What better way to get to know the all new 2015 BMW M3 sedan and M4 coupe then a day of track driving at Road America. Dead center in the midwest, Road America is one of the fastest road tracks around with an epic 4 mile lap distance. Playing host to NASCAR, TUDOR Championship and more, this is a big league track. The M3 has always been known as a street legal race car, and Road America puts that to the test. In addition to hot laps, there was time for a jaunt around the historic Elkhart Lake street circuit at near legal speeds to test the road manners of the latest M cars.
This 5th generation M3 sedan and all new M4 coupe have a lot to live up to. It's predecessor, the much loved E9x M3, was the last naturally aspirated M car with a high revving 4.0 liter V8 under the power dome. The new M3 returns to BMW's favorite engine configuration, the inline 6. With just 3 liters of displacement the power comes from twin turbochargers, direct injection, VANOS and a air to water intercooler setup. This packed engine bay of BMW engine prowess puts out where it counts with 425hp, up 11 hp. More importantly, and impressively, it packs 406 lb-ft of twisting force, up a massive 111 lb-ft. The power increase hauls the M3 and M4 from 0-60 in 3.9 seconds (super car territory) when equipped with the optional dual clutch transmission. Those that enjoy rowing their own gears will be pleased to hear a manual transmission is still the default offering and features a trick dual plate clutch. But you pay the price for your slower shifting with a 0-60 time of 'just' 4.1 seconds.
The M4 is the the new name on the block but with a face you recognize. In 2012, BMW split the 3 series into the 3 series sedan and the 4 series coupe. Think Audi A4 and A5 for reference, and it is possibly where BMW got the inspiration. With the 3 series coupe now being a 4 series, it only makes sense the M3 coupe would become the M4 coupe, even if that is trampling on 30 years of M3 heritage. Bicker about the name all you like, but the looks, performance and light weight tech of the new M4 (and M3) can't be debated. If highlights like a solid mounted aluminum sub frame, Active M Differential, carbon fiber roof (sedan), carbon fiber drive shaft, and ceramic brakes don't get you excited about this generation M3 and M4 then I don't know what will.
Arriving at the track just as the sun is breaking tells me this is going to be a great day. It is cool and clear, perfect weather for a romp on the track. Before heading out there is a 'quick' briefing on setting the myriad of M prefixed technology to get the most out of the car on the track. There is the M-DCT (dual clutch transmission), Adaptive M suspension, DSC M Dynamic Mode, plus settings for the throttle control and EPS (electronic power steering). BMW almost offers too many choices, but with the M1 and M2 memory buttons on the wheel, you set what you like once and then use the preset buttons from there on out. The M memory buttons are tied to your key profile, so if you share your M3/M4 with a significant other you can each have your own M preferences. At the track, BMW Performance Center Instructor Matt Mullins has pre-programmed the M1 and M2 buttons on our track vehicles and I stick with his recommendations. M1: Throttle - Sport, Adaptive M Suspension (EDC) - Sport, Steering - Sport, DSC - On, HUD (heads up display) M Mode, DTC - S3. M2: Throttle - Sport Plus, Adaptive M Suspension - Sport Plus, Steering - Sport Plus, DSC - M Dynamic Mode, HUD - M Mode, DCT - S3
The beauty of all the M3/M4 electronically adjustable performance technology is the flexibility it provides the owner. Love the S55 engine power and the looks of the M3 but don't want a rough ride? Then crank up the throttle response and shift speed but leave the suspension in comfort. Headed to the track, crank everything to maximum ferocity and enjoy. Going out to dinner with the significant other, dial it back to comfort and you have a easy riding sedan (or coupe). BMW is using technology so the M3/M4 gives you exactly what you need for each driving experience. The ability to go from track lion to street kitten, seemingly without compromise, is this generation M3/M4's biggest advantage over the previous gen.
A couple warm up laps in the safer M1 preset and I start to get the hang of the track and this generation M3/M4. Power is the key improvement this M offers, there is so much at all revs. Low down in RPM range the torque keeps you moving regardless of gear; the entire track could easily be driven in 5th. In the low rev range the turbos provide the grunt, but drop it down in third on the straights and the engine sings. With a red line of 7600, BMW calls this a high revving turbo motor and it offers throttle response as good as the NA S54 from the E46 M3. Touch the throttle pedal and the power is instantaneous, not once did I sense turbo lag. The only impression of it being a boosted engine was a slight power dip at the end of the rev range as the turbos maxed out at 200,000 RPMs.
