Beloved by enthusiasts for its track-worthy performance and daily drivability, the BMW M3 is all-new for 2015. This marks a triumphant return for the high-performance four-door, which has been on hiatus since the 2011 model year.
The fifth-generation M3, internally dubbed F80, gets significant revisions over its predecessor. The old V8 engine is gone, and a new version of the much-loved inline-6 returns. This time, it’s a high-revving 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder that cranks out 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, the latter on tap from as low as 1850 rpm. With the optional 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, the 2015 BMW M3 can dash from 0-60 mph in an estimated 3.9 seconds, or in 4.1 seconds with the 6-speed manual.
As before, all M3 sedans are rear-wheel drive. And as part of BMW’s new nomenclature, the M3 comes only with four doors; the M-powered coupe is now known as the M4.
This is the first time a new generation of M3 has gotten lighter compared with its predecessor; in the past, enthusiasts have bemoaned the weight gain with every new model. More extensive use of lightweight materials, including a carbon fiber driveshaft, carbon fiber roof, and aluminum hood and doors help this fifth-generation F80 M3 drop about 180 pounds compared with the fourth-generation e90 M3.
Another significant change includes the switch to electromechanical steering. While old-school fans might complain about the loss of hydraulic power steering, we found the feel precise and direct, with three modes that allow drivers to choose the level of steering effort.
Handling is aided by a new five-link rear suspension, which is mounted directly to the body, giving the M3 a much stiffer ride and more direct road feel. Most components are also made out of aluminum, rather than steel, shaving off more weight. The only downside with the new setup is that it produces more road noise.
Track junkies will lust after the optional carbon ceramic brakes, an $8,150 option that is really more like $9,350, since it requires the addition of optional 19-inch wheels. Carbon ceramic brakes offer heart-stopping performance and dissipate heat better than standard iron brakes, making them a better choice for track events or mountain roads where repeated hard braking is used, but most drivers do not need them.
As precise as the M3 is on the track, it’s equally impressive as a daily driver thanks to a comfortable rear seat and ample trunk space; 60/40-split folding rear seats make it even more versatile. Interior design is anything but understated, with available two-tone leather combinations and contrast stitching around the doors, dash, and M steering wheel.
BMW’s widescreen display and iDrive controller come standard on the 2015 M3. BMW apps lets users access a variety of audio and entertainment features, including a new GoPro app, which lets drivers control a car-mounted GoPro camera (sold separately) directly from the iDrive interface.
Fuel economy for the 2015 BMW M3 is an EPA-estimated 17/26 mpg City/Highway with the 6-speed manual gearbox, 17/24 mpg with the 7-speed automatic; Premium gasoline is required by the M3. Those fuel economy estimates are substantially improved over 2011 M3 sedan’s 14/20 City/Highway figures.
Always a benchmark in the luxury compact sports segment, the 2015 BMW M3 Series is poised to continue its reign as the leader of the pack. Its closest current competitors include the Cadillac CTS-V, which makes a segment-topping 556 hp and 551-lb.-ft. of torque from its supercharged V8, and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, powered by a 451-hp V8 engine. Yet neither surpasses the BMW when it comes to the total package of design, performance and brand cache, and that certain je ne sais quoi for which the M3 has always been known.
Though the 2015 BMW M3 is based on the latest iteration of the 3 Series sedan, it has unique features and styling all its own.
The new front end is both aggressive and functional, with larger front air intakes that help improve aerodynamics. Vertical vents alongside the front fenders channel air down the sides of the car. A rear spoiler keeps the car planted, while a smooth underbody and rear diffuser help the M3 to slice through the air with as little resistance as possible.
Compared with the previous e90 M3, the new F80 M3 is about four inches longer, more than two inches wider, and nearly an inch lower. And the wheelbase is stretched two inches.
As with all M cars, BMW offers a distinct and unique palate of exterior colors. The only basic paint available is the non-metallic Alpine White; the rest are metallic and cost an extra $550, including the new Yas Marina Blue, a bright, medium hue that, depending on the light, can look either cool or downright Smurfy. Also new is the greenish Austin Yellow, named in honor of F1's new U.S. racetrack, the Circuit of the Americas. While these colors might be polarizing, they most certainly garner attention.
Standard wheels are V-spoke 18-inch alloys, wrapped in Michelin Pilot Super Sport mixed performance tires. Two designs are available for the optional 19-inch wheels, with optional carbon ceramic brakes that are visually differentiated by gold-painted calipers that look like something out of a mediocre Austin Powers sequel.
Inside the cabin, the design is similar to that of a 3 Series sedan, but splashier with a variety of colors and finishes, including optional two-tone full leather upholstery. Contrast stitching accents the sport seats, M steering wheel, doors and dash, and carbon fiber trim comes standard. The M logo can be found everywhere, reminding drivers that they paid a premium for a much faster car than those regular BMWs.
Regardless of trim, the M3's cockpit remains oriented around driving, the dash angled slightly toward the driver bringing all controls within easy reach. Climate controls are traditional BMW, intuitive and easy to operate.
Unlike many manufacturers who are switching to digital instrument clusters, the M3 keeps traditional analog gauges, with glowing white text atop a black background. A small display between the large tachometer can show a variety of information, including music, navigation, MPG and vehicle diagnostics. An optional head-up display included with the Executive Package, makes it easy to check speed going down the straights.
