A French road trip provides the perfect opportunity for a long goodbye to the PH M3
A few of Brittany's roads aren't ideal for an M3. Not many, though
The astonishing flexibility of our M3's V8 is revealed one last time as the lorry in the dual carriageway's outside lane finally pulls back in, having spent what seems like three days struggling past one if its long-haul brethren.
There's a BMW M3 in there somewhere...
At the prod of my right foot, the V8 wakes from a near-silent cruise in seventh as the twin-clutch DCT 'box self-shifts down three ratios (I reckon there's no shame in sticking it in 'D' on multi-laners). At which point all hell breaks loose. The docile, distant burble is transformed into a gurgling shriek as the revcounter needle swings past 5000rpm on its way to the 8300rpm peak power point, where the full 414bhp is unleashed. In the work of a few moments the trucking pair is two dwindling dots in the rear-view mirror.
I'm on the last leg of a trip back from a week's holiday in Brittany, picking my way past the streams of trans-continental trucks on the A20 out of Dover, on the way back to PH's Teddington office. Over the past week we've covered more than 1500 miles of motorways, autoroutes, arrow-straight Routes Nationales and twisting Breton country roads in a final fling for the PH fleet M3 before the chap from BMW comes to collect it from us.
Nice bridge, shame about the weather
During this time I've discovered that the M3 is at least six different cars rolled into one. But this is not just a car that can play only refined cruiser or screaming hot rod. When called upon, the M3 can adopt any number of roles. It can transport four adults in comfort. It can slice across country as a smooth, high-speed cruiser that can dispatch sweeping A-roads (and any traffic on them) with ease. It can subdue the most twisting back road. Turn off the driver aids and find a suitably empty piece of Tarmac and it can play the smoky, slidey hooligan to your heart's content.
The key to this magnificent flexibility is the seemingly endless adjustability built into the current M3. In most cars that have them, all the buttons to adjust steering, throttle response, gearchange ferocity and suspension compliance dilute the dynamic experience. In the M3 it just changes the car's dynamic focus.
Poor form, I know - but it does say 'soft care'
Feeling like a hoon? Flick the stubby gear lever into manual mode, switch the gearbox to its fifth and most aggressive setting, hit the 'power' button, set the electronic damper control to the middle of its three settings (the most aggressive suspension setting is best kept to the track), point the blue and white roundel at your nearest twisty road and enjoy.
Feeling lazy/tired/in the need for some cosseting? Pop the transmission into D, soften the changes right off and shift it to the softest, most gentle steering, throttle and suspension settings and you've got a car that does a more than passable impression of an executive limo.
Not the best piece of parking ever
For a trip across most of the top of France (we plumped for the Dover-Calais route to maximise the driving time) the M3 offers almost the ideal combination of abilities. Almost ideal? Well, if we're being picky the steering occasionally feels a bit light and artificial, though this mostly manifests itself at parking speeds. The sat-nav seems to develop a peculiarly Gallic aversion to taking the most obvious routes - its instructions, in France at least, are something to take with a pinch of salt.
More of a problem is the fuel consumption. Here on PH we're not often known to moan about poor MPG figures, but the snag with the M3 is that its prodigious thirst significantly hampers its touring range. You can eke more than 300 miles out of a tank of unleaded, but realistically you're going to have to fill up every 275 miles or so, especially if you delve into the upper reaches of that gorgeous V8's rev range (which you regularly will unless you're dead inside).
Not Riggers's soft toy...
During our French sojourn we managed to squeeze out an average of just under 23mpg. You could no doubt get more, but even the heart-stoppingly pricey fuel (sometimes nudging 1.40 euros per litre, or a very unpleasant £1.26 - the days of cheap continental fuel are long gone) can't stop you from winding the V8 up more often than is sensible for the health of the wallet.
These are just niggles, however - for a continental road trip I can think of no better four-wheeled companion. But if the M3 suited the holiday, then the roads we travelled on could have been made for the car. Once you get into Normandy, the peage autoroutes peter out, replaced by sweeping, undulating, but well-surfaced and empty dual carriageway, perfect for the odd foray into some rather naughty speeds (keeping an eye out for those pesky Gendarmes, naturally).
Rain: happens when you go on holiday in March
The roads around Finistere, the western-most part of Brittany, (and indeed France) are even more ideal. Out of season, tourist traffic is minimal, and the local traffic is sparse outside of the towns. The roads themselves are fabulous. Main routes are mostly well-sighted, smooth single-carriageway roads with plenty of overtaking opportunity (you don't need much space in the M3, mind).
Search for more minor roads and you won't be disappointed, either. The twisting, undulating roads of the Forest around the small town of Huelgoat are particularly fun. This is not Col de Turini-style switchback country, but there's an entertaining mix of tight corners, flowing sweepers, and interesting cambers. It's a bit like the Cat and Fiddle route in the Peak District, except without the biker traffic and speed cameras.
Feeling the pain at the pumps...
All too soon the week away is over and we're back on the A20 passing that pair of lorries. It's been a good trip though. It's proved that there are still uncluttered, unspoilt roads out there, and that you don't need to look that hard to find them. I have also more or less fallen in love with the M3.
As you read this, the man from BMW will have taken away our beloved black and blue Bee-Em, and a metaphorical tear or three will have been shed over its departure. Perhaps RacingPete, whose jammy luck it has been to run the car for most of the past 5 months and 10,000 miles, should have the final word: "It's simply the best car in the world, ever. Full stop." Quite.
(Ta muchly to P&O Ferries)