Smooth operator



There are those who have dismissed the latest BMW M3
as a pale imitation of Its forebears. Surely, some mistake..?

Remember the initial response to the new BMW M3? How it lacked some of its immediate predecessor’s hard-nosed sporting manners? How it marked a change of direction for the M3? How its previously aggressive stance had become somehow toned down? How it really wasn’t quite an M3, was it?

Maybe so, but nobody ever complained about the M5 looking like a 518 and performing like a Ferrari, did they?

Actually, the M3 isn’t quite as surreptitious as its larger stablemate when it comes to disguising its true purpose. The light alloy M-Technic wheels (an £830 option) are a bit of a giveaway. Quite how all 17 inches have been crammed into the arches is beyond satisfactory scientific explanation. A human equivalent would be squeezing a 36-inch waist into a 30-inch pair of jeans. The massive (235/40) Michelin slabs offer a few clues, too, as do side skirts and a front spoiler that looks ready to splinter at the slightest hint of a camber change (although it never actually came into contact with Mother Earth during our tenure).

For all that, however, one got the impression that the test car would have drawn few more glances than any other 3-Series model, had it not been finished in a particularly brash shade of Norwich City yellow . . .

There is no question that the old four-cylinder M3 was an awesomely exciting road car long before it pupated into its ultimate, screaming 2.5-litre Sport Evolution guise (a final throw-of-the-dice necessitated by the effort to keep up with, and often ahead of, Mercedes-Benz in the German Touring Car Championship).

For a four-cylinder saloon, the deposed M3 was awash with extraordinary technical data: 238 bhp at an eardrum-melting 7,000 rpm, over 200 bhp per ton, 177 lb ft of torque at 4,750 rpm, 0-60 mph in around six-and-a-half seconds and a top speed of nigh on 150 mph despite aerodynamics which, to the naked eye, wouldn’t have looked out of place on an inner-city housing development. Driving it was a wholly sensual experience. It told you everything you needed to know about a) where you were on the road, b) the quality of the surface, c) the brand name of the surface material and d) when it was last relaid.

Well, almost.

With the new car, BMW has shifted emphasis. Gone is the shrill, barely disguised racing car. In its place comes a 24-valve straight six, rated at 2990 c.c. Power is up, and substantially so. You still have to rev the thing halfway to the next solar system to touch the 286 bhp peak, but though the accompanying soundtrack remains intoxicating, the extra pair of cylinders soak up any undue coarseness.

On a more practical note, torque has been increased by about 33 per cent: 236 lb ft at a tranquil 3,600 rpm (it’s redlined at 7,200) equates to mid-range punch that lies somewhere between the old M3 and Project Thrust. Dab the throttle, in any gear, and the response is instant.

This is a car with the strength of Lennox Lewis and the manners of the Queen Mother.

Try taking a sports hatchback in the AX Sport/XR2 mould to the outer limits of the rev range and the chances are that the dashboard ancillaries will make as much noise as the engine. The M3 is beautifully screwed together, and will absorb such abuse without a murmur from the trim.

Furthermore, its road manners are quite superb.

The M3 is blessed with outstanding steering, which is beautifully weighted and provides just as much feel as its progenitor used to. (There’s another benefit for UK customers, too. You can buy the latest generation M3 with a steering wheel on the right.)

The chassis is a paragon of balance. The handling is extraordinarily neutral. It’s perhaps a little tamer than the old M3, in that the rear end has astonishingly high levels of traction on a dry surface. In the wet, it will squirm around if you’re careless, but such is the sharpness of the controls that a) you get plenty of warning and b) it can be arrested and controlled at the flick of a wrist.

Despite the firmness of the suspension, which contributes not only to high levels of cornering grip but also to the virtual absence of body roll, the ride quality is excellent, though you might feel an occasional jolt at urban speeds, but nothing unduly alarmist.

To cope with capabilities on a plane unknown to many manufacturers, a quartet of sizeable discs (all ventilated) provide immense stopping power. There was no fade under duress, and the ABS remains respectfully unobtrusive at all times.

The transmission is a delight. The gearchange quality is excellent, both firm and positive, and the ratios are well chosen. The M3’s flexibility is awesome. It will pick up as sharply in fifth gear as many other cars do in second. That’s what you call relaxed. It’s a car with two distinct personalities, but there’s nothing Jekyll and Hyde about it. Whichever way you treat it, it responds like Mr Hyde. . .

Dynamic class aside, the M3 also cossets its occupants (though rear leg room remains a problem for taller passengers, which has always been something of a 3-Series bugbear on long-distance trips). The front seats are as supportive as they are comfortable. After a return trip from London to mid-Wales, which included a stint in a 30-mile jam on the M4, the driver emerged feeling as fresh as next week’s milk. The dash and controls are to usual BMW standards: functional, attractive and easy to use. Despite the presence of an airbag, the steering wheel is unusually neat and compact.

The heater is powerful, and simple to use, as is the stereo. The only standard bit you might want to throw away is the trip computer, although we wouldn’t opt for the electric sunroof and the air conditioning which adorned the test car. Respectively £750 and £1440 options, one or the other is surely adequate? We recommend the latter.

The M3 is awash with thoughtful touches. The windows are automatically lowered and raised a fraction every time you open the door, which protects the seals and helps keep wind noise to a minimum. As with other BMWs, there is a rechargeable torch in the glovebox and a well-equipped tool box mounted in the bootlid, so you don’t have to empty all your luggage should you need a spanner or two. You will need to have a clear-out to access the spare wheel, but at least the effort will be rewarded with a full-size one, and not a space saver. While the latter can be a practical necessity in some cars, there are others which carry them for reasons which appear to be rooted in nothing less than laziness. Such things matter when you collect a puncture at 20.00 on Maundy Thursday. . .

BMW’s inherent practicality has, however, jumped ship in one small, but possibly important, detail. The seat catches for the through-loading boot are beautifully designed, but are in fact a triumph of style over function. They are located inside the car, so if a local low-life gains access to the cabin (BMW’s anti-theft system is another optional fitment, at £465), then he or she can also progress fairly smartly to the contents of the boot.

For the money (list price is £32,450), the M3 remains a delightful, and relatively practical, proposition. It can reach an (electronically limited) top speed of 155 mph in the right circumstances, and it will reach 60 mph from rest in under six seconds.

That’s not really the point, however. It’s the way that the M3 does everything that invigorates the spirit and captures one’s imagination.


Some of what was written at the time of the new M3’s launch might almost amount to criticism, albeit mild. The flak, such as it was, appeared to be aimed at the fact that the six-cylinder M3 was a watered-down version of what had gone before.

Maybe so, but the result, to my mind at least, is a superior road car. Besides, even if some of the spiky character has been lost, nobody can complain that the performance has been diluted. And it’s still massively good fun to drive, when the mood takes you.

Ultimately, some of the old M3’s race-car sharpness may have been removed, but the extra refinement has taken away none of the enjoyment.

Occasionally, you regret having to return a test car to its provider. Once or twice a year, you really, really resent it.

True, I could live without the canary paintwork, but this was just such an occasion.

Farewell, telepathy on wheels . . . S A