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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - M3 Competition

Our Opinion

We like
Increased torque, smooth eight-speed auto and inline-six engine, handling at speed, clean interior layout, driveline choice.
Room for improvement
Polarising front-end styling, no manual for Competition.

BMW throws down gauntlet to German competitors with new-gen M3 and M4

10 Mar 2021

Overview

 

FOR the last three decades, one of the most exciting performance-car battles has been fought in the premium mid-sized sedan segment, primarily between the three German rivals – Mercedes-AMG with its C-Class, Audi with the RS4, and BMW’s legendary M3.

 

First released globally in 1986, the sixth-generation M3 – along with its M4 coupe sibling – have touched down on local shores, for the first time being offered in ‘regular’ and Competition guise.

 

Designed as a luxury mid-sizer that feels just as at home on the racetrack as it does on the road, we put the M3 and M4 Competition to the test to find out just how track-honed the new Bavarian pair really are.

 

First drive impressions

 

To really sample the dynamic capabilities of the M3 and M4 Competition, regular Australian driving conditions can’t really tell the full story, that’s why our drive of the new-generation BMW twins was held at the Phillip Island racetrack.

 

A row of German performance models lined up in pit lane is certainly a sight to see, especially with the stylish and muscular silhouette of the M3 and M4.

 

The usual M signature elements are still there, such as the closely paired quad-exit tailpipes, large alloy wheels hiding uprated brake callipers, and carbon-fibre trims on the front splitter, side skirts, gurney and rear diffuser.

 

One of the more controversial elements of the new performance halos is the large, vertically oriented kidney grille borrowed from the regular 4 Series, which matches an ongoing theme of recent BMW designs like the updated 7 Series and upcoming iX SUV.

 

With a black grille mesh and no chrome surrounds, the M front end has a marginally subtler look to it compared to the 4 Series, however it is still an acquired taste.

 

As the day went on, we have to admit the new look started to grow on us, however we still prefer the more subdued design of the regular 3 Series.

 

Moving inside the cabin, the design and layout of the new 3 Series is on the busier side, however it works well in terms of functionality and ergonomics.

 

Infotainment duties are catered for by a 10.25-inch touchscreen display and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, with the touchscreen integrated well into the dashboard.

 

While many manufacturers have moved all buttons and infotainment operation to within the touchscreen in the name of simplicity and lack of clutter, BMW has retained its iDrive controller on the centre console with a range of buttons for functions like infotainment shortcuts, drive mode selection and parking cameras.

 

While arguably not as clean-looking as other models, we are pleased BMW has retained a number of physical buttons which allow for easier operation of both the infotainment system as well as other auxiliary functions.

 

A number of performance-oriented features are saved for the M interior, chief of which is the stylish carbon-fibre steering wheel complete with carbon-fibre paddles and red toggle buttons for the two-stage ‘M’ sport mode selector.

 

If M3 and M4 buyers are keen on taking their car on the track, then the optional bucket-style seats are well worth purchasing. 

 

While some race-oriented bucket seats can be harsh and uncomfortable, the M seats fit perfectly, with a good amount of cushioning and a very generous amount of side bolstering that hugs you into your seat and helps improve composure in the twisty stuff.

 

Under the bonnet of the M3 and M4 lies a reworked version of the brand’s S58 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine, which in Competition guise pumps out a beefy 375kW at 6200rpm and 650Nm from 2750-5500rpm, driving either the rear or all four wheels via an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.

 

The ‘regular’ M3 and M4 meanwhile use a slightly detuned version of the S58, pumping out 353kW at 6250rpm and 550Nm from 2650-6130rpm, teamed exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission.

 

The Competition variant has seen a welcome bump in power in the new generation, with an improvement of 44kW and a significant 100Nm, the latter of which is definitely noticed when out on track.

 

The extra torque (which now trumps the Audi RS4/RS5’s 600Nm but still falls behind the 700Nm Mercedes-AMG C63 S) is felt when accelerating through or out of corners, with the driver able to hold gears without having to downshift in order to wring maximum power out of the engine.

 

The boost of mid-band grunt means a great deal of punch is available around the 3000rpm mark, with the 375kW of power coming on stronger the higher the tachometer spikes.

 

One of our favourite aspects of the S58 inline engine (and its related B58 single-turbo sibling, for that matter) is its smooth and linear nature, and the new Competition variants are no exception.

 

Even when pushed to the edge, the S58 mill provides a linear throttle response and even power delivery without rattling or feeling like it wants to burst out of the engine bay.

 

A welcome addition is the ZF-sourced eight-speed auto, which replaces the previous seven-speed dual-clutch unit which at times could feel jerky in normal driving situations.

 

One of our favourite engine-transmission combinations industry-wide is a BMW inline six and a ZF eight-speed auto, and that feeling remains with the Competition – shifting quickly, handling the torque on offer and providing a smooth feeling when changing cogs.

 

Another feature of the engine we like is the exhaust note, with BMW Australia opting not to bring in the petrol particulate filter used on European-spec cars, which really lets the inline six sing like a flagship performance model should.

 

We were impressed by the rear-drive Competition’s stability through corners while throwing it around Phillip Island, with the rampant mid-sizer showing a level of grip and poise usually reserved for all-paw models.

 

The chassis communicates well with the steering rack, providing drivers with plenty of feedback and a sense of exactly how much grip is on offer.

 

Setting the drive mode parameters to ‘M2’ mode on the steering wheel buttons allows a more lenient traction control set-up that, when accelerating hard out of corners, allows a slight amount of grin-inducing oversteer without sending the car into tailspin.

 

For the first time, the drive mode selection can also modulate brake feel, which adds an extra layer to the driver involvement.

 

Given our drive was held exclusively on a racetrack, we were unable to gauge the ride comfort of the Competition suspension set-up on Aussie roads, which in the previous-generation felt too stiff for comfortable day-to-day driving, and along with the super-heavy steering feel, made the M3 a bit of a chore to drive in normal situations.

 

While it was hard to get a feel for what the M3/M4 is like to own on a daily basis, its track-focused ability is certainly impressive, and a genuine improvement over the old model. 

 

And with the choice of drivelines across the M3/M4 and Competition variants as well as the M4 Convertible and, for the first time, the M3 Touring, it has never been a better time to be a BMW M fan.


The Road to Recovery podcast series

Model release date: 1 March 2021

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