Muscle cars, performance cars and anything sporty was back with a bang at the Detroit Motor Show in 2014. And if you’re looking for the personification of that statement, you needed to look no further than the BMW stand, where the new M4 coupe, resplendent in gold, was flanked by a new baby blue M3 saloon. This was the platform where the company introduced the most important version of its entire M-series car range.
It’s a bit of a departure from what’s gone before too. There’s that naming thing for a start. Traditionally the M3 has always been the default sports coupe, but if you want the historic name plate from now on then you’re going to be forced into the saloon body style. The coupe gets a new name in the form of M4, following the logic of the 4-Series coupe range, which it forms the pinnacle of. Pity that it reminds us of a characterless British motorway, but then again, the M3's not much better from that point of view. It's a good job that these BMWs are a whole lot more exciting than our motorway banter then.
The next point of departure is the engine. True BMW aficionados may rejoice in the fact that the M3 and M4 return to the brand’s signature engine configuration - a straight six. But for the first time in its history, the M3 - we're just going to call it by that name from now on - is also turbo-charged.
Theoretically, that ought to be a good thing, bringing with it really punchy performance in the shape of 425bhp and better fuel economy too. But the worry is that turbo-charging will cause the loss of two M3 signatures - its pin-sharp throttle response, and desire to rev to the high heavens. Only time, an open road and possibly a test track will tell, but given the behaviour of the turbo-charged six in the 1M and M135i that have gone before, we have high hopes BMW will have worked some magic and managed to retain the M3’s signature character. Regardless, owners of the outgoing V8 M3 should be in for a fuel economy treat, as we wouldn’t be surprised if this new car achieves a full 10mpg more in day-to-day driving than the notoriously thirsty outgoing beast.
READ: BMW M135i review
Besides the engine, some very trick suspension including a locking rear differential and fancy adaptive dampers, the M3 also gives you one option that traditionalists will be pleased to hear about - it comes as standard with a manual gearbox. Never mind that in its last couple of years, over 90 per cent of the older car's owners specced the 7-speed dual clutch auto (and that figure is only likely to go up with this incoming model), it’s nice to be given the choice.
One other feature we like the sound of, is that besides being able to switch off all the traction control, there’s a special "smoky burnout" (BMW’s words, not ours) setting, which allows you too, erm, do smoky burnouts we would presume. There go the tyres.
BMW has also gone to town on the materials front, in an effort to shed weight. The new car is lighter than the last one, and that’s partly due to the liberal use of carbon fibre and carbon fibre reinforced plastic in places you can’t see (like the prop-shaft) and places that you most definitely can - such as the roof panel. First seen on the E46 M3 CSL, now every M3 and M4 gets a carbon fibre roof, which makes the car lighter, reduces its centre of gravity and because of how it looks will give you a standout visual element to show off to your mates. We just thought it a bit too standout against the gold and baby blue colour schemes. A black car lurking in the corner had a much more stealthy, demure sort of quality to it. Iron fist, velvet glove and all that.
The carbon fibre trimmings don’t stop there, because like tinsel at Christmas BMW has decided you can never have too much of a good thing and showered it all over the interior too. That carbon trim, a full leather-finish for the dashboard and door finishes, and some absolutely stunning seats - that we couldn't resist but sit in for a deserved rest for 10 minutes - complete the interior changes to elevate the M-series cars above and beyond the regular 3s and 4s. It doesn’t feel quite as special and new as the TT or C-Class interior did, but it definitely had intent. And we’d be happy to sit in it just for those seats alone.
Of course, the point of cars like this BMW is that in the 99 moments out of 100 where you can’t exploit its performance potential, you can throw the family in the back and do an Ikea run. And so long as you don’t get carried away and start buying wardrobes you'll generally blend in to everyday traffic when you need to.
The new M cars show no signs of tripping over on these everyday features, but in aesthetic terms, we reckon the wheels, skirts, deep chin spoiler and super-cool wing mirrors do just enough to lift the M3 and M4 and make them look special. While in a selfish ideal world most of us would have a coupe over a saloon, in our view it’s the saloon that’s the more successful, special piece of design. In the metal its stance is better and the way the rear is forced to flare out into a pair of great arches that wrap around the massive rear tyres gives it a muscularity that the coupe lacks.
Whichever you prefer, expect the car to be right up there at the top of the class, and bring with it that typically A-grade BMW price tag: the basic spec model will set you back £56,175 when the M3 and M4 go on sale later in 2014.