Create a legend and it creates a rod for its own back. The BMW M3 is one such legend and with every new version you'll hear the same complaints: "It's moved too far away from the original concept." "It's too heavy." "It's got the wrong number of cylinders." But its legendary status means everyone's got a view on how it should be.
The moans have rung out especially loud around the latest F80 variant of the car because BMW has thrown away the old, much-loved V8 engine from the previous model and replaced it with a turbo-charged straight six. Never mind that it's more powerful (437bhp), more torquey (550nM) and more economical (32mpg) than before. The purists are upset.
With this at the back of our minds, when the man from BMW asked "M3 (saloon) or M4 (coupe)?" we chose the car with the legendary name. Bring on the BMW M3 - but is it still a legend?
Lessons in history
This is the fifth generation of M3. In the 1980s, BMW homologated a "Motorsport" e30 M3 in order to comply with touring car regulations. It utilised four-cylinder engines, which by the time they'd been through three evolutions, produced just over 230bhp and words like "raw" and "pure" crop up a lot when you talk about the e30.
The next generation, the e36, added weight, grew in size and gained what's now seen as the signature engine configuration - a straight six. Contemporary reports were favourable, but the e36 has come to be viewed as the runt of the M3 litter. Much more favoured is the e46, of which numerous examples can still be seen on the road today. It continued with the straight six engine, albeit in a more powerful form than before and with a more scintillating power delivery.
But everything changed with the last e90 - which was conceived in the early noughties, when concerns about fuel economy and emissions were less pressing than today - that in the quest for more power, meant it used a V8. It revved close to 9000rpm, made a noise that old duffers in the car industry go misty eyed over and was so thirsty it struggled to travel 200-miles on a tank of fuel.
Does an engine define a name?
What you take away from the M3's family tree is the engine is the heart and soul - and core to the appeal - of these cars. The purists' worry about this new car is that turbo-charging the engine will make it less appealing; make it less of an M3. And if the only way you can bear to start your day is with the sound of a V8, the new M3 isn't going to be for you.
Approach with an open mind, however, and there's a lot to like in 2014's M3. The engine noise is unusual. Not creamily smooth like BMW's traditional, non-turbo straight sixes, but more guttural. And BMW augments the real sound it's making by piping sound into the cabin through the speakers. But its not unpleasant sounding. Its aural range is wide - it chunters, chatters, growls and howls in a varied manner which made us smile.
Why get so caught up about the noise the engine makes? Because once you realise BMW has eliminated all the concerns about turbo-charging (throttle response, lack of top-end zing) it's the only contentious aspect. And the noise is merely good where previous M3 engines were great. The engine of the M3 is no longer its stand-out aspect. But that's because the rest of the car is now so good.
Bulging at the seams
It starts with the looks. Based on the 3-Series, there are key appeals to the M3 over the cooking models. The subtle attention to design details and upgrades are chief among them. The bespoke wing mirrors reprise previous M3's signature "double arm" design but never quite reconnect at the top of the mirror sail. There's a lacquered carbon-fibre roof. The air-curtain-creating split surfaces in the lower bumper give the M3 not only a deeper, more aggressive chin - but call to mind just a little bit of the aero-tech of the new BMW i8.
Our real reason for choosing to test an M3 over the M4 (a greater percentage of buyers will go for the coupe) is we believe it looks better. It's more bespoke. Whereas the M4 sticks with the standard 4-Series coupe bodyshell, on the M3, BMW had to fit wider rear wings that flair out deliciously to contain the rear wheels and give it an entirely different stance to the regular saloon. This immediately marks it out as special. It's like a body builder squeezed into a just-too-small suit - all aggression, latent intent and menace.
The other thing we like is that through the simple assignment of colour, BMW gives you the option to dial up or down just how much attention you wish your new M3 to draw. Blend into the background and go stealthily with mineral grey or sapphire black. Or choose one of the bespoke M colours: "Sakhir orange", "Austin yellow" or - and like our test car - Yas Marina blue and you've a car that certain road users are instantly going to clock as a new M3. At which point they'll try to insert their Focus ST into your rear bumper, if our experience is representative.
M & M
This theme continues inside. It's 3-Series+ in the latest M3. You get bespoke, one-piece wing-backed seats which we absolutely loved. They drop low and hug you just right and the faded colours on the metallic M badge in the seats illustrate the attention to detail.
In place of BMW's usual electronically-actuated auto gear stick, from the centre console sprouts a stumpy little knob, emblazoned with M DCT. Or it does if you give BMW £2,645 for the privilege of this option. Which is something you really must do, because the 7-speed, dual clutch gearbox is now central to the driving experience of this car. Gear changes come so fast, so sharply, that they make standard auto boxes seem slow and the manual just old hat - it fits perfectly with the missile-like speedy qualities of the new M3. Only occasionally does it make you look like you can't drive - typically when rolling up to a roundabout preparing to stop when you instead decide there's enough time to go instead. Then you'll get a bit of a head-snapping jerk which will draw sideways glances from your passengers.
While the rest of the experience of being in the M3 is very similar to a 3-Series, that's not a bad thing because - and as we've said before - the ergonomics and tech are so sorted. The nav is intuitive, you have access to various apps, it tells you where traffic is via colours on the map. Beyond the tech, BMW gives you just enough little touches to remind you that you're driving something special: from the double stitching in the leather, to the slender, longer gearshift paddles.
