Initial review and photos here
New photos here ==> http://www.m3post.com/forums/showthread.php?t=84260
Finally, here it is. Please accept my apologies for the wait, but it just kept growing... I'm falling asleep here, so will read over this again in the morning and probably make a few changes, but in the meantime, enjoy!
So, here am I once again, feeling like the luckiest man in the world, having just rekindled my love affair with BMWís ĎMí division, an affair which started back in the spring of 2005, when I picked up my new M5. Six months later and a shiny new M6 was putting up a pretty strong fight for top honours in my garage and, driven back to back with my M5, made a pretty convincing argument for itself! Two years have passed now and both of those cars have gone from my life, but there is a new pretender to the M throneÖ The latest incarnation of the BMW M3!
The arrival of any new M car is a huge occasion in the diary of any car enthusiast. However, the M3 stirs up more emotions than most. It is the stuff that little boys dream of and, at some point in our lives, Iím sure we have all wanted one. For many it is the definitive, attainable sports car. I have always loved the M3 and, at the tender age of 22, remember lusting over an E36 model back in the mid 90ís when I was buying my first proper sports car, a BMW 328i. At the time the M3 was out of my reach, but I promised myself that I would have one one day. Fast forward a decade and, following a few successful years, I have been lucky enough to own most of the cars I wanted when I was younger, 911 Turbo, Ferrari 360, M5, but the spot reserved for the M3 has remained empty. Until now!
Having placed an order for the M3 some years ago, I was at the top of the list at my dealer for the new car. I specced my car back in July, expecting delivery of the first customer car at my dealer some time in October. Imagine my surprise when, last week, I received a call informing me that they had received two launch cars, were being allowed by BMW to sell one of them and were asking if I wanted it! At first I was really excited and jumped at the chance, but then I found out it was in Jerez Black with Fox Red leather and had serious second thoughts. I had already called my dealer to change the colour of car I had on order to Silverstone II instead of black, as I wanted to see the contrast between the body colour and the carbon roof and, as always, I was going to go with the sensible option and fit black leather. I had never even considered red leather and really didnít like the sound of it, so I asked him to keep the car for me and said that I would sleep on it and get back to him the next day. I kept an open mind, spoke to a few friends about it, checked out some pictures on the Internet and then decided to take the plunge. As promised, I called back the next day and reserved the car.
As the M3 was being launched on a Saturday, I agreed to pick the car up on Sunday evening, so that it could be on display for a couple of days. I work in London during the week and return to Glasgow at weekends, so I flew up on Saturday morning, picked up my daughters and went straight to the dealer to check out our new toy. Bearing in mind that I still hadnít seen the car in real life and hadnít even seen pictures of the colour combination I was getting, I was stunned when I saw it for the first time. All of my worries about red leather just completely evaporated. The colour is more cinnamon than red and there is so much black in the cabin that it all blends together really well. It is clear that is has been well thought out. Jerez Black is an interesting colour. It is more than just a metallic black; it has a huge amount of purple through it, which shows up more in poor lighting than in direct sunlight. When the sun is shining it is an amazingly deep black, with just a subtle hint of blue through it. Look at it in the dark, however, particularly under the fluorescent lights of a petrol forecourt, and the main colour is purple. I love the colour in the right conditions, and am starting to get used to how it looks under artificial lighting, but I was quite surprised the first time I noticed how purple it was.
In its current form, the M3 is styled to perfection. It is the definitive ĎQí car; a real wolf in sheepís clothing. Although 80% of the bodywork is unique to the M3, it still looks very similar to the standard 3 series, but there is just enough of a hint to suggest that things are not quite what they seem. BMW was quite heavily criticised for the look of the M5. Many people said that it was too brash and over-styled. The same people are now complaining that the M3 is too plain, so it seems that they just canít win. In my opinion, BMW have got it just right this time. The car turns heads because people arenít quite sure what they have seen and do a double take. It is more Armani than Versace; Smooth style, rather than being in your face.
As luck would have it, both Scotland and England were playing their respective Euro 2008 qualifiers on the day the car was launched, so the garage was empty. Imagine my delight when they said I could just take the car there and then! I signed the paperwork, handed over rather a large sum of money, and there, suddenly, with a smile and a handshake, was the moment I was waiting for as the dealer handed me a set of keys. The car was brought outside for me and I got to hear that engine for the first time. To be honest, it was a bit under whelming. Having heard a recording of it posted on the Internet, I was expecting something really special, but, like the M5 and M6 before it, on tick over it is nothing to write home about. Plant the throttle, however, and it is a whole different story, but more on that later.
