Wild Thing! Is BMW’s M3 All its Cooked Up to Be? We Test It.

BMW M3 Competition

Old School Rear Wheel Drive M3 is Wild. But That’s What We Love About It.

It was still dark, bar a steely sheen in the eastern pre-dawn sky. The BMW M3 Competition had arrived while I was away the day before, so I had not seen it in the flesh in the light, but its silhouette was matt with the morning dew. And a few autumns vine leaves had fallen on it from the pergola. I never bothered looking at it, just opened the door. The that lurid orange trimmed cabin was dramatic as it lit up the night.

Mad Cabin ‘Exploded’ in the Dark

It’s splendid. The M Sport seats seemed to explode in their fiery hue, backed by same colour strip lighting. It’s a bit of a battle to mount them though. I actually had to clamber out and try again as if I was slipping through a racecar roll cage. The massive bolsters and the M Sport steering wheel don’t leave much room to clamber through and those carbonfibre trims under your seated balls cramp it even more. But when you’re in… hoo boy — the chairs feel just fine.

Click, whirr. Boom! Is it purring? Or is that a growl? Either way, M3’s start-up feigns a predator whose tail has just been trodden on. M3’s tautness was immediately apparent as I trundled out of the estate fiddling the M buttons. To be honest, that M setup menu is unnecessarily complicated, but I eventually had it my way and extinguished the traction control. Onto the road it instantly lit the rear axle. No! Rather click MDM back on until that rubber wakes up. This thing is vicious.

I was under the wrong impression that both this and the M4 were xDrive all-wheel drive. I only realized when tester Gio mentioned it, that this one’s a proper rear-wheel drive M3. Just like the first 4-door E36 I ran for a while a quarter century back. Can it really be that long ago? In fact, you can even still get a 6-speed manual overseas. This Competition however ditches the old seven-speed dual-clutch for a BMW M’s latest Drivelogic programmed eight-speed torque converter slush box auto.

8 Miles Long, it has 135 corners

I live where I do, more than just partly because of the roads. Franschhoek Pass is five minutes from my door. Eight miles long, it has about 135 corners, twists and bends. About 60 on the way up, the rest down the other side. Manna from heaven. In the M3 its more like paradise.

Still a little nervous after that cold rubber wake up call, I waited a good few bends into the Pass to get the 275/40 front and 285/35-profile Michelin Pilot Sports on those splendid 20-inch forged rear alloys (it has 19s up front) up to temperature before extinguishing the nannies again.

And then it was magnificent! Of course, having 650 Nm on tap on the rear axle from just over 2000 rpm, demands you drive with great circumspection. Feed it in gently to start and learn what it wants. Then get braver. Still, I was soon really at home with it. The M3 Competition likes to be steered by the throttle. The rear end is wonderfully lively and kept just below the threshold its splendid to revel in.

Positive, Intuitive Steering

The M3 drives really, really well, handling is sharp, taut and perfectly balanced. Steering is positive, a huge step froward over those earlier electrified efforts. I really dig that big steering wheel, kinda phallic actually. It has a splendid feel — perhaps even an intuition about it. But one always needs to be aware — and ready to catch M3 if the rear end breaks traction. And when it does break, this M3 becomes a drift master.

Moving on, after a mostly traffic-free run, we came up on a few slower vehicles toward the end of the Pass. To be honest, I was almost relieved as I woke the MDM up again. It’s actually far better to run with the system in its Sport+ setting. It allows ample slip and retains the car’s aft wan too. So, I spent the rest of the trip with the gadgets deployed and was actually never the wiser for it.

On that, I remember how I yammered when the E46 M3 first arrived. Having spent more than enough miles relishing the bareback splendour of the old 3.2-litre E36 M3, I was mortified to learn that I’d have to turn the traction control off to liven up the rear end back then. But that was when 236 kW and 360 Nm were huge numbers and actually still quite viable for rear drive.

Just too Much Grunt to Go Bareback All Day Long

Roll on 25 years and today’s 375 kW 650 Nm M3 Competition just has too much grunt to realistically go bareback all day long. Even though peak torque now shifts 800 rpm further up the rev range. So, the MDM was more than welcome. It does make me yearn even harder for the all-wheel drive M4 in day to day driving though. Even though I will never ever complain about a wild rear drive car. In fact, it will always be my first choice!

Anyway, this newly developed longitudinally mounted S58 3-litre biturbo straight six is a jewel. It’s 48 kW and 78 Nm up on the outgoing S55 lump and weighing in at 1730 kg, it delivers a 223 kW per ton power-weight ratio. That thanks in part to a 14 cc greater 2,993 cc swept volume thanks to a longer 90 mm stroke, reworked turbochargers, revised 350 bar fuel-injection a petrol particulate filter to improve emissions, among other novelties.