Then there's our favourite flourish feature: when you floor the throttle in the lower gears the digital LED lights on the outer edges of the rev counter begin to light-up as the needle swings past 5000rpm, and thereafter sequentially count up, with the needle to the red line, before flashing the final red light which indicates you need to shift up a gear. It's an addictive game and also one that you need to be careful of playing on the road, as third gear hurls you deep into license-losing territory. Safety first, people.
Configuring your drive
However, the most important buttons in the cabin are the six to tailor the driving experience. There's M1 and M2 on the wheel; the powertrain, damper, steering button adjacent to the gearshift; plus the three-stage gearshift speed button behind it.
In the decade-and-a-half that exists between the e46 M3 appearing and this new M3 in 2014, the ability to tailor the setup of how performance cars drive has exponentially expanded. In the e46, there was a sport button you pressed if you wanted a sharper throttle response, and a traction control button to turn the protection systems off. In the M3 F80, you can adjust the way the powertrain response, speed of gearshifts, damper firmness, steering weight, levels of stability control intervention and even the graphical format of the heads-up display.
Given the numerous adjustment factors, BMW recognises that setting-up the car every time you get in is a bit of a drag and provides M1 and M2 shortcut buttons on the wheel, giving you a single button to press to activate a pre-defined setup of all the variable parameters. As we suspect most owners will, we dialled M1 up as our chilled, no-rush commute set. And M2 for those more urgent moments with the stability control set to MDM - that allowed for oversteer but not so much that you'd end up in the ditch, and everything bar the dampers set to sport plus. You get a constant tell-tale reminder in the lower segment of the rev counter to see what modes you've set for steering, powertrain, dampers and gearshift speed, too.
Many manufacturers do similar and it works well here but does throw up one or two questions. The first is why the car reverts to an all-comfort, everything-backed-down setting every time you stop it. Why can't it remember your last setting based on the key (which the radio, seat and mirrors do)? Meanwhile, having so much ability to adjust the setup does creates the nag of chasing your tail, constantly trying to adjust the best setup for each drive and each road. There's something to be said for the two-buttons-and-that's-it approach of the e46. Paradox of choice anyone?
Still got it
However, that may all be a moot point, as 500 yards down the road on your first drive it's clear the M3 has still got it. It feels keyed into the road, hunkered down and yet primed for action. Having stepped out of one of its high-powered petrol 3-Series sisters, it feels like a completely different car. It is, of course, and the expensive, polished quality to the ride and the way the car moves around are primarily thanks to expensive and bespoke components used under the skin. A special front axle carrier, carbon-fibre propshafts, completely bespoke, cast suspension components and best of all the whole rear axle assembly (complete with it's special M-differential) is bolted direct to the body of the car.
What all of this automotive geekery means is that you're paying extra for stuff in the M3 that you can't see. But boy can you feel it on the road. In the stiffness, the immediacy and the alertness of the way the M3 handles and steers - but also in the compliant and sophisticated way it rides.
It goes without saying it is also blindingly fast. About a month before we tested the new M3 we drove one of the last of the previous generation V8 cars, and the new car feels much faster. The benefit of the new M3 engine is that whereas in the old car you had to rev it to go fast, the new one has a torque curve at lower engine speeds that will send e90 owners giddy, and yet retaining a rev-hungry, un-strangulated nature at the top-end that means you get the best of all worlds.
The steering feels slightly dead, though, but in sport mode its weight is good and it gives you enough clues about where the car is going to go. The front axle nails itself into corners up to very silly speeds, that even non-wannabe racing drivers will find themselves gaining a confidence in the M3 that allows it to be edged into lift drifts and then full-on-oversteered round corners in the most easy-to-catch and laugh-out-loud amusing way. Buy shares in Michelin if you're a wannabe racing driver and enjoy such childish behaviour, as you're going to be getting through tyres.
Last word to the brakes, which on our test car were the £6,250 optional M carbon-ceramic units. BMW's somewhat emphatic response to complaints that M3s have always been a bit under-braked, these additions are peerless in their stopping ability, easier to modulate than many carbon-ceramics we've driven and didn't squeal either (another carbon-ceramic bug bear). Only those intending to spend serious time on track ought to seriously consider such an expensive addition though.
Core to the M3's appeal has always been its accessibility - the fact it is a 3-Series bodyshell means you can use it everyday, drive it to work, take your family for days out in it - mixed with extreme levels of performance and driving pleasure. The latest version does little to change the first part of that deal. Choose to run an M3 as your only family car, as you might a 3-Series, and you're faced with few compromises. That new engine means it's even capable of occasionally hitting 30mpg, or the best part of 400-miles between fill ups, which makes it a lot more usable.
The real question is whether it retains the magic qualities the M3 has always had and is special enough to justify a starting asking price of £54,775. Some have said the price looks steep as it's a price you can buy high-powered Jags and Porsches for and it's a step more than an Audi RS4 or Mercedes C63 AMG. That doesn't tell the whole picture though because the M3 comes with almost everything you need as standard, including the full-on satellite navigation and metallic paint most companies charge extra for. The only thing you really need to pay for is the automatic gearbox. Spec its competitors to similar levels as the M3 and the playing field levels out. From where we're sat the competitors simply aren't as appealing a prospect to own or as special to drive as this new M3. Not in their current forms anyway.
Although the M3 may no longer have an engine that stands out head and shoulders as the car's best aspect, in part that's because the rest of the package has been developed to such a high standard. The way the chassis has been setup to allow the car to flow across Britain's rutted roads, to cosset your family, but also to cover ground at a frightening pace while allowing you to have great fun has never ceased to impress us. Until the new Mercedes AMG C63 arrives next year, the BMW M3 is essentially a car without rivals.
New engine or not, the M3's legendary status is safe for now.