BMW M3 saloon (2014-2019)
"The BMW M3 is a legendary name among supersaloons, but while the latest version is good, its rivals have caught up"
- Practical four-door body
- Aggressive looks
- Fun to drive
- Pricey to buy and run
- No longer sounds as exciting
- Some rivals are better to drive
The BMW M3 has long been regarded as the benchmark when it comes to medium-sized performance saloons, convertibles and coupes. This has been the case ever since the first model appeared in 1985 – initially only in coupe and convertible forms. Now, though, the coupe and convertible models are known as M4, while the M3 is available as a four-door saloon only.
That wasn't the only change for the 'F30' generation, which went out of production in 2018, either. Also gone was the M Division’s devotion to naturally aspirated engines. Whereas the previous M3 had a glorious 4.0-litre petrol V8, it was replaced with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six. Enthusiasts despaired less, though, on discovering that the 3.0-litre was more powerful (425bhp) than the previous V8 (414bhp), and it also delivers that power across a wider section of the rev range than before.
This enables a 0-62mph sprint in 4.1 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 155mph, establishing the latest M3 as by far the fastest to bear the badge. Speed wasn't the only reason behind switching to turbochargers, however – they made the engine much cleaner and more economical than its predecessors.
Impressive as it is, that towering performance is only the beginning of the story. Later in the M3's life, a Competition Pack option was offered at £3,000. It raised power to 444bhp and dropped that 0-62mph time to four seconds dead. It also brought more show to match the added go, with 20-inch alloy wheels. There was a sports exhaust system, too, as well as lightweight sports seats.
Before the F30 generation of M3 went out of production, BMW celebrated its achievements with a limited-run M3 CS model. The CS added virtually every technical tweak BMW's M Division could muster, honing the M3 into a real track day weapon – with a firm on-road ride to prove it. The ultimate M3 came at a price, though – it was £20,000 more expensive than an M3 with the Competition Pack.
Is a BMW M3 CS worth seeking out? That comes down entirely to personal opinion. You only get 10bhp more, and 0-62mph only drops by a tenth of a second. There's a lot of carbon-fibre on display to remind onlookers exactly what they're looking at and the CS gets its own rear diffuser design.
These changes might all seem incremental, but they make an enormous difference when totted up. A standard M3 has a firm, sporty yet not uncomfortable ride, but the Competition Pack and then the CS stiffen things up much more, to the point that the latter is really quite unyielding. When driving the CS, it's easy to forget that you're in a car that's still as capable of carrying passengers as a regular 3 Series saloon.
Rivals for any version of the M3 are relatively few but if you’re considering buying one then you should also look at the hottest version of the Mercedes C-Class – the Mercedes-AMG C 63 – the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and the Audi RS4 Avant. All four have their own vices and virtues and some might find the focused, raw appeal of the M3 too serious compared to the playful AMG and charismatic Alfa.
If you've driven M3s in the past, though, you won't be disappointed by the most recent model, but the next version will, of course, be even faster and more advanced. And If you want to experience the ultimate expression of what the F30 M3 can do, it's worth the premium asked for its CS swansong.
MPG, running costs & CO2
The big news when the M3 was released was its shift from big V8 to smaller straight-six engine power. This was claimed to increase fuel efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions and its 34mpg fuel economy is quite impressive for a high-revving petrol engine with 414bhp at its disposal.
That figure is for automatic cars, though – the cheaper manual dips to a claimed 32.1mpg on average. CO2 emissions stand at 194 and 204g/km for the automatic and manual models respectively, so you'll face a top whack Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) tax bill if you choose an M3 as a company car.
These figures remain the same if you order an M3 with the Competition Pack, despite the extra power provided by this option. No matter which version you get, the M3 costs £465 in VED (road tax), which consists of £145 plus a £320 surcharge the first five times it’s taxed, because the car cost more than £40,000 when new.
Few will regard the M3's insurance cost as anything but expensive, due to a group 45 rating. Oddly, that’s three groups higher than the rating for the closely related BMW M4 coupe.
Engines, drive & performance
The BMW M3 is faster from 0-62mph than many sports cars. The 4.1 seconds it takes is 0.1 seconds slower than the time recorded by the Mercedes-AMG C63 and down on the 3.9 seconds taken by the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.
The M3’s turbocharged six-cylinder engine may not match the muscle-car rumble of the C 63’s big V8, but the sports exhaust fitted with the Competition Pack makes more of the BMW's straight-six voice. The sound, though, is just part of the experience of driving an M3 hard, whether you go for the regular version, the Competition Pack, or the full-house M3 CS – if you move quickly enough to get your hands on one.
No version is short on power – it's easy to overcome the rear tyres' grip and make the back of the car slide with just a light prod of the accelerator, which may or may not put a smile on your face. Either way, the M3 features clever traction-control systems that provide a useful safety net.
