We love that in today’s world where everything is at your fingertips, the 2021 BMW M3 (and mechanically identical M4 Coupe) is still available with a good six-speed manual transmission. For the driver, there are few things that effectively increase the connection to the car like working the clutch pedal and paddle your gears. But the truth is that even BMW’s most iconic driver’s car is not immune to the demands of the modern age. If you want the ultimate version of the latest M3 – the upgraded 503-horsepower competition model – you’ll have to opt for the automatic. The reason for this split is simple: more speed.
As an update, the standard $70,895 M3 only comes with a stick six and produces 473 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque from an impressive twin-turbo 3.0-liter engine. However, opting for the $2,900 Competition upgrade entails installing an eight-speed automatic transmission, but it brings more turbo boost (24.7 psi versus 18.9) and an additional 30 horsepower and 73 lb-ft. According to BMW, the automatic also plays better with the all-wheel drive system that the Competition Edition will acquire as an option for 2022.
We’ve already dumped the new M3 around the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina and lined up the competition model against the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio in a comparison test. And while we haven’t tested a manual version yet, we put the M4 transmission through its paces in California. While the competition’s eight-speed ZF will never be included to act as manual nor quite as sharp as the optional seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox from the previous generation M3, it is one of the best torque-shifting mechanisms on the market, and BMW’s tuning is excellent. Depending on which of its six settings (three for both automatic and manual modes) you’ve selected, transmissions range upwards from supercars to quick shotgun bolts with virtually no interruption in torque. The downshifts coordinate so well when the car is being pushed hard, and despite the small amount of turbo lag from the engine, the transmission’s computer brain is so adept at picking ratios that we rarely feel the need to paddle shifters at the rear of the steering wheel.
With its added power and backed by automatic launch control programming, our 3,820-pound test car fired 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, outperforming the manual M4 by 0.3 seconds, even though the latter weighed 111 pounds less. This effort makes it the fastest M3 we have ever tested. At the quarter mile, the competition extends the gap by a tenth of a second and travels at 3 mph when it cuts the lights in 11.6 seconds at 124 mph. At 160 mph, the competition advanced by 2.5 seconds. (For reference, the previous competition’s 444-horsepower M3 with dual-clutch was about half a second slower up to 60 mpg and during the quarter-mile.) 9 mpg in the 75 mpg highway test, returning 32 mpg. Driven more aggressively, the 22 mpg average is still 3 mpg more than the vehicle’s combined federal rating.
Being a modern BMW, the M3 Competition’s quick test results – which also include 1.03 grams of skid plate grip and 150 feet from 70 mph – are complicated by a byzantine number of driving mode adjustments. Some, like the two brake pedal feel settings, have little effect on the driving experience. Others proved welcome during our mostly rainy drives, like the new 10-stage traction control system that comes with the $900 million package for the Pro drive. Do your best to find your favorite performance recipe (or two) and program it into one of the pre-set buttons in the M drive mode on the steering wheel, and this BMW will shine with precision. Although the rich feel of cornering loads and pavement imperfections continues to escape the struts of most new BMWs, the latest M3 conveys a much better road connection than the third generation of the previous series as a whole. Its chassis is reassuringly designed but easy to control with its six turbo jets, best for seamlessly threading the heads together – or winning the bet on the back of a coach M Drift Analyzer, if that’s your thing.
Thanks to the bandwidth of the M3 Competition’s adaptive dampers, its quick take-off doesn’t come at the expense of sane day-to-day livability. It helped that our test car featured standard, highly-supportive M3 front seats instead of carbon-fiber-wrapped thrones which cost an extra $3800, but this is still the most refined and comfortable M3-ride we can remember. Trips to your favorite racetrack or driving routes are less fun if you’re already tired of commuting. Now that the Series 3 is today as big as the larger 5 Series, back seat passengers won’t spend their entire time complaining about the lack of legroom. We recorded a good 72 dB urban noise indoors at a steady 70 mph, which is four decibels quieter than in the previous Competition model. Maximum thrust produces 84dB from a silky hexagonal roar, but we still wish BMW would let more of the engine’s natural song into the cabin rather than boost it through the audio system. You can at least turn off the auto-tuning effect with a menu on the touch screen.
Of the many options for our $93,495 test vehicle—the largest being the $8,150 carbon-ceramic brake set—probably our favorite was the $1,950 Tanzanite Blue II metallic paint, which reduces the visible rear end of the new M3’s front fascia. Better than some available brightness hues. Rationalists will point out that a few Ben Franklin will buy you a $105,495 BMW M5 with 600 horsepower. But go easy on the competition model additions and you’ll still have a great-performing M3, one with better human-machine communication than we’ve seen in years. It’s just that a regular car with a stick will form a stronger bond with its pilot. For us, that equals a few tenths of a second.
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