The BMW M3’s starting prices — $55,400 for the sedan, $58,400 for the coupe and $67,050 for the convertible — might seem high for performance versions of BMW’s compact 3 Series. And that would be true if you couldn’t appreciate a car, with four seats and a trunk, that’s comfortable enough to drive daily yet capable of hitting the track and beating the tar out of any model in its class — and most other classes — in terms of overall performance and fun.
Now in its 24th year overall and its 15th in the U.S., the BMW M3 is simply a phenomenal car that proves you really can have it all.
From the first time I let out the clutch on our six-speed-manual test car, I was surprised — not by overwhelming thrust, but by a lack thereof. The world is a very different place, performance fans, when a V-8 engine is built to rev and a turbocharged inline-six-cylinder produces more low-end grunt. But that’s the story of BMW’s M3 and 335i. (See them compared here.)
|BMW M3 vs. 335i Engines
||single twin-scroll turbocharger
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|295 @ 3,900
||300 @ 1,400
||300 @ 1,200-5,000
|0-60 mph (manual/automatic, seconds)
|EPA mpg (city/highway — combined)*
||14/20 – 16
||17/26 – 20
||17/26 – 20
As the table reflects, the more affordable 2010 335i coupe’s twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six produces more torque at considerably lower rpm than the 2010 M3’s 4.0-liter normally aspirated V-8. (The cars’ manual transmissions are geared the same, but the M3 has a 3.85 final drive ratio and the 335i’s is 3.08.) The M3 started its life modestly powered in 1986, and it hasn’t been about prodigious torque since it came to the U.S. in 1995, but the 335i we’ve come to know and love certainly has raised expectations, and it doesn’t end here. The 2011 335i, which goes on sale this spring, brings the torque peak on earlier and, according to BMW, holds it until 5,000 rpm.
The M3’s power delivery isn’t a problem, it just requires an expectation adjustment. Once it gets revving, the engine fulfills expectations with 414 horsepower that will push you back in your seat — never more dramatically than when you downshift a couple gears and nail it when already in motion. The acceleration rate climbs with engine speed all the way to the redline, which is an impressive 8,400 rpm once the car has warmed up. The redline — literally, the red line on the tachometer — starts out lower and slowly climbs as the operating temperature increases. BMW estimates the zero to 60 mph time at 4.7 seconds with the stick shift. If you choose the seven-speed M Double Clutch Transmission for an additional $2,900, it’s 4.5 seconds.
Typical of dual-clutch automated manuals, the M DCT shifts virtually instantaneously, providing the stated 0.2-second advantage over the stick. It has an automatic mode with your choice of five levels of responsiveness, and it can be shifted manually using the gear selector lever or shift paddles on the steering wheel. Despite the timed superiority, I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a driver’s car with this kind of transmission, even a well-executed one, when a traditional stick shift is available. If you’re in it to drive, freakin’ drive.
The M3 provides a full symphony of sounds: When clutching at lower speeds, there’s a faint rattle as the driveline unloads. You hear some overall drivetrain whirring in the cabin, and a throaty exhaust note is audible at lower engine speeds and becomes loud, but not obnoxious, at full revs. All good stuff, with the exception of the cacophony you hear when standing at the front of the car, with or without the hood open. Blame the direct fuel injection, which seems to afflict all engines and all manufacturers similarly. I have witnessed the future of high-efficiency engine design, and it is a clattering mess.
Thankfully, the injection noise doesn’t seem to penetrate the cabin, which gives the beneficial sounds a clear channel to the driver. In the M3, quiet would be a detriment. A good performance car is an extension of the driver, and you can’t achieve this without communication. When you’re driving the M3, you hear your engine’s speed and how hard it’s working, you sense the body’s yaw and you feel the steering angle through its terrific, thick-rimmed steering wheel.
Handling remains BMW’s ace in the hole against the Audis and Mercedes-Benzes of the world, thanks in part to optimal balance and steering that’s unencumbered by drive hardware. Even with its larger engine, the M3 coupe’s front/rear weight distribution is 51.2/48.8, the same as the 335i coupe’s. It heads into turns with slight understeer that can be countered with the accelerator, providing excellent roadholding and control. Depending on conditions, though, you might find yourself a gear or two too high for the torque you need, so the wise driver will keep the engine on the boil before charging into a serpentine.
