BMW's M3 is here! It's powerful, it's refined and we're blown away, but does it reset the benchmark amid some stiff competition?
I probably should not admit to this, but I've been waiting all year for this one vehicle to be launched. It's pretty, yet aggressive-looking, has more power than you would probably need, but most importantly, it's a BMW M3.
The original mid-sized rear-wheel drive performance car is now in its fourth generation, but this 20 year-old shows no intentions of slowing down. Using technology pioneered on the race track, this old lady only grows stronger.
M3 certainly gets its share of admiring glances - if not from its imposing looks, then from the bark its newfangled V8 emits.
The decision to use a V8 was the cause of some initial consternation with BMW followers after two generations of six-cylinder power. However, just a few hours with this E92 version should convince them otherwise.
Naturally aspirated and high revving, the V8 displaces 4 litres with outputs of 309 kW at a mind-blowing 8 300 r/min and peak torque of 400 Nm at 3 900 r/min. 85% of this torque is available from as low as 2 000 r/min all the way to the red line for linear power delivery.
BMW quotes acceleration from 0-100 km/h in 4.8 seconds. Its top speed is electronically limited to 250 km/h. The manufacturer claims average fuel consumption on the combined cycle of 12.4 l/100 km, but on our launch route of just under 400 km, we averaged a figure of 15.6 l/100 km.
It's unlikely that owners of this car will be too concerned about achieving impressive fuel economy, though...
Built alongside BMW's F1 powerplant, the 4.0-litre unit replaces the multi-award winning 3.2-litre straight six. The new unit is specific to M3 and is 15 kg lighter than its predecessor. And while weight is down by 7%, power is increased by 17% and fuel consumption is better by up to 8%.
The engine also uses several weight-reducing components, including an aluminium silicon compound crackcase housing, low pressure double vanos variable valve timing and a brake regeneration system.
In fact, the entire car is a weight-reduction exercise. In its fourth generation, it is physically larger than E46 M3, but its lightweight components, which include an aluminium bonnet and front axle, plastic fenders and a roof made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, ensure the car is only 60 kg heavier than before.
The carbon fibre roof, while used in limited quantities on the previous M3 CSL, is being used on a production car in this segment for the first time. And while BMW was quick to point out that a sunroof can be specified for any M3, this then comes with a steel roof and a weight gain of about 20 kg. But that's not quite the idea, is it?
Don't be fooled by its looks. While M3 is based on the 3 Series coupe, it shares very little with this car apart from its doors, window and windshield glass, head- and taillights and bootlid.
About 80% of the car has been redesigned, making this a totally focused sports coupe. A menacing bonnet power bulge just creeps into your field of vision from the cabin, while redesigned aerodynamic side mirrors, M skirts with large intakes and the carbon fibre roof are some of the tell-tale exterior signs.
The four fat 18-inch alloys it rolls on, and the four tailpipes peeking out from the rear bumper are a few more signs indicating this is more than your average 3 Series Coupe.
Slide into the leather seats developed specifically for M3 and punch the start/stop button to hear the V8 roar into life.
The truth of the matter, however, is that new M3 is more grown up and refined than before with technology that could easily watch you slide within an inch of your life before gamely reeling you back in.
It is agile and pliable and allows you to have your wicked ways with it, but don't be surprised when you're reprimanded with a firm slap on the wrists and a click of the tongue.
The short-throw six-speed gearbox is good for punchy, decisive shifts with a slick clutch action that doesn't seem to have the snatchiness previously experienced with BMW products. Don't expect an automatic gearbox just yet though, but more on that later.
Feedback through the Servotronic power steering is positive and pushing on lights up the instrument panel, indicating that there are greater forces in operation beneath you all the time. Thankfully, they won't interfere with your fun too much as was demonstrated by the very pleasant Augusto Farfus.
The Brazilian leads the world touring car championship following his win at Oschersleben this past weekend and he made the fearsome M3 look like a submissive kitten on a string around Killarney.
The revised suspension uses McPherson struts at the front and a new five-link rear axle with several lightweight components. Optional Electronic Damper Control (EDC) has three settings - Sport, Normal and Comfort - that are able to adapt to throttle and steering inputs. Launch cars were also fitted with the M Dynamic package.
The new variable M differential lock is speed sensitive and pushes drive power to the wheel with the highest level of traction at the moment slippage is "sensed".
The ride quality - even on some of the rutted sections of the route - was superb throughout the drive, with the Normal setting adequate for most sections.
The Sport setting tightened the suspension and damping settings even more for the track, allowing an alarming level of body control.
A Power function sparks more immediate throttle responses.
The Sports brake pads, developed to withstand countless laps at the Nurburgring testing grounds, stood up to some serious pressure on the track without even a hint of fade.
The standard brakes worked as well on the road section of our test route. Floating compounds are drilled and ventilated and feature fade compensation and hill start assist among others.
Attention to detail has not gone unnoticed, and the rev counter has a variable engine speed warning that adapts the rev limiter depending on oil temperature.
Yes, the M3 is adaptable to suit practically any driver and any driving situation by adjusting anything from throttle response to levels of damping, though this does require beating the beast that is iDrive.
Alternatively, just toss the iDrive bible onto one of the comfortable rear seats, fire up the V8 and enjoy the drive. If either of these paths leave you feeling unrewarded, you should probably stick to pedal power.
More to come
By the way, BMW SA officials confirmed at the launch that a new sequential transmission is under development and will debut next year on this M3.
Also, expect a sedan version of the M3 from April next year. Price indications are likely to change, but you should be willing to part with R635 000 or more.
The base price for the M3 Coupe is R650 000.
Be a Cosmonaut
To coincide with the arrival of its new M3, BMW SA is hosting a competition on www.bmw.co.za where one winner will win become a Cosmonaut for a day and break the sound barrier in a legendary Russian MiG fighter jet.