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2003 BMW M3 vs 2003 Porsche Boxster S review: Classic MOTOR

By Jesse Taylor, 06 Aug 2017 Reviews

2003 BMW M3 vs 2003 Porsche Boxster S driving main

Two PCOTY hall-of-famers go head to head in a showdown of pound-for-pound heroes

Planning for MOTOR’s 2003 Performance Car of the Year is well under way.

 This article first published in MOTOR, February 2003

Hell, it would want to be given that it’s due to hit the news stands in our April issue. In amongst the countless phone calls, emails, applications for Lucky Bastard and fact checking, we stumbled across this little gem; of the seven PCOTY held thus far, four have been won by cars wearing Porsche Boxster or BMW M3 badges.

2003 BMW M3 vs 2003 Porsche Boxster S driveThe current-model BMW M3 is our reigning superstar of ultimate performance, and the recently revised Porsche Boxster S is an early favourite to finish near the pointy end of this year’s field. Even more interesting is this; they have never gone toe-to-toe with one another at the big brawl.

In a quirk of release dates, the Boxster and M3 are always a year or more apart. And with the PCOTY rules stating that only new or revised models shall be eligible, these two champions have never stepped into the ring on the same year. The streak began in 1997 when the upgraded 3.2-litre E36 BMW M3 took the PCOTY gong.

2003 BMW M3 vs 2003 Porsche Boxster S wheelsNext year, with the M3 on the sidelines polishing the trophy, the new 986 Boxster stuck it to the field. Two years later, in 2000, the more powerful S version of the Boxster added its name to the hall of fame. And just last year, the current E46 M3 flogged all and sundry to take home yet another PCOTY trophy.

2003 BMW M3 badgeYes, not only did M3 win last year’s Performance Car of the Year, it blitzed some fairly serious competition including Boxster big brothers 911 Carrera and 911 GT2. On the way to the crown the M3 scored 371 points from a possible 400 – that’s 92.7 per cent for those not so handy with the Casio Scientific.

Porsche’s second-placed 911 Carerra took an impressive, but distant, 332 points – just 83 per cent. And every one of the six judges voted the M3 as the winner – the first and only time there’s been a unanimous PCOTY champ.

2003 Porsche Boxster S frontThe previous model Boxster S was almost as dominant, taking the 2000 PCOTY crown with 88.3 percent of available points, with four of the six judges picking the mid-engined soft-top.

Then the penny really dropped for us MOTOR morons. We’ve raved about them as individuals and they have won loads of comparos against other competition but these two cars have never, ever laid a glove to each other’s jaws. So this is the first time we’ve had them together on the same day under the same conditions.

Now I’m sure there’s someone out there is sitting on the Toto thinking we’ve lost the plot for comparing two cars that, on the surface, are polar opposites. One’s a mid-engined convertible, and the other’s got a lid and the mill under the nose.

2003 Porsche Boxster S rearBut both are $140k sportscars with 3.2-litre engines driving the rear wheels through six-speed ’boxes. And they’re two of our favourite things. So Mr. Anorak, you can put your letter-writing-pen back in your pocket protector and read all about why these two are almost inseparable.

Beneath the M3’s bulging alloy bonnet lurks one of the greatest internal combustion engines ever given fuel and spark. Aside from the numbers – 252 kW at 7900 rpm and 365 Nm at 4900 revs – the 3.2-litre inline six is a technical marvel. The bottom end uses graphite-coated, cast-aluminium pistons delivering an 11.5:1 compression ratio.

2003 BMW M3 badgeTo keep the slugs from melting under the high-rpm loads, they are cooled by oil jets fed directly from the engine’s main oil supply. Things are just as F1-tricky up top, with the cast aluminium head using sodium-lined ports and variable timing on both inlet and exhaust valves.

Six individual throttle bodies are matched to specific length intake funnels to ensure the best of both power and torque worlds. Raw numbers and tech gibberish are nice and all, but how does this all translate?

Turn the key and there’s torque right off the bat – 80 per cent of peak twist is available from an amazingly-low 2000 rpm. Squeeze the throttle open and those onpaper numbers keep building up the scale.

2003 Porsche Boxster S wheelRedline starts at 7500 rpm but there’s no harshness on the run to the eight grand hard-cut. The engine note is just rude. It’s hammer-hard, metallic and raw with just a little F1 yowl thrown in for free. The Boxster’s flat-six doesn’t hit the same high notes as the M3, but it’s still a bit special.

Power for the updated model is 191 kW at a typically-Porsche low 6200 rpm, up from 185 kW. Torque is closer to the M3 money, with 310 Nm at 4600 revs. Like the M3, the Boxster boxer is a high-tech all-alloy affair with an 11.0:1 compression ratio, Porsche’s VarioCam variable cam timing and dry-sump lubrication.

2003 Porsche Boxster S exhaustThe numbers may be smaller but the flexibility is just as impressive, maybe even more so. Stand on the Boxster at low rpm in a tallish gear and it’ll respond without any hesitation. In fact, there’s so much low-end mumbo that the Tiptronic version of the Boxster is programmed to move off from rest in second. Though a very different note, the Porsche’s boxer yodel is just as entertaining as the manic M3’s scream.

And with the soft top dropped there is unlimited access to the mechanical melody directly behind your ears. Both engines make you question the whole forcedinduction malarky and both six-speed ’boxes make you wonder why anyone would want an auto.