Barely any of the dreaded turbo lag – the delay in delivering power on demand that can plague turbocharged engines – is discernible, and there's plenty of 'go' on hand even when accelerating at low revs in high gears. This makes the M3 a pleasure to drive in everyday traffic, where overtaking is effortless even without changing down a gear.
It's when you make greater use of the performance available, though, that the three grades of M3 really show their true colours. The regular M3 is something of a Grand Tourer – firmly sprung but not uncomfortable on a long trip, while capable of exhibiting incredible control on a twisty road. The Competition Pack adds a more precise feel through the steering and controls that renders the basic M3 a little lifeless in comparison.
The CS, though, is a fully-fledged M car that would really rather be on a private track than a public highway. Its ride is motorsport firm and punishes occupants over potholes, but its driver will no doubt focus on the positives. These include an initial cornering bite that neither the standard M3 nor the Competition Pack can equal, as well as a big boost in grip thanks to Michelin Cup 2 tyres, around which the suspension has been specifically designed to perform at its best.
Straight-line performance is barely less breathtaking – 0-62mph takes 3.9 seconds and there's a 173mph maximum if you can find a legal, safe road long enough. The CS engine feels more punchy and aggressive than the standard M3's, too. Finally, the CS exhaust note is that much more spirited and engaging than any other M3.
There's little doubt that the M3 CS is a sharper, more involving package than the regular model, but few will be disappointed by any version of what's widely regarded as the sports saloon to beat.
Interior & comfort
There’s no denying the BMW M3’s roots in the common-or-garden BMW 3 Series. That’s no bad thing – it means you enjoy a comfortable, ergonomic interior with a sporty driving position that cocoons you between a high-mounted centre console and the driver-focused controls. The M3 also has a big screen for its excellent standard sat-nav system, which was updated as part of the car’s mild facelift in 2017. From 2018, BMW also added standard 'remote services', allowing owners to use a smartphone app to check their car's location and fuel level, or flash its headlights, adjust its ventilation or lock and unlock the doors.
Naturally, there are a few more sporty touches than you get in the standard 3 Series, such as a pair of hip-hugging sports seats and a smattering of M badges. There’s a small steering wheel for the full race-car effect, although its rim is rather thick. Even so, it’s easy to get comfortable thanks to a full range of adjustment for the steering wheel and seats. Plus, the M3 has front and rear parking sensors, so squeezing into tight spaces is a breeze. And, as a range-topping model, the M3 gets plenty of equipment as standard. Bi-xenon headlights, leather upholstery, sat nav and heated power-adjustable sports seats are all thrown in.
Plump for the significantly more expensive limited-run CS with which current-generation M3 production ended and you get a package of carbon-fibre goodies inside to remind you where an extra £20,000 was spent. You also get an interior swaddled with Alcantara suede trim, but the cosmetic differences are of far less consequence than the mechanical changes beneath the surface.
Practicality & boot space
Choosing a BMW M3 doesn’t mean sacrificing practicality for performance. Despite offering speed on par with a Porsche 911, the M3 has two more doors, a much larger boot and rear seats that adults can sit in, rather than the pitiful space you get in the back of a 911.
It’s not perfect, though. Legroom is fairly limited in the rear due to the wide transmission tunnel that runs the length of the car, especially if you’re carrying three adults back there.The M3’s front sports seats are exceptionally comfortable, being both electrically adjustable and heated. The interior provides lots of storage spaces, including large door pockets, a lidded centre cubby, a glovebox and cup-holders.
You get the same 480-litre boot as the normal F30-generation BMW 3 Series, which means there’s plenty of space for luggage. The boot opening isn’t as big as a hatchback’s – standard stuff for a saloon, really – and there’s also a load lip you have to lift luggage over, but that’s no different to any of the M3’s saloon rivals.
Practical considerations such as boot space and legroom are of little consequence, though, if a car is too uncomfortable to travel in, and the limited-run CS model is firm enough to make you think twice before tackling a long journey.
Reliability & safety
The outgoing BMW 3 Series is a popular car on Britain's roads and generally has a very good reputation. Its performance in our 2018 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey wasn't exactly sparkling – it finished a mid-table 39th out of 75 cars. This reflects the 3 Series range as a whole, though – the M3 might fare differently if it was individually ranked.
Nevertheless, 3 Series owners were delighted by their cars' engines, and handling and ride also drew compliments. Only lacklustre design and safety features really brought the car's score down, but it's a concern that almost a third of 3 Series owners reported one or more faults in the first year of ownership.
The M3 itself was never crash-tested by Euro NCAP, but it shares its safety credentials with the normal 3 Series. That car was awarded five out of five stars thanks to its inherent strength and wide range of safety technology.
There’s a full complement of airbags, electronic stability control and BMW eCall system. After detecting an accident, this system records the location of the car, assesses the severity of the impact, counts the number of passengers and predicts what injuries they're likely to have suffered – before relaying all that information to the emergency services.