First drive: BMW M3/M4 (F80/F82) – 2014.
Honestly, when Bavarians talk about driving enjoyment, they don't mean four-pot diesels and two-tonne SUV's. They mean powerful, composed coupés with rear-wheel-drive and a limited slip differential. They also mean four-door sedans from the bottom tier of the BMW pyramid of prestige.
And here's the single model that has done the most to promote BMW; that is recognised all over the world even by the most nit-picky, hateful journalist. The M3. The car that has always been a revolution and a revelation, the car that has created and recreated its own niche, and that has been a measure of all others, provided they dare measure themselves against it in the first place.
There's always the wait, impatient and full of expectations, and the choreography never changes: you make guesses, you find unsubstantiated drawings, you hear leaked information. Then the doubters come around, giving way to the first drives, and no later than six to eight months after it's launched you have to admit that the M3 is vastly superior to its immediate predecessor – again.
It was the E30 M3, the car that started it all, the wonderful, admirable icon of a car that is quite probably still unsurpassed among sporty BMW's. As we look back in time it's amusing to recall all the loathing the E36 M3 received, with its primitive MacPherson suspension, the large engine, the considerable weight – and behold, the car has become a classic in its own right, and an excellent investment to boot. The entire process was repeated with the E46. We moaned that it was too large and too heavy... and then we had to admit it was a beautiful, classical sports car with impeccable driving manners, designed around a gem of an engine.
The pattern was repeated with the E90, with everyone whining about all the optional equipment and comfort creatures while in fact the essence of the vehicle had not changed a bit. Beyond the protective net of electronic aids, beyond the harnesses and leather upholstery it remained the tongue-in-cheek rebel it had always been. Of course it received all the most up-to-date know-how from R&D but how could you blame BMW for that? This is the epitome of brand building. The M3 is THE M-Wagen. The M5, well, it t just came about out of necessity, because you need a big a powerful brother. But this one here, they just cannot afford to make mistakes, and they know it.
And so here we are in 2014, looking forward to driving the switchback roads of the Portuguese seaside and the tarmac of the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in Portimão. We did not treat the car with the respect it commands, simply because it will never reveal its true self unless you abuse it. Instead of cruising down the road with our arm out the window we wanted to prove BMW wrong, we wanted to be the smartass who claim everything used to be better back then. And after about 300 km we did make some discoveries, the most important of which was that this here is the best M3 BMW has ever built.
Alright, hold your horses. I didn't say that with a light heart. But I won't lie about it just because I have principles. We checked the car from every angle we could think of. We cruised along country roads and highways, we took standing launches in a bid to entertain enthusiastic road workers, we pushed it hard on winding mountain roads, then we drove like a sleepy pensioner on the same roads as we realised we were running awfully short on fuel. We did doughnuts in parking lots and roundabouts, and we took the car off-road for the sake of the ultimate photos. And when we were through with all that, we took the car to the race track. A full size, proper race track with long stretches and high speeds.
We were sceptical, we were picking nits, but most of all we were dumbfounded to see a car like that built in 2014, the age of Euro6. Has BMW swindled everyone and cheated at the homologation testing? Nope. All they did is worked their firm behinds off designing, engineering and going into details you never knew existed. I'll try to recap a bunch of the things they did. No point in wasting time on details that the M3 shares with the regular 3 series, things like interior space, luggage compartment, safety features and optional extras. These are all redundant when it comes to what makes an M3.
I talked hours and hours (literally) with Ulrich Ernst, head of the engine design department. We first met during dinner the first evening when he told me everything about the engine and a lot about the car as we downed some grilled wurst and beer. On day two we continued where we left off, but this time he brought me to an exploded model of the S55 engine for clarification.
The S55 turbocharged engine is a marvellous piece of art that makes you forget the V8 used in the previous M3 ever existed. This is a better engine in every aspect: lighter, more powerful, with far more torque, yet a stronger willingness to rev fast and rev high. But the most amazing thing about this engine is how easily you can control its power. The immense torque and the 430 horses hit you like a sledge hammer. You wouldn't know it was a turbocharged engine if not for two minor things: first, you can hear the turbochargers whine at small engine speeds, second, it will pull away from idle like nothing you've ever seen. It won't cut off before 7000 rpm, yet maximum torque (550 Nm) is available from 1800 all the way to 5500 rpm. Power is available in a linear fashion and you always have as much of it on tap as you want, no less, no more. Thank you, BMW, for leaving engineers at M GmbH some room to play.
