An almost totally complete #LapoftheAlps. It seemed to deserve a hashtag while we were doing it – and it still does. It was rather epic: 11 days, 2,319 miles on foreign soil, which at an average of 45.5mph meant we spent 50hrs and 58mins in the car. Biggest mileage day? 797 miles. Best mpg from a single tankful of petrol? 33.1mpg. No, really. This was #ToothlessonTour. Partner-in-road-trip Rowan Horncastle came up with that one. Well, we did have a lot of time on our hands.
And yet Toothless was only the support act as we weathered the perfect storm of motorshows, test drives and feature stories travelling across Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. The M3 played villain to the Bond-spec Lotus Exige in the Italian Dolomites, ferried me to the Geneva motor show, faced off against the new M3 Competition Pack and finally met up with the Ford Focus RS I helped build, for the eventual drive back home.
Do you know what all this meant? It mainly meant that packing was complicated. I had seven different bags for various eventualities (suit for show, ski kit for aping Roger Moore etc), my thinking being that once Rowan’s two vast camera bags were in, mine would have to pack into the gaps left behind. Once again, I’m very glad BMW decided not to get all sniffy about fitting extra body bracing and instead left the split-fold rear seats in place.
Road atlases went in one rear footwell, food and drink in the other, my usefully large door pocket swallowed wallet, glasses case and essential beanie, our phones went in the cupholders. Natch.
For the sake of integrity I’d love to be able to say I found fault with the M3 – but it struck such a perfect balance for this trip that I’m finding it hard. Yes, a 530d Touring would have hauled more easily and been more comfy and efficient on the long autobahn/autostrada/autoroute stretches, but as I mentioned last month, the M3 is less rowdy on its Continental winter tyres, the ride is perfectly acceptable and during the long stretches where I viewed Toothless from within the Exige’s cockpit, I felt nothing but envy...
On the first day, we encountered snow storms south of Stuttgart and over the passes into Austria, and the following day the temperature plummeted to -10°C up on the Valparola Pass. Yet only if I provoked it would the M3 misbehave. Hard to resist that particular temptation – and being truthful, on the snow-covered Gardena Pass, I did indulge the rear wheels. But even then, even with the traction disabled, the places you can get to in a twin-turbo 425bhp rear-drive sports saloon fitted with a good set of winter tyres will blow your mind. OK, the Lotus was even more mind-boggling in its low-grip dexterity, but it wasn’t hauling 300kg of men and equipment.
And Toothless was fun to drive. On the day we left Cortina d’Ampezzo, Rowan had got up at sparrowfart and gone for a drive in the Exige. It was the right choice – he’d been rewarded with a stunning sunrise on empty roads surrounded by soaring mountains. I’d chosen to stay back and do my emails. Muppet. So with the M3 fully laden, and Rowan on the maps, I chose not to head south to Venice and hang a right, but take in three mountain passes. Occasionally we stopped to take pictures (including the main image you see here) and marvel at the Dolomites, but mostly I just drove.
In Sport Plus, the engine detects hard driving and an artificial anti-lag works to keep the turbos spinning at over 120,000rpm, minimising lag. Works utterly brilliantly, making the throttle properly zappy. Sport suspension tightened things up a bit with all the weight on board, Comfort steering meant the endless hairpins never resulted in aching shoulders. It took us three hours to reach Bolzano. I can’t pretend they were a lost greatest hits of Alpine passes, but they were fun, they were quiet and they gave the car a real workout.
Too much of a workout for the brakes – they continue to be a real weakness in the M3’s dynamic package. The pedal goes soft and long, the brakes smoke and there’s fade. This was brought home when I got to France and drove a new Competition Pack M3. Firstly, it had the ceramic brakes (shame you have to shell out £6,250 to make your M3 stop properly, though), and secondly the other changes, especially to the differential, have improved its traction and calmed the excesses of its rear drive. Overall it felt more predictable and focused. It’s a £3k option on a new M3 or M4. I’d have it. But it didn’t detract from this trip. My M3 was never less than charismatic and capable. I need more #ToothlessonTour.
Good stuff: You learn a lot about cabin ergonomics on a trip like this. Not once did I have any aches or pains, nothing went wrong and the satnav and infotainment continue to be super-friendly to use.
Bad stuff: Something to be aware of. These rims have a gutter. Grit and dirt builds up in it and imbalances the wheel, so the steering shakes. Gotta keep the wheels clean! Got a crack in the windscreen.