Friday, March 4, 2011

It's all about ///M: Driving the M3 Competition Pack

The BMW M3 Competition Pack, Munich's finely fettled proposition for the M-Powered crowd. The limited edition M3 GTS not·with·stand·ing, this is probably as close as you can get to a “track focused” special. I'll be honest with everyone, with the keys in my hand, i'm pretty anxious to get behind the wheel. Let me run through some facts first. Key differences on first setting eyes on the car would be the aesthetic enhancements, the lowered ride height (dropped by 10mm), and those lovely 19-inch CSL inspired wheels filling out the buldging arches of this very beautiful interlagos blue example. The wheels alone are well worth the premium of the Competition Packs. The lashings of carbon fiber parts are optional extras, but they do give the car extra presence and menace. In my opinion, black grills should be de-rigueur.

As we all know, the roof of this M3 is also made of the space-age carbon material, making it not only look really cool, but in theory, also lowers the car's center of gravity, allowing for better balance and faster cornering speeds. In practice however, i doubt most drivers will be able to tell the difference, but it still looks really cool.

Open those doors, slide into the supportive seats and well, all looks fine and familiar to anyone who's ever driven a BMW, controls fall neatly into place including the i-drive buttons and knobs. But seriously, i'm now in an M3, so... jam the key into the slot, foot on the brake, push that start button and awake all 4 litres of finely tuned V8. Now have a glance to the left and take note of the most important changes that define the Competition Pack experience.

Along side the stubby little gearknob are 3 buttons, “POWER”, “EDC” and “DSC OFF”. The Power button as we all know, puts 414 horses at the beck and call of your right foot. The 2-step EDC button firms up the suspension and tightens up the car with new settings on the dampers. And the DSC OFF button allows you to partially disengage the reprogrammed ESP system for those rare occasions of bravery. One more button under the gearlever adjust how quick (or violent) you want your gearchanges to be. An “M” button on the steering wheel will on command, adjust the car to your favourite setting as and when you require it. My personal favourite setting? Maximum attack on everything.

Unlike other Competition Pack M3s though, this particular one comes with the new trick M Performance exhaust and on startup and idle, gives a lovely V8 rumble. Cruising along on the highest gears you can almost imagine yourself in an American muscle car just thundering along. Drop a few cogs however and the V8 sings to high heaven as you punch it up to 8000rpms. Such is the smoothness of the engine that you'd have to keep your eyes on the tachometer for the next upshifts. Relying on ears alone will have you bouncing off the rev limiter awaiting your next flick on the so-cool-to-the-touch aluminium flappy paddles.

As most of us have seen recently, a tall fellow on the internets recently took one of these cars out on the track and complained about how pushing the EDC button twice will mangle your spine. In reality, on our local roads, i found it pretty much okay, but take this as just my personal opinion as i come from a daily driver with coilovers. It's stiff, but not bone-jarring and definately not as harsh as the tall fellow would like us all to have believe. On the standard suspension settings i actually found it to be a little bit on the soft side, comfortable and controlled. EDC-1 brings the suspension up a notch but with the short time i had with the car, hardly noticeable. EDC-2 firms up the car and you begin to feel more of the road as you drive alone. Stiffer but still very much under control.

How does the new Competition Packed M3 drive? I'll have to admit, with the short time i had with the car, i found that there was no way i could even touch the limits of the car. It's not a car you get in and drive quickly straightaway, you sort of take it in, one step at a time, slowly feeling the car's size and placing it on the road. Slowly feeling your way around the suspension settings with that big fat squishy steering wheel and slowly feeding in more power as you take bend after bend. It's a car i find, you get to know more as you drive, and as you learn more about the car, your confidence builds. It always does seem to be one step ahead of you though, almost knowing what you want to do next and pulling you along for the ride.

The M3 is a car that does show you up as a driver though, be clumsy with your inputs and the pointy steering will think that you are being deliberate and moves the car accordingly, in your head, you'd be imagining the car laughing at you. Bring back your focus though and the M3 goes, stops and turns however you want it to. Push into a corner, bring on the power gradually and if the front starts showing signs of a slight-lift of grip, loosen your heavy foot by a tenth and it tightens up it's grip on the road again. It gets uncanny how adjustable mid-corner the M3 is, depending on how you want the car to drive, same scenario as above but in this instance, getting on the throttle even more pivots the car around you with a little cheeky squirt of oversteer even with the traction control systems in place. It sort of depends on how brave you want to be in the corners i reckon. Very good and quite amazing, i do wish there were even more aggressive suspension settings on the EDC though.

They've really pushed on making this car a corner carver and the limits of the car has been set higher then what i personally can (or want to) achieve on public roads. I cannot really comment on the brakes of this car as i've yet to experience their full potential out on our local roads. Suffice to say, they have yet to disappoint.

On reflection, i wish i had more time with the M3, to get to know the car better. It does have quite a lot of depth and you'd savour each moment you put the hammer down. To unleash that marvelous V8 as it sings it's swan song. With the next M3 likely to be a force-induced unit, each time i sat behind the wheel with the engine rumbling, i can't help but feel a tinge of sadness. It is almost like the closing of a great chapter in magnificent road-car history. I wish all the fellows at M will change their minds, the latest crop of M-engines are nothing short of just beautiful engineering.

The M3 Competition Pack then, a fantastic car to drive, but (and there is a but!), as a value proposition, the M3 Competition Pack does command a rather high price tag. For quite a lot less, you can have the keys to the the newly launched 1-Series M-Coupe and i'd reckon for most of mortal drivers, that will drive just as sweet. Especially with the pure manual-only option. One step up the M-ladder, the 4 door M3 sedan also makes more sense then the slightly more expensive coupe. But if value for money isn't a concern, then the M3 Competition Pack, with the last of the free revving M-engines, is probably as good as it is ever going to officially get.


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