So cut out the bitching, forget urban legends. There is no turbo lag whatsoever. It has been engineered out of the equation. And as for the engine note: if you are reminiscing about the V8 please remember that the proper M3 sound comes from an in-line six. Always has, always will.
BMW really can make excellent cars. Their engineers may have no visible love for the two-tonne elephants but these ones, their own invention from 30 years back, these ones they love. Of course you won't actually feel that love unless you fork out €71,500 for the M3, or about 72,000 for the M4. Better yet, set aside another €30K for brakes and the double clutch gearbox, and an unspecified amount for whatever you may want to add. Possibilities are endless.
The engine called Shiiiiiit
This S55 engine has fewer parts in common with the regular N55 engine than an M3 has with a regular 3 Series. The cars share the doors, the grille and that's it. Here, even the engine block is different: the regular powerplant uses a cast block with steel liners while the S55 is aluminium built with hardened cylinder walls. All bearings, all alternating components are different. Because it has six cylinders instead of eight, the new engine is lighter, albeit longer, than its predecessor, so it was moved back as far as possible. It is also canted 30 degrees from vertical like all BMW petrol engines (20° for diesels) and it had to be made compact to leave room for all the radiators because this engine needs plenty of cooling.
Just how much heat is generated in the powerplant is well exemplified by the outmost bolt hole of the 2x3 exhaust downpipe which is oval, rather than circular, to compensate for the heat expansion that occurs during high loads. There is a lot less weight on the front axle than before which is beneficiary for braking stability, there is absolutely no wiggling in the back so typical of self-proclaimed sporty cars these days. The long engine obviously has a long oil pan but because it is built of magnesium it is also light.
Although this is a wet sump engine (dry sump would have been prohibitively expensive), engineers did all they could to prevent longitudinal and lateral forces to intervene with proper lubrication. Look below for a cross section of the oil sump, and read the caption to see how they did it. BMW recommends fine 0W 40 Castrol oil that needs replacement no later than every 25000 km, but depending on use this can change to as short as 8000 km – the board computer will tell you when your oil change is due.
Further up there is a forged crankcase. Ernst got pretty emotional about this, almost like a father talking about his newborn son. This baby has seven bearings and twelve journals, making it truly one of a kind. This construction ensures excellent resistance to vibration and flexing (a crankshaft can flex a few tenths of a millimetre in the middle when rotating at high speed) and at 21 kg it is two kilograms lighter than the crankshaft of the regular N55 engine. Quite a beauty, this is.
Temperature control was probably the single greatest challenge for project engineers so they installed some five radiators. There is one for the double clutch gearbox, a large one for the engine, two smaller ones, one behind each wheel, for the high and low temp cooling circuits, and then there is the intercooler. The latter is surprisingly small, hardly larger than a package of photocopy paper, but it still manages to cool passing air from 160°C to 60°C. There is a separate circuit cooling the bearings of the two small turbochargers. With no cooling they could heat up to 700°C, this way they keep around 170°C. There is an additional water pump circulating the coolant around the bearings (not the turbo casing) after engine shutdown.
Yet all of this is nothing compared to how BMW has managed to eliminate turbo lag. First of all, they used small turbochargers with minimum inertia and internal friction. Exhaust gases from the first three cylinders propel one turbo, while the rear cylinders power the other one. The engine in itself is powerful enough not to need excessive boost pressure (remember the atmospheric S54 engine of the E46 M3 that could do 343 PS without turbocharging), allowing the turbochargers to operate at a relatively low 1.6-1.7 bars. This sounds good so far, but listen to this: when you jump off the accelerator after pushing the engine hard, most turbocharged engines release the extra pressure through a wastegate. Most, but not this one.
You see, there is no need to, because there is never excessive pressure in the system. As soon as you lift off the accelerator the ECU cuts injection and ignition from certain cylinders, allowing air to pass through these. This will be just enough to keep the turbine wheel spinning at 100000 rpm. Then you jump back on the gas and there is immediate response. These changes take place within a fraction of a second, and the only thing you notice is that there is absolutely no turbo lag. What this means is that BMW has come up with an anti-lag system (ALS) with absolutely none of the crackling or other inverse effects you would expect.
