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The DREAM Sport Sedan: But Did BMW Go Over the Top?

To say that we were excited to get our hands on the M3 Competition is an understatement…but when they said “YES” to a track test at Sonoma Raceway, we were thrilled!!  Yes, these cars are fun to drive in the real world, but the track is where the real rubber meets the HOD road.

We will begin with first impressions:

The M3 sedan is a handsome sedan, with rounded, curvy lines and smooth edges.  Nothing like the very sharp-edged Cadillac V Series from our last story.  It is refreshing to see two excellent designs of the same basic four-door sedan package, that are both handsome and easily distinguished.  The BMW designers have tweaked the traditional four-door sports sedan style and scale to a modern interpretation of a classic Bimmer look.  Until you notice the proboscis of the M.  With all of the negative hubbub that surfaced from the early photos with most of the reviews voting against the large kidney nose, I’m surprised there wasn’t any revision done for the production model.  Seems there are some stubborn design managers who had fallen in love with this funky front end.  I am sure that cooling is one of the reasons for the big openings…but I’d much rather see a more subtle front-end treatment for this otherwise very good-looking, potentially classic sport sedan.  Would this nose be a reason not to purchase the car?  Of course not. Just one of those things we would learn to love.      By the way, the name of the color of our test car is Portimao Blue Metallic, which has a deep frosted finish.  Everywhere we went people LOVED the car and the color. 

Our test car was loaded with almost all of the options, including the M carbon bucket seats ($3800), carbon-ceramic brakes ($8500), two carbon trim packages totaling $5650, among other minor options to get us to an MSRP of $104K. My two cents, and you’ll hear more about the individual items later, is that all three of these packages would not be needed if you were going to drive with HOD in this car. That would put the M3 Competition at $90K, still expensive, but this is a true dream sport sedan and worthy of a stretch for those who want a very special form of transportation that doubles as entertainment! (note: I went on the BMW website and did an M3 Comp build and my retail, leaving off a lot of options that I didn’t need to get me a sticker at around $80K.)

With fob in hand, we jumped into the M for a week of fun and evaluation and immediately had a very bold first impression; the interior is gorgeous, including the seats…but it’s a major pain in the butt (and I do mean pain), getting in to and out of these gorgeous bucket seats. They are GREAT once you’re in them. But these carbon buckets are DEEP, with vertical, firm bolsters up both sides of your bottom, creating a dam that presses against your thighs. That’s great for pulling G’s, but it makes it really, really hard to do the “butt-lift-over” (a term I just coined based on my experience), to get my feet, then my body out of the car. The tops of the bolsters will be rubbed raw in these cars if people are not careful and its hard to be careful. I tried to get out while carrying something in my right hand and ended up kind of doing a nosedive out like a rookie driver climbing out of a roll cage. Our enthusiasts at Sonoma Raceway that tried them had the same impression…too much side bolster, not enough access for day-to-day driving. The rest of the interior is well-laid out, with passengers sitting low in the cabin which allows good headroom. Ironically, I busted the Cadillac V-Series for rear-seat headroom due to their sunroof encroaching.… The M has plenty of headroom, but our tester had the optional one-piece carbon roof which can’t be ordered with a moonroof. I love moonroofs and would order one in this car as I measured roughly SIX inches of headroom in my driving position and at least 3-4” in the comfy rear seat. I’m 6’1” with a tall torso – so that ain’t bad. The trunk, by the way, is excellent, with a wide opening and quite deep and unobstructed.

Firing up the M brought a sweet, slightly raspy, staccato growl at idol. It sounds to me like they’ve toned it down just a bit from the early M4 that my neighbor owned, with which he woke the neighborhood at 6:00am. The 3.0 liter six with twin turbos that supplies 503HP runs like a fine Swiss watch, something you expect from BMW. The shift stick, if you’ve not driven a modern German car, will take some getting used to. I’ll just say it’s different than past conventional auto-sticks, and I feel they are not better…just possibly a bit less friendly to use. But we get used to it.

Then everything falls into place like it should – as we start driving the M3 Competition for the first time. This is simply a superb car to drive. Yes, this is the Competition model that is a bit stiffer than a stock M3, but the firmness does not bother, it instills confidence. The cabin is as tight as a snare drum and there is simply NO wind noise. The external rear-view mirrors are clearly made to flow air, with a small winglet on top…very cool and I believe contributing to the overall quiet of the cabin. Then the seating position – a long tradition of the M cars…EXCELLENT seat adjustment capability, steering wheel adjuster (manual, a disappointment but functional), pedals just right and a driver feels at home right away.

