The highest praise I can give a sports car is to say it performs well both on a track and while driving slowly around town. Why? Because anybody can make a no-compromises car that's fast on the track but beats you to death on the streets. Likewise, anybody can make a comfy boulevard cruiser that wallows around the track. What's tricky is hitting that balance.
One of the few truly awesome cars I've driven, the M3 nails both the sport and the comfort ends of the spectrum. You can tell the M3 if you want it to be sedate or scary-fast — and it listens.
Joe Wiesenfelder tested a 2010 M3 with a manual transmission, and you can read his impressions here. My 2011 test car came with BMW's M double-clutch transmission, and I have to say that even though I generally prefer manuals, I'd probably take this transmission if I were buying an M3.
At this point, I realize half the car geeks have stopped reading, half of them have dropped their jaws in amazement and all of them have muttered, "You freaking moron." But here's the thing: I've driven a manual 2010 M3 on the road, at civilized speeds, and I did not enjoy it. Sorry, I just didn't.
Like Wiesenfelder said in his review, you have to wind the engine out to higher rpm to get to its maximum power. What I found is that a relative lack of low-end grunt made dealing with things like parking lots, stoplights on hills and standard city driving kind of annoying. Other manual cars I've driven are more enjoyable. I was expecting to be blown away by that version of the M3, but I found it to be pretty pedestrian. Once I got out of the city the manual was great, but 96 percent of my driving is in the city.
The 2011 M3's double-clutch transmission pulled away from stops and dealt with slow speeds better than the manual. Selecting gears with the steering-wheel paddles was excellent. You can vary how quickly you want the shifts to happen (more on that later), but in every case the transmission responds immediately.
There are drawbacks, however, even for a transmission as nice as this one.
I'm not a fan of BMW's gear selectors for its automatic transmissions. They don't move through fixed positions like most cars; you just sort of nudge it where you want it to go and it pops back to a center position. It's easy to figure out, but at the same time, what's wrong with a traditional shifter? It seems like BMW answered a question nobody was asking. Slowing as you approach stoplights, there's sometimes an odd lurching sensation when the transmission downshifts or chooses Neutral. It's pretty subtle, but I did notice it; it's the type of thing that would drive a manual-transmission-purist up the wall.
As for parking, if you realize you need to pull forward a few more feet once you stop the car you have to press the accelerator a fair bit before the car moves. I just had this sinking feeling the M3 was going to lurch forward into a curb or something.
Ride & Handling
Setting aside the transmission, the rest of the M3 is superb. The steering is pinpoint accurate and gives you a great sense of confidence when approaching hairpin turns or broad sweepers. It's got a good feel, not over boosted and touchy like some. The chassis is also just great. I like to test that by driving through a reducing-radius turn — one that starts out gentle and gets tighter — and every time I did that with the M3 it responded to the tight part of the turn with no sense of drama. It stuck well and carried me through.
It's so good, in fact, that you'll probably get nowhere near the chassis' limits off a racetrack.
M3s also have what BMW calls EDC, and it basically lets you choose among three settings — Normal, Comfort and Sport — for how firm a ride you want, among other parameters. Our test car had optional 19-inch wheels, and, as you'd expect, they did affect the ride.
The car was fine in the Comfort setting — I felt bumps in the road and large potholes, but overall the ride was very good given the rough conditions of Chicago's roads. The stiffer Normal setting was just too firm, both on city streets and on the highway. It's something you should definitely check out on your test drive. Because the standard suspension has to pick a happy medium, you'll probably find EDC's Comfort setting the softest available on an M3.
BMW says the M3 shares only the doors and trunklid with the regular 3 Series. To me, it looks like BMW has taken a clean, conservative BMW 3 Series and added some clean, conservative styling effects. It's not blown-out and garish-looking, as some performance cars can be, and the M3 is a better car for it.
My favorite bit is the unpainted carbon fiber roof, which is exclusive to the M3. The carbon fiber material lowers the center of gravity, but the genius bit is leaving it unpainted. It looks really cool, even in contrast with the deep blue of our test car.
The M3 is not designed to be an opulent cabin cruiser of a luxury car, and because of that I like it. I really do not care for wood trim — even when it's done well — so the M3's simple, all-black interior is my idea of the perfect space. All the knobs, switches and levers have a good, solid feel. The only complaints I have are miniscule: It was all but impossible for me to activate the memory seat feature with the door shut, and the lid over the center storage console was awkward to close.
If there's one thing BMW doesn't get enough praise for, it's the fact that its cars provide comfortable, safe driving positions. Some cars force your legs straight out in front of you, and that can result in arms that are stretched too much. Also, when driving some performance cars it's either hard to see out the car or it's hard to judge exactly where the front or sides are. The M3, on the other hand, adjusts enough to adapt to drivers of different sizes, and visibility is excellent. You want that if you intend to drive fast.
Finally, a thing I really liked about the M3 is that you can hear what's going on — meaning the engine, drivetrain and road noise. I turned on the radio only a couple of times when I was driving it, preferring to hear the mechanical sounds it was making. If you're the sort who likes to be isolated from a car, the M3 isn't for you.
If you listen to a BMW nut explain all the different systems the car has, it can be a bit overwhelming. There's M-Drive, Drivelogic, EDC and so on.
The basics are that you can customize the car for a firmer ride, a more aggressive transmission shift program, a less intrusive electronic stability system and many other settings. If you choose, you can use a variety of in-cabin buttons to achieve most of these functions independently, or you can use the M-Drive system, which you set up using a central control knob and multimedia screen. After you've done that, the settings are saved and any time you want, you can press the M-Drive button on the steering wheel and they'll pop into place.
What's cool is that you can configure M-Drive with all the settings you want for the racetrack and go nuts zooming around. When it comes time to go home, you simply dial everything back down to the civilized settings at the push of a single button and putter home like a good little boy.
A drawback, though, is that the M-Drive button is on the steering wheel, among some audio controls, so technically it's possible to dial up your track settings when you just meant to change CDs.
Safety, Reliability & Mileage
The 2011 M3 has not been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but the 2010 BMW 3 Series has been, and its results should carry over when 2011 ratings are released. The 2010 received the highest rating, Good, for frontal-offset and side-impact tests, but it has not been tested for roof strength. BMW 3 Series with active head restraints also received a Good rating in the Institute's rear crash protection and head-restraint tests. For a list of all the M3's safety features, click here.
The BMW M3 is predicted to have average reliability. It's estimated to get 14/20 mpg city/highway, and thus incurs a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax.
M3 in the Market
Our test car stickered at $69,925 including the gas-guzzler tax and $2,900 for the double-clutch automatic, so it's not cheap. And considering what it can do, you shouldn't expect it to be.
There are precious few cars that can be tamed by electronic systems to be docile city cruisers and then, when unleashed, attack the track with absolute ferocity. A co-worker described it as a racetrack beast, and I can't argue — though I'd add that it's a comfortable car, too, and it has exceptional daily-drive capability.
For my money, that's what puts the M3 at the top of the market of driver-focused cars: It can cover the driving spectrum.
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