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Car reviews - BMW - 3 Series - M3 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Sublime handling, four-door practicality, engine's stratospheric ability to rev, price saving over the coupe
Room for improvement
Options prices including the DCT automatic gearbox, relative lack of low-down torque, no intermediate ESC setting as standard

BMW logo9 Dec 2008

By JAMES STANFORD

IF YOU have ever driven an M3 coupe, you don’t actually need to read the rest of this review. That’s because the M3 sedan feels every bit as good as the coupe from the driver’s seat.

We should clarify this by mentioning that BMW launched the M3 sedan at the Phillip Island racetrack and we didn’t drive the car on public roads. So some differences might be revealed on less than perfect roads, but the sedan was just as impressive on the track as the coupe.

Some drivers might say that they can detect the extra 25kg the sedan adds over the coupe, but they are probably kidding themselves because we certainly can’t. A dual-clutch automatic adds the same amount of weight, which is not much when you are talking about a 1600kg-odd car.

It is a different case when it comes to the convertible, which adds 205kg and in that case you can definitely feel extra bulk.

The biggest difference between the coupe and the sedan, apart from the latter’s increased practicality, is to do with styling. The M3 coupe looks like an M3, while the sedan looks like a dressed-up 3 Series sedan with an M3 bonnet.

Mind you, when the M3 coupe costs $17,901 more, it is quite an easy thing to get over.

Hopefully, the M3 sedan will be as easy to live with on the road as the coupe, which finds the perfect balance between a sporty and comfortable ride. It is likely it has similar on-road characteristics, but a morning at Phillip Island demonstrated beyond doubt that it is a hero on the track.

That’s not to say it is perfect, but the M3 sedan is certainly fantastic fun.

The best bit about the M3 is its balance and poise. Phillip Island is a fast and flowing track and the M3 inspires confidence at every turn. The M3 sedan has an incredible amount of grip and the body sits very flat though all the bends.

Pptional damper control system or not, it really didn’t appear to make much difference on the Phillip Island track. The steering is direct and communicative even with the firmer setting selected through the M Drive system.

The brakes are truly astounding and you can brake incredibly deep into the tight corners. After a couple of laps they were squealing horribly, but they did the job, although we should note that BMW fitted the test cars with competition pads in order for them to make it through a full day of being belted around the track.

But the centre piece of the M3 is of course the engine. For those who want a sweet, smooth and high-revving V8 it is hard to think of anything better. Only the screamer V8 in Audi’s discontinued RS4 comes close.

There isn’t much point in revving the V8s that power the M3’s competitors past 7500rpm, but you must do so if you are to extract everything from this powerplant. The power builds and builds until the lights that curve around the tacho start to light up, yellow, green and then red.

BMW engineers have done a great job with the M3’s V8, which also sounds nice but not as mean as the Mercedes C63 or even the Lexus IS-F on full song. The only problem with the M3’s engine is related to its high-revving nature - the fact is that you really do have to rev the hell out of it to keep the pace up.

That is something that becomes clear on the track. If you lose grip through the turn, the engine can bog down. While some engines are close to their peak at, say, 4500rpm, that is quite low for the M3.

So if you are a good, smooth, driver and can keep the revs up the M3 rewards you. On the other hand, if you are not so smooth you get punished and you can’t simply rely on the V8’s power to pull you out of the corner.

Of course, on the road the high-revving nature of the M3’s V8 is less appealing. After all, how often do you get to rev out a performance engine like this on public roads?

It might be great on an autobahn, but the low-end grunt of engines like C63 and Lexus IS-F is more likely to deliver more smiles per mile than the screaming V8 of the M3.

There is nothing wrong with the manual gearbox. The clutch is quite light and it is easy to find the right gear, even as you arrive late at a corner and heel and toe down through the gearbox. That said, the dual-clutch automatic is so much better that it is a must-have - if you can afford it.

BMW has a reputation for charging a lot for options, but $7300 for an automatic is an eye-opener in anyone's language.

Money aside, this is a tremendous gearbox that shifts quicker than a manual.

Would a real race driver go for an automatic though? Well, BMW driver trainer and LeMans winner Geoff Brabham certainly prefers the automatic and that’s good enough for us.

Unlike Porsche, BMW has the console shifter the right way around around - forward for down and back for up, or you can change with the easy-to-use paddles on the steering wheel.

The M3 sedan feels very settled in the higher-speed corners at Phillip Island and as a result is easily able to hit 240km/h down the straight. Cars fitted with the optional M Drive pack are easy to drive fast because, apart from any other improvements, the stability control has an intermediate setting, which allows some fun but is in the background should you get into big trouble.

A standard car made this point clearly. With the stability control left on, it was impossible to drive quickly because the system cuts in very early. The alternative was to drive with the stability control off completely and, while the M3 is a well sorted machine, this can result in some very hairy moments at speed.

It’s strange that the base car doesn’t have this intermediate stability control setting and that you have to purchase a $3500 M Drive pack to unlock it.

The extra practicality of the M3 sedan is welcome, hoever. If you want to use your M3 to carry extra passengers regularly, you will appreciate the ease of access into the back as well as the increased boot space.

The iDrive upgrade is not specific to M3 models, but boy it is impressive. Those of us who have previously tried and failed to use the iDrive system before simply ignoring it will be happy to use this new system. Above all, it is intuitive - something iDrive could not previously be accused of.

The menu system makes sense, there are buttons just in case you still don’t like it and the information screen looks great with super-crisp graphics.

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