Enough with the internal E codes. Few cars arouse passions and pedantry like the M3, and the E30 vs. E-whatever debates can be endless, circuitous, and maddening. Might as well compare Frazier to Tyson, early Dylan to late, Pulp Fiction to Inglourious Basterds.
So for right now, let’s forget the previous cars. After driving the fifth-generation BMW M3 (okay, fine, it’s the F80) we asked ourselves this: If this was the very first M3 ever released, would it be legend?
To put it another way, if the M3 had never been green-lit until today, and BMW brought it onto the market as a squalling newborn akin to Jaguar’s F-type, would it be the car you’d compare others to in twenty-five years?
To try and answer that question, we approached the 2015 BMW M3/M4 with selective amnesia. We put aside our loves, gripes, and hopes of previous-generation M3s and simply assessed how the 2015 models shape up as modern sport cars.
Other than aesthetics, doors, ride height, and claimed weight, the four-door M3 and two-door M4 are mechanical twins. The specs look good: A twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-six with 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque from 1850-5500 rpm. A claimed curb weight of 3595 pounds for the sedan with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; 3585 pounds for the coupe. You can have a six-speed manual, which also saves almost 90 pounds of overall weight. It’s rear-wheel drive with an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.
Kinda sounds no-bullshit, doesn't it?
Our shut-up-and-prove-it first drive took us over fast highways, treacherous single-lane squiggles, and the suspension-smashing Autódromo racetrack in Portugal’s Algarve region. We drove both the M3 and the M4 brutally, with little mechanical sympathy and the single-minded purpose of exposing weaknesses and exploiting potential greatnesses. Hope was leavened with skepticism.
Two days of driving left us wanting more time, more miles, more laps. But it also left us with very clear impressions. Here, the good, the bad, and the other.
The very good: Both cars are howl-at-the-blood-red-moon, out-for-trouble, gonzo fun. Prices start at a very adult $62,000/$64,200, but the heart of the car is anything but adult. This is the Bavarians out to cause trouble. The M Division was clearly intent on not erring on the side of caution.
These cars are neither silky nor subtle; rather, they are muscular and irrepressible. Hell, at times they seem borderline irresponsible. A heady go on a switchback road translates to bewildering accelerations down straights and sharp stabs of carbon-ceramic brakes with such sudden decelerations that bodies snap into seatbelts. Turn off the Dynamic Stability Control completely, and it’s easy to spin tires and get more than a bit sideways. As such, the M3/M4 encourage silliness and are as fun as any production cars currently on the market.
The bad: Our first thought, within moments of taking possession of the M3: “Is the engine noise coming from the speakers?” Agonizingly, yes. The M3/M4’s interior sound comes courtesy of special effects.
When pressed, BMW engineers reluctantly explain that the sound doesn’t come from a pre-recorded soundtrack or an engine-mounted microphone. Instead, a sensor analyzes what the engine should sound like according to rpm and load. Then, it uses a “synthesizer” to replicate that sound and pipes it through the speakers. “Think Alan Parsons Project,” says one engineer.
Like the digitally rendered humans in the movie The Polar Express, you immediately know something is off—and that particular something is creepy. Also off-putting is the character of the synthesized engine noise, which sounds like a bass-heavy V-8 rather than the sharp rasp of an inline six. Onlookers outside the car are treated to blats of real, raucous inline-six sound as the exhaust flaps kick rudely open. Turns out they’re the lucky ones.
The good: Previous M3s have all had normally aspirated engines, so the turbo should fall into the “bad” category, right? Well, the pull of the new 3.0-liter engine is phenomenal. The two mono-scroll turbos deliver the torque early, and it stays meaty a good long way toward the 7600-rpm redline. The right now power delivery is especially sublime when you’re already on the move and are looking for a hard kick in the pants down a short straight. And it happens in a linear, no-surprise kind of way. BMW says it takes 3.9 seconds to reach 60 mph with the dual-clutch automatic. In total, it’s good enough that we won’t miss the 4.0-liter V-8. The truth hurts.
