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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - M3 and M4

Our Opinion

We like
Great combination of a racetrack weapon and everyday driver, refined interior, tough good looks.
Room for improvement
Exhaust note electronically piped into the cabin, we weren’t allowed to keep one


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14 Nov 2014

AS CAR geeks, we can talk endlessly about any make and model you’d care to name, but some cars reduce us to a respectful silence, making our eyes widen and our hearts beat faster. BMW’s M3 and M4 are those types of cars.

For the past 28 years there’s always been more to the M3 than meets the eye and that’s part of the appeal. They look like sporty sedans but they have supercar-like abilities.

They are engineered and built by BMW’s high performance division M Automobiles which tests every new M car at the famed Nurburgring race circuit in Germany.

They are fast, powerful, agile and, much like a supercar, they will bite you if you’re not careful. The latest generation M3 and M4 are even more powerful and dynamic, and the same rule applies – respect the beast.

For the test drive, we were taken to Hampton Down’s Motorsport Park just outside Auckland, in New Zealand and because it bucketed down the night before, the track was wet and the temperature was just three degrees. Just as we headed out onto the track in a line of M3s and M4s, it started to rain again.

Luckily, we were not on our own. Our instructor was four-time Nurburgring circuit winner Mike Eady and he was in the lead car setting the pace and talking to us through the two-way radios.

“It’s very slippery out here guys… ” he said reassuringly as we came through the big right-hand sweeper and uphill onto the straight.

Turn 1 was another long right-hander, but this one drops away onto a straight and Eady told us to be patient and pointed out that the mark on the concrete barrier to our left was where a racecar recently came to grief – the driver was fine, but it looked like a giant fly had been squashed there.

As we commenced our second lap, Eady began to pull away and we all picked up the pace. We were in the M3 Sedan and had the adaptive M Suspension, steering and engine in Sport + mode. That setting firms up the dampers, adds weight to the steering and holds onto gears for longer – it also opens up the exhaust which lets out a scream like some ancient warrior running madly into battle.

Approaching Turn 2, we stood on the brakes and the seatbelt prentensioners activated, catching me as the car pulled up. Those brakes are impressive. They are the standard BMW M compound brakes with four piston fixed calipers on the front and twin pot calipers on the rear with inner vented and perforated discs all round.

The electronic stability control was well and truly still on and we were advised to keep it that way which was fine by us given the rainy conditions.

With the windscreen wipers on, we were all getting used to our cars and beginning to feel more comfortable pushing them a bit harder as Eady again upped the pace.

Hampton Downs has two hairpins connected by long straights. Mashing the loud pedal into the floor revealed incredible acceleration. We have driven the last three generations of regular M3s and this is quicker than any of them with 0-100km/h rushing towards you in 4.1 seconds.

Out is the 309kW/400Nm 4.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 from the previous model and in is the new twin turbo 317kW/550Nm 3.0-litre inline six.

While it doesn’t look like a huge jump in mumbo, the engine has been mapped to bring on more power sooner and you’ve got the full 550Nm of torque from 1850rpm. Which is why the traction light flickered as we manually selected fourth gear with the shifting paddle and hit 160km/h.

M Automobiles has put a lot of work into making these cars lighter, with the carbon-fibre roof, the carbon-fibre drive shaft, and lightweight materials that have been used in the sheet metal and in construction of the chassis and engine.

Eady had set up a slalom course made of witches hats just to keep things interesting and the first thing we noticed as we tipped into them was that there was no tipping into them. There was almost no bodyroll at all as we weaved through.

When we swapped into the M4, we surprised by how little difference there was between the coupe’s handling and the sedan’s. The four-door is 23kg heavier, thanks to the back doors, but the powerplant, drivetrain and chassis are identical.

The next part of the day was a drive to Taupo, 200km away. We are not sure how New Zealand became so good at rugby, because there isn’t a flat surface anywhere to put a footy field.

