Performance cars are defined first and foremost by how they drive. A Lotus feels delicate, simple and analogue to its core. A Porsche may be similar in some ways but will generally be more powerful, more idiosyncratic and more substantial for tactile feel. A fast Jaguar breathes with the road as it rides. A Ferrari is direct: it rotates underneath you. A fast Ford does that too, although in a very different way.
So let’s define the modern BMW M car in the same terms. Tautness and precision are both essential dynamic character traits. From the large ones to the small, M cars are powerful but responsive and linear in all. They’re not necessarily the very quickest of their kind, although they’re typically overpowered to an extent. They need enough firepower to overwhelm their mechanical traction level, very typically at the rear wheels, because oversteer is good fun – but it can also serve a purpose. No, really: it can.
The best M cars are almost hyper-controllable; when they’re working, it’s as if you could thread them at high speed through a pair of cones spread only about a foot further apart than you absolutely need them to be – and even with a few degrees of opposite lock dialled in if you needed to. As a result, they can feel strangely serious and exacting about their mission as modern performance machines, yet they’re never boring.
The size and mechanical make-up of an M car may have changed over the years, as engine capacity has ebbed and flowed; turbocharging has caused tongues to wag; four-wheel drive has been gradually rolled out or kept back; and we’ve seen the SUVs, SACs, Gran Coupés, estates and convertibles come and go. The remarkable thing is how the M division has guarded and nurtured the dynamic core and feel of an M car through it all – dialling it up and down and adapting it just a little here and there but somehow preserving, refining and improving it as a template and reference. Think about that: it’s quite the achievement, considering.
And if it hadn’t? Well, the new sixth-generation M3 Competition simply wouldn’t be this good, that’s for sure. Crikey, it’s good; as Matt Prior suggested in his first drive last week, like an M4 GTS with quite a lot more supple sophistication to match the close-cradling tension in the ride.
The new torque-converter gearbox is better than the old dual-clutch unit. The new S58 twin-turbocharged straight six has greater mid-range muscle but still really revs, and it sounds right, too. The steering has come on for crispness, accuracy and feel. The M3 has really come on in all sorts of ways but still seems familiar – just as BMW would’ve wanted it to.
But is it good enough to put the defining M car back on its old pedestal? Is this now a world-beating super-saloon for our modern times? Or has it simply become too big and expensive for its own good?
To answer that last question, we need both the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – our favourite junior super-saloon – and a bigger-boned, bigger-hitting option such as the newly facelifted Mercedes-AMG E63 S (a V8 autobahn express that isn’t about to be permanently discontinued, praise be). There isn’t a C63 S here, because with the brand-new C-Class comes the demise of the old V8-powered version (boo indeed). And that does rather seem to clear the way for the new M3, were it ready to take a step back towards its best, doesn’t it?