BMW M3 / M4: From fast and tricky to fast and friendly

Preview: New M-class sports car boosts the hp and torque but handles like a dream

3.0L I-6 RWD
425hp @ 5,500RPM
1,606 kg
406 lb.-ft. @ 1,850RPM

ALBUFEIRA, PORTUGAL?All that BMW?s board of directors was asking of Albert Biermann was to replace the M3 ? perhaps the most iconic performance car of our times, a car that was universally loved by critics and customers alike.

Its replacement didn?t just have to be better; it had to be way better.

No challenge then for Biermann, head of product development for BMW?s high-performance/motorsport M Division.

COMPARE: Best performance car over $75,000: BMW M5

He smiled when I put this to him. ?Just give me the money!? he laughed.

Yes, German engineers do laugh sometimes.

It takes more than money, of course, although that is necessary. It also requires an insanely dedicated team of boffins who simply want to build the best performance car possible.

Not always easy at BMW these days, as much of its technical strength is being thrown away on fat ugly trucks (X6) and pointless electric cars (i3, i8).

It is good to know that the heart of BMW is still beating with the M3.

The new M3 also has to withstand the ludicrous dilution of its iconic nameplate, imposed by that same board of directors who decreed all four-door cars will have odd-numbered designations and all two-doors will have even numbers.

Never mind that the entire performance-car world knows exactly what M3 stands for, and had no trouble with M3 Coup? or M3 Cabriolet. Now, they have to start all over with M4. Just stupid.

Fortunately, the new car could be called Turdmobile, and you?d still want one in your driveway.

The M3 sedan and M4 coup? are available for ordering now, starting at $74,000 and $75,000, respectively. The cabriolet, price TBA, arrives in September.

The BMW M3 sedan and M4 coup? parked together

All three M models start with the new-generation body shell from the regular 3/4 series, but share only about 30 per cent of the donor cars? parts, and virtually none of the bits that actually make the car go.

Power comes from an engine that, despite sounding familiar (3.0-litre twin-cam four-valve twin-turbo in-line six), is all new.

Power is up marginally from the much-beloved 4.0-litre V8 (431 horses versus 414), while torque is up massively ? about 40 per cent, to 406 lb.-ft. ? and is much more broadly based.

Perhaps most significant is that fuel consumption and emissions are down by 25 per cent, due at least in part to the fact the car is 80 kg lighter than the outgoing model.

Contributing to this weight loss is the carbon-fibre roof, previously available only on the coupe but now also fitted to the sedan.

Shoving so much compressed air through a small engine generates a lot of heat. No fewer than seven heat exchangers (radiators), plus one more when the dual-clutch gearbox is fitted, not only keep coolant, oil, intake air, transmission and differential lubricants cool, but the way air is directed through them actually creates aerodynamic front-end downforce.

The entire suspension, front and rear, is unique to the M variants, with forged aluminum everywhere.

The base six-speed manual transmission features electronic rev matching on both up- and down-shifts, so everyone can drive like my Montreal-based colleague Marc Lachapelle, who is the best gear-shifter I know.

The optional seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and the magic Active M electronically-controlled multi-plate limited slip differential are adapted from those used in big brother M5, but with different internals and ratios to accommodate the unique engine.

The rear suspension cradle is bolted directly to the body without rubber bushings to improve rigidity for crisper handling. The Noise Vibration and Harshness (NVH) that typically emanates from the rear end comes mostly from the diff; that is controlled by rubber-bush-mounting it to that cradle.

The propeller shaft between the transmission and the differential is new and quite remarkable.

A typical prop shaft consists of two pieces of steel tube connected by a universal joint, all supported by a centre bearing. This is because the resonant frequency of a single steel tube that long would be so low it would rip itself into many more than two pieces at the speed it has to rotate.

So the M3/M4 gets a single-piece prop shaft made of carbon fibre, which is 40-per-cent lighter than the former component. This reduces inertia in the drive train for better acceleration; it has a far higher resonant frequency, and reduces NVH as well.

