Not for the first time, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. With turn five at the Buddh International Circuit—a fast left-hander—approaching, I’m too late on the brakes. The speedo needle shudders at 150 kph before plummeting. By this time, I’m counter steering hard, to toe the racing line, but the rear of the BMW M3 has taken a life of its own and is racing the front. My hapless co-driver, a lifestyle hack, already unsettled by what the helmet has done to his hairdo, loses the last vestiges of poise and outhowls the engine, as we both brace for the inevitable spin out.
Apparently we are loud enough for the M3 to hear us, because suddenly, the rear shuffles—a bit like a truant lamb being shepherded back to the flock—and miraculously pulls right back in line for turn six, another left hander. Pretending that this was all my doing, I dive the M3’s nose into the next right-hander and floor the throttle, another war-cry escaping my lungs. The car in front, an M4, is having even more fun, and we see it go into a long drift through the double-apex right-hander at turns 10 and 11. I decide not to push my luck and try that; not this time. But if I did, then I’d really like to borrow this car to do it.
Going by how staid car launches can be, the M3’s debut couldn’t have been more delirious. I’ve gone around this circuit maybe five dozen times in the past three years, but I’ve never had the gumption to pull stunts like this. To be fair, I’m not really doing all that I would like to believe I am (or for others to believe it, for that matter). “Enjoyed that, car three?” asks the lead car driver over the radio, “I’m just glad you didn’t turn off the traction control entirely…”
Now, I’ve never managed to figure out how these lead car pros can keep an eye on what cars behind them are doing while negotiating a racetrack at such speeds. But my antics have obviously not gone unnoticed, and now with my cover blown on radio, I have no option but to admit that yes, while the traction control wasn’t on, it wasn’t off either. That happy dichotomy is one of the defining features of this new saloon (or sedan, if that’s more evocative) from BMW—four doors and everything. The M3 has always been a scorcher, but it’s never done such a good job of wearing two hats.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. If you were to encapsulate it in a nutshell, the 2014 M3 is the fifth iteration of BMW’s premium sport saloon. Although the car’s genius lies in its handling, there’s no getting away from its centrepiece—a straight-six three-litre engine—which gurgitates, and then regurgitates (courtesy a twin-turbocharger) a mammoth 431 bhp and a toe-curling 56 kgm of torque.
If you’re a gearhead, then you can stop scoffing just about now. There are many ‘purist’ arguments for loving the naturally-aspirated V8 in the previous iteration of the M3, but here’s the riposte: in the Mark V M3, the weight’s gone down, as have emissions and gas consumption, but power has actually gone up. Furthermore, the turbocharger has no lag – no discernible lag when the engine is in Efficiency mode, even less in Sport Mode, and none whatsoever in Sport Plus mode, when the twin-turbos are kept revving at 120,000 rpm irrespective of throttle input.
What that means is that when you do step on the gas, the turbos are already there, courtesy a calibrated airflow and additional dose of fuel. Then there’s that bit about the engine note. It is tricked out, to be fair—amplified and fed into the cabin via the stereo – but you can barely tell the difference. And there’s a traditional handbrake, to round off some of that lovely old-world, rear-wheel driven charm.
Once you’ve got the hang of things, you can play around with buttons to alter the steering, engine, suspension, gearbox and stability settings. As a general rule of thumb, the steering is ideally sharp in Sport mode, the suspension is perfect in Comfort, while the stability control is best left in MDM mode—which is the halfway house which saved my hide on the track. It gives you enough leeway to slide around, but covers your bases when you’re in way over your head. BMW likes to make a big deal about the fact that the M3’s engine can easily rev upwards of 7000 rpm, and while that is true, there seems to be no conceivable reason to do that when the entire load of torque is in fact at your disposal beyond 1850 rpm.
The M3 Coupe has been rechristened the M4, in line with BMW’s new nomenclature of using odd numbers for sedans and even numbers for coupes and cabriolets, but apart from the doors and 23 more kg, there’s really nothing to tell the two apart. The M4 looks a mite sleeker, but just about, and there’s no perceptible difference in performance—on- or off-track. I wouldn’t take the M3, and certainly not the M4 Coupe, for a stake-out. These aren’t sleepers—innocuous harmless-looking family wagons which will do 0-100 kph in under five seconds.
The M3 and M4 do that sprint in a tad over four seconds with the standard 6-speed manual transmission, and a tad under with the optional 7-speed M Double Clutch Transmission. Top whack is restricted to 250 kph or 280 kph, if specced to the M Driver Package. And both cars look capable of those figures even at standstill. The M3 might be based on the 3-series platform but, four doors or not, looks more like a pimped up street racing car—three yawning air intakes under the front bumper, which is headlined by a blacked-out kidney grill with the M-series branding; and a carbon-fibre roof which completes the understated yet unmistakably aggressive stance.
That’s to be expected of a car with this pedigree: the M-series started off as a sporting gambit for BMW with the M1—the Giugiaro-designed mid-engined car—in 1978, and its success quickly spurred the M535i—the first genuine modified-track car—in 1980. It was the M3, when it hit the roads in 1986, which changed how the world viewed sports saloons. The debutante model—the E30—powered by a four-cylinder engine, went on to become a racetrack staple and the most successful-ever touring car. The E30’s successors – the E36 and E46 — upped the ante, with six-cylinder replacements, but couldn’t match it for driving feel and the M-series franchise lost a bit of its sheen. In 2007 came the Mark IV E92 M3—outfitted with a take-no-prisoners V8 – that couldn’t produce the all-round performance the engine deserved.
The 2014 M3 and M4 manage to do this and more. The ride can be lullaby-like wafting and almost too sportscar like for comfort, depending on the settings you choose. And that’s where—at the point where madness meets no-allowance-for-fun prudence—the genius of this car lies. It’ll let you slide, but pull you back from the brink if you bite off more than you can chew. There are many reasons to love the new M3—let’s not forget the 480-litre boot—but the fact that it’s not going to punish you for not learning from your mistakes has to be the most compelling.