Is our M3 caught up in a BMW identity crisis?
This feels remarkably like déjà vu. Having already reluctantly given one M3 back to BMW (the Isle of Man Green 2WD car we ran up to 15,000 miles), it’s now time to hand back its four-wheel drive replacement. And it hasn’t got any easier. In fact, this time, it might be harder.
Recently, Ollie Marriage wrote about how the long-term Porsche 911 was superior to all other sports cars because of its everyday ability. The M3 treads a very similar and enviable path. However, unlike the 911, it doubles down on the functionality thanks to four doors and back seats you can fold down (*cough* we’re looking at you Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio). For the last year it’s also been remarkably comfortable, and if the labyrinthine menus are anything to go by, infinitely customisable, which can make for a ‘watch-this-laptime’ weapon or a 35mpg angry repmobile.
But it’s not perfect. And I’ve always found the latest M3 to be an easy car to criticise in isolation: the 1,805kg waistline makes the G80 is the heaviest M3 of all time (which increases further when you spec 4WD), the fact its uprated ‘S58’ straight-six is borrowed from an SUV rather than being more M-y and bespoke, and, of course that face. But as soon as you get it next to something else, it starts to shine a bit brighter and reveal its true colours and excellence. To date, it’s outperformed its nearest rivals and having recently put it up against a 240i, it really shows M are still making M cars for M people. That’s hardcore petrolheads, not the band.
Now before I hand it back, there’s one car I’ve wanted to compare it to: the BMW iX. This too has a BMW badge, but I don’t see it as being anything like the BMW I’ve been driving. And if people have taken umbrage at the way the M3 looks, I don’t know what they’re going to say about the iX. Luckily Jason Barlow has just taken delivery of one.
RH: Not a looker, is it JB?
JB: Not in the conventional sense. Or indeed the unconventional. Who knows what it is. I’m currently working on a mammoth history of car design book, and I’ve recently been up to my eyeballs in old BMWs. Mercedes came this close to buying BMW in 1959, when the company was on its arse, and the Neue Klasse that arrived in ’62 basically saved it. It’s worth looking it up: every BMW for the next 35 years has its design roots in that car, classy, restrained and elegant. Obviously the Chris Bangle era threw all that out the window, and it’s happening again now. Some people think it’s a massive act of self-sabotage. I think the iX is fascinating.
RH: Am I wrong for not wanting diamante buttons to change my seating position? And I don’t know about you, but I currently feel like there are two BMWs. Your ‘i’ range and all the funky, controversial big grille designs, and then the people going for the last hurrah with things like the M5 CS, new M2 and this M3. Doesn’t Munich need a more joined up approach?
JB: I assume you’re referring to the iX’s crystal interior accoutrements. It’s funny, because BMW talks about its use of ‘shy tech’ in the iX – stuff you don’t notice until you’re actually using it, like the electric door buttons, hidden speakers, heated surfaces. I don’t think I’ve used the crystalline i-Drive controller thing once since the car arrived; the touchscreen is so good, I just go straight to it. Forget the exterior, the iX has hands-down the best interior of any car on sale right now.
RH: Given I’ve not charged mine with overpriced electricity this morning am I a heathen for liking the new M3? Yes, it lacks personality compared to older ones by swapping engagement for easy speed, but if you want a fast saloon, there isn’t anything better. And trust me, you soften to the looks. I am going to miss those rear hips immensely.
JB: Easy speed? I’d argue that the latest M3/4 is every bit as engaging as its predecessors, especially if you measure personality by the amount of concentration you need to keep it pointing the right way on a wet road. It’s definitely too heavy, though, and has, erm, drifted somewhat from the job description set out by the original in the mid-Eighties. Mind you, as chunky as it is, it’s still half a tonne lighter than the iX. It takes a whole working day to charge the battery – all 105.2 kWh of it – on my home set-up. Yes, my electricity bill has gone through the roof, but that’s still nothing compared to the existential dread you must feel every time you go past or into a petrol station. And I’ve managed to get a genuine 350-mile range out of the iX on one charge. Probably because it’s just not a car you want to thrash. It might oversteer on the limit, but I really have no idea.
RH: The M3 obviously invites you to play. I’ve spent the past few weeks on the £2.5k optional Michelin Cup 2 tyres. Don’t go for them. Yes, they’ll help with lap times but the M3 isn’t the best track car – too dumpy. And on the road the stiff sidewalls destroy ride comfort, add road noise and when not at temp (a challenge in the UK) it understeers a lot more.
JB: These are alien concepts in the iX. It’s seriously rapid but I just don’t see the point in nailing it, in a straight line never mind round corners. Comfort and range take priority. I’m not actively endorsing this attitude, as an ‘enthusiast’ driver, but steering and brake feel are less relevant, too. This is what bothers me about EVs. Fundamentally, they optimise the idea of getting from A to B.
RH: Ah, brakes. Thanks for reminding me. As good as they look, you can save yourself a chunk (£7,995) by sacking off the M Carbon ceramic brakes. However, if you can afford it, get 4WD. Sounds sacrilegious, it’s not. I would go for the carbon seats as they’re amazingly supportive and surprisingly comfortable. Also, M3s seem to suit an interesting, darker colour, it hides the grille and bloats the bodywork slightly… but stay away from Sao Paolo Yellow – no one wants to drive a 500bhp Stabilo highlighter. And only disengage everything if you’re up to the job. It can be very snatchy sideways – as we found out recently against James Deane’s awesome E92 drift car. But you’ll have to wait a few months to see the results of that. Trust me, it’s worth it.
JB: Can’t wait. I’ll be over here fiddling with my photochromic roof.