An impeccable car in every sense of the word | It’s simply one of the best cars I’ve driven.
The letter M has stood for a great many things in the automotive enthusiast’s mind. Originally associated with BMW’s Motorsport division, the objectives of the M-division were to further BMW’s success utilizing their standard road cars. The formula typically included more horsepower, more robust transmissions and suspension components, improved cooling for sustained abuse, and aesthetic modifications inside and out that set an “M” car apart from its more pedestrian brothers. The M brand dates back well over thirty years, but for the sake of this article, we’ll be looking at the number “3” in particular.
The 3-Series has been BMW’s bread-and-butter “entry-level luxury” model for a long time now. The original 3-Series debuted in 1975 and started the legacy that continues to this day. While there was no formal “M” version of the original E21 3-Series, several small aftermarket tuning shops released their own versions of the car. The start of the M3 nameplate begins in 1986 – its flared fenders were among the many unique body panels not shared with the standard 3-Series. It also featured a unique high-revving four-cylinder engine, upgraded to an impressive 190-200hp, depending on the year.
Many “M” enthusiasts refer to the E30 M3 as the purest and most rewarding version of them all. Many have decried the changes that have come to the nameplate over the years. In a way, they are right, but the motoring world changes every year, as do expectations, and the engineering know-how that is gained throughout the years. Case in point: the E36 M3 that would succeed the E30. The E36 M3 would be a little more restrained than the E30 (no massive fender flares, for starters), but would ultimately be faster with its new inline six-cylinder engine and improved suspension geometry. The trend would continue with the E46, with an even more powerful six-cylinder engine, but aesthetic improvements are back, with a larger air dam, exaggerated wheel arches, and a fancy quad-exhaust system. A clean E46 M3 on the street will still get my attention to this day. I particularly like that it is BMW at its best, just before their cars got really complicated in typical German over-engineered fashion.
This brings us to the outgoing M3 – the E90. Now quite a bit larger than the original E30, the E90 goes about itself in an entirely different way. Now almost as big as a BMW 5-Series of the mid-1990s, it is powered by a naturally-aspirated and high-revving 4.0L V8. Easily one of the fastest M3s thanks to all the technology crammed in, it would set the standard for sports cars all around the world. Its blend of “do-everything” performance has amassed it a big following of those looking for weekend race cars that manage to be relatively comfortable on the street.
When news of the next-generation M3 dropped, a lot of discussion was centred around its powertrain. The outgoing 4.0L V8 was a sweet, sweet engine that loved to rev and sounded absolutely fantastic while doing so. However, its place in the BMW family could be debated. The “standard” BMW 335is of the same generation, with its turbocharged 3.0L inline-six engine technically produced more torque (332lb-ft of torque versus 295lb-ft in the M3). While the M3 is made up of more than just the powertrain, it was interesting to see where its bespoke V8 – not used anywhere else in BMW’s lineup – would slot in.
Every M car has big shoes to fill. Will it live up to the legacy of its predecessor – and then some? We’ve spent some time with the current F30-generation 3-Series, but many of us were a little unsure as to how it could transform into the fire-breathing M3. Cars like the 335i and 435i were very competent and well-matched to its rivals, but weren’t terribly exciting – at least to M standards. BMW would have a lot of work to do to make it the viscerally-exciting machine we have come to love. I picked up the keys to a Yas Marina Blue M3 with the DCT gearbox. The M3 and M4 are share their own model designation – the F80.
First things first: the colour! I’ve always preferred low-key colours, because I’m not looking for attention all the time whether on the street or hard-parked with some buddies. I’d be willing to make an exception this time for BMW’s Yas Marina Blue (an $895 option). It’s simply the best colour ever – under good light, it looks even better. As a quick refresher: BMW’s Laguna Seca Blue seen on the E46 M3 is pretty similar, but is a little darker under the same light. The amount of “pop” that the Yas Marina Blue is unparalleled. Colour side, BMW has upgraded many items inside and out.
The front grille gets the all-familiar M3 badge. Lower down, massive air intakes take the place of fog lights, housing additional cooling for the powertrain. The aluminum hood is taller to accommodate the top-mounted intercooler. Out back, the quad-exhaust outlets make a return. My particular test car came with a full carbon fibre roof. A sunroof option is available, but deletes the carbon fibre material. I don’t recommend this as it adds weight to the roof of the car, and reduces headroom inside the car. Another detail I loved are the massive fender flares – in order to fit a 275-section rear tire (Michelin Pilot Super Sport), the fenders need to be expanded.
In short, the upgrades on the outside are visible to even average “non-car people” – the bright colour only serves to help things. Inside, the M3 is thoughtfully updated to reflect its roots in usable, “everyday” performance. The base design comes from the standard 3-Series, but upgraded seats provide much more adjustment and bolstering – great to hold you tight in spirited driving. The bolstering itself is adjustable, too. My test car was also equipped with additional carbon fibre trim on the dashboard and centre console. The steering wheel is an upgraded unit, with a thick rim and some excellent feeling paddle shifters just behind. The BMW M3 can be set up to fit you like a glove.
