• These are the biggest M3 and M4 derivatives yet, and it shows.
• There are some wild exterior and interior colour combinations.
• The question is: do these new M-cars tip the balance away from RS4 and C63?
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
In the beginning, there was E30. And all was good. But then BMW decided to DTM, and therefore there was #1 M3, and everything became even better.
What started as a humble homologation project for BMW Motorsport, inadvertently birthed a hugely influential model.
The original M3 had two-doors, an atmospheric four-cylinder engine and a dogleg gearbox. BMW's new sixth-generation M3 has four-doors, a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six engine and eight automatically shifting gears, managed by a torque converter.
BMW customers and fans are deeply loyal. Perhaps even obsessive. Especially about all things M3 (or rather, M4, if you wish to trace the exact two-door legacy to present).
An impossible standard
With each successive generation of M3 (and now, M4), there have been criticisms. While other brands would jealously observe the excellent engines and dream of achieving similar steering feedback levels and high-speed cornering balance, BMW's efforts have always been held to an almost impossible standard from a family sedan platform.
I won't bore you with statistics. They pass quickly in mentioning: 375kW and 650Nm. And yes, South African M3/4 customers only have the option of the Competition variants. Fast? Absolutely: 0-100km/h in 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 290km/h.
The first consignment of South African sixth-generation M3/4s all happen to be rear-wheel drive, too, with the all-wheel drive configuration scheduled for later this year.
It has a lot of presence - inside and out
With its bolder wheel arches, wider track, aero-indented bonnet and speedbump teasing bumper, these new M-cars carry BMW's radically oversized kidney grille design with aplomb. On a new M3 or M4, there is no asymmetry of proportion. The styling and design project pure road presence, without a trace of awkwardness.
The cabin is typic 3- or 4 Series: a few remaining touch buttons and dials, with all the digitisation you'd expect in a contemporary German luxury car. There are terrifically large shift paddles too, which you'll never miss engaging a gear, even at extreme angles of steering lock.
We should probably address the carbon and colourways, for they are radical. BMW has trimmed the M3 and M4 cabin architecture with more carbon-fibre weave finishing than an Airbus A350 fuselage.
And the leather trim? You could go with Kyalami orange or mix and match tennis ball yellow with blue. If late 1990s Frankfurt Auto Show concept car interiors are your thing, the seat and trim colour possibilities of these new BMWs will appeal.
What's it drive like?
Statically the new BMW M3 and M4 are pinnacle M-Division engineering product. The promise of relentless performance. Deft balance. An unrivalled driving position for a vehicle that can comfortably cruise and seat three other passengers.
But all the numbers I can quote, images you can look and M3 heritage you remember inadequately capture the driving experience. And with M-Division's core product line, the driving experience is still a thing. We looped a generous route with the new M3 and M4, collecting ascents and descents across the Western Cape's more technical mountain passes. Roads that see a fair amount of heavy trucking traffic, with wonderfully inviting turn-in points, and all manner of mid-corner bumps.
These new M-cars offer a staggering level of customisation. You can set throttle response, gearbox shift intensity and a myriad of other functions. But beyond all the gamification of these digitally adjustable parameters, the G80/F80 platform engineering is what enables them.
The only specification feature you need to quote at a braai is the wheel sizes when the subject turns to things M3/4.
At the front axle, these cars now roll 19-inch alloys, trailed by 20s at the rear. Crucially, the rolling diameter of all four wheels is the same, which means you have a higher profile tyre upfront. And that's rather important. The additional profile makes for a more supple sidewall at extreme cornering loads, and the possibility of a greater contact patch during extreme braking or cornering.
Does the theory of M3 or M4s smaller front wheels work? Very. On a brilliantly surfaced racing circuit, the transitional steering and handling dynamic, from turn-in to lateral load, is more accessible for average drivers. But it is on real-world roads where M3 and M4 are matchless. BMW has managed to get the suspension linkage kinematics and damper settings within a great working range. Performance cars with 375kW are often found scrabbing for grip and being deflected off the intended line on rougher South African roads. Not the case with these BMWs.
The steering is impeccably accurate and very quick, too. It allows you to place the new M3 and M4 with great authority, even on those narrower mountain passes, with absolutely no run-off if you get it wrong.
We have to talk about all those kilograms
Great BMW driver's cars are supposed to shrink in size as you go faster. This is an old adage, but there is no denying that for all their stability and cornering poise, the M3 and M4 have become very heavy cars.
The new M3 Competition is a 1730kg sedan. Compared to their predecessors, the new M3 and M4 are about three full tanks of fuel heavier, which makes them not far off a previous-generation M5 in mass. Lightweighting will be delivered into the range with the limited edition derivates in future. Still, with that kind of vehicle mass, the R140 000 optional carbon-ceramic brake upgrade becomes something of a necessity.
Other debits, beyond the weight? I find the drift analyser gimmickry. And although ZF's eight-speed automatic transmission might be the single greatest drivetrain component in automotive history, it cannot replicate the tactility and rawness of BMW's seven-speed dual-clutch.
Economies of scale within the M-Division product matrix, and a future burden of hybridisation, makes the ZF eight-speed a more sensible transmission for the new M3/4 over its lifecycle, but something of the driving experience has been dulled. Local customers will not have the option on the six-speed manual gearbox.
I wish it sounded better, too, but EU noise and emission mandates are something beyond BMW's control.
There is a caveat concerning the optional carbon-fibre structure seats that also warrant mentioning. They look terrific but can be bothersome to get up-and-out of. If you are slim, there is no question that an investment in these seats, at R80 000, is worth it.
Seats are something you use every second of your time in a car. And these BMW carbon seats, available for M3 and M4, are brilliantly padded for long-distance driving. They also offer tremendous lateral grip during high-speed cornering, keeping driver and front-passenger secure in their experience.
Where does this leave the M3/RS4/C63 comparison?
The cars are both prodigiously priced (M3 at R1 860 000 and M4, R1 940 000), but BMW's value proposition is always balanced against demand - which appears to be plentiful. BMW claims to have outsold AMG and Audi RS combined in the local market last year.
Which one to have? Theoretically, fewer doors should mean a slightly stiffer bodyshell. Still, you'd need to be an enormously talented driver and technical analyst to tell me the difference in handling precision between M3 and M4. I have always been given to the Q-car packaging and styling of an M-car sedan, not to mention its ability to deputised as a family car. There is no discussing M3 without mentioning the context of RS4 (Avant) and C63 AMG.
BMW has the newest car amongst these three symbols of all things fast and German. The G80 M3 is ridiculously quick and very accessible in its driving performance, even on tricky South African road surfaces.
An RS4 Avant has more space, but less the Quattro system is overkill of local conditions and blunts the driving experience a touch. Mercedes-Benz's C63 AMG is now an old car, with its replacement due soon. On the balance of evidence and driving experience, if you were to choose one of these esteemed German performance car nameplates, now, it would be M3/4.
In the beginning, there was E30 M3. It was fast. Light. Rewarding. Now there is G80 M3 and G82 M4. Both are enormously fast. Heavy. But still mostly rewarding. I suppose that evolution is a thing, at Garching bei München.