I respect how far all-wheel-drive cars have come in their ability to manage understeer, and their adeptness at holding a line where some rear-wheel-drive cars struggle, but the M3 proves just how much grip and controllability a rear-drive car can offer. It does more than a novice driver expects and more than an experienced driver can believe, and it does so without sacrificing fun. I’ve bemoaned how cars have gotten heavier, including the 3 Series, and although the M3 coupe is 133 pounds heavier than the 335i coupe, it seldom felt overweight. The standard carbon fiber roof trims some pounds and lowers the center of gravity. The M3 feels grounded — wide in a good way — and light-footed when pushed hard. It moves in and out of turns with great poise, but where it shines most is when things get tricky.
The car gobbles up reducing-radius turns, off-camber and uneven surfaces, and abrupt elevation changes. Combine a few of these, and the M3 giggles on through, and so do you. When the car gets upset, it does so with plenty of warning. The 18-inch wheels and impressive Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires, rated 245/40ZR18, may be less sporty than the 19-inch option, but they provide relatively quick reflexes and give up traction gradually and controllably. It’s as if all the car’s systems were designed to work together … and they actually do.
The harmony doesn’t end with the purely mechanical. Our car’s optional adaptive suspension, called Electronic Damping Control, offered a choice of three settings: Comfort, Normal and Sport. Comfort makes the car more than livable in day-to-day driving, and Normal isn’t bad either, especially with the 18-inch wheels. It’s a good level of ride comfort, yet it provides definitive body roll damping and traction when you need it. Sport is more like what many cars give you in their only sport mode: a demonstrably firm ride that doesn’t attempt to go easy on you at any time. It’s best reserved for a track — a smooth one.
The button that controls EDC is alongside the shifter, flanked by a button that defeats the electronic stability system and another that increases both the variable throttle response and steering effort. Another option I was glad to have was M Drive, which lets you customize a single “M” button on the steering wheel with various preferences you can then call into action at any moment. Using the optional iDrive controller (which isn’t as bad as it used to be), you choose suspension, stability and — if you have the automatic — shift response settings. M Drive also separates the throttle and power-steering assist settings that are otherwise combined in the Sport button.
Presuming there’s plenty of time to set these things individually on track day, I instead patterned my M for the occasional unexpected curvy road. I never cared much for varying throttle sensitivity, but Sport does yield a bigger blip from the throttle when you tap the accelerator pedal to rev-match, so I went with that rather than the needlessly sensitive Sport Plus. I chose Normal for the suspension, Sport for the steering and M Dynamic Mode for the stability system, which lets you slide around a bit but keeps you from ruining your day.
The ability to adjust these things independently is great, but activating them to your own specifications with one button is something I’d like to see proliferate. Contrast this with cars that combine multiple changes in one button, as in the Mercedes E550 coupe, whose Sport button firms up the ride conspicuously, makes the accelerator hypersensitive and forces the automatic transmission into lower gears. (For the record, the E63 AMG has a feature similar to M Drive; the E550 is a convenient example of what I consider the worst approach.)
At its core, the M3 is a car that makes you think you’re a better driver than you probably are. The electronic add-ons take it even further. BMW’s antilock brakes employ a feature called Cornering Brake Control designed to keep their cars from heaving their weight to the outside wheels or spinning out if you brake while in a turn. Once, when barreling into a sharp turn too quickly, I jabbed the M3’s brakes, and the car remained remarkably composed — unfazed, rather than getting out of line. Was it the CBC feature? The competent brakes? The meticulously engineered suspension? It’s hard to tell. Likewise, a couple times I peered down to see the stability light flashing when its intervention hadn’t been obvious, as it is in some cars.
This is yet another of the M3’s triumphs: its incorporation of smart systems and high-tech adjustability that truly improve the performance and driving experience. Competing models may appear to match the M3 when you compare feature lists, but just because the features are there doesn’t mean they do the job right or improve performance. In the worst cases, they degrade it. Even a technophobic purist would have to tip his helmet to BMW for its seamless integration.
