Driven: 2015 BMW M3 and M4
For many automotive enthusiasts the BMW M3 has, for decades, been the gold standard by which all other sport coupes have been judged. Over the course of the seven year production run of the outgoing generation of the M3, denoted as the E90 (sedan), E92 (coupe) and E93 (convertible), the sports car landscape has changed fairly dramatically. Suddenly, $30,000 Mustangs were now capable of giving the M3 a run for its money both in a straight line and at the track, several new entries in the M3’s price bracket came out of the gate playing in leagues well above the M car’s performance envelope, and increasingly stringent government-mandated fuel economy standards began to force engineers to rethink their approach to vehicle and engine designs in fairly sweeping fashion across the industry. This new pair of cars, denoted as the F80 M3 sedan and the F82 M4 coupe, offer a new visual aesthetic, ditch the high-revving naturally aspirated V8 in favor of a torquey, twin turbocharged inline six cylinder and, for the first time in M history, bring a drop in curb weight when compared to their predecessor. There’s plenty of promising news there, but is all of it good? We headed to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, home of Road America racetrack and some genuinely great twisty backroads, to find out.
What’s the idea behind the BMW M3 sedan and M4 coupe?
Let’s start by clarifying a few things. Mechanically, the M3 and M4 are essentially identical. BMW has, for marketing reasons we don’t dare to consider, decided to loosely separate coupes from sedans by Series number – 3-Series cars are the sedans, 4-Series cars are the coupes. The same logic is applied to the 5 and 6-Series, although there are some notable exceptions (the 6-Series Gran Coupe, for instance), so to cope with the confusion they’ve created, BMW simply says that the even-numbered cars are "more emotional". At the end of the day, all you really need to know is the M3 sedan and the M4 coupe are more or less identical cars with incredibly similar on and off-track performance characteristics, and that the coupe version of the M3 moniker we’ve grown accustomed to is now called the M4.
BMW’s vision for the M3 has always been one of a sports car with real world, everyday usability. That equates to a sizable trunk and the comfort, refinement and material quality you’d expect from a BMW product, along with genuinely thrilling performance capabilities. BMW has also long been a champion of subtlety over bravado when it comes to design, opting to differentiate their high performance offerings from the standard cars on which they’re based in fairly understated ways.
Who might want a car like that?
The problem many face with prospect of owning a sports car stems from their impracticability – they’re typically short on usable cargo space, they lack luxury refinement, and some consider them simply too ostentatious in their presentation. The M3 has always been a sports coupe from the "speak softly and carry a big stick" school of sports car design, and its standard passenger car underpinnings have added to that by way of the daily-driving conveniences inherent to the layout.
BMW’s penchant for precision engineering, exceptional build standards and high quality materials utilized in their standard vehicles are carried into their M performance division cars as well, offering a level of luxury and prestige in a high performance package that’s only truly rivaled by their cross-town contenders at Audi in this price range.
How do the new M3 and M4 handle?
Engineers from the M division sought to make the M3 and M4 chassis as rigid as possible, and along with that, lighten the car significantly from both its M predecessors and the cars on which it’s based. Carbon fiber finds its way into the roof panel, strut brace, driveshaft, and trunk lip, while the use of aluminum in the suspension, hood and fenders, along with forged wheels and reduced sound isolation material all contribute to a car which is nearly 200 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. It’s also worth noting that a mere 10 pound separates the curb weights of the new M3 sedan and M4 coupe.
This weight reduction, along with revisions to the steering rack bushings and special Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires designed alongside the car, specifically for use on this vehicle, translate to sharp and predictable turn-in, along with excellent grip that became even more evident when a sudden storm decided to rain on our sports car parade, and the great sight lines in both cars make corner placement an effortless task.
Steering assistance, as we’ve been reporting quite often as of late, goes electronically-assisted this time around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a small amount of feedback through the wheel is lost in the transition, but engineers also went to great lengths to mimic the weight and feel that was so beloved in the previous generation M3. Here, specially designed software modulates the amount of electronic assistance to offer based upon factors including steering angle, vehicle speed, and which driving mode the steering is set to. The result is one of the best systems we’ve used among this new breed, but it is not without a slight feeling of synthesis to the process.
Roll control is perhaps a slight compromise to everyday drivability, as both cars were willing to lean and dive when piloted at the kinds speeds which are easily achievable on track, though not to such an excessive degree that it began to erode our confidence in pushing the car.
Optional carbon ceramic brakes are now available for the first time on an M3, with fixed, four-pot calipers gracing the front, while two piston units are installed out back. While both the ceramic and standard systems provided considerable stopping power, the long pedal travel exhibited when scrubbing off triple digit speeds tended to be slightly disconcerting.
Weight distribution in both the sedan and the coupe is roughly 52/48 biased toward the front, with a slight advantage given to manually-equipped cars, and the resulting balance meets our expectations – neutral with a hint of understeer, the latter of which is easily correctable with your right foot.
How does the drivetrain perform?
Though the original E30 M3 used a four-cylinder motor and the outgoing generation M3 employed a high-winding V8, the straight six-cylinder engine has always been synonymous with BMW cars, so its return in the newest generation of the M3 and the M4 has been more or less happily accepted by the BMW faithful.
