From a young age I fell head over heels for several BMW models. The iconic E24 M6, the E28 M5, the E30 M3, I could just go on and on. Silky smooth race derived motors, individual throttle bodies, something special happens when you take a basic model and turn it into an M model. At least, that used to be the case.
I say “used to be” because that spark and magic is no longer present in my opinion. There isn’t a single model available that isn’t turbocharged, no more individual throttle bodies, and the race derived motors are a thing of the past. Instead, the current M motors are heavily based on their mundane production counterparts, and it’s really starting to show. Sure, they’re all immensely fast, torquey, they posses all the makings of a great muscle car, just not an M car.
Let’s Start From The Beginning
The E30 M3 needs no introduction. The S14 four cylinder was good for 192 horsepower, breathing through individual throttle bodies. It was a lower revving engine with a factory redline of around 7,500 rpm. Yet, it was a one off engine built for the M3, and is a true masterpiece crafted from the M division.
The E30 M3 had one of the best steering systems in a production car, feedback and weight was dialed in to perfection and handling is regarded as precise. Boxed fender arches and an aggressive rear spoiler made the M3 like a tuxedo tee shirt. This was the first M3 and it was quite possibly the most iconic and sought after.
Even the hated on American specification E36 M3 is a special car. Sure, it didn’t have individual throttle bodies like the European S50 motor, but it still had the basic M flair. Larger displacement, more aggressive camshafts, a chassis that had been reworked for handling, and a subtle body makeover that has aged pretty well. 240 horsepower isn’t much today, but the car was just hilariously fun to drive. It was a special car back then, and it’s still special today. They are a favorite of racers everywhere and for good reason, the steering is precise and nicely weighted, the inline six cylinder engine is silky smooth and loved to be wrung out, it’s just a great package.
Progressing into the E46 M3, things took a huge step forward. The S54 engine churned out 333 ponies, and had a redline that rivaled Ferrari models. Power delivery was perfect for the track, with torque and horsepower becoming more readily available from about 4,000 rpm and beyond. The E46 body has become a timeless classic, a cult classic. Realistically, it was damn near flawless. Steering was the benchmark of the era and its’ class, the six speed manual was a beautiful piece of automotive art, and the S54 engine has went on to be regarded as possibly the best M engine of all times.
Fast forward to the E9x M3 variants. I’ll break this down for you in case you truly don’t understand the BMW model nomenclature. E90 denoted a sedan, E92 denoted a coupe, and E93 denoted a convertible. With that out of the way, the E9x M3 was a masterpiece, featuring the S65 V8 that could turn over 8,000 revs in stock form. 414 horsepower once again was available from about 4,000 and on. Eight individual throttle bodies ingested air, and the waste was expelled through four exhaust tips. The sound was orgasmic, the driving experience was even better.
Get the DCT transmission and downshifts are a special occasion, the M3 spits, cracks and burbles as the transmission rev matches for the next lower gear. Steering was once again incredible, the exterior was beautifully designed and the overall execution was just done right. This is a car that is capable of being a daily driver, track rat, and everything in between.
Now we’re up to the M4. Yes I said the M4. BMW decided coupes need to have even named numbering while sedans should be odd numbered. Except… You can get a four series grand coupe which is actually a sedan that isn’t all that different from the three series. So that’s what we’re doing now I suppose. Anyhow, the M4 is a serious departure from the old M formula. The S55 motor is rated for 425 ponies, and is actually underrated. It’s based loosely on the production N55, and features twin turbochargers. Yes, no more individual throttle bodies, no more screaming redlines, that’s all old news.
BMW claims emissions standards forced them away from their old ways, which quite frankly, is a load of shit. Dodge has a 707 horsepower supercharged V8, Chevrolet has a billion LS powered models, I could go on. The M4 isn’t bad from a performance perspective at all, it’s actually quite good. It’s blazing fast, the fastest M3 yet actually. The DCT transmission keeps getting even better, and for now a manual transmission is still available. So why am I being a harsh critic?
Losing Core Values
The M3 used to attract buyers based on what it was, not what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the fastest in its’ class, it certainly didn’t have the biggest engine, the most power, it was truly lacking in those departments. The Mustang and Camaro always packed more heat, and they were the faster cars from an acceleration perspective.
The M3 won over hearts because of the driving experience, if you’ve never driven a “good” M car it’s slightly hard to explain. Pushing the needle towards the red, the refined sound of the race derived motors, the precision steering and minimalistic interior, it created a class that never really existed. A basic model made race car, but still daily driver. The M3 was always the best car in the world in terms of being a Swiss Army knife. It could just do everything and do it better than the competition could. Daily driving comfort was there, practicality was there, it had everything. All while being hilariously entertaining and never dull. It was just its’ own experience.
That’s not the case anymore. In place of the minimalistic interior is a oddly placed iPad looking infotainment screen. I assume this design cue was discussed via email because the design engineers forgot to incorporate it at a board meeting. It truly looks like shit. However, the steering wheel does look amazing and the seats are phenomenal, I won’t deny that. That’s right where the good ends.
The engine is phenomenal as I stated. However, it sounds absolutely raspy and terrible. This is something that has brought the M4 harsh criticism. It deserves it entirely, a performance car should have a signature sound. The M4 has a sound that makes me pray for a debilitating hearing injury. Let’s not forget about the legendary M car steering, namely that the M4 doesn’t have it. Instead, BMW moved with the industry trend to go to electronic power steering, and you can quickly tell that it was a bad move. In normal mode the steering is numb and light, offering as much feedback as a mute person. In sport plus mode, it is artificially heavy and offers the level of feeling I’d expect as a quadriplegic.
Still yet, the M4 is a great muscle car. Torque is available really low in the rev range, making it like a Mustang. The chassis is amazing, and certainly boasts excellent handling. The numbers don’t lie, and the M4 doesn’t fail to perform.
So What’s The Problem?
The problem is us as enthusiasts. Everybody wants to buy a car based on performance statistics, they want those last tenths of a second off of the Nurburgring time. The thing is, a small fraction of these cars will ever see the ring, and 90 percent of us couldn’t harness the full potential of a car like this anyway.
So in the name of performance numbers, we’ve lost what truly made the M3 an M3, character. I know I’ll get a lot of hate for this, and I’m not bashing your M4. It truly is an incredible car, I’d venture to say one of the best. It’s just not an M car, and it’s never going to be. M3’s used to be precision weapons, you had to really work for the power, and that’s where so much of the charm was in my opinion. These cars were never meant to be straight line monsters or muscle cars, yet that’s where they’ve evolved. I remember when the M community used to take pride in the high redline, and lack of torque. “Buy a Mustang if you want instantaneous torque” they’d say. Funny how much changes in ten years.