Monday, 18 June 2012

BMW M3:- Still doing it right after all these years.

Some cars are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. The BMW M3, it could be argued, falls into every one of those categories.  It's been around for a quarter of a century in one iteration or another, but while so many other cars run out of ideas like recent episodes of the Simpsons, the M3 always has something new to offer.

As we all know, the first iteration of the M3 was based on that staple of the late '80s solicitors car park, the E30 3 series. It worked its magic without recourse to big engines or cheaty turbocharging, relying instead on good old fashioned fitness for purpose. To be totally honest, I've never driven one, but that doesn't matter right now. It passed into legend years ago and so many column inches have been devoted to it that only the most die-hard car denialist could have any doubts over its pedigree.

My experience of the Bavarian Beast began with the E36 that came online in 1993. This shape had a far broader appeal and was available in much greater numbers, with two or four doors and, later on, with the roof lopped off. One of the great drives of my life involved an M3 Evo in Techno Violet, the roof down, At The Drive In on the stereo and the stair-rods of rain subsiding for an hour or two. 

That said, I had an equally great drive in a Phoenix Yellow E46 M3, too. This car took the already terrific recipe of the E36, with its throbbing straight six engine and razor sharp reflexes, and built on it. The E46 that resulted was of the more complete cars to ever hit the market. This is the generation of M3 that I'm most familiar with: if I close my eyes I can feel that stitched steering wheel in my palms, feel that no-messing clutch, even remember which of my shoulder muscles were involved in the business of steering. I remember that the ride was assertive rather than hard, that road noise was substantial, rather than overbearing, and that journeys could be dramatic and exciting or fast and easy, depending on how you wanted to play it.

And that's the great thing about the M3: it's not just a faster three-series. Every aspect of the car seems to have gone to boot camp to make it better at doing its job. It's not just a trim-level, it's 3-Series, the next level. Compare the E46 M to its junior, the 330i, and this point is hammered home. It's obviously faster and better through the twisties, but it's also better riding and not really any less economical. It's almost like the M3 is what the E46 was always supposed to be, and that every other 3-series is just a watered down, economy version.

And so we come to the E92 generation that, astonishingly, is being discontinued: the E90 chassis being euthanized after seven years production. And, thankfully, it offers the same package as the E46 did, but turned up a bit. Well, a lot.

First thing that reassures you is the styling. Rather than nailing on an Argos Shopping List worth of go-fast addenda, they have repeated the E46 trick of emphasising the best parts of the basic coupe bodyshell. The E92 was always more svelte and lithe than the E46, so the M-division stylists had a head start. But it can't be denied that this car looks more exotic than a German car has any right to. It stacks up well against the competition, too: quick Audi A5s have the same 'I'M A GODDAM AUDI' persona as every other Ingolstadt export since 2004, but more so with white LED eyeliner applied to embarrassing effect. The Benz C63 too, it amounts to a bodykitted extension of every other C-class on the road. The '6.3' badges are crass, not to mention incorrect, and the overall effect a feel of box-ticking, rather than intelligent thought.

None of them are hideous, or course. But the M3 is the only one that could be realistically dubbed 'beautiful'. It's greater than the sum of its parts. It also, I put it to you, wears its very risky Dakar Yellow livery with a sight more dignity than you'd expect.

Speaking of expectations, the interior doesn't exceed any whatsoever. There's no escaping the fact that it's still a three-series. That all said, it does go to prove how basically sound the middleweight BMWs insides actually are. Yeah, we've seen it all before, it's been around for seven years after all. But it doesn't look dated, per se, and still works just as well as ever. I've always been a fan of the workmanlike nature of BMW dashboards, and the straightforward setup seems especially at home in a car as focussed as the M3.

Fittingly, exuberance has been dialled up a notch or three with some natty touches including colour keyed yellow inserts to the superbly contoured leather seats' the welcome return of BMWs carbon-fibre look embossed leather on the dashboard, and of course the trademark illumination in the gearknob, in this case controlling BMWs fast acting dual clutch sequential gearbox.

And the other side of the gearbox you'll find the engine, which it feels like we've been building up to discussing all the way up to this point. Put simply, it's wonderful. That fact isn't particularly headline-worthy; no M-division engine thus far has ever been a nail, but it had to be pretty special to even hold a candle to the fabulous S54 lump from the E46. And, happily, it grasps that candle with both hands and waves it at the E46 in a thoroughly condescending manner.

Obvious facts first: It's gained 2 cylinders and 800 cc, and adopted a V8 configuration this time around, it winds out 71 more horsepower than its forebear, delivering 414 in total. CHECK The badge on the top of the intake cover reads M V8; it ought to read Mmmmm, V8. This is an astonishing piece of kit.

V8s are great, but seem to come in two delicious flavours: Old-school the-bigger-the-better, ain't-no-substitute-for-cubes, raaar-hear-me-roar V8s, as heard on a dragstrip near you; and there are the jewel-like, high-revving screamfests. The M3 seems to offer the best of both worlds..

The C63 AMG has a dirty great, as in 6.2 litres great, V8; a fact about which it simply will not shut up. When it starts it's with a fearsome cough and grunt, an insistent 'FUCK YEAH' and, fun as it is, it's a bit uncouth. The M3 starts with as little drama as a modern turbodiesel, and then settles to a worryingly ordinary, tappetty idle. Any fears of ordinariness are dropped the moment you add even the first hint of first gear load where, surprisingly, memories of the E46 come flooding back. In ordinary driving the V8 shares some similarities of tone and volume with the previous engine, but that just makes up a solid foundation for the aural treat that awaits as the revs rise.

In full flight the E92 M3 is almost as much of a pleasure to watch and listen to as it is to drive. Again; first mention goes to what it isn't; an AMG. The Merc holds absolutely nothing in the way of audio surprises, it starts out as a powerful, loud V8 and just gets louder. I'm not saying it's in any way unpleasant; the noise is 100% dragstrip. All shout and trousers. But, it's fair to say, very predictable. Conversely, let the M3 off the leash and nobody expects the blood curdling wail that follows that obligatory 8 cylinder warble, before climaxing in a rich soprano scream. Honestly, for a Bavarian, it does a very passable Ferrari impersonation.

And that's the key to what continues to lend greatness to the M3. You could, if you were being vicious, accuse fast Mercs and Audis of being born from a very effective box-ticking exercise. Big power? Check. Aggressive styling? Check. Racetrack handling? Naturally. But a sense of passion isn't quite so easy to measure, and I feel that the car with the blue and white propeller carries a greater abundance of that most valuable commodity.

Long may it stay that way.