Sleek, lithe and predatory, the M3 sedan and coupe have always been the lions in Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s stable. The coupe was first released in the mid-1980s, proving that a BMW 3 Series could be incredibly fast and roar-worthy. The M3 easily claimed its place as king of the sports-car jungle.
Lately, though, the most potent car in the 3 Series line has seemed rather complacent. The previous generation, discontinued as of the 2014 model, got bigger, heavier and less concerned with agility. Using a big V-8 engine, it relied instead on raw, takedown power.
Still, the M3’s fearless reputation was enough to bring in many buyers who didn’t really care how well it handled as long it impressed their peers. Why bother to run after the impala if they simply lay down at your feet?
Which brings us to the brand-new, fifth generation of both the sedan and coupe. (The two-door is now called the M4, in keeping with Munich-based BMW’s latest naming convention.)
The question is whether the M3 and M4 deserve their bragging rights. After all these years, do the denizens of the asphalt jungle still have something to fear?
One thing is for sure: The cars continue to command a premium. The M3 sedan starts at $62,000, an $18,500 bump over the next most powerful 3 Series, the 335i. To put that in perspective, the 335i is neither cheap ($43,500) nor wimpy, with 300 horsepower and acceleration from zero to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour in 5.1 seconds.
The 2015-model M3 has 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque and gets to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. The M4 coupe has the same engine and mechanicals, and costs even more at $64,200.
The two cars do look slightly different. The sedan is bulkier and slightly taller. The coupe presents itself as a tad more youthful and even more sport-focused. Nonetheless, they are both full of swagger, with gaping air intakes in the lower grilles and ready-to-pounce stances. Even the uninitiated will know that they are not “normal” BMWs.
One of the wonders of the regular 3 Series is that it’s a nice car to drive every day, one you’re happy to commute in, both comfortable and confident. But when you need to shoot into a narrow gap or choose to celebrate a wondrous curve in the road, you can always drop onto the accelerator and the car will prove itself a joy, time after time.
The M3 (and now M4) try to maintain that adaptability, but the emphasis is purposely shifted from comfort toward sport. To do that, BMW’s M tuning division gives the 3 Series extra teeth, altering suspensions and engines, lending bigger brakes and better aerodynamics, basically turning the car from an omnivore into a pure meat eater.
The latest engine is totally different in character from the previous V-8, which used no supercharging or turbocharging. The new motor is a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter, inline six. It’s simply ferocious, with a fiery blast of power coming on from the moment you ask for it, building toward 406 pound-feet of torque from very low engine speeds. It maintains that grunt from 1,850 revolutions per minute up to 5,500 rpm. The sucker pounces.
The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, a fact that makes purists happy, though it will automatically perform throttle blips to downshifts. It also saves some 90 pounds (41 kilograms) of weight over the automated transmission. Yet the majority of buyers will go for the seven-speed automated manual, which changes the gears for you. No shame in that, because it’s a fabulous gearbox.
For all the cars’ purported ferocity, leave the electronic Dynamic Stability Control in its conservative normal mode and the M3 and M4 will putt around town with tails dragging along the ground, their might thoroughly repressed. It isn’t much fun, but you don’t want either car wilding out when you’re running errands -- 425 horsepower is a lot to contend with when you’re holding a latte in one hand.
(Be warned: The suspension is punishing in every mode. Those of us living in pothole-plagued areas will take a beating.)
Switch to M Dynamic Mode and the car turns on, figuratively speaking. It’s then, suddenly, that reasonably skilled drivers can look like stunt drivers in the “Do not attempt: professional driver on a closed course” commercials. You can go sideways, tires smoking, and easily recover.
The cars drive in a brawny way, exercising all that muscle in loud, thrilling fashions. This is not a car you drive with your fingertips; rather you find yourself manhandling the wheel, overwhelming the corners and punishing the straightaways. It’s loud and there’s often screeching of tires and brakes and it’s hugely rewarding fun. It can almost seem like they’re engineered to do visually thrilling tricks. (I do recommend trying that kind of driving only on a racetrack, like I did.)
Many of the M3’s competitors have also become more luxurious and easier to drive around town (the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Corvette). Each has its own character, and the decision to buy depends on both the driver’s personality and the price point. (A 2LT Corvette with the performance package starts at $62,205, while the least expensive 911 begins at $84,300.)
In many of the important ways, the latest M3 and now the M4 feel more potent and concentrated than the previous generation. No question, it’s still a meat eater.
The 2015 BMW M3 and M4 at a Glance
Engine: Twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline six with 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed double-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 62 mph in 3.9 seconds (with automatic).
Gas mileage per gallon: 17 city, 24 highway (with automatic).
Best feature: Their dual nature, both tame and terrible.
Worst feature: The suspension can be overly harsh on pitted roads.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)