It must have been 1987 when I first saw one. A boy in my class was picked up from school in a red BMW M3 on dealer delivery plates. To make matters worse, that boy – let’s call him Mark – had a habit of stealing my packed lunch. Life wasn’t fair.
Thirteen years later, I had my revenge. Not by half-inching Mark’s Dairylea sandwiches, but by buying my own M3: also a first-generation E30, also in Brilliant Red. With its box-flared wheelarches and high-revving engine, it was a pukka homologation special – and infinitely cooler than the hot hatches my mates drove.
That car almost bankrupted me, but I don’t regret owning it. The original M3 epitomised BMW’s 1980s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ ad strapline: an experience that transcended the sum of its parts. It set a very high bar.
Keep up with the Competition
Now into its sixth generation, the M3 has evolved into a very different beast. In place of a naturally aspirated 200hp four-cylinder motor, you’ll find a twin-turbocharged 510hp straight-six. The E30’s dog-leg manual gearbox has become a paddle-shift automatic.
The 0-62mph time has been slashed from 6.7 to 3.9 seconds. And kerb weight has ballooned from 1,165kg to 1,730kg.
This latest M3 – internal codename G80 – is also available as the M4 coupe or cabriolet, and the first ever M3 Touring estate is due next year. You can expect a four-wheel-drive xDrive version within the next few months, too.
Before you feel overwhelmed by choice, though, it’s worth noting that you can’t buy a standard 480hp M3 in the UK. For reasons unknown, we’re limited to the punchier, auto-only Competition. Prices start from £74,815.
Give it a grilling
Let’s start with the thorny issue of that front grille. When BMW revealed its ‘Concept 4’ at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, social media went into meltdown. The overwhelming consensus was that its kidneys needed a transplant.
BMW design boss Domagoj Dukec was undeterred, though, and the oversized grille soon transferred to the production 4 Series, followed by the M3 and M4. Today, its shock-value has diminished, and on dark-coloured cars – i.e. not the vivid Isle of Man green seen here – it almost blends in. Sure, it’s no beauty, but neither was the E30.
Speaking of colours, the M3 is available in more than 100 shades, many of them very, um, individual. Highlights include Mint Green, Twilight Purple, Dakar Yellow II, Rosso Corsa (sounds familiar) and Velvet Orchid (a kind of dusky pink).
One thing hot-headed car journalists often overlook is the M3’s practicality. This is still a 3 Series saloon, remember, with four doors, proper back seats and a 480-litre boot. You could use one as a family car – not realistically the case for a Porsche 911.
The flipside is that the M3 shares much of its interior with a common-or-garden 318i, but quality is excellent and there are enough special touches that you don’t feel short-changed. The tactile gearbox paddles, for instance, are dimpled on the left-hand side (for downshifts) and have raised dots on the right (for chasing that 7,200rpm redline).
My test car came with the M Carbon Pack (£6,750), which includes a rear lip spoiler and racy carbon-backed bucket seats. They look fantastic and weigh 9.6kg less each, although the weird carbon fibre ramp in front of your groin forces you to sit with legs splayed. Not, perhaps, very ladylike.
Automatic for the people
BMW’s S58 engine doesn’t have the chest-beating pomp or sense of occasion of a Mercedes-AMG V8. Hold down the red start button and it fires with a muted growl, exhaling breathily through four huge tailpipes.
Torque is the defining characteristic here: a brawny 479lb ft from 2,750rpm. The M3 feels instantly eager, with a linear response that ensures you’re never caught off-boost. Contrast with the E30’s peaky S14 engine, which felt flat unless you wrung its neck.
Controversially, the G80 uses a conventional torque-converter gearbox, not an M-DCT like the previous M3. Still, while it lacks the clear-cut crispness and wham-bam speed of a dual-clutcher, you are rarely likely to notice. It’s very smooth in normal driving, while the sportier settings accelerate shifts to thump-in-the-back speeds.
Being a luddite, I do wish we could buy the manual version. But given just 0.5 percent of F80 M3 buyers ticked this box, you can understand BMW UK’s decision not to bother.
In the mode
The iDrive media system serves up a bewildering number of drive modes, starting with Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus, which can be individually applied to the dampers, drivetrain and steering response. There are also two levels of adjustment for the brakes, plus 10 stages of playfulness/scariness (delete as appropriate) for the Dynamic Stability Control.
Helpfully, the red M1 and M2 toggles on the fat-rimmed steering wheel allow you to save two personal preferences. So, you could set one as a maximum-attack mode for Sunday mornings, then the other for cruising home on Friday evenings. The BMW has easily enough breadth of ability for both.
Ride quality is quite firm even in Comfort, but I didn’t find it unacceptable. It’s taut and progressive, rather than stiff and crashy. The whole car is on its toes, dialled into the road.
Thank you for smoking
BMW test drivers spent many laps spanking the M3 around the Nurburgring – and you can tell. It feels alert and pointy, with very quick steering and huge front-end grip. You can lean on the wide 275-section front Michelins, then adjust the car’s balance with the throttle. There’s so much traction out of corners that the forthcoming xDrive option seems superfluous.
Granted, it doesn’t flow quite like a 992 Carrera, but the M3 delivers plenty of old-fashioned fun. If you have the space – the G80 is longer and wider than the E60 (2004-2010) M5 – it will go very sideways indeed.
Feeling frisky? Press and hold the DSC button to turn all the systems off. The car then asks if you want to select Drift mode, reminding you that it’s absolutely, definitely not for road use. You can now smoke tyres at will, the M Drift Analyser offering a star rating for each slide.
Only a heroic combination of distance, elapsed time and angle of attack will earn you the full five stars (no, I didn’t manage it).
Even so, if you want a track-day weapon, the smaller and snappier M2 CS fits the bill better. Of all the cars in the BMW range, it’s the closest in spirit to the E30 M3.
This M3 may be called ‘Competition’, but it has strayed a long way from those roots. The E30 was designed to win touring car championships, then made road-legal. Now the M3 is very much a road car: a luxurious performance flagship that comes packed with technology.
This is a hard-fought sector with plenty of, well, competition. For my money, the Mercedes-AMG C63 S has the finest engine, while the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is the loveliest to look at. The Audi RS4 Avant is perhaps the best all-rounder.
And the BMW? It’s the best to drive. Not an Ultimate Driving Machine in the original sense, but still a car that sets a high bar.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: £74,815 (£83,545 as tested)
0-62MPH: 3.9 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 26.7mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 232g/km