What's New for 2011
For 2011, the BMW M3 coupe and sedan are now available with a Competition package that adds a lowered suspension, 19-inch wheels, a wider track and reprogrammed electronic damping and stability controls. This isn't as hard-core as the previous M3's Competition package, but it should still deliver that much more handling acumen -- especially for those who track their cars.
There is a sports car that doesn't look like a sports car. It has too many seats, and one body style has too many doors. It has a usable trunk. You could drive it to Kansas in complete comfort. And yet the 2011 BMW M3 has a 414-horsepower V8. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. It stops from 60 so quickly your eyes may find themselves on an outbound journey from their sockets, and it sticks in corners with the tenacity of super glue. The M3 truly is the sports car for people who still need the practicality (and/or anonymity) of a regular old sedan, coupe or convertible.
Of course this wolf in sheep's clothing nature is not new to the M3, which has been kicking other sports cars in the teeth since the 1980s. The car's free-revving engines have always been a big part of that, and this latest M3 is the first (and likely the last) to feature a normally aspirated V8. Essentially the M5's V10 with two cylinders removed, this manic 4.0-liter eight-cylinder sings a glorious wail at full throttle all the way up to its sky-high redline of 8,400 rpm.
The M3 story isn't all about the engine, though. The ultimate "ultimate driving machine" must go around corners, and the M3's brilliantly balanced and capable chassis gets the job done. There's a level of communication and involvement with the M3 that makes you feel in complete control, and it's one that's increasingly being lost in the new world of electric power steering and selectable driver settings.
Indeed, the 2011 BMW M3 still stands as the most well-rounded choice in the hyper performance luxury car class. Audi offers the same body style choices, but its S4 and S5 trade some all-out performance for better civility, though the new RS5 should be a better match. Cadillac's CTS-V (now as a coupe and wagon, too) will outrun the M3 in a straight line but isn't as agile around corners. The story is similar with the sedan-only Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Really, you can't go wrong with any of them. But if you really want a sports car that doesn't look like one, the M3 is the only game in town.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 BMW M3 is available in sedan, coupe and convertible body styles. Standard equipment includes 18-inch wheels, a limited-slip rear differential, automatic and adaptive xenon headlights, automatic wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, eight-way power front seats (with manual thigh extender, adjustable side bolsters and four-way lumbar adjustment), leather-cloth upholstery, driver memory functions and a 10-speaker sound system with HD radio and an auxiliary audio jack. The coupe adds a carbon-fiber roof and split-folding rear seat, while the convertible adds a fully powered retractable hardtop and sun-reflective leather.
The Cold Weather package adds heated front seats and retractable headlight washers. The Premium package adds power-folding auto-dimming mirrors, BMW Assist telematics, Bluetooth, leather upholstery and different interior trim. The Technology package adds electronic damping control, M Drive adjustable settings, keyless ignition/entry, the iDrive electronics interface and a navigation system with voice controls and real-time traffic. Most of the above items are available as stand-alone options along with 19-inch wheels, a sunroof (deletes carbon-fiber roof on the coupe), rear parking sensors, automatic high beams, power rear sunshade (coupe and sedan), a split-folding rear seat (sedan), satellite radio, an iPod/USB adapter and a 16-speaker premium sound system.
The coupe and sedan can be equipped with the Competition package, which adds EDC (electronic damping control), 19-inch wheels with high-performance tires, a lowered suspension and different programming for EDC and stability control.
Powertrains and Performance
A 4.0-liter V8 powers every 2011 BMW M3, sending 414 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated-manual transmission (M DCT) is optional. The latter offers manual operation via steering-wheel paddles as well as a full automatic mode. All M3s feature a specialized locking rear differential.
We've tested just about every variety of M3. The coupe with traditional manual went from zero to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, while the sedan with a manual and the convertible with M DCT did it in 4.8 seconds. With either transmission, EPA-estimated fuel economy is 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway and 16 mpg combined. A manual-equipped convertible gets 13 mpg city.
Standard safety features for the 2010 BMW M3 include front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, antilock disc brakes, traction control and stability control. The convertible lacks the side curtains, but the regular front side airbags extend up to head level, and there are also pop-up rollover hoops. Braking is phenomenal -- in our 60-0-mph braking test, the M3 came to a halt in just 100 feet, which is among the shortest distances we've ever recorded.
The M3 itself has not been crash-tested, but the 3 Series sedan scored four stars (out of five) for frontal impacts for both driver and passenger in government tests. It garnered a perfect five stars for side impacts for both front and rear occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests gave the 3 Series sedan "Good" ratings (the highest possible) in both frontal-offset and side-impact crash testing, although the convertible received a second-lowest "Marginal" score.
Interior Design and Special Features
The M3's sport seats are at once outstandingly supportive in hard driving and among the most comfortable we've sat in for long trips. The backseat is a bit cramped, however -- expected in the two-door models, but not in the sedan, which trails rivals from Audi and Mercedes in rear headroom. In the coupe, an automatic seatbelt arm delivers front occupants their belts, eliminating the need for torso-twisting maneuvers. The convertible's heat-reflective leather does a wonderful job of keeping the seats from absorbing too much heat from the sun with the top down.
Build and materials quality inside the M3 are excellent. However, the overall design lacks visual interest despite the availability of metallic and wood accents. The current version of iDrive -- mandatory with the optional navigation system -- is the best yet by far, featuring extra physical buttons and a revised menu structure for much more intuitive operation. From the driver's perspective, there's a notable lack of bins and cubbies in which to store cell phones, wallets and the like, especially if the iDrive controller has been equipped, as it replaces the storage nook on the center console.
The 2011 BMW M3 is the heaviest M3 yet, but it's also the most capable. The 4.0-liter V8 is one of the most exhilarating engines in any car, and most drivers will run out of gumption long before the M3 runs out of grip. The EDC option provides three driver-selectable suspension settings (Comfort, Normal and Sport), but even in Normal, the M3 does an adequate job of soaking up bumps while providing world-class body control on back roads. Frankly, those who get the M3 without EDC will never miss it.
The optional M DCT dual-clutch automated manual is good but not great. Specifically, you can't have rev-matched downshifts without harsh upshifts -- on the smoother shift-quality settings, the rev-matching feature is absent. The manual transmission, in typical BMW fashion, has longish -- but still satisfying -- shifter throws and a remarkably light clutch action.