Though BMW would prefer this S55 engine to be considered a bespoke unit, the reality is that this twin-turbocharged mill has its origins in the 316hp N55 motor found in the M235i. The 3.0-liter S55 outputs 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, which peaks at around 5500rpm, while redline comes in at 7600. While it’s only up a handful of ponies when compared to the outgoing 4.0-liter V8, torque is up a whopping 111lb-ft, and it has had a genuinely profound effect in terms of how this car behaves when compared to the outgoing model. Gobs of power come on quickly at mid-range revs, but then remain relatively flat to 7600rpm. While it certainly does away with any qualms about the previous generation’s lack of torque, it also doesn’t really encourage the driver to seek out the upper limits of the powerband, either.
Those who’ve been lamenting BMW’s move from natural aspiration to turbocharging in M cars, we’re not going to sugar coat it for you – the S55 is not lag-free. BMW engineers were well aware of this concern, and fit the S55 with low mass turbos, electronic wastegates, and other tweaks to minimize this undesirable effect. While they’ve done an admirable job, repeated sprints around Road America made it clear that, even for the M division, turbo lag is almost impossible to eliminate altogether.
BMW conservatively estimates the 0-60 sprints of 3.9 seconds for DCT-equipped cars and 4.1 seconds for cars with third pedal installed – both of which are more than half a second faster than their comparatively-equipped outgoing models. We see no reason to doubt those claims, and as is often the case with BMWs, it shouldn’t be tough to best those numbers under the right conditions. We had a chance to drive vehicles equipped with both transmissions, and while the DCT is a well-sorted, quick-shifting unit, the manual gearbox used here is quite good in its own right, with a well-weighted clutch and a buttery, tactile shifter that remains true to excellent M division manual gearboxes of yore.
How comfortable are the new M3 and M4?
Our road test vehicles were supplied with the optional adaptive suspension which, in cars like the M3 and M4, should really be a top priority on a buyer’s checklist. When set in Comfort, the cars make for fine grand touring, soaking up both pavement flaws and undulations with aplomb, while moving up to Sport and Sport Plus settings firm things up significantly – the latter to a degree in which we couldn’t really imagine needing this setting for street driving on a regular basis.
Remembering that this is a road car with a dose of track prowess, the suspension is tuned to lean more toward every day drivability, so you won’t find the sort of rock hard suspension bushings or massive sway bars used on more track-focused vehicles. But for that trade off, you’re provided with a suspension setup that’s genuinely livable for just about any enthusiast’s daily commute while still maintaining a sense of liveliness and capability when called upon for a spirited drive or track day session.
This theme continues inside the new cars as well. While the interior appointments don’t deviate significantly from well optioned non-M cars that the M3 and M4 are based on, those vehicles also aren’t lacking for comfort or refinement, either. Aside from a collection of M logos, the most obvious addition is the new set of seats that provide a lower seating position and a level of bolstering that’s more appropriate given the intented purpose of these cars.
With the removal of some of the sound isolation material as part of the weight reduction efforts, exhaust drone is a bit more prevalent that you might expect, and it’s compounded by a stereo which pipes in its own rendition of the engine’s growl as well. Given exhaust system’s fairly raucous tone when you lay into the throttle, we’re not really sure why this stereo-based amplification is necessary at all.
Are these cars fun and involving?
There’s no question that the new M3 and M4 are capable cars. The new coupe has clocked in 13 seconds faster
around the Nürburgring than the outgoing M3. Progress, in an ideal world anyway, is inevitable, but numbers don’t tell the whole story, and capability is only part of the equation.
The new M3 and M4 are meticulously engineered, and it shows in everything from the modular throttle response (based on driving mode) to the feel of the material wrapped around the steering wheel. The new M3 and M4 are quick, comfortable, well thought out road cars that do not betray the expectations of those familiar with the brand. Refinement is on point, the driver’s seat is a pleasant place to be, and the car more or less does what you tell it to do from a performance driving standpoint. However, we couldn’t ignore the feeling that some of the intangible lustfulness we seek in a sports car is lacking here. Perhaps it is a byproduct of so much lab work, but we couldn’t shake an odd sense of replicated thrill, as though all the driving sensations have been put through a filter of software refinement and then delivered to our various senses.
However, it’s also not a stretch of the imagination to consider that, in the pursuit of the multi-talented diversity the M3 has built its reputation on, some of this is indisputably beneficial and makes these cars easier to live with, and of course some these elements are, for better or worse, compulsory.
At a base price of $62,000 for the M3 and $64,200 for the M4, in terms of what you get when compared to the standard cars they’re based on, these new M cars are actually somewhat of a bargain. They also improve upon the outgoing cars in numerous ways that appeal aesthetically, on the stats sheet, and out on the road.
The competition is stiff this time around though, and that sort of coin can buy quite a bit of performance in several other showrooms. But we suspect that for those with the glimmer of Bavarian roundels in their eyes that won’t matter much, because in the hearts and minds of the BMW faithful, nothing else can truly compare to a an M car. To that end, the new M3 sedan and M4 coupe are hugely successful at their mission.
2015 BMW M3 Sedan / M4 Coupe
Price: $62,000 (base, M3) / $64,200 (base, M4)
Engine: Direct injected, twin turbocharged 3.0-liter I6
Output: 425hp / 406lb-ft
0-60mph: 3.9 seconds (DCT) / 4.1 (manual transmission)
Curb Weight: 3585lbs
Fuel Economy: 17 city / 26 highway / 20 combined
On Sale: Now