What Car? says...
Don’t worry: you aren’t about to read a review of a road that starts in Surrey and snakes its way down to Southampton. In fact, the BMW M3 couldn’t be more different from that somewhat dreary motorway it shares a name with.
Since the mid-1980s, the M3 badge has been worn by the fastest and most exciting versions of the popular BMW 3 Series executive car. And as a result, the M3 has a cult following among performance car enthusiasts around the globe.
The downside of this is that every new version has its work cut out if it’s going to live up to the legacy that precedes it. But to make sure it does, BMW has made this latest incarnation of the M3 the most powerful yet.
It also comes with adaptive suspension and an electronic limited-slip differential in an effort to make sure it corners just as well as it goes. Meanwhile, options include fade-resistant carbon-ceramic brakes and laser headlights that are so bright they appear to turn night into day.
If the M3's qualities appeal but you need something that offers more versatility than a saloon, you might want to consider the BMW M3 Touring estate. Or, alternatively, if you're looking for a more track-focused version of the car, there's the M3 CS.
You can even have a two-door coupé; okay, this is badged as the BMW M4, but under the sleek looks you find all the same ingredients.
So, what’s the BMW M3 like to drive, and how does it stack up against its key rivals in other important areas? That's what we'll tell you over the next few pages of this review, as we compare it with its main competitors, including the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and Audi RS4 Avant.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Most modern performance cars give you some control over settings, but the BMW M3 takes that concept to extremes. Next to the stubby gear selector you’ll find a button that's actually labelled ‘Setup’. Prodding it brings up a list of options on the infotainment screen, letting you change everything from the sensitivity of the brakes to the loudness of the exhaust.
The sheer number of possible configurations can seem a little overwhelming at first, so it’s handy that BMW includes preset modes that work well straight out of the box. Once you get more familiar with the car, you’ll appreciate being able to fine-tune it to better suit your own tastes. You can leave the steering in its lighter Comfort mode, for example, while having the engine at its most responsive.
With everything in Comfort, the M3 is a surprisingly relaxing and refined daily companion. The turbocharged six-cylinder engine remains hushed at low revs, and the standard eight-speed automatic gearbox shuffles smoothly through its ratios (there’s no manual alternative). Meanwhile, the standard adaptive suspension allows the car to flow gently along the ups and downs of a subsiding B-road, only showing a hint of brittleness over the very worst sections.
Despite its compliant ride, Comfort mode still manages to keep body lean in check, but if you really want to push on, the firmer Sport setting is better for making the most of country roads. It helps the car feel even more tied down, while also giving the steering a little more heft, so you can gauge your inputs more accurately – but without it feeling unnaturally heavy.
That’s handy, because when you deploy all 503bhp, the M3 fires you up the road in an almost alarming manner. On a fairly cold day at our test track, the BMW M4 (essentially the two-door version of the M3) managed to slingshot itself from 0-60mph in just 3.8sec. However, the launch control system is temperamental: when we tried to set a time in the M3, it refused to initiate the perfect getaway.
Looking for even greater performance? Then you'll want to take a look at the 543bhp M3 CS, which cuts the official 0-62mph time to 3.4sec. But more obvious than its power hike is the extra crispness to gearshifts and how much sweeter the soundtrack is; lesser M3's don't make the sort of evocative sound that you’ll find yourself accelerating hard just to hear, whereas the CS emits a wonderful metallic rasp if you rev it out, followed by menacing exhaust crackles when you lift off.
Whichever version you go for, the M3 takes a bit of getting used to before you can really explore what it's capable of through corners. There’s so much front-end grip and rear-end traction, you have to chip away at the limits before you feel truly confident to grab it by the scruff of its neck.
Happily, once you get there, you’ll find the latest M3 far more involving than the Audi RS4 Avant (and more predictable than the 2014-2018 BMW M3). If the rear wheels break traction in a corner, the resulting slide is easy to manage. Plus, thanks to a clever 10-stage system, you can fine-tune how much wheel-slip is allowed before the traction control cuts in. That's a big boon over the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio , in which the traction control is either on or off.
As for the M3 CS, this manages to feel even more agile and grippy. And yet if you knock its suspension down from Sport Plus to Sport, you’ll find a car that's capable of shrugging off battered British B-roads without a sweat. Okay, it does occasionally get distracted by big cambers, but you’re never left fighting the wheel in the way you might expect given the car's supposed track-focused nature.
The regular M3 saloon (badged M3 Performance) is offered with rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, while the M3 Touring and M3 CS get four-wheel drive as standard. Fortunately, this four-wheel-drive system is brilliant, allowing you to make the most of the car's power even in poor conditions, while still allowing you to play if you want to. It even allows you to put the car into a rear-wheel-drive mode.
Whichever version you go for, regular steel brakes are standard, with carbon-ceramic ones available as an option as part of the (very expensive) M Pro Pack. Upgrading isn't necessary, though. The standard brakes can be a little grabby around town, but the rest of the time they're progressive, consistent and massively powerful.
The impressive braking of the M3 helped it to get round our test track (a 0.9-mile circuit designed to simulate a fast B-road) quicker than any other performance car we’ve tested.
