the same engine in the X3 M), and an eight-speed torque converter automatic chief among the upgrades.
You’ll also receive extended Merino leather in the interior (extending to the dash and doors), BMW’s digital key, and Drive Assistant Professional – able to be included thanks to the added radar detection missing from the manual model.
Across the range, standard kit provides laserlight headlights, metallic paint, digital instrument cluster, head-up display, dual-zone climate control, 19-inch front and 20-inch rear alloy wheels, M sport seats with leather trim and electric adjustment, wireless phone charging, 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio, adaptive suspension, and more.
Regardless of whether you opt for two doors or four, performance remains the same. Manual models can dash from 0–100km/h in 4.2sec, automatics take 3.9sec.
Visually, the new M twins both feature a controversial frameless full-face grille, a more sculpted dual-straked bonnet, and new wider front guards. Because the same front end adorns both models, the M3 also features 4 Series headlights, unlike lesser models.
At the rear, the M3 further distinguishes itself with wider rear guards for a pumped-out stance; the M4 misses out, as the 4 Series already wears wider bodywork and wider tracks. Of course, both come with carbon roofs, with air-channelling strakes cast in, deep rear bumpers, M-specific quad-tipped exhausts and a low-line rear lip spoiler.
Aggression is certainly part of the package, regardless of the Competition label or not.
Of course, there are options aplenty, but the most significant are probably the available extra carbon-intensive parts, like M Carbon ceramic brakes ($16,500), M Carbon Exterior package, which includes carbon-fibre front bumper, mirror caps, rear spoiler and diffuser ($9500), and Lightweight M Carbon bucket seats, which bring a 9.6kg weight saving ($7500). Alternatively, you can add all three with the M Carbon Package and spend 'just' $26,000, saving $7500... Just like a 'buy two, get one free' deal.
Because the M3’s introduction was a purely track-based affair, we’ll cover on-road behaviour once the new models come through the CarAdvice garage. In lieu of a road drive, though, BMW set up a skidpan instead to show off the adjustable 10-mode M Traction Control system, and the M Drift Analyser that measures and scores your drift angle and duration.
Both are neat tricks. The M Traction Control has genuine potential for drivers who intend to use their car for track work. The Drift Analyser, well – if you can get to a skidpan, it’s rewarding (or frustrating) to see how long you can hold a slide.
Needless to say, with 650Nm at its disposal, getting the M3’s rump out and keeping it out was no problem. Finessing the throttle enough to keep it there gracefully, with peak torque from 2750rpm in a near solid slab until 5500rpm, might take a little more practice.
The real test came not from circling a damp car park at low speeds, but rather on the Phillip Island Circuit itself.
It’s here that the M3 and M4 really showed that BMW, with some carefully considered tweaks, took the already impressive previous-generation cars and honed this new platform to an even more competent level.
Mainly in the area of lateral grip. While cornering force was hardly lacking for the old car, the new M3, which probably should feel a little on edge with so much power and torque sent to the rear wheels only, never once tripped up.
Actually, the lateral load through some of PI’s more open bends is enough to test the limits of seat base grip. Thankfully, the more aggressively contoured backrests seemed to provide a more suitable level of corner clamping, keeping torsos in place as butts slide about.
Fear not, though, for buyers seriously considering track use, the optional carbon bucket seats are deeper still, and feature removable headrest inserts to accommodate the bulk of a helmet – although BMW didn’t put a car with carbon seats on the track for us to test.
Interestingly, the new eight-speed torque converter automatic takes the place of the previous seven-speed dual-clutch auto. It hasn’t always felt super-sharp in X5 M and X3 M applications, but on the track it certainly delivered the crispness required.
From one gear to the next, there’s no perceptible interruption to power delivery. As you push on the accelerator out of a corner, there’s no unsettling moment or between-gear torque punch to unsettle your line.
Firing down through the gears to set the car up into a corner, there’s a blip of revs and a really crisp take-up of the required gear. It’s rewarding and encouraging – plus, the move away from a twin-clutch means less stuttering and staggering at low speeds.
Perhaps the most mid-warping new feature, again shared with other recent M models, is the ability to adjust brake modes. The two-stage system has a Comfort and Sport setting, the idea being that Comfort offers a bit more adaptability for less demanding driving.
Flick between the two and the immediacy of the Sport setting can feel a little abrupt at first. On the track, though, it’s fantastic to get the feeling of instant actuation of the pedal from the barest graze on the pedal.
To round it all out, the soundtrack keeps an aggressive edge. It’s not the snarling bellow of Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-AMG rivals, but it’s still evocative.
Given ever-stricter noise regs forcing performance exhausts into submission, it’s good to hear a little soul has survived. It is a variable system, too, so it settles right down when you’re in Comfort mode and taking it easy.
Other than that, the M3 and M4 environment is largely familiar. The interior consists of BMW’s modular elements, so things like the instruments, infotainment, climate and gear selector will be immediately familiar to anyone with an X5, 3 Series, or similar already in their garage.
It does knock a little of the M-special glow off, but with fattened bodywork, unmissable front styling, and M-specific seats, there’s little chance of confusing an M3 with a 320i.
Perhaps most interesting is that the rear-wheel-drive M3 Competition isn’t the ultimate expression of the M3 range. Given its rather spectacular grip and balance, it’s hard to see how the all-paw xDrive version could be better – though it no doubt will be.
BMW M has been clever with its approach. Knowing that M3 and M4 buyers still have an appetite for traditional performance car elements, like manual transmissions and rear-wheel drive, while welcoming a wider set of buyers into the mix once the full range becomes available.