Stepping into the car for the first time, the first thing that hits you is the bullet-proof build quality. This car is so well put together that it inspires supreme confidence from the very first touch. I have heard complaints that the interior is not different enough from the standard 3, but that is by no means a bad thing. Ergonomically, it is a pleasant step forward from the M6 cabin. Everything is close to hand and is well laid out. BMW have listened to criticism of the over-complicated i-drive and have improved it with the addition of programmable short-cut buttons. These are a nice feature, allowing you to carry out common tasks with a single touch. Now, instead of going through multiple i-drive menus to programme a route home, you can do it by pressing one button. In addition, lightly brushing the buttons with your fingertip brings up a list of the programmed shortcuts, so you donít even have to remember what each one does. To further simplify things, most of the i-drive menus can be accessed via the optional voice control function. Providing you speak clearly, its ability to understand commands and phone numbers is very impressive. There are two cup holders in the front and, like everything else in the car, these feel solid and have a lovely, fluid mechanism. Some of the control buttons are a little small on the main console, clearly a product of form over function, but take some time to learn where they are and it becomes second nature. My car has the optional carbon / leather trim, which I really like. Essentially, it is a leather trim, patterned to look like carbon fibre, and it works really well, although it may not be to everyoneís taste. It also came with the DSP Hi Fi system and the quality of the audio it delivers is simply astounding. Heavy base is reproduced without any distortion or vibration and I now hear higher frequency sounds that I didnít know existed in many of the songs in my music collection. The optional Bluetooth telephone connectivity is also delivered through the speakers with the same high quality sound and, although I canít access the address book on my Nokia N95, all of the required functionality for making calls seems to work reasonably. I have, however, found the Bluetooth pairing to be a little flaky at times and a few calls have been dropped on dialling, but left active on the handset. Hopefully these are just teething troubles, but if not, I will be looking for a fix in the next software update. Specifying the optional USB connection provides a USB connection under the armrest, allowing a portable audio device to be connected to the Hi Fi system. I use it to connect my iPod and am able to fully control it through the i-drive system, which is a nice touch, as it gives me access to thousands of songs and allows me to look for specific albums, artists or tracks. It really does render the CD auto-changer somewhat obsolete.
The cabin feels very airy, with plenty of headroom and legroom, and visibility all round is excellent. Interior space is generous, with enough room to carry four, fully grown adults. The front seats are extremely comfortable and have a huge range of adjustment, providing support in all the right areas. Buttons on the front of the seat allow the width of the backrest to be adjusted, so they can accommodate different body shapes and, despite what I have read to the contrary and being 6 foot tall, the seat height is absolutely fine; not quite as low and sporty as the M6, but definitely lower than in the M5. I have also heard a lot of criticism of the chunky steering wheel and, while I find the thickness to be just about right, I do think it could do with being more tactile. It is almost completely smooth, which makes it feel a little cheap. It would feel better trimmed in alcantara or textured leather. In general, though, the materials used in the cabin are of a very a high quality and feel expensive. The two rear seats are separated by a small storage compartment and two additional cup holders. Rear space is excellent, with plenty of legroom, even for tall passengers. It is clear that BMW have put a lot of thought into the interior design. It may not have the same sense of occasion that perhaps RS4 owners get, with their funky steering wheel and RS badges splashed everywhere, but if something works, why fix it? This is one of the finest interiors I have had the pleasure of sitting in and I canít really find much to complain about.
One of the first things I noticed when I drove the car away from the dealership for the first time is how light the controls are. The clutch, although quite sharp, provides very little resistance and the accelerator requires little effort to push to the floor, both a definite advantage when driving through traffic. The steering at low speeds requires a feather touch to change direction and the car practically drives itself. Immediately obvious is the quality of the ride. Body control is excellent and all but the largest bumps and potholes are smoothed out. Even with the optional EDC in its hardest setting, it never becomes harsh. In fact, a ride this smooth would not feel out of place on a luxury saloon, never mind one of the worldís finest performance cars. As with the M5 and M6, the steering wheel features an M button, which is used to activate settings pre-selected in the i-drive menu. Unlike its larger engined siblings, though, the power output from the M3ís engine remains constant. However, the EDC, DSC, steering and throttle response settings can all be adjusted, immediately transforming the character of the car at the touch of a button. It takes a few minutes to set things up to your liking, but it only has to be done once. The optional EDC has three settings; Comfort, Normal and Sport. Comfort mode is perfect for relaxed driving, allowing the body to roll gently in corners and the road surface to be smoothed to perfection. Sports mode, however, is a completely different animal. In the M6 with the EDC set in sports mode, the ride was just too stiff on the road and the car could feel a little unsettled in corners. Not so in the M3. Body roll is minimised and the car always feels planted, but the suspension still does a great job of absorbing bumps and undulations. More on that later. As with the other M cars, there are three modes for the DSC; On, Off and M-Dynamic. In dry weather there is no real need for traction control, as there is so much grip available. Even in M-Dynamic mode, I have found it to be very slightly intrusive when the power has been cut under hard acceleration out of slower corners, but it will still allow the a little bit of play in the back end before it kicks in. I havenít experienced wet weather in the car yet, but I can imagine that DSC would come