The new BMW M3

At last, PH gets behind the 'wheel of the new M3!
At last, PH gets behind the 'wheel of the new M3!

An all-new BMW M3; it doesn’t happen very often - around every seven years or so. And with the arrival comes expectation, and lots of it. This is the car that has repeatedly redefined what a ‘small’ sports saloon should be. But this time it’s different again. Not least, the switch to V8 power after two generations of the wonderful straight ‘six’ and a big increase in price – up to £50,695 in the UK. And there're talented rivals too - the Audi RS4 for example, not to mention the forthcoming C63 AMG.

Still, you could wedge a RAF hangar door open with the BMW press pack handed out on the launch. The book devoted purely to the engine is a reference tome in itself, but then technology and lots of it is one of the new car’s principal weapons.

Of course, there’s that new hi-tech all-alloy 4.0 litre V8 featuring double-VANOS, individual throttle butterflies and producing 420hp with 295lb ft of torque at 3,900rpm. That’s a huge increase over the old ‘six’ and BMW are quick to point out that it weighs 15kg less than the old engine too.

Elsewhere there’s a carbon fibre roof, lightweight suspension, MDrive facility with different setting programmable into an M button on the steering wheel (a la M5) and (optional) electronic dampers with three different settings. For now, a six speed manual gearbox is the only transmission available although some form of semi-auto ‘box will follow. Despite their best efforts, the M guys admit the new car weighs slightly more than the old one. As for the looks, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

‘Is it any good though’, you’re thinking. The answer is yes, but not quite in the way you might be expecting.

Unsurprisingly, the new car is dominated by its engine. Even when you first sit in the car, you’re immediately struck by the ‘powerdome’ bonnet that seems much more prominent from behind the ‘wheel. The V8 starts with a cultured growl and settles to a respectable idle. Around town it is well-behaved, and apart from the sometime clunkiness of the transmission at low speed it’s all very effortless to drive. The ride seems very composed too, certainly more comfortable than the old car, although we won’t really know until we’ve driven it in the UK.

As soon as you press the accelerator a bit more however you can hear the voice of the new engine: a tight, V8 chord with a hint of muscle car from low to middling revs. Extend it further and it howls like a modern race car: a single, focused note that sadly doesn’t alter much in tone but just heightens in pitch. At this point, you’ve still got 3,000 rpm to go…

The final charge of the V8 towards its 8,300rpm is really quite a remarkable thing. This is where the power is truly ferocious. Up until now, the M3 can feel slightly constrained by its weight and what feels like a longish set of gear ratios, but once you’ve tapped into that final band you’re really flying and the noise the thing makes as it falls into the soft limiter is unforgettable.

So why is it that I miss the old straight ‘six’ – even though it was incapable of such powermeister heroics? Thing is, the V8 is just so, well, sensible.  It doesn’t rattle like the old straight six did at times; it doesn’t spit and crackle and sound as if it’s digesting its own internals on occasion, because frankly, it isn’t. It’s a new engine, operating with micro-millimetre precision against a strict computer leash, and no doubt in this original iteration well within its own limits, unlike the old stager. The outright anger inherent in the old car has vanished, and with it some of the urgency of purpose, the sharpness of throttle response – even with the new car in its most aggressive setting. It’s a question of character.

We hack across the mountains of southern Spain, making our way from the launch resort towards the Ascari Race track inland. On these roads the new M3 is punishingly, absorbingly, illegally fast. Imagine the old Spa circuit without the rain and you’re about there: long, gently curving downhill straights that stretch out into the distance followed by sweeping, plunging and rising compound curves. It’s mainly third and fourth gear stuff in this car and it’s in its element. The chassis feels poised and secure, and there always seems to be more revs to play with, and consequently more power.

