Road trips, high speeds and niggles

The M3 was a little outclassed by the company on our recent trip to the GDC Supercar Breakfast

The M3 has been to Germany and back, carried mountain bikes up muddy lanes and made numerous tedious long journeys more enjoyable with its madcap acceleration. Martin Spain reports on the last couple of months with his BMW.

It's been over two months since my first entry on life with my new M3, and I've covered a significant amount of miles in it since then. In many ways, this has to be the most versatile car I've owned. You can seat four people in comfort, I can fit my mountain bike in the back without any problems and if you're gentle with the throttle you can see 34mpg on long motorway runs.

Of course, when you decide that you've had enough of restraining your right foot, the M3 is right there with you. Thumb the 'Sport' button for a sharper throttle response, then bury the loud pedal and the M3 will howl its way to the 8000rpm redline with indecent haste. I recently paid a flying visit to a friend back in the Midlands to watch a concert, and the late-night journey back home was a riot of full-bore acceleration and high-speed cruising. I shaved 20 minutes off my best time for that journey, and more than several mpg off my average!

Much like other M Division BMWs I've tried, the M3 is good at everything but only really feels properly alive when you cast off all pretensions of being a courteous motorist and instead embrace your destiny as a BMW driver. When you're mercilessly thrashing it, everything makes sense - the hair-trigger throttle response in Sport mode allows perfect blips for heel and toe downshifts, the steering weights up nicely and the suspension is taut enough to cope with high speeds on UK roads without bottoming out.

However, now that I've had the car a few months, I've found that it makes a little less sense at 5/10ths. For a start, the gearshift is a little vague and very notchy, and just doesn't feel in keeping with the beautifully-engineered integrity of the rest of the car. It's fine when you're slamming shifts home, but in gentle driving you have to be careful to shift accurately or you can miss a gear.

The Sport mode for the throttle is perfect if you want to drive the car hard, the revs rising if you so much as breathe on the throttle, but when you're not driving like your pants are on fire the regular mode can feel a little too slow to respond, so pulling away from a junction can result in an inelegant kangaroo motion if you don't dial in enough revs. I suspect that's more down to the meatbag behind the wheel than any great failing in the throttle calibration, but it niggles me nonetheless!

The widescreen nav unit looks lovely, and it works perfectly providing you already know where you're going! I've tried getting it to re-route me around traffic problems a couple of times now and frankly, it's bloody useless. There are software updates that can be applied to the unit, but unless you're willing to throw a lot of cash at BMW, they're a bit DIY and there's a chance you could 'brick' the whole unit. I think I'll live with its foibles for now and invest in a good old-fashioned map…

Fellow DC writer Chris Ratcliff took the wheel of the M3 for our recent roadtrip to the Nürburgring 24 Hours, and he was more than a little smitten with the car. Here's his thoughts.

A motoring icon

The iconic SR-71 Blackbird spyplane had an odd quirk: due to the high speeds it could attain, the airframe and surface panels were designed to expand and only fit properly when in flight. When it was cold and on the ground, panel gaps would appear and the fuel system would leak, leaving puddles of jet fuel underneath the aircraft.

The M3 has a similar trait, though without the panel fit problems or leaking fuel system! Rather, it's very recalcitrant when it's cold. The engine grumbles at slow speeds, the clutch doesn't suffer indecision and ambling on part throttle can be jerky, causing clunks and whines from the transmission. In fact, my first three-point turn in an M3 is a series of thuds from the limited slip diff. These noises are the first indication of the M Division engineering at work, the olympic sprinter trapped in a crowd of joggers. They're a little disconcerting at first, but apparently "they all do that".

However, the moment you pick up the pace, everything gels together and any earlier indiscretions are quickly forgotten as miles-per-hour pile on and the engine starts to sing that wonderful straight-six song.

Externally, the first thing you notice is the body. With this particular car running on 18" wheels, it's actually fairly subtle, but it has presence too. The subtly-flared arches and bonnet bulge only really stand out when the car is alongside a normal 3-series, but they do lift the M3 from being just a tick in the M-Sport Bodykit option box. Inside, the only M concessions are a few tiny badges and some nice red and blue stitching on the thick sports steering wheel. Otherwise, it's standard E46 3-series - which is no bad thing.

It's a sign of the pace of the recent "power wars" that the 8-year old M3 has similar power levels to the hottest of today's front wheel drive hatches. The interior also shows how iDrives, Bluetooth and iPod interfaces have moved the world of driver interaction forward. It'd be easy to say how the M3, now a generation old, is fading into the world of old tech, but instead there is one great indication of how simple, how driver focussed this car is.

Just above the cigarette lighter are two buttons; one marked sport, and one marked DSC. Press the DSC button, and you're on your own. Press the Sport button and the engine revs harden in anticipation of spirited driving. That's it.

As cars get increasingly complicated with multi-stage stability control, suspension settings, engine maps and so forth, the M3 has a simple 'rightness' to it. It's set up the way it needs to be set up, and that's basically it. You can't adjust different aspects of the performance to suit, but it makes the M3 a very clear statement on what BMW think a sports coupe should be.

The most impressive aspect for me is how the car packages up its performance and makes it useable. The traction is very good, rarely giving the DSC any cause for alarm, and the chassis has a really good balance which makes progress easy with no handling demons waiting to catch you out. The suspension isn't track-stiff, which helps ride even the lumps and bumps of a Belgian motorway, but the body control on the smooth Eifel roads was very impressive.

It's not perfect. The radio controls took a bit of getting used to, the gearshift requires some accuracy and care, and the brakes can grumble when you're pushing on, but apparently "they all do that".

On our Chunnel crossing to the continent, watching the M3 bathed in yellow light and rocking slightly on its suspension, it struck me just how much of a petrolhead's car this is. It has imperfections borne from its engineering, but these reward the driver as the pace increases and corners flow together. I like that the car feels like it still has quirks from some homologation work, but without it making a motorway cruise tiring or difficult. It even has decent back seats and a capacious boot. The E46 M3 is a well-rounded motoring icon, and sure to be a future classic.

Now if I could just hook my iPhone up to it...

- Chris Ratcliff