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Slide ruler: BMW M3 GTS takes on Austrian Alps

  1. Animals and cars don’t mix. Muntjacs – a doe-eyed but truly devious deer – have a habit of wandering into the roads round my way, and you really don’t want to collect one of those at 70mph. Here, 7,500ft up the Austrian Alps on the infamous Grossglockner Pass, the warning signs feature something apparently cuddlier: the marmot. Technically, the marmot is a squirrel, though it looks like the gopher that terrorised Bill Murray in the comedy classic Caddyshack. Hitting a marmot in an M3 GTS would be no laughing matter.

    Story: Jason Barlow
    Photos: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This article was originally published in the November issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. But this car has a bigger wildlife problem,
    and it’s the elephant in the room. So let’s get it out of the way now. By the
    time George Osborne’s 20 per cent VAT hike kicks in next January, an M3 GTS
    will set you back approximately £120,000. This isn’t just a stupendous sum of
    money, it’s almost a joke. It’s also the most expensive BMW by some distance,
    unless you go crackers and specify your V12 760Li with diamond-encrusted
    cup-holders. This is some achievement, given that the GTS is a tricked-up M3
    which, when all’s said and done, is still a 3-Series. So £120k is crazy talk,
    surely? Um, not necessarily.

  3. There are three reasons for this. For a
    kick-off, BMW is planning to build just 126 M3 GTSs, a mere eight of which are
    expected to make their way into private UK hands. A gold-plated future classic,
    then. Secondly, they’re all sold, so the money debate is largely academic
    unless you fancy a rage against the machine on some dodgy web forum. Finally,
    I’ve driven it. And it’s so astoundingly good and does its stuff in such a
    barn-stormingly unique way, it’s - whisper it - almost worth the money.

  4. As is a day on the Grossglockner Pass. It’s
    not free, you see. It costs 28 euros, which is a bit steep for a public road.
    Do it, though. Like its more famous German cousin, the Nordschleife, the
    Grossglockner is an unforgettable experience.

    I should stress that it’s absolutely
    not a circuit, and rather than a load of modified hot hatches and old German
    saloons driven by men with Euro-hair, you’ll be keeping company with lumbering
    RVs and cyclists with legs that look like condoms stuffed with walnuts. But get
    there early, like we did (it opens at 5am, June to September) and you’ll almost
    certainly have theplace to yourself. It’s 30 miles long, mostly incredibly
    well-surfaced, and unspools through the breathtaking mountain scenery like a
    wayward piece of spaghetti. Even a boggo Ford Focus hire car would be fun up
     here.

  5. What you really want, though, is an M3 GTS.
    Sorry about that. This is a very, very special motor car. Just to give you some
    context, my two favourite hi-po road cars are the Ferrari 430 Scuderia and the
    Porsche 911 GT3 (2006, 997-vintage). I love the fact that you can hear the
    stones ping off their undersides as you fling them from corner to corner, that
    they have engines that punish valves, pistons and cylinders mercilessly in
    pursuit of pure revs, and that the people who made them were given carte
    blanche to rip as much weight as they dare out of them. The Scud has the best
    paddle-shift semi-auto ‘box of them all; the 911 GT3, supernatural traction.

    Well, you can talk about the M3 GTS in the
    same breath as these two - something I didn’t expect. Powertrain, chassis,
    interactivity, noise, emotion: it’s right up there, believe me. Turning a
    3-Series into a Ferrari 430 Scud rival: it’s some transformation. Yet that’s
    what they’ve managed.

  6. We arrive into an overcast Munich
    afternoon, and make our way to a nondescript BMW facility in an industrial
    estate 20 miles south of Bavaria’s capital. There’s no fuss or formality when
    we turn up, but as TopGear is the first media to get a proper steer in the GTS,
    and though the BMW people greet us warmly, it’s clear that damaging this thing
    is not an option. Grossglockner, they say. No problem. It’s not snowing. Yet.
    You kill the car, we kill you… Sorry, did you say you wanted milk in your
     coffee?

  7. And then there it is, sitting by itself in a hangar, separated from its lesser brethren in case the presence of a diesel engine offend it. Looks tough. Black lightweight alloys. Adjustable rear spoiler, nicked off the WTCC BMs. New cooling ducts and a front splitter that can be extended by 30mm for extra downforce. Orange paint job. To my eyes, it’s not as resolved as the car it most resembles conceptually, the E46 M3 CSL, and for the money maybe they could have pumped the bodywork a bit. But still. It’ll, you know, do. 

  8. You can usually tell how a car’s going to
    play out almost immediately, and this thing is no different. The GTS puts a
    smile on your face - a slightly twisted, evil one - a split second after you
    prod the ‘engine start’ button on what is a seriously spartan dashboard. Its
    4.4-litre V8 erupts into life before immediately settling into a pure race-car
    idle, slightly lumpy and grumpy and uneven, while the exhaust burbles and
    warbles. It sounds like something that means business, and doesn’t want to
    waste any time getting down to it. It sounds more than a little scary. It
    sounds absolutely bloody marvellous.

