There are BMWs, and then there are M cars. Among the dizzying array of models and variants to choose from the BMW line-up, the M cars are easily the most desired. The créme de la créme of which is the M3. Asian Carmakers Corp., distributors of BMW, granted a rare invitation to drive the said M cars in Faro, Portugal.
Formerly bestowed on both the two-door coupe and four-door saloon, this time, it was two cars for the launch of one: the M3 sedan and M4 coupe.
“M carsare designed with race track capability as the highest objective. They’re meant to be driven to the racetrack, raced there, and driven back home,” said Albert Beirmann, Vice President of Engineering, BMW M Division at the event.
With such contrasting requirements such as light weight and performance paired with the high durability expected of a daily driver, these cars have come a long way from the standard model, with piece after piece removed, modified, lightened and strengthened.
Lighter and leaner
Gone is the V8 from its predecessor and back is the inline-six for lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. It may be a smaller 3.0 power unit, yet, thanks to twin turbochargers, produces 431 hp, 31 more than the previous.
Competitive racing is undoubtedly puts a high demand on temperature management in the engine. To address this, the engineers have equipped the car with a track-ready cooling system, and additional oil pumps throughout the engine.
Every bit of weight can slow a car down, so a large amount of carbon fiber is integrated into the mechanics and body. The roof of both cars, for example, is made of carbon fiber. The M4 coupe gets an additional carbon fiber boot lid. Internal components like the precision strut and propeller shaft are also made of the same material, designed to return the same rigidity, resist the same amount of heat with the benefit of being much lighter than traditional materials.
Finally, even the steering has gone on a diet. Gone is the heavy hydraulic powered system, replaced with a lighter and more compact electromechanical system. As an added benefit, it has varying weights, with the heavy Sport + for track use, a lighter Sport mode and the easy Comfort mode for driving in traffic.
These improvements may sound like typically German efficiency at work, yet one more eye-opening piece of equipment integrated into the car is M Dynamic Mode, a subfunction of the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system.
When turned on, it allows greater wheel slip, a little bit of slide, and therefore, easy drifting. Of course, DSC will still step in if the car ventures over the limits. Of course, there’s also the option to switch it off completely.
With much excitement, we took the keys to the test units for a drive around the scenic South of Portugal. The route began with an M4 from our hotel, the Epic Sana at Albufeira near Faro up to Casa Amarela by the walled city of Mertola. We’d then switch keys to an M3 and head from through Almodovar and back to Albufeia.
Our route included a short stretch of highway where we could really stretch the M4’s legs. The copious power from the twin turbos allowed it to accelerate with ease even at higher gears. With the drive selector set at comfort, the light and compact M3 returned a soothing drive. Indeed the ride was a bit harsh on bumpy city streets, but the rewards of the suspension set up revealed themselves on the highway and mountain passes. The vehicle was remarkably stable at high speed, masking the triple digit speeds we were travelling quite well.
Our lunch stop saw us at right by the walled city of Mertola. The parking lot was just above the river that ran around the mountain it was on, with the Phoenix Yellow M4s and Yas Marina Blue M3s adding some color to the backdrop.
Our drive back home was on the larger M3, though longer and heftier, was no less shy about diving into corners. Ample application of the throttle allowed it to round out even the tightest corners with the DSC reigning it in if you put a little too much.
Being a track focused car, for this occasion, BMW had reserved the Algarve International Circuit. Just an hour away from Faro, it boasts of 15 incredibly technical corners, some paired with steep crests that can send race cars airborne with enough speed.
Our first run of the track had us follow a lead car, driven by a race car driver to learn the appropriate lines. After that, we were given three laps in each car at our own pace.
The M4 was the first choice, being the lighter and faster of the two. Though equipped with two turbos, the engine revved more like a naturally aspirated one, howling with verve at every press of the throttle. The lighter weight and more compact dimensions were more evident in the corners as it changed direction easily, handling the complex weight transfer the track’s corners give with little difficulty. By our second lap, the instructors encouraged we try it with M Dynamic Mode on.
A little phrase lights up on the dashboard. On the instrument cluster, LED lights on the border of the tachometer light up a trail leading to the redline, at the moment you need to shift. Come the corner, I thought I’d shift it down and give the pedal a good mashing, with the wheel turned to one side to induce a drift. That I did, hardly prepared for the lightning quick tail-snapping it would produce in the corners. I had just enough time to correct it as the rear tires slid over the outer curbing, rumbling and slowly straightening out. Despite the hairy moment, it was still a treat to drive, provided it was accorded the proper respect on the following curves.
Out on track with the M3 next, I was more wary of my earlier error. A slower paced lap around the track revealed that the differences between the two in the power and handling were very minor. Plus, the M3 has the added benefit of taking along more passengers in comfort.
Over the corners, the tail was a bit more reluctant to come around. Despite what some may think, this made it far more enjoyable to drift with M Dynamic Mode on. The tail slid out more progressively, allowing the driver to catch it more easily and maintain the drift longer. They say four-doors aren’t fun on the track, yet this car serves as the antithesis.
To cap the day, our hosts let us experience a hot lap in the M4s driven by professional drivers. Just as I got in, the M4 peeled out in a smokey and scandalous burnout. The tires were cooked again with a long and noisy drift at the next corner. The vehicle felt nearly airborne at some of the steepest crests, only to send us side to side on the following corners. It was clear, in a professional race driver’s hands, that we had hardly touched the limits of the cars’ abilities.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the track day was the fact that the very vehicles we used on track were the same ones we drove back to the hotel. There was no overheating, no bits rattling, brakes fading, or any perceivable sign that they’ve gone through a rough day. The M3 and M4 are road car and race car in one, easily dabbling in both seamlessly and efficiently, at just the press of a button.