Two days, 2,000kms, an M3 and a date in Paris. But will I make it?...
Keep going straight
As plans go, I can honestly say that this one is rubbish. Here I am at 9.30 in the morning, at the very bottom of Spain, with a set of car keys in my hand and Iím supposed to be meeting my girlfriend in Paris at 5 oíclock tomorrow afternoon. Months ago Iíd agreed to pick up a new car in Jerez and drive it back to the UK, totally forgetting I had arranged a weekend in the French capital with my other half to celebrate our anniversary. On paper the solution had seemed oh so simple: pick up the car, head off around 7am, sprint back through Spain, whistle through the Pyrenees, stop off in Bordeaux, hit the French autoroute and be in Paris by tomorrow evening - no sweat.
Having overslept by a couple of hours, Iím now staring at the 2,000-odd kilometre route snaking across the two maps laid out in front of me. Itís also starting to get rather hot and beads of sweat are dripping from my head on to the map. Is this actually possible? The one thing that is giving me a glimmer of hope was the rather sober-looking grey BMW sitting in front of me. It is the new M3 saloon, equipped with the same insane 414BHP, 8,300rpm V8 as the coupe, albeit with more room and more stealth.
Sober colour - lairy car
This one comes in what looks like the same hue as most of the 318s I see every day, but there are details all over the M3 that combine to make it look fantastic. The wheel arches have been pumped out, there is the power bulge on the bonnet flanked by two little vents, the four pipes, and 19in wheels; the overall proportions are spot on. It is the kind of car that stands out after a double-take, your brain taking a second to register quite how purposeful it looks. As a method of munching through two whole countries I guess I could do far worse. According to BMWís figures the saloon matches the coupeís 0-60mph time of 4.7 seconds, and although the car is limited to 155mph Iím guessing it will do more, not that Iím going to find out of course.
It doesn't look that far...
After fiddling with the iDrive, the M-Settings, and the sat nav for a while I realise Iíve wasted another half-an-hour, so I hit the starter button. The starter motor whirs briefly before the 4.0 litre explodes into life, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This is the moment that you realise you are in an M-car and not any old 3, and one of the most powerful M-cars to date at that. At low revs the V8 has an old school thrum with a slight metallic crackle, making it sound a little like an American muscle car.
Clutching the chunky leather steering wheel, the M3 feels easy to drive at low speeds, but you can still sense a rawness bubbling under the surface. The interior works well, the red leather seats lifting the cabin, and there is the now familiar carbon-look leather on the dashboard. It is easy to get a comfortable seating position, with a multitude of electric adjustments available from the seats.
M3 cabin a good place to be
I hit the A394 to Cordoba, which is laden with slow moving trucks, and very quickly discover how breathtakingly efficient the M3 is at overtaking. There is plenty of torque low down but not as much grunt as you might expect, but ring the car out over 5,000 revs and the acceleration is phenomenal. The sound of that V8 snarling at 7,500rpm is worryingly addictive too, making you want to keep your foot pinned down all the time, as if it has been glued to the carpets. Even though Iíve stopped off a few times to take pictures I feel Iím making good progress and stop in a town to check the map. ĎMarchenaí is the name of the town and after scanning the map in the area I think I am; I begin to scan downwards. And then it hits me. Iím nowhere near Cordoba, Iíve barely scratched the surface Ė in fact Iíve barely covered 120kms. And itís now 11.30am Ė I was going to have lunch in Madrid and Iíve only covered a few inches of this Michelin map.
Land Rover graveyard on A364
I grab a sandwich from the petrol station and hit the road. After I leave Cordoba the roads start to get interesting: flowing, sweeping, bends winding through a valley that is totally empty - M3 heaven. It is so easy to drive this car quickly. With a seemingly infinite amount of power on tap, straights are a matter of pressing the loud pedal and then you arrive at the next bend. Itís that easy. The aluminium-intensive rear-drive chassis is wonderfully responsive but at the same time the ride is incredibly supple. The only downside is a slightly artificial steering feel which can rob you of some confidence as you attack a long, dusty bend flat out. This aside the M3 is an awesome weapon and as I cruise at 90mph along an arrow-straight piece of tarmac, surrounded by mountains, with the sun shining, there are few places I would rather be.
Hours of roads like these
Then, in my rear-view, I spot a vehicle, perhaps half a mile back coming up fast behind me. I wonder if it is the police, whether they had zapped me a few miles back, but as it comes into view I notice it is a Mercedes E-Class, and what looks like an estate at that. By this point Iím doing almost 100mph, but it is still gaining fast. I figure Iíll let him past and follow for a bit. Then the dark Merc bowls past me at what must be 115mph and I realise that itís not an estate Ė itís a hearse. He steams into another bend, rolling dramatically, before hitting the gas again and lurching forward. Things are starting to get weird, and Iím only a few hours in to the drive. Luckily itís time for one of the M3ís many fuel stops and I am thankful for the brief stop.
The M3 in its natural habitat
By 3.30 in the afternoon Iím on the outskirts of Madrid and as Iíve never visited the city itís a shame I havenít got time to see a few of the sights. But the sat nav has other ideas and takes me straight into the gridlocked centre. The Spanish love the M3, and as itís the new saloon, with English plates on, with a slightly confused looking Brit at the wheel, it would almost be stopping traffic, that is if everyone hadnít already ground to a halt. Iím desperately trying to weave from one set of lights to the next, trying not to prang this £49,310 super saloon and at the same time get out of Madrid as quickly as possible.
I finally get out of the city and back onto the dual carriageways that head north. A 5-series keeps pulling alongside me so the occupants can take pictures and Iím bored so I start to show off. Flooring the M3 at 5,000rpm is something that I never grow tired of. No matter how tired I become this astonishing engine puts a smile on my face every time, and makes adrenaline pump ferociously through my veins. The iPod connection works great but the V8 soundtrack is better than any tunes I have with me.