  9. There’s no need to spend much time
    acclimatising - there’s bugger all in here to acclimatise to. No stereo, no
    aircon, no iDrive. After all that ‘joy doesn’t compromise’ marketing hooey, we
    really are back in ‘ultimate driving machine’ territory here. About time, too.
    The wheel is the familiarly chunky three-spoker, its fat rim trimmed in
    Alcantara. Disappointingly, there are buttons on it that operate things this
    car no longer has - no stereo, no volume, no need. A bespoke GTS wheel would
    have been nice. Worse, what GTS touches that are here are uniformly crap; the
    logo is some half-arsed chequered flag nonsense, which appears on the sill
    kickplate and on the far end of the dash along with a garish number. This car
    is 003.

  10. The garage door rolls back. Never mind the
    low-rent logos and the empty dashboard, it’s the stuff that’s still here that
    matters. Engine, mainly. According to M Sport chief engineer Albert Biermann,
    the GTS came about when his people found a few euro down the back of the sofa,
    and set about making the über-M3, partly for the hell of it, partly because the
    M3 is 25 years old this year.

  11. That engine is a hell of a present, and much more than just breathed-on. This is a motorsport unit, with a race-spec block, and though its bore is the same as before, the stroke has been increased to 82mm. This, in turn, has increased the 4.0-litre V8’s volume to 4,361cc, and there’s an additional 30bhp (now 444bhp) and 29lb ft of torque. It now produces 325lb ft at 3,750rpm, 150 lower than before. On paper, it sounds like a car that should be more flexible about dishing up its potential than its surprisingly highly strung, high-revving brother. At 1,530kg, it’s only 75kg lighter, but we’ll give it the benefit.

  12. Nudge the stubby gear selector to the right
    to select ‘D’, and feather the throttle. Jeez, this really does feel likea
    racing car. There’s no slack at all. None. Ease out onto the side road, then
    onto the main road and trickle down to the traffic lights. It’s a process that
    takes all of 30 seconds, and I’m hooked already: the GTS feels as tight as a
    drum, meticulously engineered, an M car plus about 200 per cent.

    I haven’t got out of second gear yet.

  13. From here to the Grossglockner is several
    hundred miles, and a fair few hours. That’s in a car that’s seriously
    track-oriented, with no air or audio. I did something similar a few months ago
    in the 911 GT3 RS, and it’s odd how your mind wanders and how attuned - and
    dependent - we now are to external stimuli. This could be physically and
    mentally taxing. With a suspension set-up that runs firmer springs and dampers,
    adjustable anti-roll bars and has more margin for toe and camber adjustment,
    not to mention a rear sub-frame that’s mounted directly to the body, it should
    almost physically hurt. But on its Pirelli P Zero Corsas, it’s actually
    surprisingly comfortable. 

  14. And even if it were about as compliant as a
    medieval Iron Maiden, that engine and gearbox would make the pain worthwhile. On
    a derestricted bit of autobahn, I see an indicated 160mph with more to come (top
    speedis 190mph). I pop it into seventh and cruise for a bit among the Polos and
    Astras, savouring the extra torqueand flexibility. But not for long. That would
    just be silly.

  15. God, it sounds good, this thing. Apart from
    a boominess around 4,000rpm, the stripped soundproofing andtitanium exhaust
    cause no problems at all. Wring it outto the 8,500rpm red line, and just pin
    your lugholes back. Who needs a stereo? The M3 GTS has the low-frequency lung
    power of Tom Jones, and the top-end rock star banshee wail of Axl Rose, all in
    one. And the beefed-up M-DCT dual-shift ‘box is so addictive that you find
    yourself hanging back, downshifting, then nailing it just because you can. In
    this installation, we finally have a dual-shift system that factors in some
    genuine mechanical sensation.

  16. We have two goes at the Grossglockner. We
    arrive late on day one, and the weather is seriously moody, the road surface
    slippery as hell. The road itself, built in the early 30s to help
    stimulate a job market decimated by the Great Depression, climbs to a peak of
    2,504m, but we breach the cloud base long before that. At the top,
    the cloud even bleeds into the tunnels, which creates a quasi-religious
    sensation that’s distinctly spooky.

    Equally unnerving is the GTS’s waywardness
    on these wet switchbacks. It won’t let go completely with the stability systems
    in place, but turn them off, and you’d better be up to the job. It’s hilarious,
    old-school badass BMW behaviour.

  17. We’re back at 6am the next morning. It’s empty. Even the marmots are still snoozing. The sun’s out. The road’s dry. Time to party. Now it really does feel religious: engine, gearbox and chassis forming their own Holy Trinity. The brakes are a bit grumbly but full of feel - steel discs, not ceramic - 378mm at the front, 380mm at the rear. But it’s the coherence of the package that’s blowing my mind.

    The engine is simply mighty, but crucially
    the GTS feels more alive right the way through its rev range, rather than
    reserving its best work for the far end of the dial. The gearbox harnesses all
    that power perfectly, instantaneously. You won’t be able to leave it alone.

  18. Then there’s that chassis. The
    Grossglockner has its fair share of fast fourth, even fifth-gear sweepers, and
    the GTS turns into them, settles itself, then powers implacably on. There’s
    total stability, balance and neutrality. Turn off the stability stuff, and
    every second-gear hairpin is a drifter’s playground. The steering is sublime:
    weightier than standard, but race-car accurate. There’s barely any understeer,
    and oversteer on demand if you want it.

    It’s also one hundred and twenty thousand
    pounds. Ridiculous. Pointless. Perfect.

What do you think?

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