I can imagine all other 3-Series BMWs in production during 2012 looking on the M3 with something like disdain, since as far as they're concerned it's an obsolete model. If so, they'll continue to snigger among themselves for some time to come. It takes a while for BMW's celebrated M division to create its own version of a new model, and it looks like we'll have to wait at least another couple of years before the next M3 makes its appearance.
So, although the car reviewed here looks like a one-generation-back 3-Series, it's relevant enough for us to test it. And this one is particularly special, since it's part of the Limited Edition 500 sub-range which went on sale in March.
"500" refers to the number of cars intended for sale in the UK, and if you buy one you can claim even greater exclusivity than the figure suggests. The five hundred are divided into coupé and convertible body styles, Imola Red, Mineral White and Santorini Blue colour schemes, and six-speed manual and (for an extra £2645) seven-speed semi-automatic M DCT transmissions. If each option is as popular as the others available in those categories, a single example - in this case a Santorini Blue coupé with M DCT - will be one of less than fifty in the world.
Limited Edition 500s differ from other M3s in that they come with 19" high-gloss black alloy wheels, Shadowline exterior trim, a "One of 500" decal laser-cut into the extreme left of the dashboard inlay and what BMW calls "extended Novillo leather". Specify a standard M3 with all this and the resulting cost will be fearful, but in the case of the Limited Edition cars BMW has kept the premium down to £1000.
I hope you found all that useful, but it's not really what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the way the car drives, and the way the car drives is a thing of wonder. Limited Edition 500 M3s are mechanically identical to "standard" M3s, which means they have a 420bhp four-litre V8 petrol engine powering the rear wheels and are therefore awfully quick.
Top speed is limited to 155mph, but some diesel 3s are like that too. It's nothing special. What is special is a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds, and if you attempt to match that you'll change the engine's note from the light tenor it adopts in repose to the considerably snarlier noise it makes when given anything more than about half throttle.
This sound is almost as much fun as the acceleration itself, but none of it would be important if the M3 didn't handle beautifully. Well, it does. The Electronic Damper Control suspension, a £1325 option, is surprisingly soft (not even 35-section tyres all round can make the ride unpleasant) and it's also very well-damped, though not quite enough to be able to avoid a certain choppiness on some back roads in Sussex.
Soft springing and good damping are essential on a road-going performance car. They allow the M3 to react quickly to inputs from the precise but not too sharp steering, and to cope with quite a lot of mid-corner throttle without, as was all too frequently the case in much less powerful BMWs of the past, suddenly skipping sideways. Occasionally I did notice the traction control light flickering on, but there was very little sense of unease from the car itself.
There was no sliding and no lurching. In a nicely circular way, the extra power made the back end steer the car the way it needed to be steered - not more and not less - precisely because of the extra power. It was all rather glorious, and I could happily have spent a whole day experiencing almost nothing else.
And yet I could almost equally happily have spent that day woofling gently along hundreds of miles of French A-roads, not particularly caring where I ended up as long as there was a good meal ready for me when I got there. And that is one of the most important things about this M3: some previous examples have been too fluffy, not interesting enough; others have been over-excitable, almost too interesting. This one has that driver-selectable dual character which has been the outstanding feature of all the performance saloons I have loved best.
I have never wanted an M3 more than I want this one. It's difficult to see how the one launched in 2014 (or whenever it may be) can be significantly better, but if it is, it will be a truly marvellous thing.
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