The hilly terrain made for great winding roads and as we settled into the M3 Sedan we remarked how good the ride was even with the dampers in Sport + mode.

Switching them to Comfort made things even cushier, without compromising the handling at all.

It was about then that we realised that BMW have done it again. We had just cut some laps at a race track which left the brakes stinking and then we were coasting along effortlessly with our luggage in the boot wondering what dinner would be like in total comfort, but all the while with 550Nm and more than 300kW directly under my right foot waiting for me to shift down and take the racing line through the next corner.

That’s what an M3 should be – a perfect combination of track day weapon and everyday driver.

We stopped beside the road in the middle of a forest straight out of Middle Earth so we can walk around the car and take a look. The M3 Sedan is a tough looking beast.

The pumped-up wheel guards look very DTM racing series, housing low profile rubber on 19-inch alloys and the ‘power dome’ is more than just a pair of socks shoved down the front – it houses the chargecooler which can’t fit under the bonnet any other way. We loved the blade-like front air intakes and equally so the rear diffuser with those familiar quad exhaust tips.

Sitting in the rear behind our own driving position revealed how much knee and legroom there is in the back. BMW has built a beautifully refined interior, with carbon-fibre and leather covering nearly every surface.

Back in the M4, and at 445 litres, the Coupe’s boot is 35 litres smaller than the sedan, but it still swallowed up our four bags. Sitting in the rear of the two-door, it oddly felt like there was more room than in the sedan, which is impossible given the dimensions show that the sedan has 16mm more legroom.

The Coupe does have sculptured rear seat-backs – and this could explain what looks like a bigger gap.

The M4 Coupe’s body is based on the new 4 Series and is 1mm shorter than the sedan, but the long door and the way the roof falls away to the tailgate makes this car look sleek and elegant.

The M4 Coupe’s handling and ride on a course chip winding Kiwi road with endless hills was excellent. Again, no major differences were felt.

The sound insulation was also impressive. So good that BMW has electronically piped the sound of the exhaust note into the cabin through the car’s speakers.

BMW said there are complex algorithms involved in getting the sound exactly right, but we would rather drive with the window down and freeze so that we can hear the real noise.

The next day we were taken to Taupo Motorsport Park for a last squirt on the track. This racetrack was built for the now defunct A1GP in 2006 so it’s crafted beautifully and at 3.5km, it also includes a straight which doubles as a drag strip.

First up was the M3 Sedan again. With our instructor leading the way he warned us over the radio about not getting on the gas too early through these turns which seemed to go on forever and had very late apexes.

The track was wet again, although the rain had stopped and the surface was drying. As we were more comfortable with the cars now it was a real opportunity to experience the incredible grip the M4 and M3 offers. Turn 11 is a real test for tyres, but the 225/35 ZR19s on the front and the 275/35/ZR19s on the rear held the road firmly.

Coming onto the main straight – an 800m-long drag strip – was the chance to give it the boot. With each shift up the car felt like it was punching me in the back. Second, third and fourth from the seven-speed dual clutch transmission as we saw the redline 7200rpm approaching in the head-up display.

We passed 200km/h before realizing we were running out of track as there was a dog leg coming up. We stomped on the brake pedal like it was a funnel web spider and the anchors washed off the speed so well and we managed to nick through the left hander.

These cars are so agile and that limited slip differential is excellent, but a small wiggle coming out of another turn and onto the straight revealed that these cars still leave room for the driver to decide their own fate.

Drive well and these cars will respond and match your skill. Mess up and well… there’s only so much all the safety equipment in the world can do, but if it’s a small lapse of judgment, the stability systems are very good at correcting the minor errors of amateurs and making them look like pros.

Standing beside the track after the drive, watching another group test the cars, we remarked that they sounded like old school F1s as they flew past. It was those inline sixes revving sky high and it sounded amazing.

These are race cars, but with beautifully refined interiors, plenty of room for passengers and their luggage, while being comfortable cruisers on the road perfect for everyday use.

Just what an M3, and now M4, should be.

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