It’s when the road changes on the other side of the mountain that things aren’t quite so impressive. The road is tighter now, with more corners that are less predictable in their curvature and often blind. It exposes the new cars biggest flaw - the steering, something that was never the strong point of the previous car either. It’s light (even in ‘sport’ setting let alone ‘normal’) and after a numb region around the straight-ahead becomes very quick without building any reassuring weight. Most of all though it’s remote from what the wheels are doing. Consequently, on a twisting road such as this, you’re always circumspect about your turn-in speed and often find yourself steering in two chunks on the entry to a corner to try and inform yourself of what’s going on down at the tyres. Bottom line: it’s competent and quick, but you just know in a Porsche Cayman you’d have a huge grin plastered all over your face on a road like this, and in the new M3, you just don’t…

It’s hard to comment too much on the brakes – it was said that every press car on the launch had upgraded brake pads, ostensibly to cope with the circuit work at the Ascari track – but they hauled the M3 down from big speeds on the road without drama.

Two positives stand out at the Ascari racetrack. Firstly, the straights give you the chance to extend the V8 right to the cut-out in a number of different gears and the resultant speeds are very impressive indeed. Secondly, with this much power the car can be pitched sideways and held there in a wanton drift (try that in a RS4) through a number of the slower corners – which is hilarious, although only when you’re not paying for the tyres.  However, as a tool to whittle away at your lap time, the new M3 is a little less convincing. It’s the small, subtle stuff once again: the remote steering; the LSD that feels a little slower to react than the old car; the lack of razor aggression in the engines mid range. Altogether, they slightly but decisively blunt the experience in a playground such as this.

So, the new M3 is a good car – a really good car. Its talents when viewed purely objectively make a formidable package. It’s more comfortable than the old car: rides better, has more room inside and is kitted out with the latest tech available – at a cost. Apart from a worrying thirst – test cars were returning around 11mpg according to their trip computers, although they were driven hard – the new V8 is smooth, refined and perfectly suited to everyday use, yet with crushing reserves of performance.

It seems certain that many M3 buyers will find this new car a superb companion and that any thoughts are in the distinct minority when they contain phrases about ‘steering feel’ and ‘driver feedback’. Such things increasingly have little value in a marketplace obsessed with power.

But instead of relinquishing the keys with that gripping, longing, sadness in my gut that you’d assume would be there having driven ‘the new M3’, I find myself oddly detached from it.

That there really is room for a ‘CSL’ is not in doubt and my bet is it won’t be long in coming from what was and wasn’t said on the launch. Whereas the old CSL required plenty of in-depth fettling to extract that extra edge from an already focused package, it seems the positioning of this new car leaves a much easier gap in which to place a hardcore version.

Contrived, maybe; an exciting prospect, definitely. But in the meantime, perhaps just a little of the M3 magic has been lost…

Comments (629) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Wills2 23 Mar 2013

    I reckon they have tweeked it over the years, the CP was an obvious one but perhaps there have been others, Journalists are a fickle bunch as well.

  • laingy 23 Mar 2013

    people write things based on car reviews - without driving?

    car magazines could be biased based upon relationships with manufacturers?

  • 161BMW 23 Mar 2013

    Even the PistonHeads reviews has a few mixed feelings with respect to the BMW E92 M3 as with Autocar and possibly Car magazines. However, the E92 M3 seems universally loved on Pistonheads now. Why is this considering the E92 M3 has hardly changed since the launch ?

  • dickieandjulie 05 Oct 2010

    Looked up this review after attending a Palmersport day last Friday. Great day and was looking forward to the BM as had never driven one before and replaced the Jag XKR at Palmersport which had a dodgy traction control system. sounded lovely, I quite like the looks, performance was ok but I was amazed at the lack of feel from the car. I wondered if it was me, if I was missing something so have been looking at all the reviews and they all say the same, I am surprised given their reputation.

    Does anyone here know if they have improved on the steering particularly since launch?

    If not, it wont be on my next 'want' list

  • Pugsey 07 Apr 2008

    Olf said:
    Yes. And if they'd made an E46 M3 touring, thats what I'd be driving now, but my current commute would make the V8 just to expensive to run unfortunately.

    Well thanks for the advice. I had been drifting towards the 335i. I might have to drive both now.
    No probs - and yes, DO try both. Obviously my comments were based on what I'd want from a car and we're all different, so - just to head off any keyboard warriors - in isolation, the 335i is a jolly fine car. Just not for me.


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