2021 BMW M3 first drive review: Redemption through performance


Look, I hate BMW’s huge new grille as much as the rest of you, but there are way more important things to talk about with this brand-new M3. This is the sport sedan by which all other sport sedans are judged, and once you get past those unfortunate nostrils, I promise there are plenty of redeeming qualities.

In fact, botched nose-job aside, I think the M3 looks pretty hot. It’s 2.4 inches wider than a base 3 Series, evidenced by bulging front and rear fenders, and the big exhaust tips stick out from the diffuser like a freshly polished brass quartet. All M3s get staggered wheels and tires, with standard 18s up front and 19s out back, though my tester has the optional 19-/20-inch setup. Oh, and as for this new Isle of Man paint job, when we’re allowed to be in contact with other humans again, I owe the person who green-lit (heh) this color a high-five.

If the sedan body style isn’t your thing, there’s also the new M4 coupe, which is basically the same car only a little uglier and a little more expensive. Both the M3 and M4 are available in base and Competition specs with rear-wheel drive, and later this year, all-wheel-drive versions of the Competition models will join the party.

Every M3 and M4 uses BMW’s S58 3.0-liter twin-turbo I6, which is a nice upgrade from the old S55 engine. The base tune offers 473 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque and you can get it with either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission. The Competition upgrade bumps those figures up to 503 hp and 479 lb-ft, though it also locks you into the automatic gearbox.

The vast majority of M3 and M4 buyers will undoubtedly choose the automatic transmission regardless of engine output, but I’m nevertheless glad to see BMW keeping the manual alive. It’s a good transmission, too — the clutch is heavy with a predictable take-up point, and while I’ve heard other people describe the M3’s gearbox as rubbery, I dig the notchy, precise action to the stick. 

The 3.0-liter twin-turbo I6 engine produces 473 hp or 503 hp, depending on spec.

Jonathan Harper/Roadshow

Besides, the more powerful, auto-only Competition cars aren’t that much quicker. Despite their extra oomph and quicker-shifting transmission, both the M3 and M4 Comp will do the 0-to-60-mph dash in 3.8 seconds; the base/manual cars will do the same sprint in 4.1 seconds. The only time you’ll notice that discrepancy is at a drag strip, or as my photographer correctly points out, while ripping between stoplights on Melrose in Hollywood at midnight. 

The manual is nicely paired with this turbo I6, too. The S58 is surprisingly rev-happy for a turbo engine, but because there’s so much low-end torque, you don’t always have to drop a gear or two to call up necessary passing power. Speaking of which, the manual gearbox will automatically rev-match on downshifts, though you can disable this feature if you want. I’m sure the real manly-men drivers will scoff at this, but I actually love the auto rev-matching tech, only because you get guaranteed smooth downshifts 100% of the time, and sometimes I just don’t freaking feel like heel-and-toeing in traffic.

You know what else is great? The chassis. The standard G20 3 Series’ setup is pretty good, and extra braces and an aluminum subframe only make the M3 stiffer and stronger. Every M3 comes with electronically controlled adaptive dampers, which can react instantly and individually at each wheel, providing excellent composure over smooth and nasty road surfaces alike. I can genuinely feel a difference between the suspension’s Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes. And while BMW’s larger M cars are sometimes crashy even in their cushiest settings (lookin’ at you, M5 and X5/X6 M), the M3 is supple enough that I wouldn’t hate driving it every day.

Jonathan Harper/Roadshow

The S58 is surprisingly rev-happy for a turbo engine, but because there’s so much low-end torque, you don’t always have to drop a gear when you need to make a pass.

A standard limited-slip differential keeps power managed at the rear, and the 275/35ZR19 front and 285/30ZR20 rear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires offer plenty of grip. There are 10 different traction control levels to choose from, which is totally overkill, though it means you can really have a greater handle on just how much leeway you have in terms of slip. The M3 will totally pull off controlled slides, too, and there’s even a feature called the M Drift Analyzer, which records the distance, duration and angle of a drift and then scores your performance so you can step up your game. That’s cool, but please don’t be one of the morons who tries to use this on a public road.

