It's easy to go into a drive in an M3 and get suckered into the hype-train. After all, I'm pretty sure if you look in the dictionary next to "best sports saloon" it won't be long before you stumble across a photo of the famous kidney-grilles (or a questionable load of sports-themed American bars). But then one year they went and put a V8 in the M3, much to the disgust of purists that had been spoiled for two decades of silky straight-six performance.
So I must admit, I went into the test drive expecting to be underwhelmed. You see, I'd seen a late model E92 M3 Competition after weeks of looking for a new car, which had seen me drive C63 AMG's and RS4s. Both had been akin to trying to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer, especially in the C63's case. Great muscle car performance, but in the twisty stuff showing a bit of a lack of finesse.
A walk around the outside and you see the typical garnish once reserved purely for M cars. A splattering of ///M badges adorning most panels, side vents, quad exhausts and a large wheel package tucked under some aggressive arches. Subjective, I know, but I think it looks absolutely stunning. Menacing yet somehow quite understated. Somewhere in the middle of the inelegant brashness of the Merc and the rather handsome but quite dull lines of the same era Audi.
Inside you're treated to carbon-fibre style trim inserts, leather upholstery and the usual nappa leather. On this car we have the M Performance wheel which is chunky and wrapped in alcantara with an LCD screen for useful driving metrics. Some won't like the thick steering wheel - but then I have hands that resemble cradling on a lacrosse stick. It isn't hard to find the ideal seating position with the every-which-way adjustable and heated seats and the well laid-out controls. The iDrive is the heart of the infotainment system - once you master it, you will wonder how you lived without it. BMW executed this much better than Mercedes' attempt.
Whilst on the topic though, this brings me to one of the few qualms I have with the car, in that the Bluetooth audio when paired to an iPhone is frustratingly inconsistent with controls not operating or sometimes it failing to connect altogether.
But when you hit the start button, you begin to forgive the M boffins. The engine startles to life like a cat who owns the tail that you have just stepped on in the early hours in the morning, with a deep growl which contrasts the muted, raspy tone of the previous gen M3. It's designed to warm up the catalytic converters when cold, so is louder. Honestly, the neighbours love it(!). Put the DCT into D and you're slowly whisked away with more smoothness compared to the SMG system; but still with a degree of the usual DSG jerkiness.
The M3 Competition features the M-Dynamic Mode; or MDM button. Essentially this flips various settings on the car into a set of predetermined parameters at the flick of a single button. Namely Suspension, Throttle Response and Gear Changes. This means that you can have slow gear changes and comfort suspension around town, and simply hit a button to change that to the fastest possible shifts and rock-hard suspension. It also includes software tweaks that leave a little more slip from the stability control. It all amounts to a noticeable progression in the handling department rather than an out and out transformation.
The drive is simply sublime. Many don't like the increased tenseness of the Competition suspension kit - I find it adds a sense of occasion and race car-esque feel to proceedings. Body roll is minimal as I change direction, bounding between apexes on a mountainous road and the whole chassis hides its 1,500kg girth whilst talking to you like a childhood friend. You get a true sense of knowing exactly what it is doing as you dart between gears almost instantly with the gear change aggression set to "unhinged". All the while, the 4.4-litre flat-plane V8 screams towards the 8400rpm redline. Lovely.
Over 8 months, the M3 has been a reliable weekend warrior with space for a child seat and the weekly shop if needed. It is quite common for enthusiasts to replace the main bearings as a precaution at the cost of $3k or so; whether you do so is down to your tolerance for risk, as many will report 150,000 kilometres without an issue. A salesman got me seated in a 2018 M3 after my last service; but despite leaving the E92 for dead in a straight line, its snappy nature and soulless turbo'ed heart amounts to a package that just doesn't tickle me in the same way.
The trade-off however being the other bugbear of the car; the fuel economy. It doesn't bother me having bought it for fun - but having returns of 12-14 litres per 100 kilometres may quickly tire others. The novelty of pouring $20 of fuel in, only to have the petrol light come back on after the first set of traffic lights quickly wears thin.
The Competition Pack adds very subtle tweaks to a well accomplished package; but all round it could be a good time to land the last naturally aspirated M car now that we're deep in the trenches moving through turbocharged sixes all the way to electric motoring. The M3 has always been a car that is somehow worth more than the sum of its parts and the M team always seemed to remember that when it comes to the M3, it isn't always about bhp.
As a package the E92 is up there with one of my favorite cars of all time - huge call I realise - but to me, BMWs take on the "ultimate driving machine" has never been as perfect.