2015 BMW M3 Track Drive, Road Trip
Road America, Los Angeles, and the 2000 Miles Between
A Rainy Day at Road America
I've killed the alarm. There's a pitter-patter on the window of the hotel room. It's raining. Of course it's raining. What better way to make an introduction to the fifth-generation M3 than by driving one in the rain at Road America, a 4.1-mile-long track with two straights where powerful cars can see 150 mph?
Count the M3 as one of those few, even in the wet. In fact, count it as another great entry in a great line. As I find out through a wet track day and a 2000-mile road trip, the F80 M3 (and the two-door F82 M4) is everything we hoped it would be: fun, capable, and mightily fast.
Judging by the size of the puddles on the ground at Road America, it's been wet for a while (photos depict an M3 and M4 at BMW's performance center). Undeterred by the idea of summer tires in the rain, we head out. The water is an excellent medium on which to demonstrate how much this new 3.0-liter twin-turbo I-6 (S55 in BMW-speak) changes the driving experience. In numbers, it makes 406 lb-ft of torque at 1500 rpm -- 111 lb-ft more and 3000 rpm sooner than the V-8 it supplants. In a test a month earlier, we recorded 0-60 mph acceleration of 3.8 seconds (0.4 sec faster than our 2008 long-term M3) and a quarter-mile run in 12.1 seconds at 117.8 mph (0.6 sec and 7.2 mph faster).
The difference seems even bigger in practice. While the V-8 delivered power linearly in a sonorous swell to its 8400 rpm redline, this I-6 immediately smacks the rear and doesn't stop. With the turbos racing to peak boost as quickly as possible, torque arrives with the subtly of a cinderblock through a pane of glass. Once you get used to the abundance, you realize it expands your gear options through most corners. I back the throttle setting off to Efficient, finding Sport and Sport+ too difficult to modulate for these wet conditions. Same with the twin-clutch transmission settings; in Sport+, full throttle upshifts are so hard that in the wet they trigger ESC intervention.
I'm in M Dynamic Mode, the middle setting of the stability control system, and the light is flashing constantly. The system encourages smooth driving and intervenes appropriately, but is capable of making big corrections when necessary. I appreciate its guidance while learning the track and the car in perilous weather, but feel comfortable enough to turn it off later.
During these early exploratory laps, the M3's drivetrain feels similar to the M5's. With good reason: Borrowed from that car are the electronically controlled differential and optional $2900 seven-speed twin-clutch trans with ratios intact. (The standard six-speed manual, with automatic but defeatable rev-matching, is a revised unit from the BMW 1M, which itself evolved from the 135i.) Also like the M5, the M3's rear subframe is bolted to the body, sans bushings.
The track begins to dry, and rising tire and brake temperatures permit braver corner entries. The brake pedal offers good, consistent response and tons of stopping power. This particular M3, painted in the very pay-attention-to-me Austin Yellow Metallic, has an $8150 carbon-ceramic brake package that upgrades the 15.0-inch rotor/four-piston front, 14.6-inch rotor/two-piston setup with 15.7-inch rotor/six-piston front, 15.0-inch rotor/four-piston stoppers (caliper color changes from blue to yellow). The upgrade requires $1900 19-inch wheels, which, like the standard 18s, come wrapped with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. In that earlier test, we recorded a best 60-0 mph stop of 104 feet and 1.00g average lateral acceleration.
Introducing throttle in mid-corner helps the car rotate. Not in a drift, but in legit throttle steer. You can feel the diff working, and it gives the car a great feeling coming off corners. You feel the chassis move and tilt away on exit and head toward the next apex.
Like the sun through the gray above, the steering and chassis begin to shine. Tightening down the F80's chassis was the priority for M, and the effect shows. The car feels exceptionally rigid, as if it were milled from one piece of metal. Nearly every suspension component is new. The control arms and wheel carriers are made of lighter forged aluminum, for example. Pop the hood and you see a carbon-fiber brace running around the front of the engine. What's more impressive than that material (yes, it's real) are the attachment points: from braces around the strut towers to the A-pillar and on and on. While BMW calls it a strut tower brace, it effectively cradles the engine. Torsional rigidity is about 40,000 newton meters per degree, which, according to BMW, exceeds previous racing M3 cars and isn't far off the Nissan GT-R.
Along with body control, the steering benefits from the stiffness. Think what you will about electromechanical assist, but the F80's wheel (and chassis) tells you everything you want to know about what the tires are up to. Its 2.8 turns lock-to-lock deliver pleasing accuracy and directness, and its communication means you seldom have to correct mistakes. Dialing the M3 in to, through, and out of corners simply feels delightful. One note: Best leave the steering adjust button next to the shifter ignored, as Sport+ requires unnecessary effort and Comfort feels too light.
As for the weight of the car itself, it feels appropriate and not especially light or heavy. Though larger in every dimension than last generation, on our scales, the M3 weighed 3590 pounds split 52%/48% front/rear (99 pounds fewer than our 2008 long-term sedan). Along with the aforementioned use of aluminum suspension components, other methods of weight reduction include a carbon-fiber roof, aluminum hood and fenders, the deletion of the device that hands you the seat belt in the M4, and a magnesium oil pan. The engine is 15 pounds lighter than the E90's V-8, which itself was 33 pounds lighter than the E46's iron block I-6. At 183 pounds, the twin-clutch trans is 4 pounds lighter; the manual, at 106 pounds, is 26 pounds lighter.