2003 Porsche Boxster S badgeThe Bimmer’s Getrag unit is one sharp shifter. And it needs to be, the way that engine spins to redline. The clutch, ’box and throttle form such a tight knit threesome that anyone with two feet and a left hand can perform bullet-fast and precise shifts up and down the six cogs.

Porsche engineers quite rightly left the sweet six-speed gearbox in the S well alone when they upgraded the car. They did, however, beef up the clutch. Feel is still a strong suit for the left pedal but across the way the throttle pedal is a little too firmly sprung, often requiring a bigger stab to match the revs on the way back down the scale.

2003 Porsche Boxster S speedoWith such an obvious power advantage to the Bimmer, why do both cars dip well under six seconds on the run to 100 km/h and hit 0-400m in the high 13-second bracket?

The Boxster comes in at just 1320 kg – 205 kg less than the M3 – and that puts them in the same weight-to-power league. Numbers are good for bar room bench marking, but the real measure of a car is on your favourite piece of road.

And both the M3 and Boxster S will make short work of any piece of tarmac – even if that tarmac is bordered by ripple strips and dotted with flag marshals. Remember, the famed green hell of the Nürburgring is in Porsche and BMW’s backyard, and you’d better believe they made full use of the circuit’s 22 kays of winding blacktop when they developed these babies. 

2003 Porsche Boxter S interiorIs there a car with better steering feel than a Porsche? Probably not, and the Boxster’s tiller confirms this long-held MOTOR belief. It’s so fluid and talkative with just the right weighting. It just won’t shut up, either, sending you info from the front tyres.

About the only criticism you can level at the steering is the one-size-too-big wheel. No such dramas in the M3. The fat-rimmed leather wheel is just right, even down to the raised stitching in M colours. Jumping directly from the Porsche’s hot seat, the BMW steering may be a touch on the light side.

2003 BMW M3 steeringIn isolation, though, it is near-perfect. It just requires a frag more on-centre feel. If the Boxster steers better, the M3 wins on ride quality. The optional up-sized 18-inch rims and correspondingly lower profile non-directional Michelin Pilot Sports fitted to our test car further highlighted the inherent firmness of the Boxster – particularly from the rear-end.

2003 BMW M3 wheelWith almost matching rolling stock – 18-inch rims with more aggressive directional Michelin Pilot Sports – the M3 is more compliant over broken roads. The ride might be firm but there’s so much grip it is almost impossible to get the tail of the Porsche playing in the dry.

Power down is otherworldly. Arrive at a tight second corner with plenty of revs on board and you can keep piling on the power. In most situations the engine runs out of revs – or you run out of bollocks – before the S runs out of grip.

2003 Porsche Boxster S traction controlIt’s so stable and predictable I started hunting for the traction control button. But couldn’t find it anywhere, ’cause it wasn’t fitted to our test car. Porsche Stability Management is available as an option, but you’d have to ask yourself if you really need it.

If you do a lot of high speed driving on ice it might be a worthwhile box to tick, but in normal conditions the Boxster is unflappable.

Unlike most lidless cars, the Boxster’s handling prowess is not affected by body flex. Aside from the odd squeak from the plastic trim behind the seats, there’s no evidence of less than perfect rigidity – no scuttle shake or deflections through the wheel.

2003 BMW M3 rearWith more power to call up and less weight over the rear axle, the M3 is an obersteuenmeister. But only if the driver wants the rump shaking. In every situation there’s grip a-plenty, thanks to the sticky 255/40 rear rubber and the tricky multi-plate M-diff.

Keep shovelling the revs to the back half mid-corner and the tail comes around in a predictable and controllable arc. Of all the cars we’ve driven, the M3 is second to only the Nissan 200SX as the easiest car to get and hold sideways. If the lock stop is approaching and the exit of the corner isn’t, the M3 remains adjustable.

2003 BMW M3 interiorBacking off with loads of revs on the tacho and a big slip angle at the back is never clever, but the M3 is friendly enough – even with traction control and Dynamic Stability Control on smoko – not to spit you into the scrub for being a dick.

With such a clear advantage at the Jenny Craig meeting, it’s no surprise the Boxster’s brakes are sharper to respond and offer more feel. Measured against everything else, though, the M3 brakes are simply heroic – it finished third in a field of 21 cars during the PCOTY 100-0 km/h testing.

You can dive on the picks long and hard well past the corner entry point in either car and they’ll remain unfazed. With a steel roof, room for four and a sizeable the M3 holds a practicality advantage over the Boxster.

2003 BMW M3 driveIt’s also easier to see out of, has higher levels of equipment and, with the metal top, better security. And all of that will be enough to sway some people toward the M badge.

Not that the Porsche is a Sunday-only sportster. It’s got two useable boots – one in the nose and one behind the engine. Oh, and you can drop the roof and catch some rays whenever the mood takes you. And, of course, that will be enough for plenty.

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Despite costing $140,000 each, they are excellent value for money. Yeah, I can’t afford one either, but next to one-trick exotic ponies they look like drive-away bargains.

2003 BMW M3 vs 2003 Porsche Boxster STo prove the point, grab our last Bang For Your Bucks issue (October 2002). That’s right, the BMW M3 finished second to the $55k Subaru Impreza STi in the tightest margin of victory that event had ever seen.

In their first meeting the M3 and Boxster S have fought each other to a standstill after a 12 round bout and you want me to declare a winner? Well I can’t. If you’re in a position to make this choice in real life – not on paper like us poor motoring journos – you can’t go wrong.

Flip a coin and you’d be very happy. The M3’s honour is still intact. It is still our favourite performance car. But then, again, so is the Boxster S.