BMW's widescreen display and iDrive controller come standard on the M3. As with the 3 Series models, the iDrive monitor sits fixes atop the dash, unlike screens made by Audi which retract out of sight when not in use. Navigation and real-time traffic information are standard, which is a nice touch on a car that can reach $90,000 with options. Bluetooth and smartphone connectivity lets users access a suite of apps and functions, including a new GoPro app, which lets drivers control a car-mounted GoPro camera (sold separately) directly from the iDrive interface.
One of the things that makes the M3 so appealing is that it can be a practical daily driver in spite of its raceworthy performance. There's plenty of interior storage space, like wide door pockets that can accommodate water bottles and mugs, plus two cupholders on the center console. Sport seats are comfortable and have a wide range of adjustability, and aggressive bolstering keeps everyone firmly in place, whether on a long road trip or cranking through the turns on a fast track. Rear seats fit most adults and are fine for short to moderate trips, with 37.7 inches of rear headroom and 35.1 inches of rear legroom.
Cargo space measures 12 cubic feet, the same as with the old e90 M3, which is enough to fit a couple of large suitcases with a bit of room to spare. Standard 60/40-spilt folding rear seats allow for even more carrying capacity.
Whether it’s winding country roads or a high-speed racetrack, the BMW M3 is at its best going fast. Separate adjustments for steering, throttle control and damping (with the optional adaptive suspension) let drivers customize the M3 any way they see fit. But even in its tamest settings, the M3 is 100 percent sports car.
The new 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 engine (S55) replaces the V8s on the outgoing generation and is lighter, more powerful, and gives a substantial boost in torque. It’s also a higher revving engine than its predecessor, and as such, one might be tempted to shift early if going by sound alone. But let that motor whine all the way to the 7500 redline, and you’ll feel like a superhero merging onto a rural highway at 80 mph in fourth gear, or barreling down a 150-mph straight like we did at Road America, a 4.0-mile serpentine racing circuit near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
A redesigned, lighter suspension uses a double-joint spring strut setup in front and a new five-link axle in the rear. The new rear suspension is mounted directly to the body (omitting the connecting parts normally in between), giving the M3 a much stiffer ride and more direct road feel. The only downside is that it produces more road noise. Most components, including control arms, are aluminum. Even with the suspension in comfort mode, the M3 is firm and well-sprung, though is more compliant over bumps and rough roads.
With the 7-speed double-clutch transmission, we could put it in Drive and let the car do its thing, or we could switch over to manual and click the paddles. The latter was especially satisfying on the track, where we could focus more on the line and less on the body mechanics of changing gears. The M double-clutch transmission is faster than the manual, propelling the M3 from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, compared with 4.1 seconds using the manual. While shifts from the double-clutch are blink-of-an-eye fast, we did find they could feel abrupt when pushing hard in Sport and Sport Plus modes.
Manual transmissions have an automatic rev-matching function in Efficient and Sport modes, but the blip comes when you take the shifter out of gear, so your shifts had better be fast for optimal performance. In Sport Plus mode, the auto rev matching turns off, leaving you to your own heel-and-toe skills.
The M3 drops traditional hydraulic steering for an electromechanical system, which purists bemoan. But we found steering feel precise and direct, with three modes that allow drivers to choose the level of steering effort. Comfort is the default, and is by no means light. Sport and Sport Plus increase the steering effort, in the case of the latter, quite considerably.
Steering feel depends largely on personal preference, and heavier steering doesn’t necessarily mean better performance. In fact, our driving instructor at Road America, who heads the M Performance Center driving program in Spartanburg, South Carolina, switched our steering from Sport into Comfort in the middle of a lap. Though at first we thought we were being demoted, he explained the lighter steering effort can help when learning the track, so you don’t have to feel like you’re fighting the wheel.
Standard M3 brakes are bigger and more powerful than those found on 3 Series sedans, but the big push seems to be for the new carbon-ceramic rotors, complete with huge gold-painted calipers that, despite their amazing performance, look downright cheesy. As manufacturers are wont to do when it comes to impressing journalists on a product launch, the BMW crew fitted our test cars only with the $8,150 carbon ceramic option. These monsters are unbelievably powerful, once you get some heat into them.
Dynamic stability control can be adjusted for optimum safety or optimum slip. With it on, it can save your bacon if you make a mistake, but we also felt the system holding us back when rounding corners at Road America. With it off, the M3 commands a healthy dose of respect.
Wheels, whether the standard 18-inch alloys or either of the optional 19-inch designs, are wrapped in sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, designed specifically for the new M3. Their mixed performance designation means they should hold up well in a variety of driving conditions.
Around town, the M3 is well mannered, though it feels clunkier than its 3 Series counterpart, thanks in part to a relatively large, 40-foot turning circle, nearly three feet wider than a 330i. So while the M3 might handle high-speed chicanes with ease, it’s not quite as nimble in the supermarket parking lot.
As with all BMW M cars, the 2015 M3 has a fantastic exhaust note. Partially organic and partially engineered, the M3’s sound is loud and unmistakable, from both within and without.
The fifth-generation BMW M3 returns to its roots with a new inline-6 engine, lighter weight and more power. Between its daily drivability and track-ready options, the 2015 BMW M3 is poised to continue its reign as the leader of the pack.
NewCarTestDrive.com lead correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after her drive of the M3 sedan in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.