Huge brakes are part of the deal, with carbon ceramics available as an option for those who might wish to track-day their cars, as a high percentage of M3 owners do.

These things are pricey ($8,500), but race track work beats up even the best road car brakes, so if you?re going to indulge often, they?re probably worth it.

Inside, the Ms will look familiar to 3 Series owners, but with exclusive seats, steering wheel and M badges.

One of our test cars had seats with lovely grippy cloth-centre inserts, which you can order in any colour you like as long as it?s black. Other colours, including Sakhir Orange (looks better than it sounds), are available if you can abide full leather.

Think you?ll miss the rumble of a V8 engine? Not to worry. Special flaps in the exhaust system open on demand. This thing sounds wonderful at full chat, augmented by a trick device that generates simulated engine noise through the cabin via the audio system.

You would have to have a very finely calibrated seat of the pants to notice any lack of throttle response crispness, often a concern with turbo engines.

This is simply a torque-generating monster. Although the fuel is shut off when you release the throttle, the turbos keep spinning, so a return mash of the pedal means the far horizon gets very near, very soon.

BMW gives 0-100 km/h numbers of 4.1 seconds for the dual-clutch using launch control, and 4.3 for the manual.

We spent most of our road and track time in dual-clutch cars. It is just terrific, snapping off lightning-fast shifts either on its own or when provoked by steering wheel paddles.

The rev-matching on the manual works very well. But with one fewer ratio, slower acceleration, and an occasional reluctance to find third gear during somewhat frantic laps on the cool Algarve International Racing Circuit near Portimao, I don?t know why any serious driver wouldn?t opt for the dual-clutch.

With suspension, steering, engine/transmission response and degree of limited slip and DSC intervention all individually controllable, you can dial up whatever level of hooliganism you like.

Pedro Lamy, the former Lotus/Minardi Formula One and BMW touring car race driver, summarized the difference between the new and former M3s.

He said the older car was very fast, but at the limit, could be a bit tricky. The new one is even faster, but more ?friendly.?

You can sense this friendliness even at brisk highway speeds, because the level of mechanical grip is so high.

Turn-in is brilliant, and although you can provoke a bit of understeer if you really mess up a corner, you can either just back off a shade, or nail the throttle to get the back end to come around a bit.

Wonderful fun.

Despite the car?s very sporting suspension, ride harshness is well-controlled, probably due to those boffins dodging the run-flat bullet. The main complaints about run-flats are poor steering response and extra weight, but a lousy ride is never fun, even in a sporting car.

And it doesn?t get much more sporting than the M3 or the M4.

For this price you can buy a boatload of two-seat sports cars that can?t hold a candle to this one.

Transportation for freelance writer Jim Kenzie was provided by the manufacturer. Email:


Price: M3: $74,000, M4: $75,000
Engine: 3.0-litre inline-six with direct fuel injection and two mono-scroll turbochargers
Power/Torque: 431 hp/406 lb.-ft.
Fuel Consumption: NA
Competition: Chevrolet Corvette, Audi RS5 Coup?, Jaguar F-Type, Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG sedan, Nissan GT-R, Porsche Cayman.
What?s Best: Fabulous performance in all its guises, surprisingly comfortable ride, room for at least two extra victims, usable trunk.
What?s Worst: Third gear in manual transmission sometimes reluctant to engage, the M4 designation is just silly, a bit of wind noise around the side-view mirrors.
What?s Interesting: American BMW dealers are going to call the soft-top a convertible. I guess cabriolet is just too foreign for them.

Rear view of BMW M3

  • BMW M3 / M4: From fast and tricky to fast and friendly
  • BMW M3 / M4: From fast and tricky to fast and friendly
  • BMW M3 / M4: From fast and tricky to fast and friendly
  • BMW M3 / M4: From fast and tricky to fast and friendly

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