Since its launch in 1986, the BMW M3 has been a performance icon. Conceived initially to be what used to be known as a homologation special, it only made production because BMW wanted to go racing in it.
That first M3 was quite a raw car, more at home on the rally stage than the Autobahn. A four cylinder 2.3 litre engine, loosely based on BMW’s Formula 1 engine of the era provided 238 bhp, which, in a light bodyshell, proved more than ample.
Like many things, the M3 has moved on and become more sophisticated. The last two models were propelled by increasingly more powerful versions of the Bavarian maker’s iconic inline six and the M3 has evolved to encompass saloon and convertible versions, to further broaden its appeal. So far over 150,000 examples have been sold.
The launch of a new M3 is always noteworthy, especially when the new car has evolved so much. Not wishing to get left behind in the power stakes, the new M3 has a brand new V8 shoehorned under the bonnet, probably in response to the similarly configured engine in the Audi RS4. This V8, essentially a cut down version of the V10 used most effectively in the M5 and M6, produces 420 bhp and 295 lb ft of torque. Although it sports two extra cylinders, the new engine is actually 15 kilos lighter than the previous unit fitted to the M3.
The new car also employs a lot of clever technology to make the most of its extra power. The chassis uses lightweight components to keep weight down. The most visible of these is the roof made from carbon fibre. This feature was first used on the M6 and it not only reduces the weight of a hefty component, it also keeps the centre of gravity lower on the car, with consequent improvements in handling.
The car features an M button for the first time, which allows control of features such as the engine control map, suspension settings, steering assistance and traction control. Unlike the bigger M models in the range, the standard gearbox is a six speed manual, although the option of a twin-clutch automatic is expected some time in the life of the car.
Appropriately enough, the launch venue was Mondello Park and we were blessed with a fine day for our on track antics. We were first given a presentation on the new car, followed on by a few driving tips. These were a little basic, as the first tip was where to find the starter button on the M3. I’m sure most of us were well capable of this already. The one thing I took from this was the importance of adjusting the headrest, especially before going out onto a track. The top of the headrest should be at the top of the ears and as near to your head as possible. This ensures that it can do its job properly to reduce the likelihood of whiplash.
We started with a slalom course, which gave us the opportunity to gauge the effects of the adjustable suspension. There was no doubt that with the suspension at its most sporty setting, the car was much more controllable in extremes, and could be hustled through the cones with much greater speed. I’ve no doubt that this will prove useful on the road as well, as it didn’t seem to affect the ride quality, although a pock-marked country road might tell a different story.
After some brake tests, it was time to have some fun on the track. We circulated in convoy behind one of BMW’s driving instructors, with the instructions not to overtake, not to tailgate, and although it was unsaid, not to hit anything.
I remembered my lessons and attempted to adjust the head restraint before setting off. Unfortunately, we were compelled to wear helmets, so my head kept hitting the roof lining. Couple that with the loss of peripheral vision and we would have been far better without them.
The M3 produces enough torque even from lower engine speeds that it proved possible to stay in third pretty much the whole way around the track. Keeping gearchanges to a minimum meant that I could concentrate on getting the most out of the handling.
Many road cars fall apart on the track, with even the stiffest suspensions coming across as mushy as marshmallows. To its credit, the M3 doesn’t suffer in any way from this problem, going exactly where it’s pointed and behaving in an exemplary manner in all circumstances. Even under heavy braking, you might expect a little twitch from the back end, but this remained well controlled, with the electronics doing their work. We were expressly forbidden to turn off the traction control or the ESP, which probably was no bad thing.
If you had to single out one thing from the track experience, it would have to be the brakes. Even after a dozen hard laps, they were as firm and as powerful as they were at the start of the session. For a road car, that’s impressive.
The interior is based closely on the normal 3 series coupé, although it features many M Power touches to make it a more special place to be. The seats, as you’d expect, are very well supportive, especially at the sides and the steering wheel is thick enough to make the most of the cornering power available.
Sadly, if you want an M3, there’s a long waiting list, with the allocation for this year already sold out. A starting price of around €104,000 means that only the well heeled will be able to consider it, but that takes nothing away from the car’s performance.
A saloon version is imminent, which will greatly increase the car’s practicality, although it will lose the carbon roof of the coupé. A convertible version is also in the offing, which will use the folding hard top of the standard 3 series convertible.
Motoring editor - The Clare Champion
Former Chairman and voting member of Irish Motoring Writers' Association