2021 BMW M3 Review: More Pedals Equal More Fun
|3.0L I6 Turbo
|473 hp, 406 lb-ft
|US fuel economy (MPG):
|CAN fuel economy (L/100KM):
|Starting Price (USD):
|$70,895 (inc. dest.)
|As-Tested Price (USD):
|$82,625 (inc. dest.)
|Starting Price (CAD):
|$86,780 (inc. dest.)
|As-Tested Price (CAD):
|$98,630 (inc. dest.)
I swear, I’m not a manual transmission evangelist, but the 2021 BMW M3 makes it hard not to be.
For the vast majority of modern road cars—and crucially, the people who use them—the manual isn’t necessary. Imagine a luxury crossover with a three-pedal setup. Or what about a Rolls-Royce? Think how incredibly gauche that would be.
Not the case with this latest M3. BMW’s venerable fast four-door is as natural a three-pedal match as Bill Murray is to a Wes Anderson film. Yes, you can get it in M3 Competition form, with more power and an automatic transmission to harness it (and soon xDrive AWD, too). That’s all well and good, but I’m here to tell you that the best flavor of M3 is the base one.
Both the M3 and M4 share much of their underlying hardware. The S58 engine sits under the contoured hood of the M3, a 3.0-liter powerhouse spitting out 473 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Competition models kick it up a notch, with 503 hp and a massive 479 lb-ft. Opting for the extra power locks M3 buyers into an eight-speed automatic transmission though. Skip the Comp and the standard transmission is this sweet-shifting six-speed manual.Get a Quote on a New BMW M3
The M3 borrows the front clip of the 4 Series too, oversized kidney grille and all. Much has been said about it ( here, here, here), so I won’t waste much more digital ink on the subject. All I will say is that every non-journo person I talked to liked it, saying they were happy BMW was trying something different after a few generations of a similar M3 formula. Personally, when I squint, there’s a hint of Alfa Romeo Giulia to the nose too—the headlights and grille placement, if not shape—and that thing gets a ton of (deserved) love. Just saying.
I’d go so far as to say the M3 looks better than its two-door sibling, too. The more upright nature of the 3 Series gives it a real touring car vibe. The way the rear fenders flare out so aggressively that they obscure the door shutlines from the rear three-quarter view? Tasty.
Delivering the goods
On first blush, the M3 is subdued. It starts up with a small flare of revs, but the sound is more notable for its smoothness than its volume. The clutch pedal requires a good amount of heft, but responds with a clear, consistent bite point. BMW’s six-speed manual is one of the good ones, with a tight, notchy feeling that makes it a joy to row. In just a few hundred feet, the M3 feels like a precision instrument, on a road filled with blunt objects.
The manual is friendly too, thanks to two helpful bits of tech: a hill-hold feature, and automatic rev-matching on downshifts. The latter can be turned off for those who want to heel-and-toe, and the pedal spacing is *chef’s kiss* for that. I left it on for most of my time with the M3, however, and it worked flawlessly.
Driving the M3 after the M4 Competition, I’d never suspect it was down some 70 lb-ft of twist. The S58 is that special combination of rev-happy and tractable, able to pile on speed with a quickness that suggests the 4.2-second run to 62 mph (100 km/h) is maybe even conservative. Sure, the auto-equipped Comp will click that off in 3.9 seconds—but are you going to notice on the street? Of course not. I still wouldn’t mind some extra edge from that exhaust note though, especially in Sport Plus mode.SEE ALSO: 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S Review: Muscle Utility Vehicle
M products have never been only about their engines, though. This latest M3 melds the silky-smooth straight-six with an athletic, expressive chassis. More bracing makes it stiffer than your run-of-the-mill 3 Series, which has allowed the engineers to dial some give into the suspension. In Comfort mode the M3 is still firm, but perfectly reasonable for day-to-day business. Dial up Sport and the adaptive suspension tightens up, yet still remains pliable. Only Sport Plus can become uncomfortable on anything beyond smooth pavement. The staggered 19-inch front, 20-inch rear tires find massive grip, while a limited-slip differential ensures power makes it to the road cleanly. A 10-level traction control system allows drivers to tailor precisely how much slip angle is acceptable, as well. There’s an M Drift Analyzer to even record the length and angle of your drifts, but please, don’t use it on public roads.
