Price: £56,635 (M3 saloon £56,175)
Engine: 2,979cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, twin turbos, 431bhp
Transmission: 6-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-62 in 4.1sec, 34mpg, CO2 194g/km
In the latest BMW M3, and its coupé-bodied M4 sibling (pictured), are embodied all the imperatives, conflicts and existential angst of the modern ultra-rapid motor car. A simple argument says that if fast is good, faster is better. The same with power and grip. But if these are taken as read – a standpoint to which we shall return – they still ought to be achieved within parameters laid down by society. This is where the difficulties begin.
As cars get ever more powerful, so it becomes harder to explore that extra energy on public roads. It also means that when you're not doing so, your new very-fast car is nowhere near its limits, so there is little skill required to drive it and little satisfaction to be gained. Another thrust of perceived progress is that technology makes things easier to use, so you don't have to think as hard. When operating a machine in which involvement in the process should be as important as the result of that process, because that is what makes driving fun, this may not be a good thing.
BMW's first M3 had four cylinders and an impressive-for-1986 200bhp. On the road it could be very fast, but it was never less than completely absorbing whatever the speed. The M3 which has just been replaced had a madly revving, rather thirsty, 4.0-litre V8 engine with more than double the power. It came close to being too much of a good thing, but still there was that intimate connection with the driver.
So here is a new M3, its coupé version now separately designated as M4, and it's more powerful again, with a monstrous 431bhp. That's despite a smaller capacity (3.0 litres) and a reversion to the straight-six cylinder of the second and third-generation M3s. How so? Thanks to a pair of turbochargers. And with the smaller capacity come lower fuel consumption and emissions, while with the higher power comes a huge increase in torque, right across the speed range but especially at low speeds. Sounds like a win all round, especially as the new M3 and M4 are around 80kg lighter than their predecessors.
So the new M3/M4 is even more ballistically accelerative, requiring just over four seconds to scorch to 62mph – but the driving experience has changed fundamentally. You no longer interact with the engine in an interface of subtle precision. You just put your foot down and go. Blam! The optional double-clutch transmission, with a pair of sequential paddle-shifters and no clutch pedal, further reduces the need to work and enjoy doing so, no matter how fierce and guttural the engine sounds with its digital aural enhancement through the stereo. A synthetic M3? That can't be right, when Version 1.0 almost defined naturalness in cars.
Fantastic grip, a near-perfect balance in fast corners and quick, substantial-feeling steering, all of it electronically massaged, all add to the feeling of dynamic, otherworldly impregnability. But something is not quite right when a car makes it so easy to go very fast while leaving you oddly unmoved.
In cars intended to thrill their drivers, we have reached the stage of too much power, too much pace, too much electronickery. Meanwhile, BMW has another car in its range rather closer to an original M3 in spirit. It's called the M235i, is smaller and more agile, and it costs £20,000 less. Deal, I think.