2011 BMW M3

BMW M3

With power and control, the M3 never fails to gain attention

BMW M3

It was a dramatic view of a four-seat car that would be fine for a supermar-ket visit, the school run or giving delicate Aunt Maude a tootle down the promenade in Eastbourne. There it was, slewing sideways, smoke pouring from its rear tyres but fully under control, despite having its chassis safety electronics turned off, a moment later catapulting out of the corner and accelerating to 120mph.

This was not irresponsibility warranting an immediate ASBO (Anti Sideways Behaviour Order), but a BMW company driver demonstrating on a track in southern France what the new 4.0litre V8-engined M3 can be made to do – safely and securely.

“I would recommend buyers of this car to experience its track capabilities and its dynamics – but always with a qualified instructor,” Rolf Scheibner, who is not only the product manager of the M3 and an instructor but also a racing driver, said.

Burning rubber, though, is not recommended; that is just showmanship by the experts. Track driving demands smoothness, consistency and the ability to anticipate a crisis. “On the road, all this will contribute to safer driving,” Scheibner said. Appropriate behaviour and speed are essential.

Driven on ordinary roads with its optional Electronic Damper Control in Comfort mode, the M3 gives an almost soft, relaxed ride and shows little sign of “attitude”. But stiffen the dampers, thumb the MDrive Manager button on the steering wheel and the car’s comprehensive chassis electronics can be tuned to prevailing conditions, sharpening steering and throttle response while delaying unwanted and unnecessary “interference” from systems designed to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Then the car’s character changes, although it is more “morning becomes electrifying” than total Jekyll and Hyde, particularly as its glorious, torquey V8 engine – derived from the M5’s V10 – revs on and on, to produce 414bhp at 8,300rpm.

At present, the M3 is available only with a manual six-speed transmission, but it really needs a Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) or similar system with paddle shift to do it justice; the regular manual is fine but just not quite good enough for this exceptional car.

Leaving aside the M3’s ability to lay a smoke screen on a track, its emissions have been reduced by nine per cent compared with the previous six-cylinder M3, it is eight per cent more economical in the combined drive cycle and it has a battery charging brake energy regeneration system. It also has a gear-change indicator to support more economical driving. Some hopes in this flyer.

Although the M3 – already sold out until next year – may share the general styling of tamer 3-Series coup├ęs, 80 per cent of its parts are different and its body includes a lightweight carbon fibre roof, a further contributor to BMW’s Efficient Dynamics philosophy; and it lowers the car’s centre of gravity to enhance handling.

With this contrasting roof, its bulgy bonnet and quadruple exhaust tailpipes, the M3 is a constant attention-getter. Aerodynamic efficiency includes door mirrors that can create downforce to aid stability at high speed.

The interior ambience of the M3 is nothing to write home about and does not really complement the car’s external presence or put over the message of its sophisticated technology. Beautifully finished and ergonomically efficient it may be, but it manages to look rather ordinary.

However, it is functional, the driving position is excellent, the front seats friendly body-huggers, there is room in the car for four adults and the rear seats are divided and folding to enhance modest boot space.

BMW let me drive the previous generation M3 CSL for comparison with the new car. The CSL was the ultimate example of M3 production philosophy, with use of aluminium and composite panels and more than 350bhp. I did not whirl it round the track, but on the road it felt absolutely “right”, with total driver involvement and the sort of close contact sensations that the new M3 slightly lacks.

The CSL was “a real racer for the road”, BMW said. The powerful new V8 M3 is not. But it is exciting, practical, technologically advanced and socially acceptable – even if it can be persuaded to break the rules and smoke in a public place.

SPECIFICATION

Car BMW M3
Engine 414bhp 4.0litre V8, torque 400Nm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Performance 0-62mph 4.8sec, top speed 155mph (limited)
Fuel consumption (combined) 22.8mpg
CO2 emissions 295g/km
Price £50,625
On sale September 8

Alternatives

Audi RS4 quattro Enormously competent and quick, but you will probably have to buy used as production has ceased

Porsche Carrera 2 Not as practical as the BMW, one of the world’s greatest sports cars

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coming next spring, V8 450bhp, probably about £50,000

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