The steering is direct and quick—almost too much so in Sport Plus. Luckily, you can tailor the drive settings for easy access via the M1 and M2 buttons on the wheel. Meanwhile, the big brakes (15.0-inch front, 14.6-inch rear) prove tireless in their stopping abilities.
Orange you glad it’s a four door?
Major props to whomever specced the press fleet M3 and M4 over at BMW Canada. The M3 has the same Kyalami Orange leather interior scheme as its coupe sibling, but the shifter isn’t the only difference. The sedan features the stock seats, which strike a much better balance between looks, comfort, and support. The M4’s carbon-backed wonders were hardcore, but would be overkill on a daily basis, especially those who aren’t built like a street lamp. This test taking place in the thick of summer, I was happy someone ticked the ventilated seat box, too.
The bones of the 3 Series interior make it a welcome place to stay on long trips. There’s a good amount of space for adults in the back row, though going three abreast might be best left for close friends. The dashboard layout is typical BMW, with all the buttons (yes, buttons) laid out logically. The 10.25-inch touchscreen runs iDrive 7, which has a steep learning curve but balances that with snappy responses either from fingers or the rotary dial. It runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto wirelessly to boot. The 12.3-inch digital instrument panel is crisp and clear, as is the (optional) head-up display above it.
Standard driver assists include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and parking sensors. This tester added the head-up display, Parking Assistant Plus with 360-degree camera, BMW Laserlight headlights, and a few other goodies, all as part of a $5,900 CAD package.
Who’s the competition?
All the usual European suspects—at least in Europe. You see, Audi doesn’t send the RS4 across the Atlantic, meaning there’s no four-ringed four-door foil for the M3. It’s RS5 or nothing in the compact segment, which is auto-only and AWD. Mercedes has the rear-drive AMG C 63 S for now, though it will bow out at the end of the year as the new generation debuts. The next C 63 will use half the cylinders of the current model (four), and likely pack some level of hybrid power. Don’t expect a manual there either, and AWD is probable.
Maybe you prefer pasta over schnitzel. For that there’s the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. We haven’t driven one since it launched in 2017, when we called it “ a beautiful midsize luxury sedan that can beat the world’s best.” You won’t find a third pedal in the Alfa, though.SEE ALSO: 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Review
You will find one in the upcoming Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing, however. Essentially repackaging the outgoing CTS-V’s wild supercharged V8 drivetrain in a newer body, the 668-horsepower sedan will out-muscle everything when it arrives this year. That amount of firepower will cost you though, with a starting price of $84,990 ($89,898 CAD) including destination.
The 2021 BMW M3 starts at $70,895 ($86,780 CAD), including destination. This lightly-optioned model tacks on around an extra 10 grand, including the Oxide Grey paint ($1,950 / $1,450 CAD) and extended leather interior ($2,550 / $4,000 CAD).
Verdict: 2021 BMW M3 Review
The 2021 BMW M3 sticks to the classic M formula as much as a modern car can. It’s not a homologation special like the original, but this is a car almost obsessively focused on driver enjoyment nonetheless. I doubt that the manual base M3 will be the model’s best-selling configuration. But BMW deserves credit for still offering what many of its competitors do not.
Of course it’s quick, but more important than that, the M3 delivers smiles, all because BMW has rediscovered the KISS principle: keep it simple, siegfried. Four doors, three pedals, and two driven wheels add up to one sensational sport sedan.
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- Slick six-speed manual
- Engaging chassis balance
- Looks better than the M4
- Can't have Comp with manual
- Colder climes will want AWD option
- Pushes definition of "compact" these days
Kyle began his automotive obsession before he even started school, courtesy of a remote control Porsche and various LEGO sets. He later studied advertising and graphic design at Humber College, which led him to writing about cars (both real and digital). He is now a proud member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), where he was the Journalist of the Year runner-up for 2021.
More by Kyle Patrick