The latest generation BMW M3 isn't as thrilling as the original E30 M3, but it's still mighty

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The BMW M3 carries possibly the most famous single-consonant, single-digit car name in the world – but just because a car wears the famous BMW badge it doesn’t mean it gains automatic access to the league of superstars.

The BMW M3 name was born out of the company’s motor racing activities, but along the way its reputation has endured a bumpy ride. Today it may be regarded as a de facto performance superstar, but there is plenty of proof in the car’s history to suggest that the men and women from Munich haven’t always been able to hit the spot.

Today, the M3 may be regarded as a de facto performance superstar

The first ‘E30’ M3 was built in small numbers to legitimise its appearance at circuits around the globe, but such was the popularity of the concept – high power, low mass and a small footprint on the road – that the company was forced to consider a replacement.

One followed in 1993, then another BMW M3 in 2000, and then a fourth-generation BMW M3 in , which is what we test here in coupe, saloon and BMW M3 convertible forms. Those with long memories will recall that the 1993 3.0-litre M3, the successor to the great original, was lambasted for being too soft and in possession of poor steering. Initial reports suggest that type E92 might again be too anodyne to do justice to the M3 badge.

Question is, what kind of BMW M3 is this fourth-gen, and is it still worth buying with all-new, next-generation models now on the not-so-distant horizon?

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BMW M3 xenon headlights

Such is the level of modification required to transform a regular BMW 3 Series into an M3 that it is hard to see how the company ever makes a profit from this vehicle.

The base shell is carried over from the regular car, but remember that M division can make requests for particular reinforcements at the initial design stage. To this is added a set of bespoke aluminium suspension components whose only commonality with the base car at either axle is a pair of rear lower wishbone control arms. This saves 2.5kg and gives a much stiffer platform for wheel control.

M3's front and rear tracks are 38mm and 31mm wider than a 335i

For the external panels, only the door skins and light units remain. Thermoplastic bumpers and front wings house front and rear tracks 38mm and 31mm wider than a 335i and the bonnet is pressed aluminium.

The coupe and saloon use a carbonfibre-reinforced plastic roof to lower the car’s centre of mass. Over a glass sunroof-equipped car the saving is 22kg, although that figure falls to around 5kg over a regular steel panel. The convertible’s roof arrangement adds more weight, at the slight – but evident - cost of handling precision.

Just two cylinders of the M3’s V8 sit ahead of the front axle line. Displacing 3999cc, the engine produces 414bhp at 8300rpm and 295lb ft of torque at 3900rpm.

According to BMW, it uses the most advanced engine management computer in the car world, it is claimed to be more fuel efficient than the straight six it replaced, the block is 15kg lighter and it uses brake energy regeneration to allow the alternator to decouple under hard acceleration, yet charge more efficiently at other times.


BMW M3 Coupé interior

There’s something quietly understated about the BMW M3. Now long gone are the quasi race-car decals and detailing of the original, replaced by improved, classier switchgear and other additions to the cabin. No question, the cabin oozes class, but it emphasises the car’s everyday practicality far more than it does the mighty performance that is just a stab of the right foot away.

Getting comfortable behind the wheel is no problem: the seat design includes fuss-free electric operation. Other notable changes from a standard 3 Series include a speedometer that reads to 200mph and a revcounter that incorporates graduated amber and red sections to indicate when the oil is warm. The M3 also gets an ‘M Dynamic Mode’, which provides the driver with controls to alter steering weight, throttle map and damper response.

Cabin feels beautifully built, and the quality of materials and leather is superb

However, the driving position isn’t without fault and includes one major irritation: you sit too high. M engineers insist that the squab material compresses about an inch over the first three weeks of ownership, but even that’s not enough. In fact, in a car whose base philosophy is low centre of mass, it seems counter-productive. And for many drivers, especially women, the steering wheel is way too thick.

Otherwise it’s an extremely comfortable place to sit. Rear occupants have enough legroom for one six-footer to sit behind another, and the boot is vast. This is also an exceptionally well assembled car.


The V8 BMW M3 engine

Anyone who drives a BMW M3 and yearns for more straight-line performance clearly has power issues. This is an exceptional motor with a breadth of performance that is truly impressive.

When using the six-speed manual, the shift feels unhelpful at first and the clutch too abrupt, but again, familiarity breeds smoothness.

Fuel economy isn't great; you'll see between 17 and 20mpg during fast running

The figures for the coupe are impressive: 0-60mph in 4.7sec, 0-100mph in 10.2sec (a second faster than the old car). This is a four-seater that is quicker than a Porsche 997 Carrera S in a straight line.

It’s not all about the straight-line pace, either. Few cars can provide snap oversteer as readily as the M3, and it’s the car’s ability to transform from being practical (but potent) into a thrill-a-minute ride that marks it out as special.