The interior layout, fit and finish
In traditional M-car fashion, there's not a great deal of difference between the M3 and any other BMW 3 Series inside – but that’s mostly no bad thing. The 3 Series has one of the highest quality interiors in the executive car class and we reckon the M3 is different enough that you feel like you’re behind the wheel of something special.
For example, you get heavily bolstered and supportive sport seats with integrated headrests, seatbelts in M Division colours, a bright red starter button, some carbonfibre trim and a sports steering wheel with contrast stitching. Depending on your tastes, you can choose from interior colour schemes that range from black on cream to bright blue on dayglow yellow.
The driving position can be adjusted to the nth degree. Our pictures show the stunning M carbon bucket seats (BMW expects more than half of buyers to pick these). In their lowest setting, they almost place your backside on the floor of the car – particularly handy for taller drivers who plan to attend track days, giving enough head room for a crash helmet. A head-up display is standard, beaming plenty of information on to the windscreen, and the 12.3in digital instrument panel can be set up in all manner of configurations.
The 10.3in centrally mounted infotainment touchscreen can also be operated with a dial between the front seats, which is much less distracting when you’re driving than trying to find and press an icon on the screen. With its super-intuitive layout and responsive operating system, we much prefer it to the finicky system in the Audi RS4 Avant.
The only disappointment is that when the 3 Series was facelifted, it lost its simple-to-use physical climate control switches. You now have to adjust the temperature using the touchscreen or the voice control.
More positively, the M3's many gadgets also include Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, wireless phone-charging, a DAB radio, a 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system, a wi-fi hotspot and a gimmicky gesture control function. Front and rear sensors, and a reversing camera come as standard, which is handy because the chunky front and rear pillars can obscure your view out when parking.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
To that end, there’s enough space in the back for a couple of six-footers (three at a push). True, the optional carbonfibre front seats have a hard back, so they're not as comfortable to rest your knees against as the standard ones, but this is mitigated by the fact they're so slim that they free up a bit more space.
In the saloon M3, the boot opening is small, but there’s enough room inside for up to seven carry-on suitcases. It has 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats for those occasions when you need to carry extra paraphernalia.
The M3 Touring – estate car – version gives you an extra 20 litres of space beneath the luggage cover, taking the total up to 500 litres. There are rubber strips on the boot floor to prevent luggage from sliding around. Plus, the tailgate is powered and its window can be opened independently, allowing you to quickly drop in light items – such as shopping bags – without lifting the whole tailgate.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
The BMW M3 looks rather expensive when compared with the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, but the Touring version is priced in line with the (estate car only) Audi RS4 Avant Vorsprung. The M3 is predicted to depreciate more slowly than the Quadrifoglio and at about the same rate as the RS4.
Don't expect the M3 to be a cheap car to run – in our True MPG tests it averaged 26.3mpg. That’s not bad for something with more than 500bhp, but it’s hardly parsimonious either. You’ll also need deep pockets to run an M3 as a company car because its hefty CO2 emissions place it in the top 37% band.
On the plus side, it's well equipped. It has 19in alloy wheels up front and 20in ones at the back (what BMW calls a staggered set-up), a leather interior, a carbonfibre roof and heated seats. The one surprise is that you have to pay extra for keyless entry.
There are loads more options, many of which can be bundled into trim packs. For example, the M Carbon Pack lumps together carbonfibre exterior highlights and the fantastic carbon bucket seats, while the Ultimate Pack adds those plus laser headlights, keyless entry, a heated steering wheel, a more advanced parking function and additional safety kit.
The M3 hasn’t specifically been appraised for safety by Euro NCAP but we suspect it would perform very well. That’s because it’s very closely related to the BMW 3 Series saloon, a car that scored the full five star rating when it was tested by safety experts Euro NCAP. You get plenty of safety kit as standard, including automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist, an attentiveness alert and a rear crossing-traffic warning.
While the M3 as a model didn’t feature in the 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey, BMW as a brand claimed 16th place out of the 32 included manufacturers. That puts it above both Audi and Mercedes.
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In its cheapest, rear-wheel-drive form, the BMW M3 can officially accelerate from 0-62mph in 3.9sec. The xDrive four-wheel-drive version cuts that to 3.5sec and the track-focused M3 CS to 3.4sec, while the BMW M3 Touring requires 3.6sec. Top speed is electronically limited to 155mph unless you specify the M Driver’s Package, which raises it to 174mph, or go for the CS variant, which can hit 188mph.
We prefer the Touring (estate car) version to the saloon, because it brings useful extra versatility and is just as good to drive. Yes, it's heavier, but you don’t really notice this, because the car feels beautifully balanced front to rear. The more focused CS variant is also seriously tempting, but the huge price premium that it carries ultimately stops it being our best buy.
|RRP price range||£82,450 - £105,535|
|Number of trims (see all)||2|
|Number of engines (see all)||1|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||petrol|
|MPG range across all versions||28.2 - 28.8|
|Available doors options||4|
|Warranty||3 years / No mileage cap|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£5,981 / £7,641|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£11,963 / £15,282|