With the car warm I drop into the more aggressive M2 preset, putting DSC into M Dynamic mode, and get to work testing the limits of the chassis. This M3/M4 has switched from traditional hydraulic steering to EPS (electronic power steering) and everyone wants to know how it feels. BMW added EPS to the mainstay 3 and 5 series and it has been slammed as numb and uncommunicative. BMW M started with a clean slate and a higher quality EPS rack supplied by ZF (3/5 rack is ThyssenKrupp). From the beginning this M was built around the EPS steering to make sure the handling and feedback was perfect. On the track I simply forgot about the steering it is so natural. It is the most direct and communicative steering to date, besting my E46 M3 hydraulic rack with ease. There is no hint of over-boost, electronic meddling, or muted feedback. The turn in is razor sharp, mid-corner when sawing at the wheel for grip the tire adjustments are direct. The connection to the pavement that is missing from the EPS systems in other BMW's has been returned. If you didn't know better, you would think the steering was hydraulic. iBMW M set out to prove that EPS could be done right and they have achieved their goal. Perhaps this will be the end of the discussion of traditional vs. EPS steering, but I doubt it.
With the steering nailed the rest of the chassis comes along obediently. Feedback from the hard mounted subframe is fantastic allowing for amazing precise turn in control. Despite the massive power the rear end stays neatly behind the front end with less then expected attempts to step out of line. BMW spent hundreds of hours tuning the chassis and suspension at the Nurburgring, more then any other M car, and the work is apparent. This M3/M4 gives you more confidence at triple digit speeds the perhaps your skill warrants. There were several instances when a glance at the HUD displayed speed was a bit of a shock to me as I rounded the deadly kink. The planted track performance comes down to high quality M development work and a laser focus on this M3/M4 being a capable track car. No compromises were made when it came to track performance, despite the increased standard equipment and improved daily driveability.
The one track complaint I do have it the braking. Not the brake feel, but the chassis under braking. The optional $8,150 M carbon ceramic brakes (required 19" wheels pushes the true cost to $9,350) provided rock solid pedal feel despite three triple digit braking zones per lap. Lap after lap I hammered on them with no indication of fade, a truly impressive feat. But under straight line aggressive braking I started to notice a bit of tail wag as the rear end wanted to come around the front. It was an unsettling feeling and a surprise from what is otherwise a flawless track car. I suspect the caliper piston sizes on the carbon ceramic brakes are just a little off, I would like to see if the same squirming happens with the standard brake setup. While manageable it was a little disappointing, hopefully BMW remedies this shortly.
M3 vs. M4
The M3 and M4 are cut from the same cloth but the fabric has been molded to two different shapes. The M4 is arguably more aggressive and the integrated trunk spoiler is visually stunning. The M3 has a narrower body so the flairs are wider for a menacing look but it left in the cold with just a add-on spoiler and fewer aesthetic improvements. This time around the M3 does gets a carbon fiber roof, but BMW didn't go as far as the full treatment the M4 got. If they would just add a molded truck to the M3 it would really round out the visual package. On the track there isn't much between them. I got the slight impression the M4 was more composed, perhaps due to the lower center of gravity, but any variance in performance is negligible. Pick your poison, or choose your door preference. With either the M3 or the M4 you're getting a more then capable track machine.
With my need for speed satisfied I jump into a 6 speed manual M3 sedan and pull out of the track and onto public roads. Keeping the M3 speed in check after the track takes diligence, especially while touring around the historic Elkhart Lake street circuit. On the track the new M3/M4 is good but the real improvement for this generation is in it's street manners. The turbo muted tone from the I6 leaves you longing for the pure sounds of the retired V8 exhaust but its pitiful torque numbers are not missed. The 406 lb-ft of torque on tap from 1850 RPMs means pulling away from a stop doesn't have to be a red line experience. Daily driving is a torque game, something that wasn't readily available in the E9x.
The 6 speed manual is the best I've driven from BMW. The gear box is derived from the 1M coupe but has been reworked and lightened. A typical BMW shifter is a rubbery contraption that feels loosely coupled to the gear box. the M3/M4 on the other hand feels like the lever is directly bolted to the gears with a precision machined shaft. The shifts are very direct if not a touch on the long side. A downside to this mechanical precision is a lack of lever feel. There is no sense of gear-neutral-gear, it is just a clean motion front to back, a little more feedback would make the experience more enjoyable. The new transmission is coupled to the S55 engine with a dual plate clutch, giving you twice the friction area to hold the power and torque. Despite this trick clutch, the engagement is easy, just like the shiftier is effortless to a fault. Smooth is good, but feel is better BMW. Overall two work perfectly together and give the impression that this manual was not an after thought. Sadly despite the hard work on BMW's part they're expecting less then 20% of the F8x Ms to be purchased with manual transmissions.