What’s more, the car is made all the more special by the extent to which you can adapt it to suit your circumstances. The M3’s throttle response, power steering assistance, damper rates and traction control system can all be tweaked for optimum performance, wherever you are.

That means, for example, you can cruise 100-miles up the motorway in commendable comfort, with the traction control fully on, the dampers set to comfort mode, and the ECU mapped for optimum economy. Then, when you hit the track, you can switch off the DSC system, beef up the car’s body control, sharpen up the steering and throttle response, and indulge in the kind of tail-led hooliganism that only an M-car can serve up.


BMW M3 Coupé hard cornering

Since this car’s launch, BMW’s engineers have been eager to tell anyone who’ll listen how proud they are of the rear axle stability and how much better the dampers are than on any previous-generation M3. The Michelin Pilot Sport tyres are unique to the car, too.

The end result is that on Comfort dampers the M3’s ride is actually better than the 335i M Sport coupé’s, and that’s either a remarkable achievement or a sign that it’s getting too soft in its old age. Thankfully, we’d suggest the former is more accurate – although more extreme enthusiasts will be overheard bemoaning the change.

The M3 changes direction and grips as well as can be expected of something that weighs so much

The steering on current model year cars is a joy – although used buyers should note that it has been effectively tweaked over the years to reach today’s high standards. In particular, we’d recommend the Competition Pack, which means the car rides lower, sits on different wheels and has tweaked ESC settings and – crucially – different damper settings in Sport mode.

It grips as well as can be expected of something that weighs so much, and yet its bespoke Michelin tyres also contribute greatly to the ride comfort. As a combination of cruiser and sports coupé, it’s hard to see how you’d improve it.

And don’t think that by opting for the four-door saloon you are going to be forced to give much away. The extra practicality that this car offers leads you to expect some kind of compromise in its handling; if it’s bigger inside, you guess it must be bigger outside, heavier, somehow less sharp. But it just isn’t – and a glance at BMW’s measurements reveals why.

The M3 saloon has an identical wheelbase, and the same front and rear track widths, as the coupé. It’s actually marginally shorter than the two-door (by 35mm), as well as being marginally wider and taller. But with the wheels being in exactly the same places, and because it carries only 25kg of extra weight than the coupé, it gives up next to nothing by way of agility.

The M3 convertible also makes a great case for itself. Undeniably, it isn’t as dynamically accomplished as the coupe or saloon, but unless you want to go on track or are searching for the final few per cent of performance, it has enough real-world ability to impress, as well as the undeniable charm of letting you hear the V8 when it’s on full song.


BMW M3 Coupé

Surprise, surprise, running a BMW M3 isn’t cheap on any level, from buying it to fuelling it and insuring it.

If you don’t like the look of the figures then just about your only option, other than running away and hiding, is to investigate the slightly more frugal seven-speed automatic instead of the six-speed manual. Such a decision, though, rather undermines the point of buying such a car in the first place, even if it does make the M3 a quicker car in a straight line as well.

That said, fuel economy is at least close to the official figures – closer, in fact, than we dared imagine after hard running. In our quick tests the car returned somewhere between 17 and 20mpg. Longer motorway runs see that figure rise to 25mpg. Still, those numbers are nothing to write home about, and also mean that a full tank will yield little over 250 miles.

Inevitably, then, the CO2 emissions are also high, meaning a big hit on the first-year showroom tax if you’re buying new, and punitive VED road tax bills thereafter. Traditionally, this highest tax band has also attracted the greatest increases when fees are put up, so there’s little to no prospect of there being some good news further down the line.

The M3 also sits in the higher regions of the insurance band system, so expect high bills to head your way.


4 star BMW M3 Coupé

BMW's M3 is now much more high-speed express than B-road hooligan. The high-revving 414bhp V8 can still make your spine tingle, though, and few cars can produce on-demand oversteer like the M3.

However, it is not a faultless car. Chief among the faults are that the driver sits too high and it will spend too much time at fuel stations. Its abilities on damp British roads are also reduced by being just two-wheel drive, and even though some people will crave the ability to feel the rear axle slipping about, the realities of motoring in this country cannot be ignored.

Its abilities on damn British roads are hindered by being rear-wheel drive

But the M3 is not a blunt instrument; there are layers of sophistication, and as something in which to conduct your daily grind it will prove a thrilling companion. The others, in particular Audi, have all but caught the once uncatchable M3, but for those who love rear-driven machinery, this is still the best practical performance car on sale.

That you can vary that repertoire through the coupe, saloon and convertible variants only adds to the M3’s undoubted appeal. What you have to give up for the extra practicality of the saloon or show-off appeal of the convertible is relatively small compared with some other rivals.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

BMW M3 2007-2013 First drives