For nearly thirty years, BMW has reigned supreme with the M3 in the entry-level sports sedan and coupe segment. Originally built as homologation for various European Touring Car motorsport efforts, the first-generation E30 M3 kicked off a cult following that hasn’t waned in the slightest over the years. The general formula from then until now has remained the same: have a responsive engine sending power to the rear wheels, prioritize driving feel and handling, and make sure it’s one of the most fun vehicles that money can buy. Recently, we were in California to cover the Los Angeles Auto Show, which meant that transportation was needed in order to get around town. BMW kindly offered up a 2017 BMW M3 Competition Package for a week on test, and with plenty of great driving roads within a stone’s throw of LA, we couldn’t turn the offer down.
Finished in a stunning Sakhir Orange Metallic (an $895 option), the M3’s base price starts at $75,500. While some of the packages and equipment vary slightly between American and Canadian cars, options on the tester included the Executive Package, which adds a heated steering wheel, rear view camera, and a head-up display, among other things. The $6,500 M Competition Package, however, brings the real meat to the table, with beautiful twenty-inch lightweight forged star spoke wheels, blacked-out Shadowline exterior trim, and a horsepower bump to 444 from 425. It also includes adjustable settings for suspension, stability control, and other vehicle dynamics. The most expensive single option was $8,500 for Carbon Ceramic brakes that are fully fit for race duty. At the end of the day, a similarly equipped M3 will set you back just over $102,000 Canadian dollars before taxes and fees.
As a change from the last-generation M3 that featured high-revving naturally aspirated V8 power, the current model is powered by a 3.0-litre inline six with two turbochargers. Peak power output is 425 hp at 5,500 to 7,300 rpm (444 hp with Competition Package), paired with 406 lb-ft of torque between 1,850 to 5,500 rpm. With the change in configuration, there’s also a change in the personality of the M3. Until now, all variants of the M3 have been naturally aspirated, with high redlines and instant throttle response. Drivers used to have to wring the engine to higher rpms in order to develop the most power; this is no longer needed for the new six. While there’s a slight bit of turbo lag right when you put your foot down, there’s still a whole lot more usable power and torque at lower rpm. When cruising around town or in sixth gear on the highway, the M3 still has enough oomph to accelerate without excessive downshifting.
The soundtrack that accompanies the M3’s engine could easily be described as fire-breathing and ferocious. The six is more of a snarling monster compared to the refined muscle car sounds of the old V8, but there’s never really a point in the rev range where it sounds unpleasant or rough. Unfortunately, the M3 is another vehicle equipped with processed engine sound pumped through the speakers, which is a shame – the exhaust is plenty loud from the outside, and allowing a bit more natural induction noise would largely achieve the same result in a more organic fashion. With the engine set to Sport or Sport Plus mode in the centre console, there’s even more noise from the outside.
As a nod to the car enthusiast, BMW still offers the M3 with a six-speed manual transmission, which is a bonus. Many buyers will opt for the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic setup, and although it’s the faster car on paper, it’s a less engaging drive. Even with a big chunk of horsepower, the clutch on the manual M3 is extremely easy to modulate in all driving conditions. The shifter has very positive engagement, although the feel is quite rubbery. There’s automatic rev matching in all but Sport Plus engine modes, which makes hooning a cinch – but it somewhat defeats the purpose of having a manual transmission altogether – it becomes almost like the dual-clutch, but with extra steps.
For BMW, switching to the turbocharged inline six boils down to ever-tightening fuel economy and emissions regulations. The old 4.0-litre V8 was quite thirsty at the pump, which is not a problem repeated with the current model. Cars equipped with the six-speed manual are rated for 13.7 L/100km in the city and 9.1 L/100km on the highway. At the end of a week on test, observed economy was a split of the two numbers at 12.0 L/100km. This is fairly impressive considering the amount of time spent sitting in legendary Los Angeles traffic, as well as generous amounts of throttle and turbocharger use once the M3 hit the canyon roads.
In the mountains, the M3 felt right at home, with all the stresses of said LA traffic melting away after the first few corners were carved. The adaptive suspension allowed for the M3 to stay extremely planted in the hairiest of situations, and is configurable in Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes. There is a noticeable difference in ride quality of each setting, and having a Comfort mode available for pothole-ridden urban streets is a welcome feature. Steering weight is adjustable and feels great at full stiff settings, offering good feedback through a meaty steering wheel. The 20-inch Competition Package wheels were wrapped in sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, with 265/30R20 up front, and 285/30R20 in the rear. Even when pushed hard, there’s still plenty of traction; without going full out on a proper race track, there’s still a ton of the M3’s capability left on the table. In any case, drivers will want to find any excuse they can to take the M3 out on twisty roads and race tracks. And best of all, the four-door configuration means that can also serve duty as a family cruiser.
In the passenger cabin, the Silverstone Extended Merino Leather created a wonderful contrast with the monochrome treatment on the dashboard and centre stack. The test vehicle was also equipped with carbon fibre interior trim with black chrome highlights, further enhancing the sporty effect. Front seat passengers have ample room and comfort, and will be held in very well by well-bolstered sport seats. When stuffing in five averaged-sized adults, however, rear seat hip and shoulder room is at a great premium, and legroom is marginally acceptable.
Moving on to tech, BMW’s iDrive system is similar to other current BMW multimedia applications, with a wheel on the centre console that controls all functions on the main screen. For navigation, voice command can be used, but handwriting on the top surface of the button is also another viable option for inputting destination data. Real-time traffic information and updates were effective, and the M3 was able to route around traffic delays in Los Angeles, saving quite a bit of time. Turn-by-turn directions are also reflected on the head-up display. The harman/kardon stereo provided great clarity and bass response, coming surprisingly close to the Bowers & Wilkins setup one might find in a 7-Series (reviewed here).
Between the original E30 M3 and today’s F80 model, the competition have added several serious contenders to the mix. Fellow German rival Mercedes-Benz has the amazingly vulgar-sounding, V8-powered C63 sedan and coupe that seems to emphasize exhaust note and straight-line speed, and the Americans have a formidable effort that is the Cadillac ATS-V. Between the three, the C63 might be the more elegant and luxurious option, and the Cadillac is extremely competitive when it comes to performance numbers – with a lower price, to boot. Having tested the ATS-V on both the street and racetrack, it may have a slight advantage when it comes to chassis feel, as well as steering and braking response. The Caddy’s CUE multimedia system is a bit of a pain however, and the BMW soundly trumps the ATS-V (reviewed here) when it comes to the rest of the interior.
Bottom line: the 2017 BMW M3 Competition Package is still a complete barnstormer that has full race capabilities right off the showroom floor. It may not have the same pizazz as the V8-powered model that came before it, but it still throws down numbers that put it to shame while returning better fuel economy as well. The turbocharged inline six is still quite the delight up to its 7,500 rpm redline (the last two models were 8,300 and 8,000 rpm, respectively), and barring a slight delay in response due to the twin turbochargers, the freight train of torque does make it more usable day-to-day. With its as-tested price tag sailing just north of six figures, the M3 remains a viable candidate in its class. Competitors may exceed it in some areas, but the BMW still does its ancestors proud when it comes to being a balanced jack of all trades.