The BMW M3 has always been one of the purest enthusiast cars on the market… And while the temptation to opt for an automatic instead of a manual has never been stronger, there’s still plenty of joy to be found by shifting gears yourself.
The sixth-generation BMW M3, officially designated the G80, might not be the most powerful ‘M car’ in BMW’s lineup – that honour goes to the M8 Competition – but it’s probably the best, along with its coupe sibling the G82 M4 (which is effectively the same car).
Both the new M3 and M4 are powered by the S58 3.0L twin-turbo straight-six engine (first used in the G01 X3 M) which in ‘base’ guise makes a hefty 353kW/550Nm and rockets from 0-100km/h in 4.2 seconds. So far, so sexy. But here’s where it gets confusing, and here’s where the thesis of this article starts.
It used to be the case that performance car brands would gatekeep their fastest specs or models behind manual transmissions. These days, it’s quite the opposite, with modern automatic or dual-clutch transmissions far more efficient than even the best drivers.
And that’s what BMW has done with the M3/M4. If you want BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system on your M3 and/or you want the faster Competition spec (which boosts power to 375kW/650 Nm + 0-100km/h in 4.0sec), you have to go with an eight-speed M Steptronic transmission. The manual is only available in the rear-wheel-drive ‘base’ spec… Although calling an M car ‘base spec’ seems a bit inappropriate.
That presents you with one hell of a moral dilemma.
If you’re getting a sports car, performance should be your #1 priority. What’s the point of getting a sports car? To go fast. But if you want the fastest M3, you have to give up the manual.
This isn’t the first time BMW’s done something like this. The mental E46 M3 CSL was only available with a 6-speed SMG II automated transmission, for example. And we know that most customers don’t like to shift gears themselves (most Aussies can’t even drive a manual). But we can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a shame.
Why? Because the manual M3 is an absolute gem of a car. The six-speed manual in the new M3 is easily the best manual transmission I’ve ever had the pleasure to try. Notchy yet smooth; a nice short throw that doesn’t feel too uncouth; nicely spaced gears and the perfect biting point…
It’s the kind of transmission I wish my car had when I was learning to drive manual. It’s bizarrely forgiving – which is quite frankly rather dangerous in a car this powerful. It fits that classic BMW touring car character perfectly; a car that’s gentlemanly enough to drive the family around in during the week, yet manic and capable enough when you want to rev up to 6,000 on the Autobahn.
Speaking of, the other advantage of the manual is it makes it easier for you to hear that engine purr. The S58 in the M3 is easily one of the best-sounding motors on the market right now, and that quad exhaust does it justice. That’s to say nothing about how it lays rubber.
Saying the M3 is fast is a bit of a ‘duh’ statement, but the thing that really impressed me is how well it handles. It’s not quite as taut as an M2 but it’s pretty close, and it’d even give a Porsche 911 a run for its money in the handling department; it’s that good.
Oh, and the car that transmission is attached to? Heaven. The new M3 is without a doubt one of the nicest cars to be either in or out of. The interior is very well designed, ergonomic and luxurious, with a highly responsive infotainment system and just the right amount of buttons for important stuff like the A/C.
The M3 is also a pleasure to look at. Many journalists and revheads decried the new grille design when this car first came out but I have to say, it’s really grown on me – to the point where I think it’s easily the best-looking current BMW front end. The car is angular, muscular and purposeful. People stare at you when you’re in one of these things.
I’ve also had the chance to drive the new M4 Competition with the aforementioned auto box. That transmission is great, too – especially in Competition spec, which adds huge, carbon-fibre flappy paddles that really look the business. Aesthetics aside, it’s also highly responsive and very, very smooth. The extra power boost the Competition offers is great, obviously.
But I can’t help but think if I had the choice, I’d be happy having not as much power or all-wheel-drive and instead choosing the manual. I also think I’d pick the M3 over the M4 because as much as I love coupes (as well as the slightly stiffer suspension geometry of the M4) the M3 is more practical; it just feels right.
Or, more to the point, the manual is just that good.
“What about the new M3 Touring” I hear you say. Well, that car is only available in Competition spec in Australia, so therefore only as an automatic. So any hand-wringing about whether you go full Euro and opt for a fast manual wagon is therefore eliminated.
The question you need to ask yourself as a prospective buyer is this: are you really willing to sacrifice horsepower for the ‘purity’ of driving a manual? And doesn’t that just fly in the face of everything you thought you knew about sports cars?
Maybe I’m just being a romantic (or being a bit old-school) and ascribing some sort of gentlemanly virtue or character to a fast four-door sedan with a manual box. Let’s be very clear: the M3 and the M4 are brilliant cars and are made even more brilliant by the addition of all-wheel-drive and/or extra power.
But BMWs are supposed to be “the ultimate driving machine”. And if you really want to drive, the M3 manual is where it’s at. I said what I said.
Find out more about the BMW M3 and M4 range at BMW’s online showroom here.