So, is the M3 perfect? Of course not. The manual transmission was my sole major complaint. The gearing is all fine, and the electronic throttle has virtually no lag, which can’t be said of some examples, including BMW’s early attempts in the 540i and first-generation Mini Cooper. Blip the M3’s throttle to downshift, and you’re good to go. But the driver interface, to use a geeky term, is a big disappointment: The standard-issue shifter is rubbery and long of throw. It feels utterly disconnected from the drivetrain, like flipping a switch. One could argue that the M3 should have a better one than the regular 3 Series, but really, BMW’s entire lineup deserves something better.
I’m also not wild about the clutch, whose takeup is high in the pedal’s travel, where it’s not as easy to feather. I also prefer linear resistance along the way, and this pedal resists pressure up high and then eases up abruptly as you press down. Some drivers might prefer this design, or the isolated shifter. Not I. And while I have no objection to Reverse being to the left of 1st gear (some do), BMW could improve things by requiring you to press the stick down before moving it into the Reverse gate. Not only does it prevent you from going into Reverse when you don’t want to, it also makes you certain when you have done so. This shifter is just too ambiguous. These issues, which some drivers might overlook, stand out because the M3 is otherwise such a stunningly complete and cohesive package.
The gas mileage, at 14/20 mpg on premium gas, clearly sucks, as does the resulting $1,300 gas-guzzler tax. It’s not outrageous for a sports car, but it stands out because, against all odds, the car makes a good daily driver.
Based on the M3’s performance, you’d probably accept it if it had only two seats. Or even one. Actually, it has four, with reasonable backseat space for adults and a generous trunk with folding rear seats and a center pass-through. Getting into the backseat presents the usual challenge, though rocker switches atop the front-seat backrests simplify moving the whole seat forward and back. For $3,000 less and a mere 22 pounds more curb weight, you can get the M3 as a sedan. Some say coupes always look better than sedans. I’ve questioned if the 335i coupe got that memo, but I did like our Melbourne Red Metallic M3 coupe. BMW says the doors and trunklid are the only sheet metal shared with the regular 3 Series. It’s a more aggressive design, with flared fenders, larger air intakes and quad tailpipes, but compared with many sports cars, the M3 remains low-profile.
The BMW 3 Series hardtops earned the highest score, Good, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal, side and rear crash tests. (The convertible has not been tested.) Like most cars in its class, it hasn’t been tested yet for roof strength, a measure of rollover safety. Standard airbags include front and side curtain airbags, along with front-seat-mounted side-impact torso airbags. Other standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. The front head restraints tilt forward and back, and the backseat’s restraints are height adjustable.
For a list of all safety features, click here.
Based on price and body style, the M3 has competitors. If you want torque, the Mercedes C63 AMG delivers, as does the Cadillac CTS-V, though the latter compares more to the M5 in size. The Audi S4 doesn’t try to compete on price or performance, so Audi’s out of the game unless it brings back the RS4. The Lexus IS-F is a decent first effort, but I find it too skittish, and I can’t work with that eight-speed automatic. None of these models reflects the M3’s 24 years of refinement. Once you consider the M3’s performance and day-to-day livability, its $55,400 starting price is reasonable. For that matter, so is our coupe’s as-tested price of $64,775, which includes the gas tax and destination charge.
The M3’s capabilities have a shortcoming: that the car’s limits are far on the other side of legality and good sense. If you’re able to enjoy the M3’s potential without hitting a racetrack, you live someplace more remote or lawless — and definitely more interesting — than I do. The M3 is hardly alone in this; it’s been true of many cars for years, and more are joining those ranks all the time. The more unflappable cars become, the less fun they are day to day. The good news is that the 3 Series is a whole line of very capable cars that share the M3’s basic attributes, to a lesser degree. With the 335i, you even get more low-rev torque where you want it most, for regular city and highway driving. Anyone who’s not in a position to spend more than $55K for an M3 can get a 335i for $40,600 instead and feel damn good about it.