Richard Aucock | May 2014
BMW has sold an M3 since 1987; it was a legend virtually from the off and almost every generation since has added to its reputation. Which is why, in theory, BMW had a problem. The 3 Series Coupe is no more, replaced by the 4 Series Coupe: the M3 Coupe has become the M4 Coupe.
As the coupe M-car outsells the saloon by a factor of 5 or more, it would have been understandable if BMW had brought the M3 to a close. Understandable, but unforgivable. Luckily, M fans can rest easy: the M3 lives on, in new saloon-only guise. Historically, this is actually quite fitting – after all, the E30 M3 was a two-door saloon rather than a dedicated coupe.
Despite its F30 3 Series bodyshell base, it still looks fantastic. All the M cues seen on the M4 Coupe are present, with the biggest standouts being the aggressively aero-tuned front end, the bonnet bulge, flared arches, forged M wheels, stand-proud quad exhausts and of course the carbon roof. The extra doors don’t hider it; the M3 Saloon looks cool in its own right.
It’s more aerodynamically efficient than the M4 Coupe too. That’s why it only has a thin lip gurney spoiler at the rear, rather than the M4’s fully integrated ducktail. The longer roof of the saloon is a positive: if you’re an aerodynamics purist, you’ll choose the M3.
But what about if you’re an M purist? Will you be shortchanged by sticking to your ideals?
What is the 2014 BMW M3 Saloon like to drive?
The M3 at first feels like a car you could happily live with day to day, just as you could a 335i. It’s quiet, supple, responsive and the M-detailed interior is very rich and good-looking. No inert stiffness here, no droning tyre roar – and no need to nudge the redline to beat the 320d baying for your bootlid.
The 3.0-litre straight-six twin-turbo has 40% more torque than the revvy old 4.0-litre V8, and feels like a real powerhouse even without seeking high revs. Despite being turbocharged, it has immediacy, and the big-engined response to small throttle inputs is linear and satisfying. A very nice 3 Series, in other words.
This makes the sheer focus it demonstrates when you turn the wick up very impressive. Jab the trio of M mode buttons on the gearlever to up steering, throttle and suspension focus, change down a few gears and a real sports car emerges, sound effects and all. It’s loud, focused and extremely responsive, with a rotational agility lesser 3 Series can only dream of.
It turns into corners sharply and steers through them with plenty of feel and feedback (this is BMW M’s first electronic steering setup – and it immediately goes to the top of the sports car class). It’s beautifully balanced and a great rear end gives you confidence to get on the power early and let the Adaptive M differential work its magic. That magic will produce heroic power-oversteer drifts at the drop of a hat, a feel-great sensation that is anything but panic-inducing.
More confidence comes from the brakes. Long a weak point of BMW M cars, the latest anchors are a huge improvement, with great retardation and plenty of capacity. We drove the optional M Carbon ceramic anchors (spot the huge and great-looking gold calipers) and the power they possess is, if you’re a track day regular, certainly worth the several thousand pound price.
The M3 we drove also had the optional M DCT transmission. It’s superb. Full-throttle shifts are particularly awe-inspiring, proving so fast and sharp that heads will bang against the head rest. An engine as linear as this can only be enhanced by a gearchange that’s seamless-shift and, as engaging as the manual is, it can’t match the overall sophistication of this. The tactile paddles feel great too; just remember to change up at the rev limiter, because it won’t do it for you.
Indeed, the M3 overall is a very sophisticated performance car. It engages with the driver, sends lots of messages back to them and has a real old-school performance saloon feel, albeit one enjoying modern sophistication (body control of the M3 over undulating roads is astonishing, for example).
BMW M3 Saloon better than the M4 Coupe?
The BMW M3 and M4 really are the same car with different bodies. Everything important is identical, even down to performance, economy and aerodynamic drag factor. It’s the nuances that may swing things, because one isn’t obviously preferable over the other.
Inside, you sit a bit higher (you view the bonnet bulge from a steeper angle), but it’s otherwise the same, including the well-bolstered single-piece seatbacks (a feature that dates right back to the E30 M3 Evo).
The real boon of the M3 Saloon is the rear – easy access for passengers and, because the F30 is better back there anyway, more room and comfort for them. It’s odd that there’s no central armrest, though – at times, the extra bolstering would be welcome. And, lovely as they are, those single-piece front seat backs are a little hard for passengers to see around.
As for the driver, the most striking difference is what you feel from the first turn of the wheel. It’s simply easier to drive with more initial confidence in the M4, because it feels that bit better honed around you. Because you sit lower, you feel you’re sitting within rather than atop the car; you’re thus happier to press on and start working it, feeling the chassis react in a positive way.
There’s a bit more hesitation here in the M3; it takes you a bit longer to discover the willingness it exudes. There’s little in it with familiarity, but the step-up is easier in the M4 (is it really simply down to seating position?). But then, you can’t take passengers as easily in the M4, or use it as a weekday business express. The M4 is less of a broad all-rounder than the M3, even if the highs it reaches are, marginally and subjectively, just a little higher.
MR VERDICT: 2014 BMW M3 Saloon
The BMW M3 Saloon drives like the BMW M4 Coupe. You feel a bit happier pushing the latter hard at first, until you get used to things, but it’s otherwise hard to split them. The bits they share – the chassis, the engine, the body detailing – are all up there with the class best.
But which is best? Well, the M3 Saloon is more practical and easier to live with day to day. It’s marginally cheaper too. Because it’s both so good and has all this extra usability, it can’t help but also get a five-star first drive score.
We reckon that, if we were stood in the showroom staring at both, the awesome looks of the M4 could well win us over. Then again, what price tradition? For some, only the M3 is the real deal. BMW’s saved it for us, so go ahead and buy it, safe in the knowledge its abilities give virtually nothing to the M4 sat in the showroom alongside it.
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Specification 2014 BMW M3 Saloon
Engine: 3.0-litre straight-six twin-turbo
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual (seven-speed M DCT), rear-wheel drive
Prices from: £56,175
Torque: 406lb ft
0-62mph: 4.3 seconds (4.1 seconds)
Top speed: 155mph
MPG: 32.1mpg (34.0mpg)
CO2: 204g/km (194g/km)