The M3 made waves in the 80’s and was very quickly a hit, with people falling for the combination of a small lightweight coupe-saloon body, sharp handling and revvy motor, combining to make a driver-focused package which has since been the benchmark for the class of small, sporty coupes that could actually be used.
We were looking for a Semi-Practical addition to the Upshift Fleet when I stumbled across a Jerez Black, mint looking E92. Amazingly, to date my only seat time in one had been as a passenger followed by a very brief drive around 2 years ago. A spontaneous test drive later and I’d signed the line on a 2013 E92 M3 Competition with 44k kms on the clock and a few extras.
So with the latest rendition of the M3 going turbocharged, could it be a good time to
grab one of the last great, N/A M-Cars? I remember being skeptical on the release of the E90 – maybe I just don’t like change – but reverting to a v8 seemed like it would shift the car into the territory of a lazy, loafy barge. A pseudo RS4. Don’t get me wrong, the RS4 is a fine car, smooth and far from lacking trousers. But like quite a few Audi’s, it left me feeling like it just lacked grit.
The e9x had a lot of purists to convert. The divergence to a v8, usually reserved for the comparatively girthy 5 series was immediately at odds with purists who had been treated to almost two decades of smooth, hard revving, 8,000 rpm redlining straight six goodness.
BMW’s M Division will do as they please however, and in adding two cylinders to the S54 engine found in the e46, they created a heart that was lighter, whilst packing an additional 100 odd bhp. We loved the external setting, a sleek two door configuration that is based on the successful 3 series coupe layout for the generation. It sports the typical M attire to set it off from lesser models – that is – side grills, bonnet bulge, eccentric diffusers and bumpers and, of course those all important quad exhausts.
Revving to 8,400rpm near to where it produces max power of 414bhp (with peak torque of 295 lbs/ft coming in at 3,900 rpm). It certainly captures the essence of M found in the e46. Our model has a lot of the trimmings, being a 2013 which was towards the end of the production run. It sports the competition pack which adds, lowered suspension which wrap the body perfectly around a set of black lightweight alloys which are reminiscent of the E46 CSL in styling, as well as tweaked traction control which allows enhanced slip before the traction control cuts power, and adjustable dynamic suspension. Others have ranted that the latter spoils the compliant ride of the M3 – I find it adds an extra edge to an accomplished machine – it will come down to your own definition of an exciting car.
The interior is simplistically laid out with the controls laid out all within reach. This model is also equipped with the M Performance Steering Wheel which has all the functions that you’d expect a Motorsport wheel to have.
The in-wheel LED display and rev indicators illuminate on ignition, reading “BMW Performance”. Two hidden, tactile buttons allow you to flip through the wheel’s functions (you can read the 60 page manual for an overview but to summaries, things like lap time, E Dynamic Stats, G Meter, 0-100, and importantly, oil and coolant temperature which I found myself using the most. Lovely). It’s on the chunky side, is flat bottomed and wrapped in race-car-esque alcantara, all of which are things that are very much a matter of preference. Thick wheels suit my stumpy mitts, it reminds me of the wheel in the Z4M in that sense; and whilst I love flat bottomed wheels personally but can certainly see why they aren’t for all. As I write this, I’m currently driving along as a passenger in a Citroen Grand Picasso which has one – which seems bizarre.
It comes equipped with things like the comfort access option meaning you open the car by simple putting your hand in the handle. It auto unlocks and the puddle lights illuminate. Nothing Ground breaking but a nice touch. The iDrive divides – some people like a touch screen, I personally find them too fiddly with my stubby, stubby man-fingers and I find them highly distracting to operate at anything above a brisk walk. iDrive can involve a bit of a learning curve but I find it effective and intuitive once you get used to the menu layouts. Hit the start button, cabin lights dim and its ready for take off. Orange mood LED’s back-light accents in the door trim and a beautifully simplistic analogue dial blips along with the muscular engine note, reminding you that you are nestled in something with some sporting heritage, although a digital speed readout can be set in the adjourning LED display. Whilst comfortable, I would have liked to have seen a little more flair in the seats but that’s a very picky criticism, easily cured by a set of BMW Performance seats.
The engine note is brawny without being overbearing. A sharp bark is let out on a cold start with the right amount of gusto to turn some heads. As raw as an m3 traditionally has been without needing the electronic overtones of modern iterations. The heated nappa seats grip you just-so and the driving position once tweaked is very neutral, with the usual adjustable-ness. If I’m critical? The interior feels a little ‘tall’ – which is something that others (Read: non-short arses) will appreciate more.
Slide the gear selector into D, normal Drive mode, and the dual clutch box will waft you along as you press on the gas. Gear changes are silkish-ly slick and road holding is perhaps on the stiff side but smooths out most bumps. The steering is responsive and communicative around town as you’d need it to be. No surprise there then.