M3 Competition delivered precisely what BMW promised it would in our tests. In fact, it was all of a hundredth of a second quicker. Not sure if that makes us good at our job or BMW honest! But we had to work for that run. Somehow the launch control system wasn’t happy on our tester. We had read elsewhere that it’s seamless and consistent in other tests. So, we will leave it at a glitch.

Performance really is mesmerising

Performance really is mesmerisng and given a little head, it’s certainly right up there in the supercar realm. And it’s noisy. Wonderfully noisy. There’s a constant mechanical rote accompanying the gruff straight six grunt. Just like a race car.

That surefooted and power station defying handling is no fluke either. The M3 has a highly pedigreed chassis. With aluminum-rich adaptive damping control double-wishbone front and five-link rear suspension; aggressive geometry and kinematics and individual spring and damper units. And M Servotronic variable ratio steering and a M Sport Differential. Add substantial engine bay and front suspension bracing, and a rear subframe bolted directly to the body. For record M3 body rigidity.

If that’s all so impressive, then the brakes are at another level. Like this car tends to be on the throttle, it reacts just as viciously to left pedal application. M-specific BMW Integrated Braking feels ruthless, and it goes about its business with an almost raucous whirring roar when really asked. You can literally sense those punched and vented composite rotors becoming ever harder squeezed in the callipers.

Splendid Seats Struggle in the Long Run

Settling down to a regular pace on the national road a little later, I was impressed by how well M3 preserved what was left of the fuel in the tank after all our testing and a quite bonkers first stint of our morning trip. That also gave us a little time to further consider its delectable and comfortable, yet awesome and aggressive cabin.

Firstly, the seats. Despite my 100 kg-plus frame I was comfortable, properly bolstered and secure in the car. In fact, I’d go as far as to say they make you feel like you’re wearing the car. Which I love. But one does become a little fatigued by them in the long run. And I needed to stop earlier that I may normally have for a little coffee break. Also, while the low seat position is great, the side mirrors create a blind spot when you get too low in the car.

BMW’s head-up display with M-specific graphics is a treat and I liked the conventional analogue-like digital instrument display. I think the M version is a bit of a failure though. It’s unnatural and confusing. Why not just switch it to a pure racecar-like dash? Then I’d really be impressed. Of course, BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional infotainment with its cloud-based sat-nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is superb, the tri-zone climate control ever pleasant and it packs the literal kitchen sink, too.

The Elephant in the Room!

All of which leads us to the elephant in the room. Those looks. Someone said they once met a woman who had two vaginas. Whether this design is a tribute to that, or just good old disruptive marketing, we’ll never know. But it certainly is offensive! It also split our team’s opinion — some say it’s horrible, others love it. And then there are those who were just far more pleased with it in the flesh. Whichever it is for you, this cars’ face has made headlines. And as they say, any news is good news, no?

That mutant grille (that’s my personal view) is complimented by an equally aggressive front bumper, super-bright full-LED laser headlights, a more muscular bonnet, wider front wings and vented sills. Add double-mounted wing mirrors, a boot-mounted spoiler tab and a reworked rear bumper. Above a multi-channel diffuser and the default and now also quite grotesque BMW M quad tailpipes.

Whatever it looks like, all in all, I was enthralled by the new BMW M3 Competition. By it’s under the skin sophistication and its ballsy big performance. True, I was initially surprised learn that this one was actually rear wheel driven after all, thanks to some vague early propaganda. But that’s what made it for me in the end. In our market, we don’t get the manual regular 350 kW M3. If I could, I’d take this full cream Competition in manual. But this is a damn decent compromise.

But That’s What Turns Us on!

What remains is to now also drive the all-wheel drive M4 xDrive. I imagine that will be a very different, more precise and easier to drive car. And you can still switch its front axle anyway. All of which renders this car quite unique. A bit like a live and bounding dinosaur. And if like me, that turns you in, then it matters not how much sharper the AWD one is. This is the one for us! – Michele Lupini

Images – Michele Lupini

ROAD TESTED: BMW M3 Competition
Engine: 375 kW 650 Nm 3-litre turbo petrol I6
Drive: 8-speed automatic RWD
0-60 km/h:        2.18 sec
0-100 km/h:       3.86 sec
0-120 km/h:       4.96 sec
0-160 km/h:       7.92 sec
400m:             11.6 sec @ 193 km/h
80-120 km/h:      2.38 sec
120-160 km/h:     3.22 sec
VMax:             290 km/h
Fuel:             10.2 l/100 km
CO2:              234 g/km
Warranty/Service: 2y Unl./5y 100K km
LIST PRICE:       R1.879M
RATED:            10
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