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Latest BMW M3 is a straight-six, turbocharged super-saloon with blistering performance

There have been some major changes under the skin, but on the road, this M3 is like its predecessors: a brilliant super-saloon that can embarrass much more expensive supercars. 

Of course, it’s long been the go-to performance saloon of choice, but this version of the BMW M3 was the first to feature turbochargers, after BMW ditched the high-revving, naturally aspirated V8 of the previous-generation car in favour of a twin-turbo straight-six unit to improve efficiency and give stunning mid-range urge. 

Admittedly, it lacks subtlety and feels more brutish when compared with the Mercedes-AMG C 63, and it’s not as sharp as the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio. But it’s still practical and composed with lots of performance for the price.

Sharp steering and rock-solid body control allow you to take liberties with the chassis and lean hard on the incredible grip levels, while the quick steering gives great direction changes, too. Just be careful, as the spiky engine and sharp throttle also mean the car can be a handful in the wet.

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BMW M3 Competition

Whether you know it as an E30, E46 or E92, the current BMW M3 is a car for sale today that can back up its illustrious history with a great drive. The current car arrived in 2014 and was updated in 2017 with the addition of the M3 Competition, and these cars deliver the kind of performance that does the car's motorsport history proud.

Power comes from a 3.0-litre straight-six with twin turbos, which has either 425bhp in standard form, or 444bhp in the M3 Competition. Both cars are offered with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or BMW's 7-speed DCT twin-clutch auto and rear-wheel drive is the only drivetrain layout offered, although it does come with a host of electronics that are designed to get that power to the tarmac as effectively as possible.

The most recent M3 is only sold as a four-door saloon, but the car's running gear is shared with the M4 Coupe and M4 Convertible if you want a different body style. The closest rivals to the M3 currently available are the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the Mercedes-AMG C 63, the latter of which also comes as a coupe and convertible, as well as an estate, all with an auto box as standard. The Audi RS 4 matches the M3 Competition for power, but it only comes as an Avant estate with quattro four-wheel drive and is auto-only.

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One highlight of the M3 is its engaging handling, especially in M3 Competition form. As standard, the manual model manages 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds, while the DCT version manages it in 4.1 seconds. In corners, there's plenty of grip, and the sharp steering helps you keep everything under control. The M3 isn't quite as entertaining as a Giulia Quadrifoglio, it's still a thrill to drive.

Prices start from around £60,000, with the DCT gearbox adding £2,500 to the price, while the Competition versions are around £3,000 more than the standard M3.

BMW M3 history

The M3 is one of the most famous sports cars in the world. It first arrived in 1986 as a special variant of the E30-generation BMW 3 Series that featured a high-revving 2.3-litre four-cylinder petrol engine – which was later enlarged to 2.5 litres – as well as a boxier body than the standard car, with flared wheelarches and big spoilers front and rear.

This car was designed to be competitive in world motorsport, and competitive it was, as this original E30 M3 won multiple Group A touring car championships, including the 1987 World Touring Car Championship and regional titles in the UK, Germany, Australia and Europe.

After that, BMW's racing interests moved away from touring cars, and the next-generation E36 M3, which appeared in 1992, had a more road-biased set-up. It featured a straight-six engine, starting out with a 3.0-litre unit that went on to be replaced by a more powerful 3.2-litre engine. While the car wasn't intended to race, it still delivered great handling and performance that proved popular with enthusiasts.

The next E46 M3 from 2000 onwards stuck to the same formula as the E36, with a straight-six engine, but more power and a classier interior. BMW also launched a lightweight M3 CSL version – with the electric seats, much of the sound-deadening and various bits of equipment removed – for even more focused handling.

From 2007, the E90 M3 upped the ante in terms of performance, thanks to the introduction of a naturally aspirated 414bhp 4.0-litre V8, which had more than double the power of the original M3. This car saw BMW return to circuit racing – in the DTM German Touring Car Championship, as well as GT3 sports car competition in the US and Europe. This model was replaced by the F80 variant reviewed here in 2014.

Engines, performance and drive

4.7
Huge power and torque in a compact saloon means the M3 is a rocketship, but it'll also cruise in comfort

Fire up the M3’s engine and the exhaust pumps out a guttural roar. However, prod the throttle and the motor doesn’t rasp like previous M3s – instead it drones more out on the road and doesn’t sound quite as inspiring.