Sweet as the chassis is, the M3’s steering is a mixed bag. The speed-sensitive, variable-ratio setup means the M3 turns in quickly and instantly responds to changes in direction, but the whole experience is lifeless. The wheel is nicely weighted yet it’s also flatline numb, and weirdly, bordering on twitchy in its most aggressive Sport setting. It’s a shame to see BMW still struggling with steering after all these years.

Likewise, the brakes are hit or miss. The standard steel brakes have 15.0-inch front discs with six-piston calipers, and 14.6-inch rear discs with single-piston floating calipers. That’s a perfectly robust stopping setup, but the M3 uses a version of the brake-by-wire system that you’ll find in the 8 Series, where you can change between Comfort and Sport settings, neither of which actually feel all that different from one another. BMW says the benefit to this tech is consistent braking feel in all situations, but that isn’t what I experienced on the road. There’s an artificial buildup of weight that doesn’t always correlate to stopping force, and that’s hard to get used to. Credit where credit’s due, however: This is one of the better brake-by-wire systems when it comes to low-speed modulation.

The orange leather looks great against my test car’s green paint.

Jonathan Harper/Roadshow

If you’d prefer stronger, carbon-ceramic brakes, they’re available for $8,150 and are set apart with classy gold-painted calipers. Given how strong the stock setup is, unless you’re using the M3 as your track car, I’d skip the carbon-ceramic option. Eight grand is a ton of money.

The base M3 comes with a decent list of standard driver-assistance features, including parking sensors, traffic sign recognition, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and more. Unfortunately, things like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and BMW’s Extended Traffic Jam Assist (that combines those aforementioned technologies) are hidden behind a $1,700 package that’s only available on the Competition models. It’s kind of lame to lock that tech into the more expensive Competition trim, though I suppose these are features I could theoretically live without. But you do you.

Every M3 has the same cabin tech: BMW’s iDrive 7 software, with a 10.3-inch center touchscreen and a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. This is exactly the same as what you get in the basic 3 Series, as well as pretty much every other new BMW. iDrive 7 has a pretty steep initial learning curve, but I appreciate the screen’s quick responses to inputs and the fact that you can control it via a knob on the center console or through voice commands. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, as well.

Jonathan Harper/Roadshow

The new M3 is both better to drive and easier to live with.

Most of the interior touchpoints carry over from the 330i and M340i to the M3, save for some M-specific badges and colors and a thicker-diameter steering wheel. You can add BMW’s wild-looking carbon bucket seats to any version of the M3 or M4 for $3,800, and I hear they’re seriously supportive. My test car has the standard sport seats, which are perfectly fine and look great done up in Kyalami Orange leather. For $2,550, you can extend the leather color to the lower dashboard panel, too, so yeah, go nuts.

The base M3 starts at $70,895 including $995 for destination. All done up with special paint and interior colors, the carbon-ceramic brakes, upgraded wheels and an Executive Package (heated steering wheel, head-up display, wireless charging, those dumb gesture controls, etc.), the M3 pictured here costs $90,295 — again, nearly 10% of that price is just from the brakes. As for the rest of the range, the M3 Competition comes in at $73,795, the M4 starts at $72,795 and the M4 Competition is the most expensive variant at $75,695.

See? It looks great from the rear.

Jonathan Harper/Roadshow

In the same way the normal 3 Series is an improvement over its predecessor, so too is the M3. This sport sedan is better to drive and easier to live with, and the M3 continues to stack up nicely against the well-rounded Audi RS5 and V8-powered Mercedes-AMG C63 in terms of price and performance. Ultimately, deciding which one to get comes down to which brand you like best or which car you think looks the coolest.

Oh, crap. Maybe that grille is more important than I thought.

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