I met up with Road & Track's own Sam Smith and Robin Warner at Mid-Ohio, my home track for club races and a place where two of the Armco barriers in "Thunder Valley" have my name on the purchase order. Sam was there to drive a real unicorn—a genuine Hartge-built Group A racing E30 M3. Robin and I were there to hold Sam's helmet and make sure that we got performance numbers on both the E30 and a brand-new F80-generation M3 that BMW was providing for comparison purposes. Near the end of the day, I had the chance to take the F80 around the entirely deserted circuit and get some driving impressions of this very fast and capable sedan.
READ MORE: 2015 BMW M3 vs 1987 FIA Group A BMW M3
Upon its introduction several years ago, the outgoing E90/E92 M3 was criticized for its size, weight, and nontraditional powerplant. This, by the way, has happened to every one of the previous four generations of M3 sold in this country. The initial buzz is always semi-negative; I remember working for a BMW dealership in 1989 and listening to the salespeople gripe about how the now-iconic M3 was a slug in real-world driving compared to the much cheaper 325i. The E36 M3 was slagged-off for having a low-power US-market engine. The E46 M3 was big, heavy, complex, and delicate. The E90 M3 was a V8, which seemed completely sacrilegious to everybody who didn't remember the PTG E46 racers.
Now that we're all used to how brilliant the outgoing M3 is, BMW's decided to return to a straight-six, this time with a relatively small displacement (three liters) and twin turbochargers. The redline's down, but torque and power are both up, with a rather improbable 406 lb-ft torque plateau from 1200 to 5000 rpm. That engine makes its home in an M3 sedan that is physically larger but also usefully lighter. More power? Less weight? Sign me up.
First impressions of the M3 are, frankly, mixed. This is getting to be a fairly large car; just a few months ago, I was in a LeMons race driving an E34 525i that is almost exactly the same size as this 3er. Although the hard-backed seats and self-consciously chunky steering wheel are deliberately sporting, the rest of the F80's interior has more in common with a modern BMW SUV than it does with the driver-focused E21 or E30. The fact that this particular M3 has the M-DCT self-shifting transmission doesn't help matters.
A second glance at that steering wheel, however, shows that the M Division has put some serious thought towards the M3's track-day utility. Two buttons on the left spoke are labeled "M1" and "M2". Pressing either for a short time loads a pre-programmed set of parameters for steering feel, suspension stiffness, and traction control. You can configure the buttons any way you like; better still, they can be selected on the move. A savvy track-day vet would probably program one for dry track conditions and one for wet.
"You might want to think twice about turning the stability and traction control all the way off."
"This is the one that turns all the helpers off," Sam says, and points to a button, which I duly press before rolling out for my warm-up lap.
Around Mid-Ohio, we can figure out a lot about the M3. This particular model has the carbon-ceramic rotors and six-piston front brakes, so it's possible to wait until the "100" mark before stepping firmly on the left pedal. At that point, it's time to steer quickly to the left, and the M3 displays its considerable reserve of grip. This is where the reduced weight is apparent; this car just seems to turn faster than the previous model, even if the steering feels a little dead in the hand. There are all sorts of little bumps and dips in the middle of the turn that I remember from running Improved Touring cars here—and the M3 just smothers them. It's like they've repaved the track.
On a positive note, this is one of the least understeer-biased modern cars that money can buy. It really has more of a Corvette balance than a Mustang one. If you're not pointing where you want to point at the mid-corner, it's possible to change the M3's attitude with throttle. That flat torque curve is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it's immediately there when you want to rotate the car; a curse because it's so strong that it's very possible to make more of an adjustment than you want. If you're new to a particular track, or new to your own brand-new M3, you might want to think twice about turning the stability and traction control all the way off.
With Turn One finished, the M3 just flat boogies down to the Keyhole hairpin. The carbon-ceramics just don't show much fade, so your brake limit is set by the tires. There's a lot of steady-state grip, even off-camber. With DSC turned off, however, the M3 is unhappy on the rough curbs at the Keyhole's exit.
Turn 6 is a kink, and I've often heard that the difference between a fast car and a not-so-fast car at Mid-O is whether or not you have to brake for it. With the DCT seamlessly snagging gears and the twin-turbo shoving ahead at a rate that has to shade the old V8 by more than a car length or two, the M3 blasts through Turn Six at a rate that's just quick enough to make you think about braking. But if you can hold off, you'll hit 143 mph or better before stepping on the left pedal again.
Turns Seven through Nine tend to expose poor suspension tuning, particularly rebound damping, but the BMW hangs on over the hump and steps just lightly sideways on the run down to Nine, where I promptly outbrake myself during all but one of my laps. It's not really my fault; with the DCT you can just snag an extra shift here down the hill and it gets there so much faster than you'd expect.
Turn Ten is blind and it's supposed to be taken flat. I can do it, just barely, but we're on the cornering edge of the tires and I find myself braking pretty early before Eleven. Normally you'd put two wheels in the dirt, but at the time of this writing this is an irreplaceable car. Instead, I'm a bit wide going into Thunder Valley. Right here, that torque feels a bit like a curse again, because in the V8 you'd plant your foot and let the revs move you without worrying so much about traction. With this new engine, you need to worry. It's just so strong at middle revs compared to ... well, just about everything.
Thunder Valley's gone in a hurry and Twelve is a very fast left-hander, nearly identical to One in terms of entry speed. On the top of the turn, it helps to have a sense for how much grip is left. The M3 is not stellar in that regard; the loss of steering effort when you finally overwork the front wheels isn't as pronounced as I'd like. You can take more chances when you get better information from the steering, but with this BMW the emphasis is on towering raw capability, not delicate feedback.
The Carousel exposes the nose-grinding tendencies of most production cars but here, too, the M3 likes to stay balanced. It takes a bit of a steady hand to carry full throttle all the way out to the main straight, at which point you'll pull the right paddle twice and easily burst through the 100 mph mark before it's time to brake again.
Lap's over, so what have we learned about this M3? I know that it's far stronger than its predecessor, to an extent that the numbers don't immediately suggest. I also know that it's a balanced handler with a large amount of adjustability on the throttle, and that the DCT is wicked fast—because the paddles are properly mounted on the wheel itself, it's possible to snag the next gear as you unwind and exit a turn. (As long as you respect the torque.)
Yes, it's a twin-turbo six, like the 335i. No, it doesn't drive anything like a 335i. It's grippier, more aggressively balanced—and much, much faster. The brakes are a very expensive option, but with this much engine they're more or less a requirement for any but the most experienced track rat. Even the somewhat ridiculous thickness of the steering wheel makes sense when you're trying to feed in the smallest of corrections as the back wheels are engaging hyperspace.
Surely this will be one of the fastest production sedans around a racetrack in history. But the speed is mostly accessible and friendly to drivers of all skill levels. If I had a magic wand to change the car, I'd try to take some of the inertness out of the steering. The rest is better than fine, just as it is. Those of you who are already mourning the demise of the E90 M3 should be warned: if you drive this one, you might find yourselves getting over the heartache in a hurry.