Off we go on a run out of the Sierra Foothills, across the Valley to SF for an appointment. This day was a perfect “get to know the M” for me and I fell in love with the ride, handling, power and feel of the car. Steering? This car drives like a sport sedan should – especially the steering. I didn’t really encounter any “handling turns” on this drive but could still feel a sporty steering ratio and the sense of being glued to the road by the suspension and tires. With little play at dead center of the wheel, so you can’t let any distracted driving happen. The M requires and rewards soft hands at the wheel and having your vision well beyond the hood of the car. The suspension feels firm, and I’ll say taut rather than harsh…I like the balance of controlled firm suspension BMW found for this car.

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The Track Test: The M3 Competition meets Sonoma Raceway

First, we must state that the M3 Competition comes stock with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, a perfectly serviceable tire. We’ll speculate that most buyers of this car who are experienced track drivers will use these up fairly quickly, and upgrade to a more aggressive tire on their next set. But we have what we have. A VERY quick sport sedan on “sporty” tires, on one of the most technical tracks in North America. And the brain fade sets in. Inviting a guest to ride for my first laps in the M3 on track was probably a mistake. My huge ego has me thinking that we were going to dust the other cars in an advanced run group HPDE. Wrong. With a handsome but husky passenger, I proceeded on track with traction control in M2 mode – all nannies turned off, behind two very competent advanced track drivers. (More on the DSC system and its TEN settings later). The cars leading us onto the track were a fairly stock GT3RS on Cup 2’s, and a lowered, upgraded C6 ZO6. But I’ve been driving this track for a LONG time…. should be no big deal to get by them. What could go wrong? This is a lesson I want to share with all of you – NEVER do what I did in this session!! I immediately started chasing these guys and realized I had a problem…the stock M didn’t really want to follow them…. the car felt tall, with body roll, I was missing turn-ins on turns I never miss, the tail did a little hop on me in Turn 7. I was NOT impressing my guest, however, he was very patient with me. My competitive juices had kicked in, with an advanced expectation that the word “Competition” meant we were going to go out and win the session in a HOD-managed HPDE. WRONG!!!!! I was OVER-Driving the car and going from one rescue to another. Please – if you catch yourself doing this – you are asking for trouble. Out of kindness and having been humbled, I went in and dropped off the guest and took a break. Next session out I caught the tail end of a run and started to get a rhythm. The first impression is the acceleration rate exceeded my expectations. Since this drive, I’ve done some quick research on the M3 Steptronic 8-speed transmission, as it is the best I’ve experienced and completely settled any controversy about my next transmission. BMW has improved upon a very state-of-the-art system that includes a torque converter while featuring multiple gates being open and ready for super-fast shifting. For me, it feels the fastest – but more – it IS the smoothest of this type of transmission I’ve ever driven. The torque converter prevents the BANG shift of a DCT, which can disrupt a car that is laterally loaded…this tranny rocks!! Match this with 8 very close-ratio gears, and you have a rocket ship with over 500 HP in a torquey twin-turbo straight 6. This is a magical drivetrain and is enough reason to buy the car on its own. I give this info on the transmission and great power as my excuse leading up to a true confession: I was almost late on Turn one at Sonoma. Those who know the track will realize that this is high drama. For those who don’t, Turn one is the departure from the drag strip that takes some bravery/IQ to get right…it’s a pucker factor turn with fast cars. If you miss it, well…you drive into the hill. I must have nailed the exit of Turn 11, and the M3 rocket ship was doing its thing rocketing down the straight…we were hauling the mail and I realized I didn’t have a race car to turn, I had a 3800lb sedan….whoa Nellie!! Yup, with Tupper Hull, our Head Driving Coach watching the whole thing, I threw out the anchor and just gave it up…braking heavily, turning tail, and cruising up to Turn 2 before getting back on pace.

