It took all my willpower not to burst out laughing. There was nothing especially funny about the sales patter the Michelin engineer was delivering, emphasising as he was that the Pilot Super Sport tyres fitted to the new BMW M3 were developed specifically for the car, in conjunction with BMW M engineers. The dimensions may be the same as other off-the-shelf Michelin rubber, but there’s more to meet the eye under the deep treads.
The reason for my mirth was the fact that, just a few minutes earlier, we melted a pair of his precious creations on track. All in the name of photography you understand. Welcome then to the launch of the fifth generation BMW M3.
In concept nothing has changed, but in reality it’s all change. For starters, there is no M3 Coupé; that’s replaced by the M4 Coupé, which drives virtually identically to the four-door M3 (there are marginal stiffness, centre of gravity and weight distribution differences between them). I’ve focused on the M3 Saloon here because it’s the one we prefer – and that’s more to do with its bad-boy looks and the stance imbued on it by those protruding rear arches than it is the more practical body style. Thankfully, choosing the four-door model doesn’t obviate the inclusion of a carbon fibre roof this time around. And it’s a work of art. There’s plenty of carbon fibre trim inside too, and while it is decorative, it reminds the driver that there’s a useful 80kg or so weight loss for the new car.
“I should have just asked him ‘what’s the same’, to save time…”
Enthusiasts everywhere will nod approvingly at that. However, the same petrol heads will be waiting for me to mention the engine. Gone is the E92’s melodious, high-revving, naturally aspirated V8 and in its place is a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six. Now, full-on M cars (as opposed to the M Performance vehicles) have always had a special engine, so at first glance it seems odd to give the jewel in the M Division’s crown the same unit as that found in the likes of the M235i. In short: it has done no such thing. Norbert Siegl, ‘Project Manager Engine’, explained the differences, which range from a bespoke twin-turbo arrangement to unique crankshaft, pistons, combustion chamber design, a closed deck crankcase and an extra oil pump to deal with sustained ‘high performance’ driving. I should have just asked him ‘what’s the same’, to save time…
The first chance I get to hold the throttle pedal all the way down for any duration convinces me that this engine is as special as any that has gone before in an M car. The active exhaust system bellows and there’s all manner of technical sounding whooshes and such like from under the bonnet. Yes, BMW does channel a little engine noise through the sound system so that the occupants can enjoy it as much as those on the outside, but you’d never know.
Anyway, you’ll be too busy worrying about saving your licence. This is a ferociously quick car. Number junkies might point out that the maximum power figure of 425bhp is less than the E92 M3 GTS had (444bhp), but in the new car it’s produced all the way from 5,500- to 7,300rpm. On top of that, no M3 that gone before has had 550Nm of torque, never mind the fact it’s available from just 1,850rpm – all the way to 5,500rpm. Ballistic doesn’t even begin to cover this car’s pace. Off the line it’s limited by traction (though the easy-to-use launch control system helps…) so you only really appreciate how fast it is when you’re pushing on through a sequence of fast bends.
In reality, there’s no need to use anything other than third gear in the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, but that would mean missing out on the aural seduction of the built-in throttle blip on down-shift. Interestingly, the manual gearbox comes with this feature now too, automatically matching the engine revs when you change down. We’d choose the manual given a choice, but the DCT car is still rewarding to drive.
“I’m delighted that BMW is sticking with a round wheel when others persist with a flat bottom. After all, it makes big silly drifts easier to hold…”
And the beauty of the paddle shift transmission is that it allows the driver to focus on the view ahead. Given how quickly it accelerates through the windscreen, that’s no bad thing – when you’re on an unfamiliar road in particular. The new M3 is more usable by more drivers than ever, but there’s still so much to the chassis and mastering it that it’ll never bore an experienced driver. As ever there are plenty of driving options, allowing the driver to tailor the set-up to his mood and the road. The engine, steering, transmission and stability control systems can all be adjusted, as can the Adaptive M suspension, which is standard in the UK. The Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings are distinct too. It’s not all at sea in the softest mode, but it makes a long journey far more pleasurable.
Nonetheless, owners of this car will undoubtedly be tempted to take the scenic route whenever possible. It really comes alive when pushed on and it’s capable of scarily high average speeds on twisty roads, even over poor surfaces. The M Dynamic Mode of the DSC system is beautifully judged, allowing enough slip at the rear to feel like you’re a hero, but with a quick-acting safety net that’s well-suited to road use – the Active M Differential helps with all that too. We only tried cars with the optional M Carbon ceramic brakes and they were faultless on track and road, with consistent feel and zero fade. They did make a little noise when hot, but that didn’t seem to affect stopping power. The three-mode electric power steering has an odd feel to it at the straight-ahead, but it proves to be communicative and direct once you’re turned into a corner. I’m delighted that BMW is sticking with a round wheel when others persist with a flat bottom. After all, it makes big silly drifts easier to hold…