Driven: BMW M3 and M4 Competition

More liveable. More quick. Still the benchmark?

It’s 2021. All cars are good, all cars are relatively quick compared to their predecessors. I mean, you can break all sorts of laws in a cheap rental car if pushed. But the M3 is something special – pushed or not. It remains the perennial benchmark for street performance. Yes, there are other iconic badges, models that have dominated in their segments most notably ones with a GTI badge, consistently punching above their weight. New direct competitors wearing RS and AMG monikers on their arse have never been this compelling and despite my fierce love of Japanese metal, I would have to concede that the M badge means the most on these streets. But at a R1.9-mil sticker price, these super saloons need to be a marked improvement on what came before.

First we bitched when they gave us a V8 engine. Then we moaned when they gave us a turbocharged six cylinder. Now. It’s the grille. And look, I haven’t gotten over it yet myself but to quote one commenter, the revulsion has subsided somewhat. Do I like it? I tolerate it really well, and have trained my camera to find its most flattering angles. Will we get used to it? That’s a two part answer. One, I guess so. Two, who gives a shit? This is the M3! And also the M4. That massive price tag will get you a 375kW and 650Nm rocket ship, the brunt of which is sent exclusively to the rear wheels, that is until later this year when the AWD iterations arrive in Mzansi. These rear-driven Competition models will do a 3.9-second sprint to 100kph and will ultimately top out at 290kph thanks to the included M Drivers Package. Which, I mean, has to be enough right? Pauses for a collective head shake from the tuning fraternity who have been tweaking this turbocharged inline-six since it arrived in the X3 and X4 Comp.

Yet it is never about the numbers, or rather it hasn’t been for decades with the M Division, a once skunk faction renowned for taking sedans and balancing them into finely honed whips. Not, I repeat, not building ‘race cars for the road.’ Rather, family cars that can tackle circuits with alacrity and noise. It’s this ethos that so gelled with Mzansi, that therefore placed us as the fifth biggest M market in the world. Speaking of our market, as mentioned earlier, ours will receive the Competition models only so no manual gearbox, nor the 353kW engine it comes paired to. That car will do the 0-100kph in a slower @4.2sec and that’s as far as I feel the need to elaborate. Rather, I’ll play the ball as it lands – wide and fierce, with an indented bonnet where previously there were bulges. Our test unit comes with the R80,000 M Carbon exterior package with woven mirror caps, gurney, inlays and rear diffuser. Our M4 (but not our M3 test whip) also benefits from the M carbon interior which includes a similarly rendered steering wheel cover, trim straps, gearshift paddles and centre console. The one has M4 Competition lettering brandished between the seats, the other M3 lettering. Just ahead of this is the M Mode toggle allowing you to dial in Road, Sport or Track Modes. Naturally, the red anodized M1 and M2 switches still live behind the helm, an ergonomic joy. Thankfully it’s a cabin that feels like two bar. Mind you, this one’s more when you consider that you’ll spend a further R65,000 should you require the carbon bucket seats. These are 10kg lighter so that’s nice, fully electric with integrated head restraints and more lateral support than ever before.

Then there’s the new 8 speed M-Steptronic autobox where previously lived DCT. You lose nothing in snappy shifts however, I refer once again to a 0-100kph of 3.9 seconds. It, alongside the rest of the chassic, was honed, developed to the nth on the Nordschleife. Also new is the combination of 19” inch front alloys and 20’s at the rear for a better balance of response and traction. I can tell you that on the 100km or so of switchback asphalt, the front end was incredibly pointy and the rear end supremely unstickable. That is, until we got to the private race circuit in the middle of the Cape Winelands. Here we got to put the active M differential to work, and test the new smart aerodynamics to the full. The latter is particularly clever – reducing uplift, improving cooling, benefitting from air curtains reminiscent of ground effects. The braking system is modular too now, as is the traction control via a mode button allowing you to choose how powerful/restraining it is. And hidden behind the veil of electronics you’ll even find a Drift Analyzer mode. Even without the R130,000 carbon braking system, the Comp is a weapon – one you can holster as quickly as you whip it out.

It was finally time to play on the polished tarmac, first in an M4 then immediately in the M3. Both felt intimidating initially, both inspired confidences soon after. The differences in their performance is negligible, certainly after just the 4 laps we had in each. But both revealed the following: it’s quick, precise and full of flavour where it counts. I mean at the front wheels, which even a relative novice could place with precision on an unknown track. The torque delivery feels linear and endless, and the more you pushed the livelier the rear end finally became. The noise is okay, there’s enough of it but it feels a bit muted, lackluster. I’m not sure if you can consider this a criticism but at two bar well, I wanted more drama than this. The new car immediately felt faster than anything that preceded it, but with an extra level of refinement. I’m not sure how to consolidate my emotions. I feel like I’ve just driven a ‘normal’ M3 and M4, and not the Competition model which I imagined (keyword, imagined) would be a bit more looney. A sign that M Division has something more frantic in the pipeline? I’m not sure. But, as a family saloon that, if it erringly found itself in the middle of a racetrack during a touring car race, would be able to mix it with the pointy end of the pack without breaking a sweat.

And so the old benchmark is the new benchmark. What it loses in visceral drama it more than makes up in speed. If you can live with this and its challenging visage, then your new champ is here.

Game face. The BMW M3 and M4 features quite the scowl, designed for polarizing opinions sure, but mostly for rear view mirror intimidation tactics

BMW M3 Competition  R1,860,000
BMW M4 Competition  R1,940 000

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