The BMW M3 enjoys a particularly revered status among petrol-veined folk. It has always been top-dog, The Daddy. The competition has been stiff at times, but it has always kept its crown.
The M3 Coupé was launched a while after the E92 3-Series Coupé range was released and for some time the 335i was top of the ladder. This car was so potent and capable that there was some argument about whether or not an M3 was necessary. So, today, are we any closer to settling that debate?
I was a BMW salesman when the E92 first came out. It was quite an exciting time, BMW really rolled the promotional boat out and made a fuss. It happened again when the convertible model emerged. I liked it immediately because I just knew it would sell brilliantly, and hopefully make me a considerable amount of money. Truth be told, I left BMW before the latter could happen.
It was a bit of a sea-change from the E46 generation before it. The old car was bulky and muscular looking, a handsome, aggressive brute when it wore the M-Sport dress-up kit and 18” wheels. When the replacement came onto the scene, the first thing we noticed was how pretty it looked.
In place of bar-room brawler there stood dinner-suited aristocrat. The nose was sleeker, the bonnet longer, the rear glass reclined at a more laid-back angle. This was a genuine Coupé, it made the E46 look like a two-door saloon car. Like the old car it came in two flavours, SE and Sport. The Sport later onto the market, and wore the complete list of go-faster addenda, lowered suspension, big wheels, side-skirts and spoilers. The SE, with none of those, to me looks all the better for it.
It's the same story as with the Aston Martin DB9. That Ian Callum penned shape is as beautiful and simple as any car has ever been. The proportions and detailing are spot on. When the later DBS version came out with its extra cooling grilles, broader wheelarches and more aggressive demeanour, I reckon the purity of the original design was lost.
The car you see before you is a 335i SE, in Space Grey. This, for me, is the colour for a 3-Series Coupé as it shows the delicate lines off to the best possible advantage. Space Grey can only be had on the SE model, and here I think it works particularly well with the brushed aluminium finish to the window surrounds. In fact, this colour, with these details and on this shape, brings thoughts of that Aston Martin to my head once again.
It would have looked even better, though, had the purchaser opted for the 19” wheel upgrade. I'm not the biggest fan of look-at-me rimmage, but the five-spoke 19s, with their slightly softer styling look absolutely stunning on this car, better than the slightly hard-edged 18s seen here.
Inside, while still an ergonomic delight and offering an excellent driving position, even for me with my grossly distorted proportions, unfortunately this 335is cabin displayed one of my peculiar pet hates. I cannot stand beige interiors. Well, that's not strictly true, beige seat facings and carpets are fine. Beige plastics, though remind me terribly of old IBM PCs that have faded to that horrible nicotine yellow they always did.
Unfortunately, it also betrays that some of the switchgear really doesn't quite cut it any more. It's nit-picking, but things like the electric mirror adjusters, the electric window switches, little incidental controls don't offer tactile delight when used. On the other hand, the central stack with the Hi-Fi and HVAC setup are still as good as they ever were, meaning probably just about up to scratch in the year 2011.
The sports seats are very good, the extendable thigh support is welcome, I have plenty of space behind the wheel and headroom is even sufficient. Astonishingly, looking behind me there's even some rear-seat legroom. A couple of my smaller mates could comfortably come for a ride, if I could convince them. The rear windows are, unusually, sealed shut, losing the electric motor that the E46's had to pop them open for ventilation. Back-seat drivers do get a feed from the air-conditioning though, to spare them from suffocation.
When you first fire the 335i up, the noise is slightly disappointing. It doesn't sound like its either a particularly high capacity, or as tough and brawny as you might expect. Instead, it sounds a little tappety, a little four-cylinderish. Some of that noise is apparently down to the fuel-injection system. At no point is there any hint though towards the pair of turbochargers that lurk below all the plastic shrouding. It's the existence of these twin blowers that win the 335 its extra 5 over the 330, taking horsepower up to 306 from 265. You have to say, though, 41 horsepower isn't a whole load out of two turbochargers.
