Been getting a little worried about the M3. It’s not a call-a-royal-commission style of worried, more a festering niggle that maybe, it’s not ageing particularly well.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s May 2005 issue
It’s just little things that are getting at us, but the list of those little things is growing. Things like the feeling that it’s not as together as it used to seem. That, on its optional 19-inch wheels, it gives up ride, rebound control and grip, and that it seems unable to carry mid-corner pace like it used to. That it’s just not as harmonious as it once was. Shame.
This only raises an eyebrow in the office because we’ve never had a PCOTY champ feel old before its plug got pulled – not even the cheapest of them, Nissan’s 200SX. Even JT, the most Quixotic of M3 fanatics, has gone off it, paring the M3’s representation in his dream garage back from three to just the one.
This feeling’s been sneaking up for a while, dating roughly from its comparo with the previous generation Porsche Boxster S back in February 2003. The Boxster gave up, for example, 61kW and a trick diff, and still squared away the lap times at Wakefield…
Classic MOTOR: 2003 Boxster v Z4 v TT Roadster
But as that shock faded, so another arrived, when the Audi S4 won a close points decision against the BMW in July last year. So, as it struggles to keep its gloves up against a horde of fast, accomplished newcomers, where does the M3 stand?
Curious, we turned to its long-time enemy, Mercedes-Benz. The C55 AMG won a lot of respect on PCOTY. Fourth, for Benz, was an astonishingly good result, especially given the disappointments we’ve had in past AMGs, particularly in their steering feel and rack speed. And the bastards won’t give you a manual ’box or even a proper sequential unit.
But it’s a cracking jigger, for all that. Sharp response from its atmo 5.4-litre V8, 270kW at 5750rpm and 510Nm of torque at four thou make for encouraging reading. The only downside is that a body this small weighs 1635kg, or, 140kg up on the M3.
The BMW musters less grunt, with 252kW at a relatively stratospheric 7900rpm, but ties the C55 on power-to-weight – and that’s a bit analogous of the cars as rivals really. They both do roughly the same job in the end, but use completely different manners, styles, feelings and philosophies to get there.
But where time is catching the M3 is in its torque delivery. At 365Nm, it’s well down on the Benz. At 4900rpm, it’s well up in the revs, too. Its wave of urgent, psycho power is no longer enough to keep rivals at bay.
The Benz, quite simply, will pummel it for in-gear acceleration, but will get pummelled in the straight sprints, especially, if like this jobbie, the M3 has got a standard six-speed manual and not the sometimes-awkward SMG II sequential deal.
Where the M3’s PCOTY-winning efforts saw it run to 100 in 5.38secs and fling across the standing kay in 24.8, the C55 trips them at 6.18secs and 25.29. Ah, but the Benz carries more speed across the kilometre trap.
Thing is, though, that when you catch the M3 off song, it’s vulnerable, and especially so to a car that kicks down quickly and has bags of torque, and that’s precisely where the Benz strikes back.
A five-speed auto it may be, but once it figures out your needs, it boogies hard. And, in its own way, sounds pretty good doing it (both these cars use four pipes to exit their orchestras). Still, it only truly wakes up after you’ve prodded at the throttle a few times and the ’box’s brain figures your intentions.
It sounds different, too, all burbly and menacing. Stand on it and it fires up, use the paddles and it fires up. Get the picture?
But the Benz has its quirks. Wanna be the man? The gearbox will start you in second at most sets of lights. If you’re cruising and want sudden, urgent grunt, it’ll kick back a gear, wait a bit to figure out if you’ve still got speed-provoking throttle openings happening, then kick back another cog before finding the gear you really wanted to have in the first place.
But where the C55 shows AMG is getting it right is in its chassis package. Around town it feels very much like it’s asleep and happy to stay that way, dawdling with the rest of the commuters. When you decide it’s on, though, it’s really on.
Where the C55 steps away from the M3 is in its poise, dignity and mid-corner balance. It feels like its front and rear roll centres are at about the same height, and both feel like they’re somewhere under the diff. The harder you push it, the more it pulls you in as part of the package, and the more it involves you. Its steering still isn’t great, but it’s better, and on an open piece of road, it’s a jet.
And here’s the bit that most concerns us about the M3. Its chassis package feels out of sorts. Significantly. While it’s always been a doddle to drift, it’s lately showing up to be a car without the level of grip it ought to have mid-corner.
Yes, there’s a trick diff, with buckets of plates, but that doesn’t help in medium- to high-speed corners, where the thing feels like it’s tip-toeing around a high rear roll centre.
In low-speed stuff, it does have the advantage that no means no, and the traction control believes it, too. Once it’s off, she’s all yours, buddy. Yes, perhaps this (and the ’box) helps the M3 to be a faster proposition, but it’s only faster for the gifted or the brave. Most of the time, the C55 driver will be comfortably maintaining a position behind, laughing at the M3’s toss-catch slip angles and happy he’s not working that hard.
Thankful, too, will be the passengers. While it is possible to carry four people in an M3, it’s actually probable to carry them in the C55. And in more sumptuous surroundings of leather, wood and a thumping audio system.
There’s a price gap, for sure. The BMW now tanks out at $142,000 while you might as well call the Benz $160,000. But it’s more than that, really. It’s a whole generation more versatile and capable, in all situations except the straight sprints.
In hindsight, it may have been cruel to feed Benz a rare opportunity to hunt a seriously wounded BMW. AMG should enjoy it while it lasts, though. There’s another new M3 on its way, and a new M3 has never lost come PCOTY time.
Fuel up on nostalgia on classic MOTOR
|Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG||BMW M3|
|Engine||5.4-litre SOHC 24v V8||3.2-litre DOHC 24v inline-six|
|Power||270kW @ 5750rpm||252kW @ 7900rpm|
|Torque||510Nm @ 4000rpm||365Nm @ 4900rpm|
|Transmission||five-speed automatic||six-speed manual|
|0-100km/h||6.18 sec||5.78 sec|
|0-400m||14.25 @ 168.4km/h||13.77 @ 167km/h|
|Suspension||MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)|
|Track||1507mm (f); 1470mm (r)||1508mm (f); 1525mm (r)|
|Brakes (f)||335mm ventilated & cross-drilled discs, four-piston calipers||325mm ventilated & cross-drilled discs, single-piston calipers|
|Brakes (r)||300mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers||328mm ventilated & cross-drilled discs, single-piston calipers|
|Wheels||18 x 7.5-inch (f); 18 x 8.5-inch (r), alloy||19 x 8.0-inch (f); 19 x 9.0-inch (r), alloy|
|Wheels||Michelin Pilot Sport,
225/40 R18 (f); 245/35 R18 (r)
225/40 R19 (f); 255/35 R19 (r)