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BMW M3 Saloon First Drive

By raccars Published

The BMW M3 is faster, greener and more able than ever – now into its fifth generation, the iconic performance car has become a saloon-only model, but this only makes it all the more desirable and justifiable…

  • Price: £56,175
  • Gearbox: Six speed manual
  • 0-62mph: 4.3 seconds
  • Top speed: 155mph (restricted)
  • Fuel economy: 32.1mpg
  • CO2: 204g/km
  • On sale: 21 June 2014
  • Insurance group: TBC

Three UK M3 Saloon facts

1: Four-door M3 Saloon sits at the top of the BMW 3 Series range 2: M4 Coupe replaces old M3 Coupe; M3 Saloon thus ensures the legendary M3 name continues 3: Available with manual or M DCT gearbox – the latter is expected to be by far the best seller

What is it?

The BMW M3 is a performance car legend – a true icon that all enthusiasts admire. Since the first E30 model in the 1980s, it’s set standards for saloon car driving thrills, evolving throughout that time to ensure it remains at the top of its game.

BMW has taken a slightly different approach with the new one. As the 4 Series Coupe range has replaced the 3 Series Coupe, so the M3 Coupe is now, effectively, the M4 Coupe. But BMW knew it couldn't let such a legendary name fade away. So it’s crowned the 3 Series saloon range with a bespoke M3 Saloon model – ensuring the M3 name is safe. And the M3 itself is better than ever…

Instead of the thirsty old 4.0-litre V8, this new M3 has a 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine – and it has two turbochargers too, so the M3 is turbocharged for the first time in its history. The engine produces 431hp, which is a little up on the old car’s 420hp, but that’s not the big deal. Economy and torque are: the former is up 25%, while pulling power is up a massive 40%. Both promise to make the M3 a very different beast indeed on the road.

BMW has thus not only saved the M3 name, it’s saved the performance car model itself in the face of increasing environmental pressure. Goodness, the M DCT gearbox version even dips under the 200g/km CO2 barrier, which is remarkable for a car of this performance. It looks good on paper then. How does it fare up in reality?

Styling and interior

The new BMW M3 certainly boasts sharp-suited looks. There’s been a huge amount of bespoke design enhancement by the BMW stylists – led in no small part by the aerodynamics department. The front end in particular is incredibly complex, with intricate aero sculpting and even a system that channels air through the front bumper, around the front wheels and out of an M-branded gill in the front wing.

The front wings themselves are flared, to wrap around the 19-inch alloys, as are the rear wings too. The bonnet has a prominent bulge to clear the turbo intercoolers, and the rear boasts quad exhausts sticking proudly out of the rear diffuser. There’s a tiny aero gurney on the boot lid and M branding throughout – but the crowning feature of the styling has to be the M carbon roof.

This exposed carbon fibre reinforced plastic roof contrasts with the body colour and looks incredibly motorsport-influenced. The lightweight panel isn't just there for show either: because it weighs so little, it lowers the car’s centre of gravity and thus improves the handling.

Inside, there are more M enhancements, from Porsche-style single-piece backrest bucket seats, a fantastic M steering wheel and the distinctive M dials with variable rev counter LEDs. It feels expensive and upmarket – equipped to an executive level that justifies its £56k list price.

Performance

Performance from the six-cylinder turbo motor is exceptional. Unlike the old M3 V8, it gets down to business from low res rather than the peaky high revs demanded by the old motor. Peak torque is delivered from 1,850rpm and remains flat until 5,500rpm: then, peak power takes over from 5,500rpm to 7,300rpm. It means that at all times, the M3 feels muscular and responsive.

0-62mph takes just 4.3 seconds with the six-speed manual gearbox. Choose the M DCT automatic and this is cut to just 4.1 seconds – it is an extremely fast car against the clock. But because of the above, it is also easier to drive quickly in everyday motoring. There’s no need to be continuously changing gear as the performance car pace is there all the time.