Of course the engine cannot do this indefinitely, but keeping the turbine spinning for 3-4 seconds is more than enough. Also, because the engine has low internal friction and lightweight moving parts (due in part to the forged conrods and the hollow pistons) it will pick up revs as swiftly as an atmospheric I6 engine.
Because cooling was a pivotal issue coolant flows wherever possible. Rear cylinders need more cooling so ducts are larger in diameter there. Coolant enters from the front, crosses over the cylinder head where it cools down, and turns around towards the front of the engine after passing through the radiator.
Cylinder head gasket is four layers of metal, sealed with steel core o-rings. These are not superfluous because, at 10.2:1, the engine has a surprisingly high compression ratio for a turbo engine. Ernst claims the system still has some reserves in it. Piston mean speed is 22 m/s which can be raised (although he said the terminal value for piston engines is something like 26 m/s) and boost pressure can also be cranked up a notch without causing knocking.
Many of these solutions have been around for a while yet together they make a very competitive package.
We are sitting at the table as the news about a purported four-cylinder M3 engine arrives to my phone. I show him the message, he is genuinely shocked and asks “That's rubbish, who told you that?”
When asked if he was sorry to see the atmospheric engine go, he shook his head. “We at M GmbH are lucky in that while we are told what to do, we get to do it our way. We have a lot more freedom than our colleagues at BMW and we use that freedom extensively. This is where we ended up and I think we did a good job.”
I couldn't agree more. The engine is impeccable.
There is more technical finesse in the car. The roof is constructed of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, the exterior cover of the boot lid is glass fibre, the interior is carbon composite. The hood is made of aluminium – Michael Conze, the person responsible for the body and weight reduction project showed us everything in details. I was especially intrigued by the component internally known as boomerang – the carbon fibre tubing running around the engine in the most peculiar way.
For obvious reasons M GmbH would not do without the massive lateral strut bar arching behind the engine block. Now, this boomerang shaped structural reinforcement only weighs a few kilograms, you can easily wave it around in one hand, yet it's incredibly rigid, nearly indestructible. What it does is ingenious. As you brake hard the vehicle's mass centres on the nose of the vehicle, making the rear light, which results in fanning and shaking. However, this boomerang can take some of the longitudinal loads and relay them to the A-pillar where it attaches (if you look closer you can see that the carbon fibre plaid aligns towards the back). This contributes to the incredible braking stability of the M3/M4, comparable only to the Porsche 911.
And there is more.
The variable ratio power assisted steering is incredibly precise and very swift (it does have a humongous pump), with just slightly less feedback than on the old M3. M-people were aware of this though, so they bolted the rear subframe on the chassis directly with no washers. This calls for celebration as engineers consciously prioritise driving precision over NVH – sure, the car is slightly noisier and ride comfort has certainly suffered too but what you got in return is crystal clear communication from the driven rear wheels and a direct sense of how engine torque is translated into driving force over the M Differential. So, to hell with NVH!
Then there's the exhaust system. It runs as straight as possible, adding a calculated boost to the efficiency of the engine. There are two noise cancelling flaps right before the muffler. These open with a small actuator to produce the right kind of note - you know, THE note.
All of the above has also reduced the weight of the car by 80 kg which may not sound like much but if you take a look at all the effort that has gone into designing the car you will know just how difficult it is to lose as much as a single kilogram. What's more, most of this 80 kg was lost where it matters most. And that's even more impressive.
And then you have the icing on the café – the one-piece, carbon fibre driveshaft, the ultralight wheels, the lightweight front and rear suspension, the Recaro sports seats with a plastic frame. All of which has resulted in a kerb weight of 1500 kg for the M4 with the double clutch gearbox, which is only 30 kg more than the E46 M3 with a manual gearbox. And because weight watching is clearly the way to go, engineers are likely to end up with the BMW that we originally fell in love with, M-badge or not.
I haven't yet talked about the brakes but this picture says a thousand words.
400 mm discs up front, 380 mm in the back, worked by with six- and four-pot callipers, respectively. The optional carbon-ceramic brake system never fades and only gets better as it warms up. It literally stops you like a brick wall. Can you believe it?
