Is doing the Three Peaks Challenge in a new BMW M3 a stupid idea?
The Three Peaks Challenge is basically Le Mans for Gore-Tex enthusiasts. If you haven’t spent your life living in a Blacks catalogue, the aim of the game is to climb the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland (Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis) in less than 24 hours.
It just so happens that in the shadow of these mountains are some of the UK’s best driving roads, and when you string them all together in less than a day, it makes for quite the dynamic proving ground. It’s exactly what I needed. Not the hellish hiking (well, the lockdown paunch may disagree) but a properly chunky drive in TG's new longterm M3.
See, the new BMW G80 M3 is such a hefty, complex and techy piece of kit (it’s now more of a shrunk down M5, rather than a genetically modified 3-Series) in the first three hundred miles I really struggled to get under its skin. So, when a bunch of hyper-competitive delusional mates asked if I wanted to do the Three Peaks Challenge as part of a stag do before the actual stag do, I said yes. Mainly for the driving.
Now, if you log on to the official Three Peaks website it says that the driving distance is 462 miles. This is wrong. Because no one aside sheep live at the foot of Snowdon or Ben Nevis. For me, to lasso the UK’s cruellest climbs from London and then return with legs full of lactic acid was a 1,300-mile round trip. If I hadn’t worked out elements of the M3 by then, we may as well give it back now.
With the rear seats down to increase the 480-litre boot space to allow for camera gear, a golf bag full of clubs, booze (stag do, init), bergens and a worrying amount of glucose gels and Compeed, I left and headed for Wales. But not the easy way.
Snaking to Snowdonia via some of Top Gear’s favourite Welsh roads (I’d recommend dropping a pin on the B4391 outside Ffestiniog now) it instantly became clear that the M3 is a lot softer than the initial ride would have you believe.
The body control is remarkable considering the 1,805kg G80 is the heaviest M3 of all time (over 150kg more than its F80 predecessor and just 100kg lighter than the much larger, much more luxurious M8 Comp). But like many of these hefty new German saloons, you need a bit of speed and movement to get the springs and dampers working and out of the unforgiving primary ride. And there is some proper suspension under there.
The way that the suspension and damping cushions and catches the lumpy bits of Wales gives you the confidence to push the chassis and use the traction that e-diff gives you. But it’s a bit too soft for Wales, often using up all its suspension travel and smacking its chin on the tarmac having conquered a crest.
Luckily the suspension is adjustable (as is the engine, gearbox, steering and – weirdly – the brakes) so you can firm it up. Yes, this sacrifices some of its languid movement and comfort, but saves you grimacing every time it drags its face across the floor.
Arriving at the Pen-y-Pass the tectonic plates in my head shifted: I no longer had an issue with the front grille. “Alexa, play the sound of angels singing.”
Casting a magnificent deep, dark shadow against the clear golden sky, the M3 just worked with the scenery. A high-horsepower emerald framed by Wales’ beauty. I was officially over that aesthetic argument that’s been raging online. And newsflash! There’s nothing me or you can do about it now.
But what the official Three Peaks website doesn’t recommend is eating a ropey burger for dinner and getting a rough night’s sleep. Even so, we climbed (in fancy dress) Snowdon. Four hours up and down. Boom.
Leaving Snowdonia there was an impromptu brake test to avoid a stubborn sheep. Thankfully the big discs and pads did their job, making sure that grille up front didn’t have an unexpected lamb dinner.
Even though they’re not ceramics, they’re still muscular things. But I’m pretty sure the development team in Munich didn’t simulate that scenario, as a nine iron ejected itself out the golf bag and gave me the ultimate sucker punch via the kidney cutouts in the carbon shelled seats. Now that’s proper consumer testing.
Via a bootlid Burger King (the carbon spoiler is a great dam for stopping stray chips) we headed for the Lake District. The very old, very narrow, very immovable dry stone walls really showed the increased footprint and girth of the latest M3. This isn’t a humble saloon anymore; it’s 4.6 inches longer, 0.4-inch wider, and 0.1-inch higher than the F80 but feels even more so thanks to the incessant, overactive parking sensors that constantly think you’re having a crash.
Now, this is where our lawyers and health and safety department would like me to tell you that I had some sleep. But what they aren’t bothered about me telling you is the sleeping arrangements. But I am, as I’m proud of them. Parting the bags to one side, I slipped a self-inflating ground mat along the whole length, posted myself in a sleeping bag and wriggled my way down. Hey presto! A full-length bed. BMW doesn’t mention that in the brochure.
Unfortunately, my sleep wasn’t as lengthy as I’d anticipated as the pyschopaths I was with decided to race up and down England’s tallest and stupidly steep volcanic hump in two hours eight minutes.
Crawling out the north of the Lakes we refuelled the car (averaging an acceptable 33mpg) with V-Power, and the humans with McDonalds. Again, not the advice you’ll find on the official Three Peaks website.
Having made exceptional time, I charged north to Scotland and this is where the modern M3 really excelled. With a clear night’s sky, no one on the road and many, many miles to cover, it served up luxury, convenience and speed in a familiar but appealing package. That’s what M3s do so well. But this one is £87k – so doesn’t have the same accessibility to the aspirational petrolhead as older models.
The ‘Visibility Pack’ makes up £1,500 of that price. Don’t worry, headlights come as standard. But if you tick this box you get the fancy frickin’ laser lights. You’ll know that a car is fitted with them from the outside thanks to the fancy blue eyeliner around the lamps. But you’ll really know a car is fitted with them on the inside if you’re doing over 45mph and it’s pitch black, as the full-beam magically doubles its length to over 600m – like it’s taken some sort of luminary Viagra.
Can I recommend them? Well, I’ve read online that some people have just specced them because the blue headlights are cool (which they are). But if you live in the wilderness where the skies are dark, the weather is wild and scenery is supersized, it’s the best money you can spend.
You’re only as fast as you can see, remember? I must point out that the adaptive element (where it can maintain full beam while blocking out oncoming traffic or obstacles) hunts around a bit and isn’t as intuitive or reactive as the Mercedes system. But it still managed to spot a weary dear in the road from half a mile away which saved that grille from another unexpected dinner, this time venison.
We arrived at Ben Nevis at 3am. Forgetting to pack batteries for our head torches (the official Three Peaks website probably said something about this), and being absolutely exhausted, we decided to nap and rise at daybreak. I couldn’t use the backseat bed, so we had to settle for the carbon buckets on max recline. Unlike my previous report where I praised the seats for their cossetting grip, I now felt the absolute opposite as a carbon bucket with a nub in the middle isn’t conducive to a great sleep. Luckily exhaustion and a massive calorie deficit were on our side.
We summited the 1,345-metre beast shortly after sunrise. Then came down again utterly broken. But the green machine was waiting for us and ready for more. Had it finally gotten under my skin? Yep. And better than that, I’d formed a bond with it and really began to appreciate its bandwidth and the tech on board; especially the autonomous function on the 14-hour drive back after the actual stag do. So should you do the M3 Peaks rather than the standard Three Peaks? Well, it’s a bit quicker and more comfortable than an old Transit that stinks of wet socks. Just remember to save some money for fuel.