Wind power? N'ah, V8 power...
For the next few hours time passes quickly, the M3 eating through miles at a staggering rate, always going a bit faster than you think it is. As I get closer to the France/ Spain border the landscape starts to resemble Yorkshire (I really have been driving too long) and there are wind farms everywhere. In a normal car the endless HGVs would be a nuisance but in the M3 overtaking is a pastime, a distraction from the monotony of simply covering ground. I notice that other cars will pass one truck, or perhaps a couple of cars at a time, but in the M3, when it is clear you can take three HGVs in one go.
Looking down at one point the speedo reads 120mph and the next truck I pass I decide to keep my foot to the floor, just to see what will happen. Glancing down I see the needle sweep through 140mph, before I notice a bend approaching rapidly and I touch the brakes. It felt nowhere near that fast. It starts to get dark and I see snow on the ground. Iím starting to realise my grand ideas of biting a big chunk out of France are starting to look a bit fanciful.
Goodbye sunshine, hello tiredness
As it gets darker, the roads become twistier and Iím still in Spain. I look at the map and realise even Biarritz is way out of reach and the best I can hope for is Pamplona Ė the home of the famous bull run Ė which sits a few dozens kilometres from the border. A Citreon Saxo tries to goad me into a race but Iím too tired, surely giving him a great story of M3-slaying to tell in the pub later. I arrive in Pamplona at gone 9pm and book into the Hotel Europa, a nice hotel in the centre. A beer in the square with the first hot meal of the day is enough to send me to my bed, excited about whatís in store for tomorrow.
Pamplona bull ring
Itís 8am and itís raining. I didnít expect that. Then, within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel, Iíve been told off by the police for stopping to plug in my phone. This is not a good start to the day. But once I start charging for the French boarder, things start looking up. OK, so the twisting mountain roads may hold me up a bit but I am in seventh heaven. The rain has gone, the M3 is shrinking around me, and I am lost in the romance of early morning border crossings. As I fire past a group of workmen enjoying their morning coffee, the sound of the V8 bouncing off the mountains, the back end of the M3 loads up a little and I catch it with a smidge of opposite lock. The car makes me feel like a bit of a hero and for a second I forget that I am supposed to be in Paris by the afternoon.
Seeing the sea at Biarritz
I donít even notice the border crossing, just a few trucks randomly stopped to be searched, and before I know it I am in Biarritz. I know that it is time to slow things down. France is notorious for stopping speeding Brits and talk of your car being confiscated while you are behind bars is making me feel uneasy. The N10 is boring Ė cameras line the road and the skies are a dull grey compared to the sunshine of Spain. Something I suspect, with little or no understanding of meteorology, to do with the Pyrenees. Briefly I leave the motorway and the roads are so straight I have to fight the temptation to open up the M3. This is frustrating, and I donít seem to be making much progress.
Some things are faster than the M3
My girlfriend calls, she is at Heathrow, soon to be boarding her flight. ĎIím not far,í I tell her. ĎShould be in Paris in a couple of hours,í I lie. This is not looking good. Itís getting on for 2pm and Iím nowhere near Paris. I stop for a quick sandwich to mull over what a disaster it will be. As I stand outside the petrol station a young French guy walks over and asks if the M3 is mine. I explain my predicament and tell him I have to be in Paris in a matter of hours. ĎYou have a good car to do it in,í he says, pointing at the power bulge on the M3ís bonnet. All these hours in this car must have diluted my senses to it. Heís right - Iíve got 414bhp, one of the best engines in the world today, and miles of straight tarmac.Itís worth a shot. He gives me the full low-down on the speed cameras, speed traps and everything else I need to know. I want to know how fast I can get away with, what speeds the cops come down on you hard, and where they are likely to be.
Where did the sun go?
I power off down the motorway, keeping the car under 160kph but pushing on as much as I can. In the M3 you can just watch the kilometres count down on the sat nav. I realise that the car is so comfortable that my back doesnít ache, nothing aches, I feel like over only spent a couple of hours in this seat. The only reason I have had to stop is for fuel and although my eyes became tired the rest of me feels remarkably fresh. In short the M3 is a great place to spend a lot of time. Whereas the original E30 M3 was razor sharp, this works so well as a GT. It simply devours huge distances and the V8 sitting in front of me has been screaming away for over half a day, and it just wants to rev higher and push harder.
After a couple of phone calls from friends back home on the carís Bluetooth to pass the time, I realise that Paris is approaching fast. For the last four hours I have been cranking the BMW up to frankly silly speeds, chasing the odd 911 who clearly know these roads better than I do. The car has obliterated half of France and now Iím looking like Iíll get to Paris for 7, maybe earlier. My girlfriend has texted to say that the connection from Charles de Gaulle airport to the hotel has taken hours, and as I pull into the suburbs of the French capital at around 6pm I breathe a sigh of relief. I can't believe I actually made it.
The M3 is no doubt now a very different car from what it once was. You could hardly call it lightweight, and it has twice the cylinders of the original, and twice the power. It is now more of a bruiser, but at the same time it is comfortable, has room for five, a big boot and has all the creature comforts you will ever need. The M3 is a comfortable cruiser, but it is also great fun on twisting mountain roads.
I reach the hotel at 6.30pm, just in time to see my girlfriend arrive at the hotel. I've even managed to make a dinner reservation, feeling nothing like someone who has just spent the last two days hours in a car. After tucking the M3 away in the car park I realise Iíll miss it when BMW takes it back. After spending that long in a car, especially one that managed to get me so far so effectively, it feel like a faithful friend. A friend that has dead flies splattered all over its face, but a friend nonetheless.