Engine and gearbox

There’s only one engine in the range – a 3.0-litre straight-six unit with two turbochargers. While the turbos might be new, the rest is a familiar configuration for the M3 from earlier models. The new layout has its critics, but there’s no denying it delivers stunning performance.

There's 550Nm of torque on tap, whether you go for the regular M3 or add on the Competition Pack, and it's produced from just 1,850rpm, so at low revs and into the mid-range, the motor is explosive. In anything other than dry conditions, it’ll fizz the back tyres with a flicker of the traction control light.

Helped by a launch-control system, the 0-62mph sprint takes just 4.1 seconds when the car is fitted with BMW’s seven-speed dual-clutch DCT paddleshift gearbox. Thanks to the adjustable shift speeds for the transmission, you can have aggressive full-throttle gearchanges that mean incredible uninterrupted bursts off acceleration, which are accompanied by a distinctive grumble from the exhausts. But you can also tone it down and leave it in full auto mode for smoother changes.

You have to be careful with the throttle, though – especially in wet conditions – as the responsive engine means the tail will want to kick wide in corners if you’re too aggressive on the throttle with even a slight amount of steering lock added.

Opt for the dual-clutch only, 174mph M3 CS (Club Sport) and power rises to 454bhp, while torque is raised to 600Nm. The latter increase brings a healthy extra slug of propulsion in the engine's mid range, and the CS feels happier when revved to the limit. Acceleration improves slightly, with 0-62mph taking 3.9 seconds, and the CS feels grippier than the standard car, while the steering is more precise.

Ride

Even in the Comfort setting, the adaptive dampers are firm, but there’s enough compliance to deliver decent comfort on long journeys, even with the big wheels. You’ll want to wait until you hit some super-smooth tarmac – or a track – to switch the suspension into Sport or Sport Plus modes, however.

In these settings, the M3’s front end sticks to a cornering line and generates immense grip. But, with all that power on tap and a deliciously adjustable chassis, you can play with the M3’s balance in corners. Stability control keeps everything nicely in check in the wet, however, and inspires great confidence in the car. Together with fast steering, it means you can throw the car into corners and know that it will stick. 

No matter whether you’ve got the ESC on or off, the M3’s balance is beautiful. When fitted with sticky Michelin rubber, the wide front track means you can really lean on the front axle through fast, sweeping bends, although this makes the mushy, lifeless steering all the more disappointing. Only high-speed direction changes cause the car to struggle, while a lift or a brush of the brakes helps to load the nose and extract a bit more bite from the front end.

All in all, the M3 is one of the fastest four-doors around, but it can’t quite match the V8-engined Mercedes-AMG C 63 for character and subtlety. However, when it comes to agility, the M3 is certainly towards the top of the class. And, while it's not as sharp as the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio, it’s still practical and composed, with lots of performance for the price.

Braking

With optional ceramic brakes and massive 19-inch wheels and tyres, the M3’s braking performance is impressive, too. Hit the brake pedal hard and the car shrugs off speed with ease time after time, resisting fade and delivering huge stopping power.

MPG, CO2 and running costs

3.3
The M3’s claimed efficiency is much improved, although you’ll be lucky to come close if you regularly use even a fraction of the car's performance

Real world fuel economy

Manufacturers are turning to turbos to increase their cars' power at the same time as minimising their environmental impact – and making them cheaper to run, too. BMW chose this route with the M3, and this model delivers a best of 34.0mpg combined with 194g/km CO2 (33.2mpg and 198g/km in the CS). These figures are under the old NEDC test cycle, which will be the only test the M3 will be tested under, as the next M3 will get the WLTP test treatment. In the real world, when we tested the standard M3, we only managed 21.1mpg, which is some way off the official claims, although this did include some track driving.

CO2 and tax

Go for the manual model and that economy will probably be slightly worse, as its official economy figure is lower than the DCT model's. At the same time, its CO2 emissions are higher, too, which will mean higher tax liabilities for company car drivers.

Range

A 60-litre fuel tank means the M3's cruising range is up on its predecessor's and on a par with that of its main rival, the Mercedes-AMG C 63. The large tank might mean it’ll be costly to fill, especially if you use the preferred super unleaded, but it’s less frustrating than having to stop every few hundred miles to top it up with fuel again – especially when the five-seat cabin delivers lots of space and comfort, making it perfect for long journeys.

