The notorious M3 never made a fanciful four-door. BMW's single attempt in 22 years hardly being their finest moment. Is the latest V8 version any better?
There have been four incarnations of M3. From four- to six- and now finally eight-cylinder power, the small-executive sedan range's two-door supercar spin-offs have been revered and feared in equal measure.
Adding practicality by means of two additional doors - a natural progression for the sedan based 3-series - has just not gelled.
After the rather softly sprung and dynamically lukewarm original M3 four-door of the mid 90s, BMW has skipped a generation in reintroducing the super-sedan concept.
You have to feel for the Bavarians too, they already produces the übersaloon in the guise of M5, so producing a junior 'M5' could hardly be construed a market priority.
Featuring a similar wheelbase and the menacing front styling, with deep-cut front bumper spoilers and elaborately flared wheelarches, front-on there is little to distinguish the new four-door from its coupe sibling.
It's only from the M3 sedan A-pillar onwards that you notice the less rakish front windscreen, an extra pillar accommodating the rear doors and the generally less curvaceous side-profile.
Curiously the sedan is 35mm shorter, yet being 29mm taller it offers better headroom, and 51mm more shoulder and arm room for rear passengers. Boot space has increased by 20-litres to 450-litre capacity too.
The interior, despite M-spec instrumentation and some fancy steering wheel stitching, is wholly underwhelming. And you need to reach back for your seatbelt too now, there is no robot-arm passing it around like on the Coupe.
No carbon-fibre lid
Gone too, unfortunately, is the characteristic carbon-fibre roof. The introduction of two-extra doors made structural rigidity untenable for a carbon-fibre roof, and it's been replaced by a sun-roof adorned steel item.
In sun-kissed South-Africa the sun-roof could be rationalised as an acceptable trade-off, yet the shape morphs too similarly to a standard 3-series without the carbon-fibre embedded lid.
The rear is the least flattering view of the M3 four-door, with standard 3-series rear-light cluster screaming 320i, the only tell-tale performance indicators are the quad-exhausts, boot lid spoiler, mesh bumper inserts and M insignia.
M3s have always been quintessentially Q-cars: sophisticated and stylish, yet stealthily concealing their latent performance credentials behind 3 Series-sourced styling. Despite this heritage the M3 four-door is simply too staid looking, especially compared to the Coupe version, and perhaps more pointedly, its RS4 and C63 German four-door rivals.
Save yourself a packet too and steer clear of ticking the optional 19-inch wheel box on the spec sheet. The standard multi-spoke 18-inchers are much prettier and more practical in their gunmetal finish, especially if you're a hard driver, who is going to cake mags in brake residue.
The steel roof adds 20kg. Two additional doors another 5kg - remember, you're replacing two oversized Coupe profile doors with four-sedan sized ones. In consequence the sedan is 25kg heavier and one-tenth of a second slower from 0-100km/h. You'll only get there in 4.9 seconds - what a calamity.
Beyond petulant performance comparisons all the V8 conspired virtues are still in attendance. The trick, 4-litre, M-division engine has eight 500cc over-square pots which endow it with 309kW at 8 300r/min and 400Nm of torque at 3 900r/min.
For now there's only the six-speed manual transmission option, although BMW's highly anticipated, Getrag-sourced, 7-speed M-DTC twin-clutch gearbox should debut after May this year.
In synergy the V8 and six-speed 'box are a redoubtable combination. People are uniquely seduced by the 8 300r/min power peak, yet the M3 engine is so tractable we swept over the Eastern Cape launch route to Somerset-East mostly in sixth - powering past cattle-feed trucks with disdainful ease. Normally suicidal overtaking margins are dispelled with remarkably little drama in fourth.
If you have room the speedo nanny limiter reigns you in at 270km/h on the clock, at which speed the M3 is still about 1000r/min shy of its power peak...The engine noise is still sinfully intoxicating, yet wind and road noise was perceptibly more present than on the Coupe version. After one particular high-speed run our car kept flashing the 'bonnet-open' warning for all of 130km.
BMW allowed us to use the Aldo Scribante racetrack outside Port Elizabeth to safely explore the handling limits of the M3 four-door. A tight, yet deceivingly quick and undulating track; it proved the undoing of me in particular as I spun out - twice.
Beyond my driving faux pas, the M3 four-door straddles the divide perfectly between forbidding turn-in sharpness and tempered handling. The electronically self-lockable rear M-diff, which ensures optimal traction and balance when the rear starts getting light under cambered power applications, was working overtime around Aldo Scribante.
You could actively feel it 'clunk' and engage when laying on power with apex points in sight. It's a very reassuring feeling, the rear-squirms just enough to carry meaningful momentum onto a straight before settling.
Dominant low speed handling characteristic is still safety orientated intrinsic understeer. At speed though, turn-in is so sharp and body control so neutral you forget about the silly 3 Series family resemblance rear-styling, infuriating i-Drive and lack of rooftop carbon-fibre, you are simply immersed in the dynamic handling experience.
It goes light at the back if you're being too entrepreneurial with throttle and too economical with the steering slip-angle, yet the M-diff saves the day time and again.
With an RS4 you'll find yourself at and possibly over the limit quicker, it's the all-wheel traction that lulls you into a false sense of security over undulating, off-camber corners. M3 is more a partnership, there's synergy. It telepathically placates you through the steering and chassis, whispering you're not running neat enough lines or steering inputs.
Hottest small four-door of them all?
M3 and Audi RS4 comparisons have been raging for nearly a year now. It was always a rather oddly blended argument, yet with the four-door M3 available, this comparison has come into sharp focus again.
The M3 four-door faces dissent in it own ranks too, from its 335i cousin, which comes close to matching it for straight-line performance at altitude, although not in chassis dynamics.
Aesthetically the RS4, although older, is still the prettier car, with a superior interior architecture, ambience and rear-passenger comfort. In a straight line it has always been, and remains, petulantly close, and hardly worth a call.
Handling wise, the M3, now in four-door form too, remains the purer car dynamically. You can't drive a M3 four-door everywhere - especially in damp conditions - as quickly as a RS4, but somewhere it will satisfy the racer in you more acutely.
With the practicality those extra doors afford, you can now scare your daughter's teenage boyfriends silly on the Tuesday night mall pick-up-and-go run too. Priceless really.
BMW M3 sedan R646 500