No new M3 is ever as good as the previous M3, it seems. But when the F80 generation launched in 2014 it faced a tougher reception than most.
For starters, the coupe wasn’t even called the M3 any more, which just confused matters. More importantly, it was the first turbocharged version, the signature high-revving M motors of the past replaced with a new-school straight-six. People reckoned it didn’t sound as nice, they didn’t like the power delivery, they reckoned it was near-undriveable on anything but a smooth, dry road and from those initial reviews, it sounded like the F80 was a disgrace to the M3 name.
People were wrong though, and the F80 deserves to go down as one of the true greats. Here are five reasons why.
Fate conspired that Mercedes-AMG launched the C63 on the same Portimao track BMW had chosen for first drives in the M3 and M4 just a few months before. I was lucky enough to attend both events and, while the C63 punched harder, there was a ferocity about the BMW that simply made it more exciting.
This was brought home to me when Alfa Romeo joined the fray with the Giulia Quadrifoglio and I got a chance to triple-test it against the M3 and C63 on a closed circuit shoot at Anglesey. The BMW was the least powerful car there by a good 70bhp but, while the Alfa was more exotic and the AMG happily made any idiot look like a drifting god, the M3 was the one everyone wanted to drive until the tyres delaminated. Which didn’t take long.
Hardly a line for the sales brochure. But there’s a badass streak at the heart of every F80 M3 and M4 that demands your utmost respect. In an age where performance cars have become faster but more sanitised it stands out for being unapologetically aggressive and demanding to drive. Arguably a bit too much so for the early versions, whose spiky power delivery and iffy damping made them a right handful on anything but smooth, dry tarmac.
Mid-life revisions and software tweaks introduced for the engine, gearbox, stability control, adaptive dampers and the M Active differential on the Competition Package make newer cars way more usable though, not least in the valedictory CS versions. This is an F80 you can enjoy fully on any road, in any weather, the front-end bite, steering feel and appetite for oversteer now a white-knuckle ride for the right reasons. But this is still a car that demands respect – drive it like a lead-footed moron and you’ll be taking a first-class ticket into the nearest hedge. Call it Darwin in action.
While it’s always been unashamedly lairy to drive the M3’s real trick has been its tasteful and relatively understated appearance. Yes, it’s hardly a Q-car. But in the right colour and on the right wheels, and especially in four-door M3 form, it’s just the right side of aggro.
It’s just got that perfect balance of aggression without being too in-your-face, point proven by the fact that over six months with an M4 I never walked away from it without at least one over-the-shoulder glance and muttered “phwoar!” A bit awkward in company, but it’s that kind of car.
The M3 CS you see here is possibly a step too far with its vented bonnet, optional ceramic brakes, and carbon aero. The devil is in the detail though, and the detail is good. BMW’s styling has taken a controversial turn of late. But with the F80 I reckon they absolutely nailed it.
How many times have you popped the bonnet of a modern performance car only to be confronted with an anonymous slab of black plastic covering the engine? Too many times, that’s how many! Lifting the bonnet of the M3 or M4 is, however, an absolute geek’s delight. There’s that beautiful, boomerang-shaped carbon fibre strut brace for starters. And a pukka BMW straight-six, topped by the exotic looking charge cooler for the two turbos. This is a proper, proper engine too.
Those turbos are small so they spin up quickly and let the engine rev to beyond 7000rpm. There’s dual VANOS, Valvetronic, a forged crank, magnesium sump and all sorts of clever boost recirculating tech to keep the turbos on the boil. Forced induction engines suck? Hush your mouth – this is one of the absolute best, with revs like a naturally-aspirated screamer but boost to die for. Or possibly kill you.
In the CS they’ve even figured out how to make it sound good without speaker-assisted droning too.
With the new 3-series only just launched it’ll be a while before we see the next M3 or M4. I’m going to take a punt on this one – it’ll be sanitised compared with this one. How can it be anything else? Oh, I don’t doubt it’ll have more tech, more gizmos and lap the Nurburgring faster while using a fraction of the fuel. But I just can’t see how BMW will ever get away with launching a car as unashamedly savage as this ever again. In that sense, we’ve reached peak M3. And the F80 – because and not in spite of its flaws - will stand as one of the true greats.