BMW’s latest M3 takes a step up in efficiency and grunt, but is it still an M-Car?
As if the Hampton Downs race circuit in New Zealand isn’t daunting enough.
I’m here to drive BMW’s latest F80 M3, which currently sits in a cloak of pit-lane mist as the rain sets in over Hampton’s 2.8 undulating kilometres of tarmac. Despite this, it’s apparent that BMW sees fit to let the assembled hacks loose in its fiery $156,900 sports sedan. Brave, I reckon.
“Has the M-Division gone too far by turbocharging the fifth-gen M3?”
Already sinister in Anthracite, ‘my’ M3’s fat-arch, bonnet-bulge stance appears even more intimidating in the fog. Are we sure this is okay?
The question of rain, rear-wheel drive and 317kW dampens (no pun intended) the prevailing pit-lane talk, which is largely focused on an altogether more pertinent question: Has the M-Division gone too far in the name of efficiency by turbocharging the fifth-generation M3?
In doing so BMW has consigned the incredible 8400rpm, 4.0-litre naturally-aspirated V8 found in the E90 M3 to history, its nape-prickling soundtrack, linearity and eagerness giving the engine that has replaced it quite a task to emulate.
The magicians from Munich have followed the downsized turbo trend by equipping the newcomer with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six. Contrary to some pre-launch doomsayer opinion, it’s not a simple, cost-containing power-up of the single turbo six found in the 335i. Instead, the M3 motor uses two mono-scroll turbochargers, separately integrated into their own turbo-manifold units and positioned for minimal spool-up time. Awaken the M3 in one of the more hardcore drive modes, and the turbochargers are fed fuel to keep the turbines spinning, thus creating a form of anti-lag. A magnesium sump and the two double-flow oil pumps reek of racing heritage, as does the closed-deck crankcase which saves 2.2kg over the 335i unit. The cylinder walls are also specially coated to remove the need for separate liners.
That 317kW peak power figure is produced from 5500-7300rpm; up only 8kW over the E90’s V8, however its 550Nm torque peak, available from only 1850rpm all the way through to the 5500rpm power peak equates to a 38 per cent peak torque advantage over its predecessor. Significantly, the F80 generates double the torque at 1850rpm.
“There’s fastidious commitment to weight saving”
Of note is that the M3 comes standard in Australia with the familiar seven-speed M-DCT dual-clutch transmission. For the new engine its gearing has been altered to incorporate a direct-drive fifth gear matched to a 3.462 final-drive ratio (the previous car’s direct-drive gear was seventh, though it had a longer 3.154 final-drive). The reason behind the change? Closer intermediate gearing for faster acceleration that is better suited to the track, with two overdrive gears left for highway cruising.
The latest Active M Differential, an electronically-controlled, multi-plate limited-slip design that uses hollow output shafts (there’s the fastidious commitment to weight saving again; each hub is also 300 grams lighter than before) takes a feed from several sensors and locks the diff according to requirements, and can adjust anywhere from zero to 100 per cent lock to maximise rear-drive traction.
A six-speed manual is available as a no-cost option, and actually benefits from some weight-saving development work, now 12kg lighter than before to save a significant 40kg over the DCT system. It also features rev-matching downshifts for the first time, but does increase fuel consumption from 8.3L/100km to 8.8L/100km on the combined cycle.
Michelin provides Pilot Super Sports as standard-fit on the BMW M3, staggered at 255/35/19 up-front with 275-sections of the same profile at the rear.
Lowering the centre of gravity (and dropping a further 6kg in the process) is the carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) roof that makes its M3 sedan debut. CFRP is also used to create the comprehensive, beautiful strut brace, which also ties into the front sub-frame for increased rigidity. The same material is used to crate the one-piece tail shaft. All-up the DIN kerb weight of the M3 DCT is 1560kg, 65kg less than the E90 despite larger physical dimensions. Further weight reduction is available by ticking the carbon-ceramic brake option box, though at an additional $12,000 to shave a further 7kg per wheel, we wonder if it’s worth it, especially as the standard four-piston front, two-pot rear calipers clamp substantially perforated, ventilated discs.
