Currently reading: Super-saloon shootout: BMW M3 vs AMG E63 and Alfa Giulia QV
The M3 has become bigger, more powerful and very expensive for a car of its size. Perhaps, then, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio needn’t worry as much as the Mercedes-AMG E63 S
Matt Saunders Autocar
News
10 mins read
27 March 2021

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?

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Well, it seems pretty ready to me. Maybe it doesn’t look it, but you can be the judge of that – and, if social media is any guide, plenty are willing to be. “Ugly as a hat full of arses,” is it, Twitter? Bravo.

But here’s something: after spending a couple of days with it, the M3 seems to me a significantly better-looking car than the M4. It doesn’t have its coupé sibling’s awkward rear haunch, plus there’s a bit less fussiness about it elsewhere and a bit more design discipline.

That makes taking that grille from the 4 Series and slapping it on the front of what might otherwise have been a tasty-looking performance saloon an even more inexplicable decision, of course. (BMW says the new M cars need the cooling, but come on.) Yet, although I couldn’t before, I think I’m beginning to see who this car is for, and that has calmed me down quite a bit from the heights of my Kidneygate temper.

Those more conversant than me in these things are currently calling the design language being used by the likes of Audi and BMW on cars such as these ‘Terminator styling’. It’s deliberately bulky and aggressive; a kind of shock-and-awe approach. You and I may not like it, but there may be some thinking behind it all.

This M3 almost fits that theme, but to me it’s less James Cameron’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and more Michael Bay’s Transformers. It’s what Optimus Prime might look like if he were nine-tenths finished morphing into a BMW. And as challenging as it surely is, both the grille and the swollen metalwork surrounding it do feed into that look. If you’re just the right age for it to flick the correct switches in your head, well, fair enough.

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One thing the M3’s styling does do rather well is to make the E63 S look fairly discreet – almost invisible, actually. But it only serves to underline the visual supremacy of the Giulia Quadrifoglio over both of its rivals here; it remains just about the very best-looking four-door saloon made anywhere in the world. I think it’s prettier even than the Porsche Taycan.

The Giulia is a car that you could take anywhere; unlike either of the German options, it’s also a car that very few people seem to judge you for driving. In the real world, there’s much to be said for that. And as one tester pointed out as we were looking at all three of our cars parked in a line in the Blyton Park paddock: “It doesn’t cost any more to make a good-looking car, does it? I mean, you’ve got to design it anyway.”

So where exactly can the BMW start taking some points back from the Alfa? It’s a bigger car, for one. In some ways, that gives it ground to make up as a driver’s car (and we will get to that), but it also makes it significantly roomier in both rows of seats. The E63 S really isn’t much more spacious in the back.

The M3’s driving position? Absolutely stellar: low, straight, super-adjustable and very thoroughly supported by BMW’s new M Carbon Bucket Seats (which, yup, are in a £6750 options pack) but also by the cabin architecture around your knees and elbows. It’s a cabin of high apparent material quality, too, unlike the Alfa’s. The primary ergonomics of the Giulia are still pretty good – and in the E63 S, although you sit relatively perched up, the driving position is fine. But fine isn’t stellar.

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To the engines, then. An AMG V8 series-whitewash, surely? Well, sure enough, there’s absolutely no chance of mistaking the E63 S’s advantage on outright potency when you jump between these cars during a track session. Even in something that’s more than 200kg heavier than either of its opponents, 627lb ft of torque is, well, significant. Monstrous is another word for it.

The E63 S is obscenely fast. If you disengage its front driveshafts (thanks, Drift mode), it will spin up its rear wheels all the way through third gear and well into third on dry asphalt. And if we had had time to record lap times during the making of this test? I’m certain that making up on the straights what it lost to its smaller, lighter and firmer-sprung rivals through the corners wouldn’t have been the slightest problem for the big Mercedes.

Whether there’s a V8-powered C63 in the world or not, so long as cars like the E63 S exist, the M3 will never have super-saloon bragging rights on drag-race acceleration. And it doesn’t matter a jot, because the M3 is still a properly fast car: on the road, on a track, anywhere. Don’t worry that you will want or need more than 503bhp from it.

The Giulia’s V6 engine actually matches the AMG V8 for combustive character. There’s a popping, slightly histrionic sweetness about it that you can’t help but love and which the M3’s straight six can’t quite compete with for simple audible charm.