in pretty useful with all of that power going to the back wheels! I will go into more detail on steering later, but I do believe that the Servotronic solution that BMW provides on recent M models is very much misunderstood. In the Normal setting, the steering is very light. The wheel can be turned from lock to lock with a single finger and the driver is able to cruise around with minimum effort. In Sports setting, however, the feel of the steering is completely transformed, particularly as the speed of the car increases. The wheel feels immediately firmer in your hands and communication is improved. The same is true for throttle response. In the normal setting response is a little sluggish, although the car never feels wanting for power. Activate the Sport Plus setting, however, and it feels like a race horse desperate to bolt from the stable. The car just feels so much more urgent and the slightest prod on the pedal sends you surging towards the horizon. With all of the sports features engaged the car is transformed from being luxury saloon to proper GT. The difference is felt the second the button is pressed. Throttle response becomes sharper, the suspension stiffens and the steering tightens. The car just screams performance. It becomes an M3Ö
When BMW announced that the new M3 would have a V8 instead of the traditional straight 6, there was an outcry amongst purists. This was a travesty! Personally, Iíve always felt that the M3 should have a V8, so I was delighted. However, following the V10 that powers the M5 and M6 was never going to be an easy task. BMW had a lot to live up to if they were going to silence the doubters and avoid any criticism that they had saved the best engines for the more expensive models. In the past, the M division have always delivered something special, but this time they have just surpassed themselves. This engine is an absolute gem and will go down in history as one of the finest BMW has ever produced. From the first time you blip the throttle it is clear that this car is powered by something special and the sound at high revs is positively orgasmic! It has a loud, mechanical wail of a Ferrari 360 and would not be out of place on a race track. It will make your hairs stand on end and your skin tingle. Take it onto the road, plant your right foot and the car just goes. And goes! It never feels quite as fast as an M5 or a 911, but the speedo tells a different story. I havenít felt such smooth delivery from any other car and the fact that so much power is available from just a couple of thousand revs is astounding. I have covered almost 1,000 miles in my car now, so I am starting to close in on the red line and have, in fact, hit it a couple of times. Unlike the V10s in the other M models, you donít have to wait for a sudden surge of power above 6,000 revs. There is an increase in performance as you reach the last couple of thousand, but it is delivered very smoothly, so it never feels brutal. In fact, power delivery is incredibly smooth throughout the whole range. I havenít seen torque stats for the engine, but I would be willing to bet my car that a graph of torque against revs would be almost a perfect straight line. One drawback is that the engine is rather thirsty, although it does have real world mpg figures that the V10 owners can only dream of. In London traffic I struggled to get above single figures in my M5, but so far have seen 12-15mpg from the M3. On a 450 mile jaunt from Glasgow to London I managed19mpg, which I thought was quite poor, but I did have cruise control set at 110mph. When I thought back to similar journeys in my 3.0d X5, where I managed around 20mpg, it didnít seem so bad. I guess if the fuel consumption figures really worry you, go buy a diesel FordÖ
One of the things I miss most in this car is the SMG gear box I had in the M5 and M6. I know a lot of people prefer the manual box, especially in the US, where a stick shift is less common, but for those of us who use a gear stick every day, the paddle change was a little bit special. The performance from those neck-snapping changes was incredible and the fact that you could keep your hands on the wheel at all times made the whole driving experience feel more exciting. I believe the manual box in the current car has been carried over from the previous model and, to be honest, it is not the best I have experienced. The movement is quite long and a little bit notchy. Itís not unpleasant, but it could do with being shorter and snappier. Perhaps they should have a chat with their colleagues over at MiniÖ
A lot has been written in the motoring press about steering feel in the new M3. I have to be honest, following a week with the car I can understand why people are so confused and divided in their opinions. While power steering is normally geared to the carís engine speed, BMWís M Servotronic steering is linked to actual road speed. Maximum assistance is applied at lower speeds to assist parking and manoeuvring, with assistance being reduced as speed increases. How this translates on the road can be a little disconcerting until you get used to it. When you initially drive the car, the first thing you will notice is the lightness of the steering and the lack of any feel through the wheel. The increased level of assistance provided at lower speeds completely removes feedback, but it does make it a whole lot easier to move the car around. As speed increases beyond 25mph, however, assistance is reduced and the wheel suddenly develops weight, immediately feeling meatier ad providing a connection between the driver and the front wheels. Selecting Sports mode further reduces assistance, providing even greater feel and sportier feedback from the steering. Even with the steering set in sports mode, the level of feedback is some way removed from what you will experience in, say, a 911 or a Lotus Elise, but it is certainly not numb, as described by many journalists, and the driver never feels disconnected from the action. If anything, I would say it is slightly more communicative than the standard E46 M3 and Iím sure that most owners will be more than happy with how it feels. On the road the steering is very precise and direct, especially in Sports mode, and the car will respond with enthusiasm to the slightest input. I think a lot of inexperienced journalists get mixed up between steering feel, body roll and chassis balance where feedback is concerned. Set the EDC to its stiffest mode and body roll is virtually eliminated. A lot of drivers will miss the reassurance that the body roll gives them in trying to determine when the back end will break away and, through lack of understanding, may blame this on the steering, when really it is just unfamiliar territory to them.
