2021 BMW M3 review: Prestigious Competition?

Supercar swift, safe and tech-packed, the fattened-up BMW M3 will have its admirers, but Andrew Frankel isn’t one of them

2021 BMW M3

The revised style includes a frameless kidney grille with contoured bonnet

Sliding behind the wheel of a new BMW M3 is always a moment to savour. There’s something about that letter and number that still captivates, even after all this time and series of cars, some markedly better than others. An M3, any M3, is the heart of BMW’s high-performance division and should always be a special thing.

Do not be fooled by ‘Competition’ tacked onto the end of this one’s name into thinking it’s some kind of derivative of an extant model. As you can see from its toothsome smile, this is a new M3, and while Competition does indeed mean it’s a fast model, the standard M3 is not coming to the UK. What is coming this summer is the first ever four-wheel-drive M3 and then, at the end of next year, the first ever M3 Touring. The mechanically identical two-door M4 Competition is also on sale now.

Everything has changed about this car compared to 2016’s M3 Competition. Yes it has a twin-turbo 3-litre straight-six engine, but it’s not carried over and has a different cubic capacity. What it does have is 503bhp compared to the 444bhp of its predecessor, a substantial gain in power, but only enough to offset a scarcely less substantial 135kg gain, which is why BMW claims the new car is a scant tenth of a second swifter to 62mph.

Everything else has gone up too: length, wheelbase, width and height, but nothing quite so much as the price: five years ago the last M3 Competition went on sale for £59,595. Today you’ll part with £73,700 before extras.

“It’s simple enough to hoof around, but like all heavy cars it needs space”

But for all that it has gained, the M3 has lost something too: the option of a manual gearbox. BMW makes one for the car but only offers it on non-Comp models so it’s not coming here, largely because BMW sold hardly any manual versions of the previous car. The truth is the only people who want manual M3s tend to be rabid enthusiasts who buy them second-hand, which is not much use to BMW now. What may be less easy to swallow is the replacement of its double clutch gearbox with a conventional automatic transmission. And we’ll be seeing about that shortly.

For now, join me in a cockpit that looks luxurious and technologically state-of-the-art. There are so many ways it can be configured, so many toys and displays to play with, that
I was still finding new avenues to amuse myself when my drive was nearly over. And it’s not all show: scroll through the maps for the engine, the electronic dampers and gearbox and you can feel every change you make.

2020 BMW M3 interior

Even if you just set everything to ‘comfort’,  the M3 is firm and no-nonsense. Structurally it feels solid as granite and offers that instant reassurance we crave from properly fast cars – that it’s not going to do anything without prior instruction from you. Which is very good.

As is the new engine. It’s obviously bursting with power but what I like is how the additional urge has been extracted from the same capacity without dulling the throttle response or introducing any additional off boost lethargy. It does perhaps feel slightly more obviously turbocharged than its predecessor but not intrusively so, and I’d say its voice is actually slightly more cultured than that of its quite aggressive sounding parent, and I have no problem with that either.

Even so, at times I struggled to like this car. I’m sure there are some great financial reasons for having the same kind of gearbox you’d find in a 7 Series limo, but zero credible engineering reasons of which I am aware. Even in its sharpest setting it pauses between the pull of a paddle and the delivery of a gearshift. On the way up you can find yourself on the limiter because it just keeps accelerating; on the way down you have to learn to wait.

Nor can you ever quite escape the car’s size and weight. In my head an M3 is compact, but not in reality. BMW’s chassis engineers have done what great chassis engineers always do and controlled what they can control. Which means that so long as you leave all the systems on and drive it merely quite fast, you’ll find it grippy, poised and accurate. I want more than that from an M3: I want fabulous steering and a car that’s almost as easy to direct on and over the limit as it is at other times. And it’s then that the laws of physics will be silenced no longer. To be clear, it’s simple enough to hoof around, but like all heavy cars it needs space.

2021 BMW M3 on track

More power and less intrusive on the ears than its 2016 predecessor

This new M3 is a good car, just not one that’s aimed at someone like me who values the purity of the driving experience above all else. I may wistfully look back to the days of the E30 and E46 M3s and lament the passing of their sharpened responses and gorgeous looks, but that isn’t a thought process that troubles the modern M3 buyer. What he or she wants is a car that’ll clear the fast lane quicker than anything this side of a Lamborghini Aventador, that’s dripping in tech and which feels strong, safe and bloody fast. All this it does and more.

But how much further down this road will we travel? My fag-packet calculations suggest a four-wheel drive, automatic M3 Touring that weighs close to two tonnes, and there’s nothing that will convince me that’s the right way to go for the driver or the environment.

BMW M3 Competition statistics

  • Price £73,700
  • Engine 3 litres, 6 cylinders, turbocharged
  • Power 503bhp
  • Weight 1730kg
  • Torque 479lb ft
  • Power to weight 291bhp per tonne
  • Transmission Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph 3.9sec
  • Top speed 155mph
  • Economy 27.7mpg
  • CO2 234g/km
  • Verdict A great car for today’s BMW customer, but purists will balk