Things take a bit of a darker twist when you hit the M Dynamic Button. Rather than un-leash extra ponies like it does on beasts such as the e60 M5, it essentially reverts the machine into a collection of pre-set parameters with regard to suspension, traction control and gear change. Of course, for me that means the gear change aggression is set to max, which will give you THE most beautiful rev burbles on downshifts. It really is a beautiful thing. The box reverts to manual mode, utilising the flappy paddles which give a satisfying tactile thunk with each flick. They stay stationary rather than turn with the wheel, and are a good size so are always easy to find before turn-in. A simple one up one down arrangement as it should be.
Gear changes are mind bogglingly quick for what I expected- as we’ve come to expect from these dual clutch boxes and I find it does exactly what you want it to do – when you want to do it which can’t be said to such a degree for the traditional autobox in the C63 which was also on the shortlist. Far be on it to disagree with one of my favourites, but whereas Clarkson rubbished the competition’s adjustable suspension, saying that it spoiled the car, as we enter the first s bends of our usual test loop, I find it sharpens things up even more giving you absolute confidence in what the body is doing. Don’t get me wrong, the standard car was never too lacking, but the extra tort-ness gives a tremendous feel of edge and control. Body roll is non existent and kept on tap the motor urges you on for more.
You can’t consider an M3 for long before people start mentioning the RS4 and C63. With reason but perhaps also with fault. The Audi is softer in comparison. There’s less drama, it feels slower, it feels less sharp. You see, the M3 has never been about out and out power. (If that’s your bag, I soon after took an M6 GranSport out). It’s about the full package, a sublime driver’s car that you can take to the track. In an RS4, you get a degree of under-steer and it just doesn’t give as many feels as the Rear-wheel drive BMW layout but then perhaps it just suits my driving style more aptly.
Then there’s the C class which, if selected with the AMG Performance Pack, Gives a meaty power advantage. But it simply felt more akin to an American muscle car than a honed driver’s car. Not a bad thing in isolation, that torque wave is a thing to behold, but it just didn’t grip me in the same way. It’s a blunt instrument, a blunderbuss. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a spectacular thing, but it won’t allow you as quick progress in the twisty stuff – despite the extra power, the additional girth is quite noticeable in my honest opinion. The traction control is more of an on/off affair and the Auto Box isn’t designed for performance beyond shouty tyre-smoking starts and you won’t have the same joy if sharp, decisive shifts that you would get from the M car, so although I was extremely tempted, I just couldn’t fall in lovein quite the same way. The BMW isn’t much down on torque compared to the RS4 – especially when you consider the slight weight advantage. 0-100 comes round in 3.9-4.4 seconds depending who you ask and under what conditions, with the 7-speed DCT box being slightly quicker through the gears.
The photo below will illustrate why the M3 was the right choice.
What followed was a beautiful montage of stomping on the brakes, blipping the engine as I drop down a gear, feeling every centimeter of the turn in, riding a wave of lateral G’s in a sharp hairpin, unleashing the throttle to a v-eighty roar, and repeating until your on the otherside, heart thumping, trousers bulging and cheeks spasming. Brakes give predictable performance and the acceleration feels almost instant, accompanied by a level of grip that at times will have you asking out lout if the thing is joking, given its RWD layout.
Compared to more recent, turbocharged examples, there’s just such an analogue goodness that makes me forget about the electronic gear-trickery. As far as all rounders go, and at under $80k (if you wanted to go older with more kms, you can chip that down to circa $50k) it’s just a hoot.
With full service history up to date, there’s not too much to worry about. Rod bearings are supposedly a weak spot. Some go early, some outlast the Sphinx. Just like you see with IMS failures on Porsche for example, the problem is blown out of proportion somewhat – but it is a risk there is no denying that. For >$4k you can get cheap insurance by upgrading these bearings which is on my radar. Problem being is that then I could go and supercharge it. All before the supra build is finished. dangerous territory on the slippiest of slopes.
It’s all a bit of an addictive affair which I simply didn’t expect from something I thought would be much more sedate, and softer compared to what preceded it. The M-Dynamic mode allows just enough slip to keep you as sideways as you would like or need, the M-Performance wheel lit up like a Christmas tree as you dance on the rev limiter, the steering wheel giving you live commentary on the road surface, level and amount of grip available to you, brakes stopping you with decent ferocity given their comparatively small and simple configuration, all with a nice snarl from the V8 powerplant that burbles and pops with every downshift.
There are many cars it can’t be compared to, other cars in the fleet deliver thrills in different ways. The 430 which decided to tag along for some fun that you might be able to see in the mirror above of course is on a different level. Our previous Gemballa, equally so.
But there’s a certain drop of special that is in true M cars that just make them grab you and after you dance through the night you won’t want to let go.