Company car tax

Although emissions are lower than in the old V8-engined model thanks to that turbo system, this is still a high-performance saloon, so it won’t be breaking any eco records. Combined with the relatively high purchase price, it means company car drivers taxed at the higher rate will pay well over £8,000 in Benefit in Kind tax.

The stop-start system helps to cut emissions, but it’s the only nod to helping improve fuel consumption. The M3’s aggressive body design is more focused on helping cool the huge engine and brakes than make the car effortlessly slip through the air and reduce drag.

Insurance groups

At group 45 for the M3 DCT, the BMW is near the top of the tree when it comes to insurance. However, it’s still less than some other high-performance cars like the more expensive Lexus RC F, which is rated at group 48.

As a result, it’ll cost our sample driver (42-year-old living in Banbury, with three penalty points) around £530 to insure per year. Both the manual and automatic are rated in the same group, so specifying the DCT transmission shouldn’t add anything extra to your premium.

Depreciation

The manual car clearly holds more appeal to the driving enthusiasts who are likely to buy an M3 second-hand, so it hold its value better over three years, retaining around 52 per cent of its purchase price. The DCT auto is only just behind, though, with a residual value of around 50 per cent. The Competition Pack models retain slightly more value, reflecting their improved performance and handling.

The M3 CS is around £22,000 more expensive than the M3 with a dual-clutch gearbox and the Competition Pack, but its limited-run status is likely to boost residuals in years to come, although unlikely to the extent of the limited-run M4 GTS. 

Interior, design and technology

4.3
Tech and style combine to make a practical but attractive cabin that’s usable all year round

BMW’s intuitive iDrive system comes as standard, controlling a large screen on top of the dash. It’s a great system that integrates nicely with the standard 3 Series’ interior design – although, on this M Division model, you can turn the dial up when it comes to sportiness with options such as carbon fibre trim inlays.

More supportive sports seats fix you in place when you’re in the mood for faster driving, while the sportier steering wheel (with gear shift paddles on the DCT version) also set it apart from the standard 3 Series saloon.

There’s a head-up display so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road, as well as two configurable M Sport modes that tweak the steering, throttle response, gearbox, stability control and suspension to your preferred setting at the touch of a button. 

Overall, the quality feels great inside, with lots of leather and soft-touch plastics, as well as sportier carbon fibre and aluminium trim if you want to customise your M3 that bit further still. The dashboard is clear to read – which is a great help if you do need to take your eyes off the road at speed – while the technology is easy to get to grips with.

The cabin design is familiar from other models in the BMW range, but fundamentally it works. It feels at least as special as the Mercedes-AMG C63 when it comes to design and material quality, although the most recent Audi RS 4 Avant is a step ahead of both rivals here. 

As the M3 is a saloon with four doors, access to the rear is easy, and the attention to detail is just as good in the back, with comfortable seats and a few other bespoke features.

Design changes for the M3 CS include a carbon-fibre bonnet, lightweight, matt grey forged 19-inch wheels, a front carbon-fibre splitter, rear spoiler and diffuser, all with exposed weave.

Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment

The iDrive system is controlled by a rotary wheel located on the transmission tunnel. It’s surrounded by buttons for the radio, sat-nav and so on, so there are plenty of hot keys to quickly jump to the area of the infotainment system you want.

The controller is simple to use, and you can scroll between settings with little fuss. The screen is huge, too, so it’s easy to view sat-nav instructions, for example.

Sat-nav, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and a DAB radio all come as standard, so there are plenty of creature comforts to go with the more hardcore track focus the chassis and engine bring. Although the huge tyres and stiff suspension mean there’s a noticeable amount of road roar, the powerful stereo and strong refinement ensure long-distance journeys are still easy to complete.

Practicality, comfort and boot space

4
With a big boot, five seats, good comfort and respectable fuel economy for the performance, the M3 is a surprisingly practical family car

Even in the Comfort setting, the suspension feels firm, but not to the extent that it jars too much on bumpy roads. Be wary of the two stiffer settings, though, as they mean the M3 really thumps over bumps; and, if you try applying full throttle on bad tarmac, the traction control will curtail any acceleration. The softer setting means you can make better progress as it lets the car flow with the road.

With four doors, five seats and a 480-litre boot, the M3 can take just about anything the average family can throw at it. Plus, it has the ability to travel at incredible speeds round a race track when you want to explore the car’s performance on your own and in safe conditions.

