Numbing down

Weight watchers 

The latest strain of BMW M3 is faster than previous editions. A pity then that’s it’s nowhere near as involving…

I wonder how long it is going to take before the world wakes up to the fact that speed doesn’t matter any more. It used to: if you owned an Alvis 12/70 before the last war, the fact that it would cruise all day at 60mph was incredibly important: while that speed was a mere 20mph faster than your neighbour’s average affordable car of the era would cruise, it meant you would travel as far in two hours as he would in three. Today, if you held a race from Calais to Cannes between a Bugatti Veyron and a diesel-powered Ford Focus, my money would be on the Ford making it to the Med first. The additional speed at which you could safely drive the Bugatti without risking life or liberty would not make up for the time spent sitting in service stations while the Ford gently bumbled south at an easy 100mph, sipping diesel like it was communion wine.

Besides, who would confuse fast with fun? A month or so ago I found myself in a very great hurry to get home from Colditz Castle (don’t ask) which happens to be so deep into the former East Germany that Prague is not materially further away. Armed with a Jaguar XKR, and blessed by the hours of darkness and a deserted autobahn network, I was able to travel across the country at light aircraft velocity, and while I enjoyed the discipline and focus needed to drive safely at such speeds, I still wouldn’t describe it as actively fun. 

Fun in a car is feel. Speed can play a part, because its accrual and disposal place forces on your body you can feel in the form of longitudinal or lateral acceleration, but make pure velocity your primary objective when designing a car and you’ll create more problems than you solve. The faster you go, the more the importance of power increases and the influence of weight diminishes. A Caterham CSR260 has under half the power but more than double the power to weight ratio of a Bentley Continental Flying Spur and struggles to hit 150mph; by contrast, 200mph is easy in the Bentley. The pursuit of high speed encourages cars to be heavy. Yes, you can point to the McLaren F1 and its 1164kg kerb weight, but ask Gordon Murray what his priorities for the car were and if a high top speed is even on the list, I’ll eat this magazine.

Above all, Murray wanted, and got, a car that was light. He knew that low mass helps not simply with acceleration, deceleration and the generation of lateral G, but also that unless a car is light, that crucial interface between man and machine – that thing I call feel – would be lost. Nothing blunts feel more than weight.

And that, in essence, is the problem with the otherwise very impressive BMW M3. Despite BMW’s genuine efforts to minimise its kerb weight (its 4-litre 420bhp V8 motor actually weighs 15kg less than the 3.2-litre 343bhp straight-six it replaces), as with every successive generation of M3 its weight has crept up. It now weighs 1655kg – or slightly more than a long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ limousine. All that power means that it’s quick in a straight line (0-62mph in 4.8sec) while the chassis engineers at BMW’s M department have ensured that it will lap the Nordschleife in 8min dead. All that’s been lost is the precious interaction between man and machine.

On paper, it barely makes a mistake. It rides beautifully, grips tenaciously and slides with reassuring progression. The V8 will scream at you from 8300rpm or it will let you quietly amble along without impatience. There’s room in the back and the boot, too, so it would make a perfect everyday car for the vast bulk of those who will queue up to spend £50,655 on one when deliveries start next month. And I’d not blame them at all, for it is a very, very good car.

But the feel needed to make a great driver’s car is not all there. The steering is very precise but not exactly communicative, and the same can be said for the chassis. The brakes are exceptionally powerful, but the pedal is difficult to modulate. Even the engine, despite its overwhelming firepower, is less smooth and characterful than the straight-six from the old M3 it replaces.

I don’t doubt that it will appeal to more people than ever before. BMW knows its customers better than most manufacturers, and while I bang on about feel and response, it will know that most will find raw data that’s easily understood in the pub an altogether more compelling argument in its favour.

But the truth is that despite the fact that this car now has more than twice the power of the original M3 of 1986, if you gave me the choice, over a decent road, I’d not think twice before getting in the older car. The fact is, it weighs nearly half a tonne less than this M3 and there is nothing even the finest brains in Munich can do to disguise it. Every turn of the wheel would be more pleasurable, and the fact that it was taking longer to cover the ground would count entirely in its favour: more time to enjoy the ride, less chance of running into traffic.

However good this new M3 is, and it is very good, I know in my heart that had they made it quicker by making it lighter rather than more powerful, it would have been better still. In these heavily legislated days, adding horsepower is child’s play compared to losing weight, but, if the magic is not to be lost, that is what must now happen – not just at BMW, but with all those who profess to make sporting cars for enthusiast drivers.