There are two M buttons on the multi-functional steering wheel, both are fully configurable. While you can specify adaptive suspension, the stock suspension with steel springs is almost as good. You can opt for the six-speed manual gearbox which will automatically blip the throttle when you shift down but the seven-speed DKG is just light years ahead. It is lightning fast, it does not auto shift in manual mode and it comes with three different programs. I never tried the first two but the third one gives you a kick in the butt and accelerates like a proper race car. Use the launch program and the car reaches 100 kph in 4.1 seconds.
Of course this makes the car less comfortable but who cares? Since we are professionals (and also because we were running critically low on fuel) we also tried the car in its soft mode, setting all systems to efficient, normal and the likes. Of course the car was nowhere close to what it could do but you need these settings to reach senior clients. Wannabe boy racers can also enjoy the car in MDM mode which gives you about 25-30 degrees of drifting freedom before DSC cuts in, making you believe you are the king of counter steer. But to see reality as it is you gotta get naked and that's what we did.
Driving the car with all electronic aids off is like reaching perfection.
But of course there is no perfection. Cannot be. Hypothetically.
Except this car is proving the theorem wrong. Sure, our test ride ran on Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres especially made for the M3/M3 series (there is a small asterisk marking the individual rubber compound that will not be available in the aftermarket), yet the stability with which the car turns at a steady throttle is beyond reasons. It will hold the line like it's nailed to the tarmac, and while your intestines are crying out for mercy the car resolves narrow S-turns with a directness and precision that puts the lovely Audi RS4 to shame.
And if you prefer not to use the steering wheel for turning the car, you can dose all those Newtonmetres with surgical precision. You will know everything before it happens. If you have ever driven an RWD car you will know exactly how much power you'll need to get the rear dancing lightly as you accelerate and how much to make the car go sideways and to make the Michelins scream as they propel the car from turn to turn.
It's never been easier to get a car drifting. The M3 is so powerful all you need is to turn the steering wheel and then you can choose the radius of your turn using the throttle. The front will hold steadily and if you choose Sport Plus setting, the ratio of the steering wheel becomes so direct that merely thinking of counter steering will get things straight. The car is immensely supportive of your ambitions, and knowing that it was purposefully designed to be like that gives you the kind of confidence you only experience with a handful of cars. Porsche 911, Honda NSX and Lotus Elise come to mind. This new M3/M4 is much more a direct successor of the E46 M3 than of the E92 M3, and that's a good thing.
Day Two. Time to meet our doom at the Portimão race track. Except it has been raining heavily. The entire track is covered in puddles, giving you the discomfort of facing a completely unknown race track with a 430 PS car that you first drove the previous day, and knowing that driving lightly would bereave you of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We started driving carefully, because while we had full confidence in the car itself, the race track is like a roller coaster ride. There are no calculated slopes and predictable turns. This race track is full of corners and crests like you've never seen. There are also two slopes so steep your vertebra will bottom out together with the suspension as you come to the end, with the next turn literally coming far up to the left.
This place is a torture chamber for any suspension. The track always slopes one way or the other, and somehow you always need to brake the hardest after clearing a crest. This track gives you the creeps in the best possible way. You get as much abuse as the car, I cannot imagine anyone racing a motorbike here.
Luckily the track was easy to remember and as we gathered courage everything began to fall into its place. The smell of the burning brakes, the crackling of the exhaust pipes, the tyres turned into play-dough and of course the car itself subjecting itself to all sorts of physical torture at speeds we had trouble believing we were driving at. As the track began to dry we had more and more traction but even at speeds over 160 kph, driving in fourth gear you could feel the tyres slip a smidgen.
The gearbox is lightning fast, the brakes need a heavy foot but will leave you hanging on your seatbelt. We accelerated out of each corner too early, forcing the car into massive oversteer but letting off the accelerator for just a fraction of a second or shifting up would always take care of that.
If it didn't we would end up leaving wonderful serpentine tyre marks on the tarmac. Alternatively, there was always the option of death. Driving the M3 or the M4 really didn't make much of a difference, except maybe at one point where we reached the crest at full speed. Here, the M4 lifted the rear tyres ever so slightly, whereas the M3 never lost its full composure. The point of gravity on the former is supposed to be 2 mm lower but we really couldn't attest to that. Maybe our instructor Pedro Lamy could tell.
All we could conclude as we boarded the homebound plane is that it is possible to make a more powerful car in this segment but it would be very difficult to make a better one. Maybe impossible. As long as there is a crown, there can only be one king.