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Drive

The BMW M3/M4 at Brands Hatch Circuit

Here’s a shout to all the BMW ‘M’ fans out there. Have no fear, the new M3/M4 are ‘the business’


He gave the M3 saloon full throttle in first from standstill, smoke bellowed from the rear tyres before the car literally lunged itself out of the pit-lane

To avoid any M3/M4 marque confusion, the M3 comes only in four door saloon form in this latest reiteration, and the M3 Coupe as we know it, now becomes the M4.

To M3 die-hards there are a few uncustomary changes that will have got the odd eyebrow twitching here and there. One of those is the switch to electro-mechanical steering, previously a ‘no-no’ for the M3 in favour of the heightened feel and responsiveness of hydraulic systems. The fitting of the new electro-mechanical system achieves two advantages – one; improved fuel economy and two; it saves a good 3kg in weight over the front axle.

The second big departure from ‘M’ tradition is the engine. The big 4.0 litre naturally aspirated V8 goes in favour of a 3.0 litre twin turbo straight six. The ‘big departure’ is the use of turbo chargers. Again, the proof lies in the pudding, and for that we will soon turn to Brands Hatch and the capable hands of three times World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx, but on paper there seems little need for outright concern as improvements show in all aspects of engine performance. Power is up only slightly, an extra 16 bhp over the predecessor V8’s 408 bhp, but it’s delivered much further down the rev range making for more usable real-world performance. Torque goes up from 295 to 369lb ft, and the new engine is lighter and more efficient, achieving 30% improvement in fuel consumption and dropping CO2 to below 200g/km mark.

Light  efficient luxury

Despite the bigger dimensions, the M4 is 80k lighter than the old car. A standard carbon fibre roof (optional on the saloon) contributes to 6.5 kg of that, the new carbon prop-shaft takes away another 5kg, the alloys another 5kg, and say another 5 or so from the various carbon fibre reinforced body panel structures. The M4 benefits from more of the high-tech bodywork mods than the M3 saloon, but for technical reasons only, aligned to the respective aerodynamic features of each vehicle rather than cost or compromise.

Inside it’s familiar. Terribly sumptuous old boy, but full of wow factor. All leather and luxury, giving  aesthetic pleasure to driver and passenger alike. It puts a smile on your face, even from the most sombre of moods and let’s face it, if you can afford this car, you’re blessed. Next to the  gearbox are buttons allowing adjustment of dampers, steering, and throttle response, along with three stability control levels ranging from ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’, to ‘UKIP’ depending on how far you want to go. Needless to say that’s my terminology, not BMW’s. On the topic of transmissions, both M3 and M4 are offered with a choice of six speed manual or seven speed dual-clutch boxes. There’s a rev matching function on the downchange which can be disposed of in Supersport mode for the purist – which is just about every M3 owner I know.

Hot-lapping

I decided not to bother giving three times Touring Car Champion and BMW Works driver Andy Priaulx any tips on track driving. Instead, I held onto the edges of my seat while he gave the M3 saloon full throttle in first from standstill, the M3 thus choosing to remain stationery while smoke bellowed from the rear tyres before the car literally lunged itself out of the pit-lane. It was damp on track, meaning Paddock Hill’s long downhill right hander was taken at nearon 90 degrees full-on oversteer. Andy Priaulx was grinning! “I love this car in the wet…in fact I love racing in these conditions” Yep, me too Andy, especially if there’s a toilet nearby.

This was pure, unadulterated M3 fun. With all traction control wizardry switched off the car oozed natural talent, and I so-so wanted one! It was as if there was nothing it couldn’t do, and whilst admittedly in skilled hands, the M3 was well up there with the skills of its driver, the car making its own statement of just how good it is. It really is tremendous, handles like a dream, and proves why that age old philosophy espousing the virtues of a powerful well-balanced front engined rear wheel drive car, over any other combination, still rings true.

My subsequently less expert go behind-the-wheel at Brands in a dual clutch version of the M4 showed equally satisfying handling and performance virtues. Interestingly, none of the performance edge was taken away by its bigger dimensions. Very impressive. But ‘very impressive’ soon turned to child-like excitement when BMW kindly pulled out a manual version of the car for yours truly to drive. For me, the manual was ‘the one’ – it’s a great gearbox, brilliant for quick changes, precise, nice clutch feel, excellent heel n’ toe pedal set up, and a lovely responsive engine keenly responding to precise throttle input,  making this manual version the most rewarding by far.

Had I come with the intention, the cheque book would have been signed. This one hit the sweet spot for me, and if BMW do the unthinkable and offer cars like these without a manual option, I think I’d cry. In fact I’m crying right now, but only because I want one so badly.

- Kevin Haggarthy