The disappointing sound is well married to the cars docility at slow speeds. The steering feels stiff and under-assisted compared to what I'm used to, the accelerator a mite on the sensitive side, but it doesn't feel like an animal. Stop at the junction onto London Road. Indicate left, clear, pull out gently, no traffic; floor it.
I'm instantly forced back into my seat, only to bounce out again as the rear wheels scrabble for traction. They find it in an instant and then my body is thrown rearwards again, the revs soaring through three, four, five, six, seven thousand RPM, then an instantaneous gearchange from the 5-speed steptronic box and into second for more of the same. This is a very fast car indeed.
OK, that was fun but this time I'll be a little more analytical. Sports mode, floor it; there's the briefest of hesitations before it girds its loins and lunges forward, the acceleration becoming ever more acute until a final rush at the end. I put this down to the turbos, there's no lag in the conventional sense, but there are certainly a few power spikes that add character to the power delivery. A bit like a two-stroke engine, or a mild shot of nitrous.
The thing is, it may have “only” 306hp but it doesn't feel a lot slower than the old M3, with its normally aspirated 3.2 straight six lump. The turbo'd six in the 335i has plenty of character and is very free-revving, and a few US car mags reckoned they were seeing 0-60 times of around 5 seconds, on US ditchwater-grade gasoline. The M3 also had that incredible soundtrack, and the initial worry was that the aural assault had gone missing this time around.
I needn't have fretted.
Press the loud pedal down and that agricultural sound at tickover is replaced with a mellifluous, musical hum, until you reach five thousand revs or so. From there on in it's transformed still further, into a full-on, Ferrari-esque howl that delights my senses and causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. During my drive I take it through a tunnel a few times for pure sonic thrills, a thoroughly addictive game to play. The 6500-7200 rpm G-Spot doesn't last very long, though. My fun is taken from me every time the auto box opts to throw me another gear.
It's frustrating, this. BMW makes a superb automatic box, and this is as good as any. The changes are smooth and probably faster than I could make them myself, and it always finds precisely the right gear for the road and the revs. However, sometimes I don't want the right gear. Some times I want the gear that gives the best sound. Also, the point at which it changes up is determined by how much pressure the driver puts on the accelerator. I cannot, therefore, accelerate gently from standstill to seven thousand to listen to how that voice changes. For that reason alone, if this were my car I'd go for the six-speed manual box.
A 335i comes equipped with the lower, stiffer sports suspension even SE trim. It does quite a lot to sharpen up the handling over the regular configuration, but it also does much to ruin the ride quality. Fortunately, travelling at speed everything becomes a lot more civilised and, being truthful the low-speed ride isn't as bad as some other cars, including equivalent Audis. It troubles me, though, that it feels the way it does. It's almost as if BMW have stiffened it to make it feel sporty, regardless if physics actually dictated it as necessary for handling.
It's just as well that the handling itself is absolutely sublime, then. In fact, it's difficult to imagine the M3 acquitting itself any better on a country road, or displaying quite as much mid-corner adjustability. That stiff steering turns out to be delightfully satisfying and almost telepathically accurate, an added advantage of these slightly smaller wheels. As an outright drivers car, that wilfully hard ride is pretty much the only fault I can single out. Providing you go for the manual box. Speed, sound, fun, it's all here for the asking.
Overall, I can't possibly tell you that there is no point in buying the M3 over the 335i. If you were considering an M3 you're unlikely to plump for a lower grade at the last minute; you wouldn't go for crab if you can afford lobster. The point I'm making is that the 335i is interesting enough to warrant consideration on its own virtues. That power delivery has so much character, the sound builds so dramatically, and in SE trim the car gets the added fun of stealthiness and elegance.
If it was me armed with five thousand tenners, I'd be sorely tempted to leave the M3 to the poseurs and image-worshippers. The 335i is quite enough for me.