By my third session I had settled down and went out SOLO mid-pack and started driving the car properly – finding rational braking points and turn-ins – the M3 turns in very well for the driver that can handle a bit of trail-braking. There is more body roll than I expected, but it is manageable and provides the ability to rotate the car easily – especially with the 4S tires. I mentioned the steering impression on the highway, and I’ll mention it again on the track. This car’s steering ratio seems like that of a track car…it is quick and direct, with the power steering allowing an excellent feel. You forget there is a back seat as you run this car hard. Another piece of the puzzle came together as I got comfortable with what gear to be in where. The paddles can induce too many shifts…I found the sweet spots for what gears to be in at what turns. With a twin-turbo engine, one does NOT need to redline the engine. Getting that mid-range torque is what you want…and with 8 gears, it did take some concentration to nail which turn was best in which gear…but this was a blast, as the shifts are quick and smooth, and proper gearing really made the difference in the pace of the lap. Finishing my third run, I’d really gotten comfortable and in a good flow, while not challenging the edges on the fast turns. I did however work it hard at Turns 6, 7, and 11…getting a really good feel for the capabilities of the car. From a track perspective, the M3 Competition is definitely an HPDE weapon to be reckoned with. BMW would not be shocked that I’d say the stock version is an intermediate-level car, with an experienced driver handling our C group as well. But driving in the C group with the M in stock form will wear you out. I’d do three things to adapt the car. A slight lowering with a performance alignment of all four corners will be very helpful. If 2 degrees negative camber can be achieved, that would also make a big difference at turn-in. And of course, those stickier tires that are out there will make you a hero!! Then stop trying to make the car a race car and enjoy it!!

Brakes: You thought I’d forgotten brakes? Nope. Our tester had the $8500 carbon/ceramic brake kit. On the track this is a fantastic package. I do love this type of brake for feel…you can hit the pedal just a bit too hard but it’s like hitting a firm pillow…it allows you to find the right pressure and add as needed – with zero fade, at least at Sonoma on 4S tires. However – I did research on the cost of replacing key parts of this fantastic system…I’ll leave it up to you, but the stock steel brakes are VERY good – with the cost of pads and rotors on the carbon/ceramics at many thousands of dollars.

Overall Impressions – Verdict and Postscript

OK, there is no “verdict” here – the review is full of info and opinions from which you can draw your own conclusions. Obviously, you know I love this car by now. But there is just a bit of a disappointment. This is an expensive car, built for day-to-day life AND the track. They’ve done an admirable job and clearly retain that subjective title of ICON. I’ll say they really nailed the sport sedan part of the equation. This car could be the standard-bearer for the genre. But on the track, like so often happens, as we push the car, it “almost” great. For goodness’ sake, it’s a streetcar. The upside – the BMW Competition is an awesome car for many HOD drivers, from beginner to advanced. But at the high side of driving…once you’re out there on your own running with other track cars on stickier tires, this wonderful car will leave you wanting a bit more – stiffer chassis/suspension, and less – weight, and, well some other stuff too. If you’re like many HOD drivers, this is an awesome, dream car on its own. But if you think you’re hooked so bad that you’re about to get serious about the sport, don’t start out with a $100K streetcar and try to make it a track car. We’ve had more than one customer go down that rabbit hole and walk away, saying the sport is too expensive.


 I think this car has too many complicated features that most will never use. See above image, the “Drift Analyzer.”  Really? They’ve built a world-class car, why complicate it layers of apps, settings within settings and mysterious dashboard navigation.   Mentioned before is the M1 and M2 shortcuts to adapting the suspension for the track or sporty driving.  When I heard that there are TEN variable settings within the track setting, my heart sank.  When in the world does an amateur track driver have time, or the expertise and data to test and evaluate 10 traction settings within the track setting…YIKES!  And this is just one layer of a complex set of features and options within the user interface available to the M3 driver.  There just seems to be more technology than necessary in a driver’s car.  And yet, common technology in modern cars is missing.  No safety technology like lane keeping assist or adaptive cruise control – now well-accepted tools for day to day driving and common in much less expensive cars.  In the end, I let this issue go and enjoyed the rest of the ride listening to my favorite Bonamassa tunes.  Did BMW go over the top with these features?  I think yes.  And I’m assuming that we all see those features reflected in a pretty price tag.  Do HOD drivers need all of the features?  Probably not.  Are they a reason to steer away from the M3…? ABSOLUTELY NOT! 

Here’s to a long and prosperous future for the BMW M brand – a staple at HOD events nationwide.

Join HOD at the track!!  Select Events from our home page: www.hookedondriving.com

David Ray

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