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Published: 05/08/2014 - by Michael Taylor, Correspondent
Quick Summary: Think BMW has slightly lost its way? Think the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class has it rattled? Think again. The M3 is back, this time as a four-door with a twin-turbo six-cylinder, fabulous poise and balance. It's everything a fast, small sport sedan ought to be.
What Is It?
The M3 has traditionally been the flagship 3 Series, and this fifth-generation M3 retains that distinction. This time, however, the M3 designates the sedan while the coupe becomes the M4. As before, the M3 has had weight pulled out of it, more power stuffed into it and a lot more strength added throughout the body, the suspension and the driveline.
What Body Styles and Trim Levels Does It Come in?
The M3 was previously offered as both a coupe and a sedan, but now the coupe has been given the M4 designation. There is just one level of trim for the four-door M3, plus a significant range of options.
It's a well-appointed four-door sedan complete with dual-zone climate control, electronically adjustable, leather-clad sports front seats and five-seat capacity. There is a permanently raised multimedia screen atop the center of the dash, containing everything from car setup to navigation and entertainment, while the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controls are below it.
Compared to the two-door M4, the sedan body is actually narrower, though they share the same track widths. That means the M3's wheel arches stick out more outrageously so the two cars can share their forged aluminum suspension pieces, ultra-rigid rear end subframe, brakes and 18-inch forged alloy wheels. It also means you'll have to be more careful parking it next to a curb.
The narrower sedan body translates to slightly less shoulder room than the M4, though the M3's rear-seat passengers have significantly more head- and shoulder room. It's also heavier than the M4 coupe, with a curb weight of 3,351 pounds, versus 3,301 for the two-door. The dual-clutch transmission will add an extra 44 pounds as well.
The M3 is cheaper, listing in the U.S. at $62,925 versus the coupe's $65,125 base price. It arrives here with a standard six-speed manual gearbox and BMW USA hasn't announced the pricing for all the options.
The most obvious of those is a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, but there are also carbon-ceramic brakes, 19-inch wheels and tires, a head-up display and, naturally enough, a sunroof.
How Does It Drive?
The new twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine is a treat. With 406 pound-feet of torque on tap it has terrific abilities around town and in low-speed situations. All that push is available from just 1,850 rpm, so it's always ready to punch you forward, quickly.
Despite its low-end performance, the twin-turbo motor has an architecture that lends itself to revving high and proud, so its 425 horsepower arrives at 5,500 rpm and the limiter doesn't arrive until 7,600. It feels like a very different motor above 5,000 rpm, and it seems BMW has intentionally made this the cut-off point between comfortable torque-fed speed and frenzied high-revving fury. That's the point at which the M3 turns from a very fast, V8-sounding sedan into a ridiculously angry monster that would like to do nothing more than smash through its rev limiter.
Then there's the gearbox. It's a very different car with the manual transmission fitted to it, because it's a more intimate experience and it's more dominated by the engine's muscle than it is with the dual-clutch transmission. Yet it's not as intrinsically good a machine with the stick. It's slower (zero to 62 mph in 4.3 seconds, where the dual-clutch seven-speed M3 does it in 4.1) and it's considerably thirstier, too.
The dual-clutch is a transmission for all seasons, adding to the new M3's qualities as a car capable of covering several roles at once. It can shift as smoothly (almost) as an automatic, it can shift as brutally fast as a race 'box and it has 3 degrees of shift comfort in between.
Then there's one of the real highlights of the car that most people won't even know is there. We're talking about the active rear differential that collars every last scrap of grip from its rear-wheel-drive setup. It's even smart enough to know whether you want to drift it a bit or just want to drive it as fast or safely as possible. It also lets the car deliver both launch control and a smoky burnout mode.
The stiffness of the chassis and the cleverness of the diff combine to make the M3 a sport sedan par excellence, one that's capable of tackling racetracks on Sunday and commuting to the office the rest of the week. It gives up a tiny handling deficit to the M4 (mostly because of its slightly higher center of gravity), but it's still fabulously composed with terrific steering, great balance and, with the optional carbon-ceramic units fitted, unimpeachably strong brakes.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
The best of M3s past have been all about their raw speed, their engaging engines with a screaming power delivery and exquisite balance. The most maligned have been seen as fat luxury barges disguised as M3s. The beauty of this generation is that it's easily capable of being both things together in one package.
It runs the same front seats as the M4, which are terrifically supportive without ever feeling like they're lacking in padding or comfort. The biggest difference is the ease of use for the backseat, plus the fact that it can seat five people, versus the four-body limit of the M4.
As with the M4, there are handy cupholders, a USB port and sizable door pockets. One thing it doesn't have is a dedicated place to put the proximity key when you're not using it.
There is a healthy luggage area beneath its carbon-fiber trunk lid (the roof is also carbon fiber) and it loses none of the comfortable attributes of the standard 3 Series in the transition to the fast lane.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
The EPA hasn't released official numbers for either the M3 or the M4, but BMW claims they will show a 25 percent improvement compared to the previous V8-powered M3 coupe and sedan.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
This is a segment in transition, as many of the usual competitors are going through redesigns of their own. The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG has traditionally been the M3 sedan's most prominent rival, but it's about to be replaced with an all-new version featuring a twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V8 engine.
The Cadillac CTS-V was often mentioned as a suitable alternative, but the latest CTS has grown in size and no V-series version has been announced yet. The smaller ATS is now closer in size and purpose, but it, too, lacks a V-series option.
Even the Lexus IS F is being readied for a redesign, so the V8-powered sedan from Japan will likely change drastically next year as well.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
Where the M4 is a brilliant drive in all conditions, the M3 is a slightly (and only very slightly) lesser driving machine that offers far fewer compromises in the real world, while delivering the packaging benefits of a four-door sedan.
It can be a family sedan when it needs to be, a Porsche Puncher when you want it to be and it has a don't-mess-with-me look without being overtly boy racer.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Even with its new downsized drivetrain, it's hardly the most efficient sedan around. And with a starting price of nearly $63K, it pushes the limits of what a small sedan can command.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.