The rain comes back in the early afternoon during what would be my last lapping session. It's coming down so hard that, even with the windshield wipers moving at full speed, I can't see through the windshield on the front straight. I still want to keep driving. I'm addicted. The M3 is a fantastic driver's car, offering all the balance, controllability, and breadth of power we hoped it would.
Keep reading to learn what it's like to drive the new M3 on a 2000-mile road trip.
2000 Miles to L.A.
What's made the M3 cars so appealing isn't limit performance, but its broad range of capabilities. They have always been excellent driver's cars that have also behaved well on the commute. As luck would have it, the very (and very yellow) M3 I drove on the track is to be a new Motor Trend long-term car, and, as such, it needed to get to Los Angeles (stay tuned -- later this year we'll have more on the long-term M3). The 2000 or so miles in between Milwaukee and L.A. would make a great test for the M3's road capabilities. Even better, my dad had the time to fly out and join the drive.
It's well after 10 p.m. when my dad lands at Milwaukee airport. "Oh, I see you," he says on the phone as I round the corner. One positive thing about the color: You won't lose it in a parking lot.
BMW-provided photos show yellow and blue M3 sedans.
The next day we pick up I-80 and head west. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska are as uneventful as their elevation is flat. From the unfair perspective of the road, there are endless green fields that are sometimes flat and sometimes roll gently over hills. There are farms. There are freeways under constant construction. There are late-model domestic cars and trucks. It's a blur. Oops, going too fast.
What becomes exceedingly apparent is that the M3 is machine that generates speeding tickets. It accelerates so easily and smoothly that you don't realize how fast you're going until you check the speedo or see lights flashing in the rearview mirror. Small throttle inputs don't make much engine noise, and the torque feels pleasant. And then you're doing 100 mph. Our car doesn't have the heads-up display (only available in the $4300 Executive Package), but it does have a programmable audible speed warning. I set it at 85 mph (never mind the electronically limited 155 mph top speed, you can optimistically set the warning at 200 mph). Dad regularly buzzes the speed warning. Each time he seems skeptical of its accuracy and then starts laughing.
That gold paint job is an attention magnet. We debate what it should be named. My dad keeps calling it the Green Hornet, never mind that it's yellow. I say it looks like mustard or the color of your urine when you're dehydrated. It does photograph remarkably well, even on my iPhone. An E36 coupe tails us for a bit, its driver waving before peeling off an exit ramp. A guy in the back of a sedan takes pictures with his phone. Once he's got a good one, we demonstrate the capabilities of the M3's acceleration.
There's that warning chime again. Sometimes you can't hear it over the tire noise. Stiffening the chassis and removing bushings do wonders for handling, but also make for quite a bit of interior noise on the freeway (there was one particular stretch of Iowa asphalt where an interminable high-pitched whine rang though the cabin). You'll know every expansion joint the car drives over -- this is not a car you want open beverages in. And the interior creaks quite a bit, too. The steering requires two hands. I love how it feels on tight back roads, but it commands constant attention on the highway. One hand it and you'll be chasing the center, and tossing your passengers around.
Complaints? Hardly. These rough edges are the result of how well the car drives. It's the stuff we've been asking for. And despite the noise and impacts, the M3 is an easy cruiser. We average 680 miles a day, and finish without fatigue. The cloth buckets do a masterful job of giving comfort and supporting you in corners.
But then there's the engine note. The F80 makes more noise than music. It's partly played through the speakers from a prerecorded soundtrack (though if no one told to you that, you'd never know -- it's that seamless). You can adjust its volume by switching throttle modes (Efficient is the quietest; Sport+ is the loudest), but even in Efficient, it's surprisingly loud. I admire the volume, but the timbre leaves a bit to be desired, especially in contrast to the soul of the E9X's V-8 and the maniacal and raspy I-6 from the E46. Excluding the U.S.-spec low-power E36, the high-revving nature of M3 engines has played a central role in making you want to drive them more -- the E30's 2.3-liter I-4 didn't feel special until it reaches above 5000 rpm. You can't argue with this twin-turbo I-6's power delivery, but the sound it produces makes you want to short-shift.
Aside from the noise, I couldn't be happier with the M3. The road and tire noises are loud. The ride is firm. But this is all done because it makes the car drive better. The steering is fantastic. The feel of the chassis and the responses it gives back to you are great. While the engine doesn't have character, its power delivery makes up for it.
Into Colorado, I realize we're driving in a gradient. Green slowly turns to brown. Small bluffs turn to hills that suddenly turn to gorgeous mountains. Highway 70 through Colorado and Utah is a spectacular, high-speed road through a scenic canyon that twists on and on. There are waterfalls, massive overlooks, and everything is beautiful. Desert dominates once you enter Utah, and the rock formations make you consider the awesome power that carved them out however many years ago. It's all you can do not to stop at vista points and stare and get all existential. They've been there long before us. They'll be there long after we're gone.
|2015 BMW M3|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$77,575|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.0L/425-hp/406-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3590 lb (52/48%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||184.5 x 73.9 x 56.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.8 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||12.1 sec @ 117.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||104 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||1.00 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||17/24/19 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.99 lb/mile|