This doesn't mean it’s dull or uneventful. Far from it. Yes, the engine doesn't quite have the rasp of the old V8, and it’s amazingly quiet and refined in normal use, but either dial up some revs or select Sport or Sport Plus mode from the dashboard buttons, and both the intensity and volume of the noise is transformed into classic burbling straight-six blare.

Despite the presence of two turbos, it also responds impressively. The initial throttle bite is a bit softer than in a normally aspirated car – even BMW M can’t get around this – but the quickly-flowing drive after this more than makes up for this. Most of the time, you won’t feel the disadvantages of it being turbocharged, only the advantages.

As for gearboxes, both are impressive, in different ways. The manual is great for enhancing the car’s old school classic-drive feel, with a positive shift and engaging action. But the M DCT seven-speed dual clutch is the really impressive option, with seamless shifts, electric immediacy and a generally flawless performance that’s as sophisticated as that of the engine. It even has Launch Control, enabling you to hit 62mph from rest in just over four seconds, time and again…

Handling

The M3 Saloon uses the same rear-drive chassis as the M4 Coupe: both are packed with bespoke engineering from the team at BMW M that separates them from the already-excellent regular models. It’s thus no surprise to discover the M3 handles superbly, with great turn-in, terrific engagement plus brilliant stability and drive out of corners courtesy of a high-tech M Active Differential.

The steering deserves particular praise. It’s the motorsport division’s first-ever electric power steering setup, but despite this, feel and feedback are excellent, It’s a really detailed system that’s probably even better than the car it replaces, and really helps the driver engage with the car.

Indeed, it’s the overall confidence the M3 inspires that really marks it out. The old M3 V8, partly because of its highly-stressed engine, always felt a little bit on edge to inexperienced drivers, and didn't quite deliver all the feel you’d like if you weren't on the racing-car limit. This new model feels pure and engaging at all speeds, and is a very satisfying car indeed for enthusiast drivers.

Ride quality is also good. All UK cars get Adaptive Dynamics suspension as standard, which helps: body control on rough roads is astounding and the variable settings for the dampers helps you adjust the ride to suit the road conditions. It’s even impressive in town – despite the clear sporting focus of the chassis, potholes are soaked up without too much stiffness.

Price and value

The M3 Saloon costs from £56,175, which is not far removed from the price of its predecessor. Given how it gets sat nav, electric seats, 19-inch alloys and the full BMW M makeover – and that all-important M Adaptive Dynamic suspension – this seems exceptional value to us.

It’s a car of towering ability that intricate reengineering by BMW M has made possible. All this means it’s anything but a standard 3 Series and, to some, will mean it could quite easily justify a list price of £60,000 or more…

All cars also get the full gamut of BMW M driver control buttons on the centre console. You can adjust steering weight, throttle sensitivity and damper stiffness through three settings from Comfort to Sport Plus; you can also select two default ‘M Driver Mode’ setups via steering wheel shortcuts and, if you go for the M DCT, also alter the sensitivity of the gearbox itself. Sound complex but you soon get used to it and discover it helps you perfect the M3 for the road conditions and driving style you’re seeking.

Fuel economy

A big focus of the new BMW M3 has been on improving fuel economy. This is why the old V8 engine was replaced by this 3.0-litre straight-six motor. The result is an improvement from little more than 25mpg to a very impressive 32.1mpg. Choose the M DCT gearbox and this improves further to 34.0mpg.

CO2 emissions are also down. The regular car produces 204g/km and the M DCT emits just 194g/km CO2 – the sub-200g/km M3 is a reality, despite its 431hp and ability to reach 62mph from rest in just 4.1 seconds…

Verdict: BMW M3

BMW has made a near-flawless performance saloon with the new M3. It’s a fine fifth generation model for the famous line, that deserves its place in the family tree through delivering such an impressive all-round set of talents.

The concern was that downsizing and turbocharging would take away some of the thrill. Not a bit of it. They've actually turned it into a more complete car that’s even more appealing than the outgoing model. The presence of the M4 Coupe means the M3 Saloon may be a rare sight on UK roads, but this is through no lack of ability: it’s every inch the classic M3.

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