While the interior may be described by some as basic for the money involved, I think it’s important to stray away from “over-designed” interiors. When the main focus is on the driving experience, the interior features should help you, not become the #1 item you’re thinking of. BMW does a good job balancing the premium feel with simplicity – at least at first glance. BMW’s recent M cars have provided the driver with a dizzying amount of customization options, from how the throttle responds, how the transmission shifts, how the steering feels, how loud the exhaust feels, how firm the suspension feels… the list goes on. For owners, this is something that probably would be set up at the beginning of ownership and largely left alone. I liked how quickly and firm the double-clutch transmission would change gears, so I left that at its highest-performing level most of the time. The steering varies in levels from “Comfort” to “Sport” to “Sport-Plus”, with steering effort increasing as you go up through the levels. I preferred the Sport setting – the Sport-Plus setting was almost too heavy for everyday use.
I left the engine in the Sport setting. This relaxes the response slightly from the Sport-Plus setting, but retains some of the synthetic engine sound that is piped in through the speakers. This in itself is a point hotly discussed on discussion forums. To see the difference, select the Comfort mode, and the “angry” sound of the inline-six basically disappears. Many disagree with the “fake” engine sounds being generated. The reality is that while the turbochargers are great for providing massive torque, they also have the effect of muffling the exhaust somewhat. The synthetic audio through the speakers brings that aural experience back up to what people are accustomed to with the V8 in the E90. It’s just a different sound, not any better or worse in my books. I like the straight-six sound.
Under the hood of the new 2015 BMW M3 is a heavily re-worked version of the 3.0L turbocharged inline-six used elsewhere in BMW’s lineup. The big deal here is that this inline-six is the first engine in the M3 family to be turbocharged, after a long legacy of natural aspiration. Thanks to more robust internals, more boost, and improved cooling, the result is a massive 425hp from 5500-7300rpm and an equally massive 406lb-ft of torque from 1850-5500rpm. The horsepower rating is up slightly from the outgoing E90 M3 (which produced 414hp), but the torque rating is up 111lb-ft. What’s even more significant is the torque delivery, from 1850rpm all the way up the rev range. The old 4.0L V8 had to rev to 8300rpm to generate peak horsepower, and 3900rpm to generate peak torque. Fun fact: the engine redline starts at 6000rpm while oil temperature is still low, and eventually rises to 7000rpm.
All these numbers mean that the new M3 drives quite different from the outgoing M3. BMW makes the M3 available with either a six-speed manual transmission or with a seven-speed double-clutch transmission, also known as the DCT. My test car had the latter transmission, and I suspect most M3s will be equipped the same way. The DCT allows for rapid-fire shifts when left to its own devices, or with the steering wheel paddle shifters. The bark accompanying each shift is intensely satisfying and urges you to go faster (within reason, of course). Coupled to this super-fast transmission is the Active M differential. An electronically-controlled, limited-slip unit, does its best to help deliver that power to the ground. Upgraded traction and stability control systems also help keep you safe, but it’s important to remember the serious power under the hood. Given enough throttle, and a slightly imperfect surface, the M3 can seriously struggle to get moving at a good pace.
The M3, most recently seen in the E90 generation, places a fairly large emphasis on luxury and comfort. It’s great to have a top-notch performer on the race track, but for a “do-everything” machine that the M3 is, it’s important that it also be able to relax itself once in a while. When not attacking the tarmac, part of the M3’s versatile demeanor means settling down. The comfort mode softens the dampers as well as reduces the noise output from the exhaust and through the speakers. Make no mistake, this is no long-wheelbase 7-Series, but it’s soft enough to live with every single day, but taut enough to still be agile and alert. The seats, while they do a great job holding you in place as you go sideways, also do a good job supporting your back and thighs with its almost infinite adjustability.
To cater to the comfortable side of the M3, my test car features several packages, all containing a mix of features. The $5,000 Executive package adds heated rear seats, sunshades for rear passengers, LED headlights, improved Merino leather, and the top-down Surround View cameras. The $4,500 Premium package adds a rear view reverse camera, park distance control, and a top-notch heads-up display. This heads-up display is incredibly detailed and displays multiple colours. The Technology package adds blind-spot detection, lane departure, and collision warning, as well as an automatic high-beam function. One important option is the M double clutch transmission. If you prefer the car to handle all the gear changes for you, this can be arranged for $3,900. If you forgo all these options, the M3 can be had for as little as $74,000. Adding all these options quickly bumps the as-tested price to $91,145.
One of the things BMW is particularly proud of in the new M3 is its efficiency. The previous V8 was great for generating top-end horsepower, but was never considered to be particularly efficient. I was expecting improved numbers, but how the 2015 M3 delivers these numbers is really quite impressive. BMW rates the M3 at 13.9L/100km in the city, 9.7L/100km on the highway, and 12.0L/100km on a mixed cycle. Over a distance of about 1000km, I managed an excellent 11.8L/100km in mixed driving, pretty much bang on for what BMW suggests. The fuel tank will accept 60L of premium fuel – BMW recommends a minimum of 93 octane in Canadian units. I knew the M3 would be good, but the fuel efficiency really surprised me.
I’m a pretty practical guy. I like my cars to be versatile, to be usable every day. In many cases, this means compromising on some aspects in order to improve on others. The 2015 BMW M3 really doesn’t compromise on anything. You can carry five in comfort, in relative efficiency during the week. On the weekend, you can head to the track, change a few settings, and really stretch the M3’s legs. I’ve driven some faster cars, and I’ve driven some more expensive cars, but the BMW M3 appeals to me for its well-rounded goodness. It’s simply one of the best cars I’ve driven all year. The challenge now is deciding whether I would have the excellent DCT or the tried-and-true six-speed manual. The struggle is real.