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BMW M3 Competition review

£52,165 - £94,295
Published: 07 Sep 2023


What is it like to drive?

It’s the steering that strikes you first. You can’t believe how accurate it is. It’s electric, so there’s little feedback and yet within a few yards you know exactly what it’s up to, exactly what inputs are needed, so you can place the car with utter precision. And as you go faster, you sense exactly where the limits are and have confidence to approach them. It’s uncanny, one of the very best steering systems available on any car today.

Of course steering doesn’t operate in isolation. To get that behaviour you need precise damping, suspension set-up, calibration and all the rest. This is BMW’s happy place. All of this, at both ends, is masterfully done. Unless you’re on a circuit the front end appears not to understand there’s such a thing as understeer, so whatever you do with the steering you get this deeply satisfying pinpoint response.

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Through corners the suspension becomes the communicator, letting you know how hard it’s working, allowing you to play with the balance and then as you come out the other side, it’s the electronically controlled differential that supplies the magic. The rear end is as accurate and placeable as the front. There seems as direct a link between right foot and rear axle as between hands and front axle. 

Does that apply to the 4WD car, too?

You think xDrive is going to dull everything down? Sorry, BMWs performance 4WD system is masterful, it feels (and is) rear-drive up to the point the rears start to spin or slip and then effortlessly, almost undetectably, shuffles just the right amount of power forward. And that’s in plain 4WD mode. If you want either 4WD Sport or 2WD modes you need to disable the stability control, which is plain daft. But on the whole the 55kg heavier xDrive is well balanced, the M3 exiting corners more neutrally.

Not that you're going to lose traction, because grip is colossal. That applies to all versions. Now, the M3 does like to ‘engage’ its driver. Yes, you could rephrase that as ‘unnerve’ if the suspension control wasn’t so tight and reassuring. The rear end, even with stability control on, likes to at least pretend it’s going to oversteer, to play at being mobile. There’s a lot of torque heading that way, and on a grimy, bumpy road the differential and suspension are busy keeping a lid on everything.

Sum up the chassis for me.

It’s like a boiling kettle, there’s a lot of energy contained within. With the old car, a bit of that would sometimes escape, and you’d scald yourself as a spike of power overcame traction. It could be a proper handful. Now BMW has got the whole thing under masterful control.

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Is the engine strong enough?

Absolutely. 500bhp in the M3 makes this every bit as fast as 600bhp in the Audi RS6, Merc E63 and BMWs own M5. The straight six is strong everywhere – there’s sensational torque and immediate response. If there’s a downside, it’s that you’re less aware of the speed because the car does such a good job retaining composure when speeds get silly.

How does it sound?

It sounds purposeful, loud at start up with a nasally snarl. From inside a bit of vibration comes through. The CS versions add volume and a more metallic edge. It’s worth listening too – better sounding than either the Audi RS4 or Merc’s new hybrid C63. At least until Mercedes capitulates and sticks a V8 back in it.

Is the CS worth the extra?

We need to say how much extra, don’t we? It’s another £33k on top of a base car. And it’s not the leap forward in dynamics that the M5 CS was. It’s a harder, sharper car that’s more interactive than the M4 CSL (which we didn’t like that much), but we don’t think it’s worth the outlay. Have the estate and enjoy humbling everyone.

Does the standard car cope with track work?

You’re going to be staggered by the traction, rather than the immediate skids. The M3's composure under pressure is astonishing. Its body control is rock solid (despite the weight involved) and the feel you have for what the car is doing is superb. The standard brakes are really strong and don’t seem to fade, and for the first time you can choose between Comfort and Sport modes for them; Sport firming up the pedal feel and reducing travel.

Likewise, you can select various parameters for the engine, gearbox, steering and gather your preferred settings together into the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel. Turn the stability control off, and you enter a new realm: 10-stage variable traction control and the Drift Analyser. It’s a gimmick, and bound to claim a few ‘watch this…’ victims. Interested in it anyway? The M3 has a quick steering rack and can be a bit edgy at skidding about until you’ve got it settled at what we’ll call a ‘significant broadside angle’.

Perhaps better to just concern yourself with how ruthlessly effective the M3 is at getting around a circuit or down a tricky road. It is worth pointing out that there are compromises for this. The low speed ride is firm, even in Comfort, although it’s better to say the dampers just aren’t interested in helping out until there’s a proper bit of pressure in them. On coarse surfaces the suspension transmits a fair bit of noise and harshness back into the cabin. But not enough to spoil the car’s breadth of capability. It’s an easy and smooth car to drive, docile and viceless with little engine noise and smooth gearchanges. It’ll return 30mpg on a long haul, 70mph pulling 1,800rpm in top.

But it uses an automatic gearbox. That’s not right is it?

Ah yes, the gearbox. In fact the whole powertrain. The M3 is massively fast, and makes a perfectly decent noise. But the powertrain is the weaker link. You get massive torque from the word go and a great free-revving nature that means the M3 fires itself through each of the (commendably closely spaced) intermediate ratios, pulling hard all the way to the 7,200rpm cutout.

But this is not an engine that builds to a crescendo or holds something back for high revs. It earns points for its lag-free immediacy and crisp response, especially once over 3,500rpm, but this is one of those cars that’s always, always travelling far faster than you think. And is perfectly happy and capable of doing so. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you to decide.

Each upshift stems the flow of power. It seems weird that a punctuation as brief as 150 milliseconds – 0.15 seconds – can make such a difference, but it does. The snarl and snap of acceleration is fatally interrupted. You notice it, and you care.

And that’s before we get to the downshifts, which are too sluggish and delayed. Elsewhere the auto is too smooth in its mannerisms, too apologetic in its behaviour, to suit the M3. The old car’s DCT was no paragon of smoothness, lurching through each upshift, but at least you felt connected to it. By auto standards it’s good, and we suspect 95 per cent of buyers will be fine with it and love the crisp paddle action. But it’s not the right solution for an M3.

Sum up the driving experience.

Super-accurate, remarkable composure under pressure. It makes mincemeat of difficult roads, and although the limits are ridiculously high, the precision of the controls, steering and chassis means it’s fun at any speed. Have 4WD if you want the extra traction at low speed and winter grip.

Highlights from the range

the fastest

BMW M3 M3 CS 4dr DCT
  • 0-623.9s
  • CO2198.0g/km
  • BHP460
  • MPG33.2
  • Price£85,130

the cheapest

BMW M3 M3 4dr
  • 0-624.9s
  • CO2290.0g/km
  • BHP420
  • MPG22.8
  • Price£52,165

the greenest

BMW M3 M3 4dr DCT
  • 0-624.1s
  • CO2194.0g/km
  • BHP431
  • MPG34
  • Price£61,255

Variants We Have Tested

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