Despite the M3 having more aggressive styling than the regular 3 Series it's based on, visibility is just as good as it is in the standard car. So, with parking sensors and a reversing camera available, manoeuvring the relatively compact 3 Series is simple.

The sports seats give a great driving position, so you can get nice and low in the car to feel what it’s doing underneath you. The big, leather chairs are supportive, too, so if you’re going to be cruising for miles, you’ll have no worries about a bad back when you reach your destination.

The advantages of being based on a standard BMW 3 Series body are also easy to see when it comes to storage. A large glovebox, big door bins, two cupholders and plenty of trinket trays ensure your change and gadgets, such as mobile phones, won’t go flying around the cabin the first time you turn into a corner.

Fundamentally, the M3 provides a great balance between performance and practicality, continuing the trend that BMW has established with its sporty executive saloons.

Size

The M3’s closest rivals are the Mercedes-AMG C 63 and Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, as they are the only performance execs available with a saloon body style. The Audi RS 4 and RS 5 come in estate and coupe form only.

At 1.88m, the M3 is a little wider than the 1.81m Mercedes. However, at 4.69m the C63 is marginally longer than the 4.63m BMW. These differences are only small, though, so in day-to-day driving and other manoeuvres, you’ll be hard pushed to tell the difference in size between the two cars.

Thanks to the two cars having a similar wheelbase, there’s roughly the same amount of rear legroom inside, too. However, there’s more headroom in the C63.

Leg room, head room & passenger space

A decent amount of leg and headroom in the rear means there’s plenty of space for four. Being rear-wheel drive, the M3 has a big transmission tunnel in the floor, whichm combined with the larger sports seats up front, means things might get a little more cramped if you’re carrying three rear passengers – although it’s still fine for short to medium journeys. Isofix points help if you’re installing a child seat in the rear.

In contrast to the two-door M4 Coupe, access to the rear of the four-door M3 is much easier.

Boot

With a large 480-litre boot and a relatively shallow loading lip, the M3 is just as practical as any other 3 Series saloon. There are points to help secure loads and you can even get a luggage net to stop bags rolling around in the boot.

Being a saloon, the opening isn’t as big as on a hatchback, but the aperture is still a good size and the boot isn't hard to pack.

Reliability and Safety

4
Superb brakes, grippy tyres and a full five-star Euro NCAP rating make the M3 a safe, dependable family car

By uprating the M3’s brakes and fitting massive, sticky tyres, the high-performance saloon’s stopping power is even better than the regular 3 Series’ braking ability. On top of this, you can add carbon ceramic brakes for even stronger braking, although they are quite expensive.

Being based on the 3 Series, the M3 retains the standard car's five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, so there’s plenty of peace of mind if you’re strapping your family in. Adaptive headlights and LED headlights (also adaptive) are available as options, as is forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, preventative pedestrian protection and high beam assist.

Basically, the M3 will warn you as much as possible if it thinks you’re going to have a crash, intervening with autonomous emergency braking to prevent an impact if it senses that the driver hasn’t done anything to avoid the hit.

At the basic level, there’s ABS and a sophisticated ESP system to keep all that power in check – especially in the wet. There's also a reversing camera with 360-degree capability available as an option to help when manoeuvring.

Considering its prestige image, BMW has fared rather unremarkably in the Driver Power customer satisfaction survey. However, it regularly comes out on top in the battle of the three premium German brands, usually exchanging spots with Mercedes, but consistently finishing ahead of Audi. 

We expect the M3 will prove reliable, as the interior tech has proven itself across the rest of the range, while the M Division-developed engine has done countless miles in testing and should prove strong. 

Build quality feels good and the solid materials throughout the cabin reinforce this image. Driving the car hard, you also get a sense that the mechanicals have been properly engineered to withstand some punishment, which gives you the confidence to push harder.

Warranty

BMW’s warranty is on a par with those of its rivals. The M3 gets a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty as standard – and, if anything should go wrong, BMW also throws in three years of roadside assistance breakdown cover.

Servicing

As a performance model, maintenance costs for the M3 are obviously more expensive than for a regular 320d. However, a price of around £1,000 for the five-year/50,000-mile servicing package is decent value and on a par with its rivals.

Last updated: 
16 Apr, 2019
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