It’s amazing that after over 20 years, the BMW M3 is still the premium sports coupe that everybody’s trying to beat. What’s also amazing is that they’re chasing a moving target. Compare the original, light and lithe four-cylinder E30 M3 with the latest V8-powered pavement-pounding E92, and they’re very different automobiles. They’re both M3’s, just in very different flavours.
So while the latest M3 isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, having been around for nearly a year now, what is new is a fine piece of technology that has truly transformed the uber-3 into an even more desirable piece.
BMW has flirted with automated sequential gearboxes for years – witness three separate generations of the SMG. Neat in concept, but never quite satisfying in execution. The company tweaked and tuned and improved ad infinitum. But no matter how quickly they managed to get the unit to shift, there was still a herky-jerky movement as the throttle lifted and the shift occurred. Even in what a colleague of mine called ‘full kill’ mode, there was still that feeling of lost momentum.
BMW were further embarrassed when Volkswagen and Audi introduced their own version of an automated sequential gearbox, DSG, which eliminated the herky-jerky movements by using two clutches, two shafts, and a whole lot of computer logic. Five years after VAG introduced their DSG system, the technology is filtering through other brands, including Porsche (new 911), Ferrari (California), Nissan (GT-R), Ford (Focus/Festiva) and, well, BMW.
BMW calls its system DCT, but the theme remains the same. This one features seven speeds, and when combined with the suite of electronics now common to M-badge vehicles, it gives drivers an amazing amount of control.There are six automatic shift speeds and five manual ones, meaning your grandmother could easily borrow your M3 for the drive to Bingo and wouldn’t scare herself too badly. And when faced with your favourite backroad, you could click the lever over to manual, pick the quickest shift mode, and replicate (insert your favourite BMW racing driver here).
There are also three power settings for the throttle mapping, and there are three separate settings for the adjustable suspension. I can’t fathom the math required to sort out the number of transmission/power/suspension combinations possible…
A quick mention about the engine delivering power to that special tranny. BMW’s 414-hp 4.0-litre V8 may be powerful, but it does sound like a truck when at lower revs and cold. This is not the growling, shouting, God Clearing His Throat auditory experience you’ll find in the Audi RS4, Lexus IS-F or Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Think small, unrefined diesel. If you’re showing off in front of a club, make sure to take a few runs around the block first…
But they’ll certainly be quick runs – BMW claims DCT shaves two-tenths of a second off the M3’s already impressive 0-100 km/h time.
Anyways, the engine’s power delivery is all up top, meaning unless you rev it, the V8 doesn’t give you much to work with. But once into its stride, the M3 is addicting. The steering is laser precise and has fantastic weight, and the brakes are up to the task for most driving you’d see.
On track, the M3 is one of the most balanced cars available, meaning it feels natural and neutral, and can be played with without worrying about what’ll happen. It’s predictable and thrilling at the same time, even more so that you can just bang down through the gearbox by just clicking the left shift paddle.
A couple words before we move forward: I know the three-pedal enthusiasts will be up in arms over this, but the DCT transforms the M3. I’ve driven both, and the manual was nowhere near as immersive or fun. And whoever holds BMW transmissions as the shining example of shifting Nirvana has had too many Bratwurst Kool-Aids. Bimmer shifters are rubbery, and always feel fragile. The DCT eliminates that negative and lets the rest of the M-Division’s work shine through.
Pricing is typical BMW, meaning that while you can get into an M3 for a hair over $71K, by the time you add the Electronic Damper Control ($2,000), M Double Clutch Transmission with Drivelogic ($3,900) and 19″ M Double Spoke Alloy Wheels ($2,000), you’re bloody close to getting nothing back from $80,000. Throw in the M-Drive package (Navigation, voice control, programmable ‘M’ button on the steering wheel) for $3,200, and another $3,000 for leather, and now it’s well over $85K.
The IS-F costs about $20K less, although I don’t find it as perfect a package, while the (much more perfect) C63 AMG runs just over $70K. If I had regular access to a track, the M3 DCT would be at the top of my list, even with its price premium. Overall, however, the AMG from Stuttgart gets my vote when the real world enters the equation.
Price as tested: $85,400
Summary: Ultimate sport coupe thanks to revised transmission.
Exterior Design: 8/10. Perfectly proportioned, not as aggressive as E46.
Interior Design: 7/10. Typical BMW ergonomics with fantastic seats.
Engine: 8/10. Top-end power, but sounds uncouth at idle.
Transmission: 9/10. Dual-clutch transmission is seamless.
Audio/Video: 7/10. Radio? There was a radio?
Value: 6/10. Hard to call anything over $80K a value, but still the one everyone else shoots for.
Overall (not an average): 8/10
By Mark Atkinson