The one thing that did drive me crazy is the manual transmission rev match feature. Driving a manual transmission is supposed to be hard work and the reward for those of us still stubborn enough to deal with the daily inconvenience is the occasionally perfectly matched heal toe downshift. There is nothing more enjoyable then working three pedals with two feet while making a perfectly timed gear change. The new rev match feature takes all of that away by automatically blipping the engine the appropriate amount when braking. Thank for giving us the manual transmission BMW but leave us to do our complicated foot work in peace! As a nod to the silly nature of this feature it is automatically turned off in Sport Plus throttle mode. When you really want to go driving you should blip your own throttle, and I shouldn't have to be in Sport Plus to do it. Why BMW didn't make this an option in iDrive is frustrating.
BMW has working on the interior as much as the engine and chassis on the new M3/M4, with a signification push towards luxury. To be fair the M3 I drove was fully loaded (see below) but even the base model includes standard navigation, iDrive and amazingly comfortable seats. The leather wrapped dash is a nice option and furthers the luxurious feel of the interior. The car has grown in size making the drivers seat feel like a captains chair to the E9x's fighter pilots seat. You have room to stretch out in the F8x M3/M4, a benefit of being built off the larger F3x chassis. The large iDrive screen sprouting from the dash adds to the feeling of comfort as pertinent information is just at eye level. The added comfort, connectivity and torque all shine on the street, because lets be honest, as much as you want a track car for the street, at 6:00am on your commute to work the 0-60s and lateral grip is secondary to cup holders and navigation with live traffic updates.
Tested pricing and configuration
The track M3 and M4s were fully loaded with M-DCT ($2,900), M carbon ceramic brakes ($8,150), Adaptive M Suspension ($1,000), executive package (M3 - $4300 / M4 - $4000), full Merino leather (M3 - $2650 / M4 - $2550) lighting package ($1,900), style 437 M double spoke 19' wheels ($1,200), and metallic paint ($550). The M3 starts at $62,950 (including $950 destination and handling) and with options and package was $85,600. The M4 starts at $65,150 (including destination and handling), as equipped the out the door price is an is an eye popping $87,400. While not cheap, with standard navigation, carbon fiber roof (sedan), power and heated front seats, auto dimming & folding mirrors and carbon fiber interior trim you are getting a lot of car for the money.
The M3 I rolled around on the street was a 6 speed manual, a no cost option, but the price tag goes up quickly from there. Options and packages on the street test car include: M carbon ceramic brakes ($8,150), 19" M double spoke wheels (style 437 - $1,200), Adaptive M Suspension ($1,000) lighting package ($1,900), executive package ($4300), full Merino leather ($2550) and metallic paint ($550). MSRP at the dealership would set you back a cool $82,700. The M3 and the M4 base prices has increased but are still hovering around what a similarly equipped E9x M3 would have cost you. The downside is you can no longer get a 'stripped' model. Like it or not all the standard features are coming along for the ride.
This generation M3 and all new M4 will likely leave purists bemoaning the hollowing out of BMW M, as every previous new M3 has. It is a softer car, built on a bigger platform with more technology and comfy options; all things purists hate. But the numbers don't lie. It is a lighter, faster (15 seconds quicker around the Nurburgring) car then the outgoing M3. It is every bit a track capable machine and street driving is better then the high revving motors of the past while packing technology and connectivity expected from a modern BMW. BMW has used technology to make a car with more features, drive faster.
Is there a sense of new direction in this M3 and M4? Look no further then the new naming as proof of that. Additions such as rev matching and piped in sound further that point, but does this take away from what the M3 (and now M4) is and offers you? In a word, no. When you're out driving, none of that matters; none of that bothers you. When you're driving, it feels like the best car available, hands down. It has the performance to keep the purists happy and the luxury options to keep everyone everyone else happy. I suspect the purists will enjoy the new features as well. If you're looking to trade up from your M3, the new M3 and M4 won't disappoint and are every bit befitting the M badge as the previous 4 generations.