Opening the door reveals an immediately inviting interior. One-piece leather sport seats house adjustable bolsters, the interior further lifted by the red leather finish in the test vehicle. Fillets of leather and carbon fibre also adorn the cockpit surrounds.
“How many personalities does a sports car need?”
How many personalities does a sports car need? Many, it appears… at least form behind the wheel of the M3. Besides the DCT gear shifter there are buttons to relieve the user of stability control in stages (nothing to worry about in this weather, though), while further console buttons isolate settings for the electro-mechanical power steering, damper tuning and engine characteristics. Each can be shifted through comfort, sport and sport plus options, while a final switch selects one of three speeds for the gearshift. Thankfully the steering wheel-mounted ‘M’ buttons can auto-store your favoured settings.
Splashing out of the Hampton Downs pitlane, the immediate ferocity of the BMW M3’s power delivery becomes apparent, the ESC light a constant, welcome presence as we learn the circuit’s blind crests (should I lift?) and sneakily-tightening, off-camber corners.
With time and cars constantly lapping, the circuit dries enough to switch into M Dynamic mode and the M3 comes alive, mostly via its scintillating front end response. And it’s not only response; there’s also grip there, in abundance. Soon the M3 is begging for late braking and fully-loaded tyres as it scythes the apex. It’s confidence-inspiring, and leaves you to focus on what the rear-end is doing.
Within the parameters of the tyres, the rear-end grip and drive out of corners is also excellent, though mis-timing a throttle application sees the tyres fizz into wheelspin. Add some steering lock to the mix, and the transition from complete grip to next-to-nothing is punishingly fast. Wheelspin out of a fourth-gear corner leads to a quite gratuitous slide before the M Dynamic mode kicks in, offering the driver a chance to play before it intervenes.
“Once onto the gorgeous coastal roads the M3 can be tuned to suit your mood”
Throttle more gently squeezed, the F80 simply lunges forward, leaving the E90’s ghost in its wake. It will still rev, all the way to 7600rpm, but now you have the option to play the mid-range card, short-shifting to maximise drive. It’s just a pity it sounds so, well, synthesized. Comfort mode shields most of the engine note, but by sport plus there’s a six-cylinder wail that is artificially enhanced, and quite obviously at that. Standing outside as the car idles, there’s volume but no character; even a throttle blip does nothing to improve it.
Leaving the butter-smooth circuit for a varied road loop allows exploration of the M3 as a daily proposition; it is, after all, its primary function these days.
On coarse-chip motorway there’s copious road noise at speed, while stop-start traffic reveals the familiar DCT take-off procedure of feather, wait for drive, go in comfort mode.
Once onto the gorgeous coastal roads the M3 can be tuned to suit your mood. Comfort damper mode brings a level of suppleness to the ride not experienced in any M3 before it, while sport is just about on-road perfection, offering a still-compliant ride yet wonderful response. The same is true of the steering modes; comfort is fine, but the finer detail of sport – without the disconcerting immediacy of sport plus – is just right. In fact, hit the middle gearbox shift mode and select sport for the engine map, and you have your ‘M’ setting, though you do miss out on the maximum anti-lag effect by not running the engine in sport plus.
It’s apparent the F80 M3 will have more market-wide appeal than the E90. It’s faster, lighter, better-equipped, larger and more efficient. But no matter how sophisticated, it can’t match the friendly, forgiving nature of the car it replaces.
|Specs||2014 BMW M3|
|Price||$156,430 (plus on-road costs)|
|Engine||2979cc twin-turbo six-cylinder petrol|
|Power||317kW at 5550-7300rpm|
|Torque||550Nm at 1850-5500rpm|
|Power to weight||4.92kg/kW|
|Tyres||255/35/19 (f) / 275/35/19 (r)|
- Tenacious turn-in
- Prodiguous performance
- Quality fit and finish
- False engine note
- Not as friendly on-limit as before
- Real-world economy