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BMW M3: One badge, four generations, 25 years

Business Maverick

Business Maverick, Sci-Tech

BMW M3: One badge, four generations, 25 years

A quarter of a century is a long time to sustain the mystique and desirability of a nameplate. But the M3 has always counted among BMW’s adulated cars. And to celebrate its 25th, the Bavarians assembled pristine examples of all four M3 generations at the Ascari racing circuit in Spain – and announced a special, limited-edition M3 to mark the occasion.

From the air, the Spanish town of Malaga looks nothing like the holiday haven it’s famed to be. Dry and dusty, its sprawl clings to a parched seaboard, lapped by a listless Mediterranean Sea.

We’ve been on the move for 18 hours now, escaping a frozen Johannesburg via Frankfurt and Zurich, to finally emerge into the hot steamy Spanish summer. But thankfully Malaga, where more people speak English than Spanish, is not our final destination.

An hour’s bumpy bus ride later, a small signpost tacked to a low stone wall confirms we’ve reached Ascari. A sternly guarded security boom is the only indication that the narrow, paved road we’re turning into is more than just a driveway to somebody’s hacienda.

Photo: M3 E30.

And then, despite the closed windows and the weary drone of the asthmatic bus engine, the rising revs of a performance car engine cut through the mid-afternoon heat. A flash of bright orange through the olive trees verifies the speeding machine’s presence – and the fact that it’s being piloted around a racing circuit.

Not just any old circuit, mind you. Ascari is a private facility, owned by billionaire car enthusiast Klaas Zwart. There are no advertising boards, no grandstands, no public car parks – just 5,4km of exquisitely executed race track, featuring 26 corners culled from some of the best circuits in the world.

The flash of orange turns out to be a BMW M3 GTS – the latest, and arguably most exclusive member of the M3 clan to date.

Photo: M3 E30 interior.

Effectively a stripped-out, pared down M3 with more power and race-car manners, the GTS will only be built in extremely limited numbers – 150, to be precise, of which only 50 or so will be right-hand drive. In other words, numbers will be so limited that it won’t be coming to South Africa at all.

A once-off opportunity to experience the M3 GTS is a good enough reason for this pilgrimage to Ascari. But there is an even more compelling motivation.

To celebrate the M3’s 25th birthday, BMW has assembled pristine examples of all four M3 generations. And we’ll be able to drive them all.

Photo: M3 E36.

In the pit lane, the selection includes an original 1986 E30 M3, this one complete with racing seats and suede-trimmed steering wheel. There’s also a pair of 1992 E36 M3s, resplendent in yellow and purple respectively (yes, those were standard hues in those days).

A gunmetal grey 2001 E46 M3 coupé with SMG paddle-shift gearbox is next in line, together with a crimson current-generation M3 coupé fitted with the optional “competition pack” (which includes a lower, stiffer suspension, wider rear tyres and slightly reworked control electronics).

And then, of course, there’s the bright orange M3 GTS. Lighter, lower and meaner, it makes the rest of the M3 crowd look just that little bit pedestrian.

Photo: M3 E36 engine.

However, I’m about to find out there’s nothing pedestrian about BMWs that wear the M3 badge, regardless of age. My first steed of the day is the original M3, complete with its 2,3-litre power four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual gearbox (with a dogleg first gear) and rear-wheel drive.

This first M3 was created to pave the way for BMW’s entry into Group A touring car racing. At least 5,000 units had to be built for road use, and the result is a chunky, muscular looking two-door with a bold rear wing, lower sills and extended wheel arches.

The four-cylinder, 16-valve engine set new performance standards for a production unit at the time, spinning all the way to 6,750rpm, and pumping out a muscular 147kW of maximum power, together with thumping 240Nm of torque.

Photo: M3 E46.

Factory figures credit the first-generation M3 with a 237km/h top speed, and a zero-to-100km/h acceleration time of 6.7 seconds.

Through Ascari’s curves and corners, this original M3 feels much friskier than its 25-year-old vintage suggests. It has the edge and attack of a race car, with razor-sharp steering and incisive throttle response. And it still gathers speed with an alacrity that’s astounding.

The first M3 was never sold in South Africa, because it was produced in left-hand drive only. Instead, BMW SA created the 333i – a two-door E30 3-Series with a 3,0-litre straight-six engine, a five-speed gearbox and big Alpina wheels. Only 210 were built.

Photo: M3 E92.

Next up is the E36 M3 – a larger, somehow softer-looking car than its predecessor, and the first M3 to reach SA shores. It lacks the hard-core, race-inspired personality of the E30 car, but adds greater sophistication, advanced technology and improved ease of use.

It’s certainly a lot easier to pilot at speed than the older car. The suspension is more pliant, the steering more forgiving, the ride smoother and more refined. But this is still a thoroughbred, and one with a fair turn of speed, thanks to a decent wallop of power.

The straight-six was considered one of the world’s best at the time: 210kW of max power and 320Nm of torque, all from a 3,0-litre six-potter with four valves a cylinder. Drive to the rear wheels is via a six-speed manual gearbox.

The Mk II M3 is substantially quicker than the first able to complete the 0-100km/h dash in six seconds flat, while top speed is electronically limited to 250km/h.

Photo: M3 GTS.