The troubling: A turbo hose failed on our test coupe, suddenly venting precious oxygen into the atmosphere and basically leaving us with the world’s first normally aspirated (and weak) M4. “Pre-production parts” was the excuse, but these types of failures always leave us wondering.
The added bonus: Like Jessica Rabbit, the M3 and M4 were drawn to be bad. The look is all muscle, with wide rear haunches, a rear diffuser, and the hood’s sublimely ridiculous power dome. The sedan is more thickset than the coupe and, to our eyes, is particularly successful. The coupe sits lower, and its stance is slightly more purposeful. They can seem gawky in photos, but rendered in actual metal, these are badass machines.
The great: The handling is unmistakably, deliciously, rear-wheel drive. With the DSC fully on, both cars are hampered, hobbled, and slightly dispirited. One button click to M Dynamic Mode (MDM), and they become nimble, dynamic, and boisterous. There’s almost no understeer: Even picking up the gas early in the apex has little penalty, as the M3/M4 stays highly pointable. You can alter driving lines with throttle.
Be warned that with safety systems toned down or all the way off, the back end loves to step out, sometimes unexpectedly. This is especially true of the sedan, which is taller and pivots from a slightly higher center of gravity compared with the coupe. A jiggle of the hands is enough to coax it back into line. Add extra thrust instead, and experienced drivers can drift to the outside after apexing. It’s not scary, balance is good, and the gradual breakaway from the specially formulated Michelin Pilot Sport tires is entirely predicable. You can feel what’s going on underneath you.
The new M3 is some 175 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, says BMW, but even so it’s not a light car. The engineers talk about all the places they’ve saved weight, from the carbon-fiber drive shaft, roof, and trunk lid to aluminum control arms and axle subframes. Still, bombing down a hill and throwing on the brakes late is a study in weight management.
The disappointing: The lack of steering feel. The steering has three modes: comfort, sport, and sport plus, and the biggest difference is the artificial heft. In nearly all instances on legal roads, comfort mode is best (and the word “comfort” is misleading). Fortunately, it is also incredibly precise. On the track, we preferred sport.
The stuff we don’t know: All the cars we drove were equipped with carbon-ceramic brakes on nineteen-inch wheels, a combo that runs an extra $9350. The carbon-ceramic brakes do squeak but are easy to modulate on regular roads, without biting overenthusiastically. They make the most sense on the racetrack, as we’ve found that BMW’s steel brakes quickly overheat after a few hard laps. We would have liked to experience the ride on eighteen-inch wheels with regular brakes to compare.
Nor did we get a shot with the manual transmission, which will blip the throttle on downshifts automatically. The great news is that there is still a manual, for which you can thank us Yanks.
The final good news: The connection to motorsports and the M3 is very real, and BMW is adamant that the latest cars will deliver on the racetrack. Peek under the hood to find a carbon-fiber strut brace that looks like the same one found on the new M235i Racing.
The Autódromo has severe altitude changes, a set of carousels, and several hairpins. After taking both the M3 and the M4 out for a total of a dozen hard laps, we got a pretty clear perspective and learned that they deliver.
The track proved that the coupe is more buttoned down, with less unintended yaw. It arcs through the turns cleanly. Grip is excellent. It’s the sedan, though, that is more fun. On those long downhill half corkscrews, you tickle the gas until the inside tires are just about to overload, then breath off the accelerator and wait for the sedan to pivot and point you true again. Damn, that’s good.
So, ultimately, will the F80 and F82 (the coupe gets its own code now) run with Jag F-types and Porsche 911s and Chevy Corvettes? That’s a matter for a million maddening comparisons, but the short answer is it definitely won’t embarrass itself. And while it doesn't have the purity of an E30 -- what modern car can make that claim? -- the M3/M4 definitely shows hints of legend.
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