But that Italian motor is just a little bit peaky and laggy. In practice, it needs revs to pull really hard and just a split-second’s notice to wind up its elastic mid-range. The M3’s straight six, which is superbly clean-revving, crisp-responding and staggeringly linear in its power delivery for a force-fed engine, just doesn’t need either. It beats the Alfa engine for both spread of torque and outright strength of performance. So that’s that. Munich’s response to the green-cloverleafed challenge that Turin set it five years ago always was likely to start under the bonnet.

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But it’s how deep that response runs into the M3’s chassis and steering that really puts the BMW back on top – for this tester, at least – by a narrow but critical margin. Not for everyone, though. Three of us testers drove the M3, the Giulia and the E63 S over two days on the road and on a track during the course of this test, and the other two – Prior and James Disdale – ended the exercise liking the Alfa best.

Awkward, that, but it wouldn’t be fair to hide it. Autocar testing is usually a pretty democratic business. The thing is, the tester whose job it was to make the argument in writing (and who did the most on-road miles in it) thought – and still thinks – the M3 does it slightly better. Here’s why.

This BMW may be a fairly big saloon now (wider across those carbonfibre-capped door mirrors than even the E63 S, would you believe, and only very slightly narrower in the body), but it still feels low enough, lean enough, sufficiently agile and flat and superbly spry and precise to be in a different dimension than the AMG for overall driver involvement.

That the longer, heavier car could stay with it around a track and would simply lay waste to it on an autobahn may be true, but it counts for much less than other things when you’re weighing up the overall driver appeal of the two cars. The smaller saloons both clearly have more of it, which might surprise you.

The M3 works better on a track or a well-surfaced A-road than on a really sunken, uneven B-road, admittedly. But super-saloons aren’t and never have been perfect cars for fast back-road driving. The Giulia may be more fluent over bumps and feel narrower between hedges than the M3, but a good hot hatchback or a lightweight two-seater would be much better than either. Super-saloons are cars for bigger, faster, smoother roads, typically – and tight, bumpy ones can make even the Alfa feel underdamped and overpowered.

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Both the M3 and the Giulia work brilliantly on circuits, though, where you can let them rip a bit. The Alfa is a true phenomenon: a compact modern saloon that the forces of physics seem to act on as if it were something else entirely. It has an energetic lightness of touch and effortless agility akin to the Mazda MX-5; the incisiveness of the Alpine A110; and the neat skidability of the Toyota GT86. And yet it all comes with four doors and (some limited) room for the family.

But the M3 keeps you more interested. It gives more back to you and keeps you more engaged in a tactile and cognitive sense. On the road, you chip away finding your own favourite combinations of chassis, powertrain and traction control calibrations, saving them on those bright-orange, steering-wheel-mounted M1 and M2 buttons – and then hopping between them at will with just a flick of the thumb. No other performance car does driver configurability as cleverly, nor succeeds in using it to make a driving experience richer.

On track, the BMW feels like a near-match for the Alfa on nimbleness – and then beats it for outer-limit body control and chassis composure. It does fine, progressive, throttle-adjustable handling better, too, and offers greater driver feedback, which comes in plentiful supply through the steering or from the rigidly mounted rear axle. And yes, it does clearly need to be more firmly sprung and firmly bushed than the Italian in order to do that – not least because it weighs 110kg more. But for me, the M3 is still good value for its compromise of touring comfort.

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This might not be a convenient truth, but the G80 could even be the best M3 there has been in nearly two decades, running all the way back to the revered E46. Look at the styling and that grille how you like. You can’t deny that you’re looking, as its designers might point out, but looking is only one thing. The defining, word-perfect, BMW M driving experience really is something else entirely.

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BlahBlah43 28 March 2021
Didn't realize Sauders was doing sponsored content now. BMW must be pleased with this advertisement.
Buddygu 27 March 2021

No mention of the interior, infotainment. The stuff that makes up 90% or your experience.  

BMW is a different level. 

jer 27 March 2021
At least if you are buying them the Alfa is likely £15k less than the m3 and a whole lot less than the e63. Funny the m3 engine in the x3 competition was described as more laggy lethargic off boost compared to the Alfa.

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