Later, BMW would add another first: the so-called sequential manual gearbox or SMG. It was truly awful – a robotised manual gearbox using electro-hydraulics to actuate the clutch. I take an SMG-equipped M3 for a spin: you could make a cup of tea in the time it takes to change from first to second.

The second-generation M3 was replaced by the E46-based version, and arrived just in time for the new millennium. There are many reasons why this model remains one of the finest to bear the M3 badge.

On Ascari, I’m reminded of some of those. There’s the way the husky growl of the 3,2-litre straight-six engine rises to a banshee wail when you keep the throttle hammered to the floor. The short, notchy action of the six-speed gearbox. The way the raw power slingshots you from corner to corner.

A decade later, the E46 M3 feels as fresh, as cut-and-thrust exciting, as when it made its first appearance. Like the E30, there’s more than a touch of racing car in the precision, the tautness, the sheer shove of this car. And it’s utterly involving – my allocated laps are over in a flash.

Photo: M3 GTS engine.

I swap it for the current M3, which uses the E92 3-Series Coupé as its starting point. Most would agree it’s the most advanced of the M3 clan to date. It’s also the first to have a high-revving V8 crammed into its engine bay.

That news went down like a lead balloon when it was first confirmed back in 2007. It seemed too brutal, too over-the-top for an M3. And besides, the glorious sound of that straight-six engine in full cry would be lost forever.

As it turns out, the V8 is a pretty vocal engine. And its harsh, almost guttural battle cry has added a new, spine-tingling dimension to the M3 driving experience. At 4 litres, it’s a big motor, but it spins effortlessly, easily reaching 8,400rpm before the electronics intervene.

Maximum power crosses the 300kW threshold for the first time, and is pegged at 309kW, accompanied by 400Nm of twist. And, thankfully, BMW’s commitment to the classic rear-wheel drive configuration remains unwavering.

There are lots of high-tech tricks too. Electronic dampers allow the suspension settings to be adjusted on the fly. A sophisticated M-differential ensures optimum grip when sling-shotting out of corners with too much enthusiasm. An M-drive button sharpens throttle responses and adds more immediate steering feedback.

And then there’s the gearbox. That abortive SMG transmission has made way for an altogether more sophisticated piece of kit – the M-DCT, or M-dual clutch transmission. It offers seven speeds, all selected with precision and speed via shift paddles behind the steering wheel. 

Photo: M3 GTS interior.

In this M3, Ascari becomes a lot more challenging. The sheer velocity the car is capable of sharpens every curve, and tightens every corner. The kink at the end of the long back straight suddenly looks daunting, especially as I’m flat out in fifth, but the M3 nips through without straying from the chosen line.

I’m grateful for the vice-like bite of the big brake discs, which deliver unwavering stopping power every time I miss a braking point. And for the way the V8 always seems to be on song, even when I try to accelerate out of a corner in the wrong gear.

The dialogue between coupé and pilot is unambiguous, the driving experience thrilling and adrenalin-soaked. This is pure M-pleasure, in its most concentrated form.

Or so I think. Because now, as the sun finally starts plunging towards the horizon, leaving trails of crimson in the scattered clouds, there’s one final M3 model to drive: the orange GTS that was being flung around the track when we arrived.

Compared to the standard version, the GTS seems brutal and unpolished. The big alloy wheels are a bruised black, and a large, adjustable wing has been bolted to the boot.

The interior has been stripped bare and framed by the painted tubing of a roll cage. Two lightweight Recaro bucket seats are bolted to the floor, and the thick-rimmed steering wheel is dressed in grey, grippy Alcantara fabric.

The instruments are standard M3, as are the shift paddles of the M-DCT gearbox. But the dashboard is trimmed in real carbon fibre.

Under that bulging bonnet, the engine’s still a V8, but capacity has been upped to 4.4 litres, increasing output to 331kW and 440Nm. The M-DCT gearbox is standard, but with enhanced gearshift software. The suspension is stiffer and lower. And overall weight has been slashed by 70kg.

The result is the fastest, most exciting road-going M3 ever. BMW quotes 4.4 sec for the 0-100km/h dash, and a top speed of 305km/h. The brakes have also been up-rated to match the GTS’ added performance potential.

On the Ascari track, the race-prioritised design of the GTS is immediately apparent. I drive with the windows down, because there’s no air-con, and the ambient temperature is still above the 30deg C mark. It also allows the full aural impact of the V8’s soundtrack to be appreciated!

The steering is meaty, almost too heavy, until you get up to speed. Then, it finds just the right balance between heft and crispness, allowing the car to be coaxed from apex to apex with clean precision. Throttle response is switch-like and acceleration instantaneous.

There’s a lot more grip from the 255/35 gumballs front and rear, while the stiffer suspension keeps the rubber planted to the tarmac more effectively. Body roll is completely absent and lateral G-forces almost rival aerobatic standards.

The M3 GTS is the kind of car that encourages you to go faster and faster – and feels better and better every time you do. In absolute terms, its limits are set well beyond what the average enthusiast is likely to achieve. But it’s loud and lively enough to make you feel like a Vettel, a Webber or a Hamilton.

And that’s this BMW’s magic curtain trick: Employing finely honed technology to turn road-car drivers into race-track heroes.

That it carries the M3 designation is particularly apt. We couldn’t think of a better, more fitting tribute to the most famous performance car badge of all.

By Deon Schoeman
[email protected]


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