One thing that did surprise me where the chassis is concerned is the bias towards under steer. Come into a corner a little too fast and the front end will run wide. This can be easily corrected, however, by either lifting off the throttle or, conversely, by tightening up the steering and squeezing the throttle just a little harder. Using the latter method, it is easy to induce over steer and get the back end out, but the chassis is just so finely balanced that it can easily be controlled on the throttle and power slides can be held almost indefinitely. In M dynamic mode, the software will allow a little backend movement, but to really appreciate the exquisite setup that the magical M-Differential provides, you have to drive the car with DSC switched off. This is not as scary as it sounds in the dry, as the car is just so controllable. It is far less likely to bite you than an M6 and is more nimble than an M5. The engineers have really earned their money with this one! With the EDC set to Comfort mode, there is a huge grey area between grip and slide as the suspension loads up, the car rolls towards the outside of the corner and the Michelin tyres start to give up their hold on the road. It is very easy to predict when grip will be lost making it almost impossible to lose control unless you are really trying to re-write the laws of physics. Change the EDC setting to Sports mode, however, and the grey area becomes more of a thin line, particularly in faster corners. Due to the extreme lack of body roll, there is very little to tell you when grip is about to be lost at the back end, although feedback through the steering wheel does a reasonable job of communicating what the front wheels are doing. If the back end does let go, it does so with such little drama that is easy to control, unless of course you really plant your right foot, in which case you may well find yourself facing the wrong way and looking down the barrel of a rather large insurance claim. To be honest, though, the chassis setup is so good in this car that few drivers will ever really explore its true potential on the road. Turn in is sharp and the car always feels poised and incisive through corners. Backed up by ultra smooth power delivery, it really is a complete performance package. It has the potential to take an average driver and make them look like a real pro. Anybody with a reasonable amount of skill behind the wheel should be able to take the car close to the limit without feeling scared. This would all be useless, however, without the ability to reign in all that power and bring the car safely and quickly to a stop. Fortunately the brakes are well and truly up to the job. Pedal feel is excellent and never feels over-assisted. Travel is progressive and consistent and it really is a case of push harder, stop quicker. The car remains composed at all times, even under heavy braking, and so far I havenít experienced any fade under heavy use. I havenít really given the brakes a proper workout yet, so time will tell how they stand up to serious punishment, but right now I have no reason to believe they wonít perform as well as the rest of the car.
So, how does the current incarnation shape up next to the E46? In essence they are two very different cars. The E46 gained its reputation for its raw, edgy performance, but it always felt to me like BMW were trying to merge the emotions of a race car with the luxuries of a road car, which, in my opinion, never really works. It was too noisy and unrefined to be a luxury car, but was also too heavy and uncommunicative to be a true sports car. Thereís no doubting that it was a very special car, but after spending two weekends in one, I wasnít overly impressed. At the time I owned a new 911 Turbo, so I was always going to make direct comparisons between the two, which was perhaps a little unfair, but I never really warmed to it. I felt the steering lacked communication and overall I found it be quite noisy and unrefined. In terms of performance it was an excellent machine, but I just wouldnít have considered it as a main car. The CSL addressed a lot of these issues by focusing more on performance and less on luxury and was a far better car for it. The new model, however, feels far more refined and offers its occupants greater levels of comfort, while at the same time retaining its sharpness and excitement. Yes, it has lost a little of its edginess, but I believe it is a better car for it. It never feels like it is pretending to be a race car, but it plays the role of ultra fast, luxurious road car very convincingly. It provides levels of luxury and refinement previously unknown in this segment, whilst delivering performance to compete with cars costing twice as much. Some people may say that it has become too soft, but really it has just evolved. It is more comfortable to drive and the performance is far easier to exploit. It does everything the previous car did, but it does it with less fuss and yet it will still leave you with a huge grin on your face every time you drive it. In short, the M3 has grown up!
* Also posted on M5board.com