First Drive: 2021 BMW M3 Competition Review
While the M5 has, over the years, piled on sophistication, horsepower and weight the M3 has always embodied BMW M’s wilder side, wrapped in a more manageably sized package perfectly suited to British roads. Roots as a homologation model for touring car racing were left behind years ago, the two-door version has, since the previous generation, been known as the M4 and engines have ranged from four-cylinder screamers through high-revving naturally aspirated sixes and V8s and into the modern age of turbocharging. Rear-biased handling and subtly beefed up looks to set it apart from regular 3 Series have remined constants throughout, this latest G80 generation M3 a more evolutionary step on from the previous F80 in terms of powertrain and general character. Or so it seems at first glance. But behind that controversial grille the new M3 – available purely in 510PS (376kW) Competition guise here in the UK – is as different as it is familiar. Begging the question, has BMW built on what the last one did right? Or has the M3 finally jumped the shark?
- Engine’s bandwidth and power
- More civilised without being toned down
- More standard kit
We don't like
- That grille, obviously
- Automatic gearbox not as sharp as old DCT
- Too big and too heavy
Design is subjective, you shouldn’t listen to every opinion you read on social media and what looks over-done in photos often works better in the metal… But even with all those caveats the front end of the new M3 is, in the eyes of your humble reviewer, absolutely minging compared with the regular 3 Series saloon. Darker colours mitigate its visual impact and we’ll probably get used to it in time but, even with that said, the proportions of this new M3 lack the taut muscularity of the previous one. The droopy nose, the heavy-handed detailing… It’s all just a bit flaccid. As revealed in no uncertain terms by the sight of an F80 lurking round the back at BMW’s headquarters when we arrive. The new one has presence, for sure, and the flared arches of the four-door make it look somehow ruder than the M4 equivalent, even if the on-road footprint is identical. But the previous generation was a much better-looking car.
Performance and Handling
This is the new M3’s chance for redemption and, thankfully, it’s on safer ground here. The formula of a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged straight-six is carried over but it’s an all-new motor and power is up from the 450PS (332kW) and 550Nm (406lb ft) of later F80s to 510PS (376kW) and 650Nm (479lb ft). Some markets get a 480PS (354kW) version with a six-speed manual but for the UK it’s Competition only, driving through an eight-speed auto in place of the previous seven-speed dual-clutch. This is because the pending xDrive all-wheel-drive system is adapted from that in the M5, which also uses a version of this gearbox. This is a big emotional leap for the M3 but one BMW expects customers to embrace, with projections it will eventually account for as much as 80 per cent of the sales split. Meanwhile tyres are fatter than before and run on split wheel sizes (19s front, 20s back) as per the CS versions of the last car, there’s a variable ‘e-booster’ brake servo, more sophisticated control systems for the variable dampers, adaptive locking diff and stability control, the latter now offering a 10-step path to sideways nirvana (or YouTube infamy, whichever comes first) with the new M Traction Control System. And a system to grade your drifts. What could possibly…
First impressions are that the good stuff of the previous car – the explosive combination of huge turbocharged boost and traditional M car revviness – have been carried over while some of the rough edges have been polished a little. It’s still a raw, aggressively tuned machine that very clearly asserts its rear-driven balance, even without delving into the new drift mode. But the spikiness in the damping that could make its predecessor such a handful on wet roads has been replaced with a more sophisticated and refined feel. You can feel the extra bracing in the body and fact the suspension mountings are stiffer than a regular 3 Series, and the response this brings. But the damping is more fluid, and keeps a more consistent contact pressure through the tyres for improved predictability.
The new gearbox is good and brilliantly integrated into the powertrain, control systems and diff but can’t quite match the ferocity of the previous dual-clutch when you go for full-bore upshifts. It’s smoother, more refined and reacts quickly enough to the standard carbon paddles but perhaps feels a little too mature for an M3, and those who enjoyed the previous car’s wild side may consider this emasculation of sorts. The red M buttons on the wheel let you pre-programme a maximum attack setting you can toggle the moment the NSL signs come into view. And the numbers are in the new car’s favour. But the extra size, weight and refinement have arguably blunted the M3’s edge a tad. And that’s a shame.
Whatever the exterior designers were smoking must have been passed around to the team doing the interior too, at least if some of the trim colours and the wild contouring of the optional carbon seats is anything to go by. Their embrace is rather over-familiar, even for those of a slim build, and suggestions for the purpose of the little carbon tray positioned between your legs are probably best left on Twitter. The contrast between fake tan orange hide and black carbon of our test car is certainly not boring but if you think little feet kicking the back of your seat is annoying wait until the little blighters realise they can actually poke things through the weight-saving slots cut out of the seat backs. Joking apart, the interior looks good, feels expensive and strikes a nice balance between fancy tech and functionality, so we’ll call this one as a win. Rear doors on the M3 increase its flexibility and the addition of acoustic glass on the front side windows as well as the windscreen makes it feel noticeably more refined than the M4, and less tiring on those long, boring motorway miles as a result.
Technology and Features
BMW’s UK product team crunched the spec preferences of customers buying the previous generation of M3 and M4 and realised the vast majority were already adding things like upgraded carbon trim, head-up displays and Harman Kardon sound systems so these are now part of the standard spec. The bottom line price has increased as a result but the improved residuals keep monthly costs around the same which, given this is the way most people ‘buy’, seems a smart move. The modern twist on BMW’s traditionally driver-focused cockpit layout is successfully realised and the technology is commendably easy to get to grips with for anyone with a little familiarity of the brand’s products. The C63 you may be considering as an alternative probably has the slightly flasher interior with its paired ‘widescreen’ displays, though the M3 gets BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional with cloud-based navigation system, a host of connected services and ‘over the air’ updates. The options have been simplified into half a dozen bundled packages, including the all-in ‘Ultimate’ offering for £11,250. This includes the £6,750 M Carbon Package of exterior trimmings and carbon seats (also available as a standalone) while the M Pro Package with M Carbon ceramic brakes and raised top speed costs another £7,995.
It’s hard to set emotion to one side when reviewing a new M3, given this is by definition a car bought with the heart and judged in forensic detail against those that have gone before it. As the second biggest market worldwide the verdict of UK buyers is important for BMW, too, the M3 saloon historically accounting for nearly a quarter of the sales split when the range is complete with its cabrio variant. Of course, for the first time we’ll be getting a Touring version, too.
You’re getting enough extra in this new one in terms of spec sheet bragging rights, technology, gimmicks like the drift ratings and improved refinement and composure to make it feel like a step on from what went before and an M3 remains perhaps the purest expression of BMW’s traditions. The response and reach of that engine, the bombastic power delivery and white-knuckle excitement of driving a car putting this much power through its rear wheels remain as thrilling as ever, too. The extra size, weight and looming arrival of all-wheel-drive all mean this new M3 feels more like where the M5 was, though, and the new automatic gearbox undeniably blunts the edge that made earlier versions feel so raw and exciting. Buyers will likely approve, overall. But for the fans? Whisper it but if you like your performance saloons on the wild side you might actually be better off switching your allegiances and going for an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio...
3.0-litre twin-turbocharged straight-six petrol
510PS (375kW) @ 6,250rpm
650Nm (479lb ft) @ 2,750-5,500rpm
Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
155mph (limited, increased to 180mph with optional M Driver’s Package)
£74,755 (£84,445 as tested)
Reviewed by Dan Trent