BMWBLOG On-Track Comparison: M3 vs 335iS – BMW’s Sibling Rivalry

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Words: Shawn Molnar Photos: Greg Jarem The Battle is all too familiar. Exhausts growl from the paddock. Angel eyes glare ahead. Two serious sports cars …

Words: Shawn Molnar
Photos: Greg Jarem

The Battle is all too familiar. Exhausts growl from the paddock. Angel eyes glare ahead. Two serious sports cars patiently await their release upon the asphalt.

This time, Munich’s champion sports car, the venerable M3 has competition from within. Yes, an aspiring younger brother, the 335iS is keen to prove its birthright and battle for nobility within the brand.

Which car would find space in your driveway? That is to say, which car offers you the best all-round package for your driving needs? BMWBLOG recently compared both BMW sports cars back-to-back on a proper racing circuit – the ensuing family feud was hard fought, the likes of which we’ve only seen among in-laws. Read on to learn which brother lands the final blow.

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2011 BMW 335iS

We start out behind the wheel of the “underdog,” BMW’s newly released 335iS. Bound for North American shores only, BMW’s new sports car finds itself as a middle child. Slated somewhere between the 335i coupe and M3, the 335iS was designed to capture a target marked that yearns for more track focused performance than found in the 335i – while not letting go of their wallet with reckless abandon.

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The 335iS builds upon the 335i with new bodywork, engine upgrades, suspension changes and subtle interior tweaks. The ///M designed aerodynamics package yields real results on the track, with a functional rear diffuser eliminating lift over the rear axle. Vertical vanes in the diffuser guide airflow and maintain velocity, thus decreasing pressure and reducing lift. BMW has confirmed that this is the most aggressive rear aero package fitted to any 3 series production car… including the M3.

“Exhausts growl from the paddock. Angel eyes glare ahead.”

From behind pit wall we fasten our helmets and ready the car. A flag marshal holds us at bay until a sufficient gap lay ahead of us on the racetrack. With his signal, we get down to business and dissect the performance genes this car has inherited.

Releasing the clutch as we throttle into the powerband, a deep, harmonious sound exits the exhausts. The 6-speed transmission is faultless as we snick through the gears. Clutch actuation is firm and linear, it is easy to get behind the wheel and immediately drive fast. There is no ambiguity served up from the controls, only precise, affirmative feedback. As we approach redline in 3rd gear, we notice no curve in the N54 powerband. With a monstrous 332 lb ft of torque on queue at only 1,500 rpm, this inline-6 pulls as though a long stroke V8.

“… it is easy to get behind the wheel and immediately drive fast.”

Large inlets in the front fascia feed an additional oil cooler, and radiator. An upgraded cooling fan maintains temperature at slow speeds or standstill. Stiffer engine mounts have been installed to resist deflection during hard cornering; BMW has gone to great lengths to ensure this car’s longevity and track worthiness.

As engine rpm builds, so does your speed, along with an operatic tenor rising to a glorious crescendo – this is a climax of motoring enjoyment, where every mechanical sensation is just so. Its inline-6 speaks to tradition; there is something very honest about this car.

Handling is no less impressive; steering inputs are met with sharp, immediate responses fed back through the chassis. While no featherweight, the car feels very light and quick through transitions. A curb weight of 3,650 lbs placed evenly over the front and rear-axles gives the 335iS a 54 lb weight advantage over the M3.

“Its inline-6 speaks to tradition; there is something very honest about this car.”

The 335iS wears its little brother’s brakes, 348 mm (13.7 inch) front / 335 mm (13.2 inch) rear clamped by single piston calipers. This is no complaint as the iS stops well, consistently braking for corners with good bite and barely perceptible brake fade – even after several hard laps.

Mid corner feel is excellent, absolutely neutral until the very limit, where you will find minimal understeer. The car can easily be rotated by throttle modulation as an input of steering – this is the kind of handling most cars dream about, and fwd cars only read about in textbooks.

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“… it will beg you for a track day, and stall as you’re about to leave for home.”

We are left with no doubt as to the 335iS’ sporting intentions. This is not a stylized sports car, it’s a purpose built driving machine. Every area of this car’s dynamics has been honed until sharp and sporting. In a word, BMW’s 335iS is playful – it will beg you for a track day, and stall as you’re about to leave for home. It just wants to play, and oh what fun.

2011 BMW M3

As the 335iS gently pops and pings cooling down in pit lane, we head for a nearby M3.

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“… much like a muscle bound weight lifter in a T-shirt: it’s kind of hard to hide your power.”

Created early on in the 3 series design process, the M3 is overt in its performance-focused shape. Flared wheel arches house a wider track and beefy wheels; a functional hood inlet sucks in cool air and a restrained trunk lip spoils lift over the rear. That’s not to say that the M3 seeks attention; it doesn’t, but much like a muscle bound weight lifter in a T-shirt: it’s kind of hard to hide your power.

The M3 exudes an aura, even sitting motionless on the asphalt. It’s special. As your eyes follow its flowing sculpture, you’re aware that M engineers have perfected every component, every line, every material. The carbon fiber roof speaks to its Formula 1 pedigree, the E92 M3 being designed near the height of BMW’s F1 career.

Getting behind the wheel, the differences are subtle. Both cars sport excellent seats with ample lateral support and both place controls exactly where you want them. Pedals are placed perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting and a beefy, thick steering wheel feels good in your hands.

Press the engine start button and this is where the similarities end. Unlike the divine choir belting out mechanical hymns, the M3 starts with a flatter idle and builds to an intense sound – think Linkin Park vs Andrea Bocelli.

“… a beefy, thick steering wheel feels good in your hands.”

Switching the suspension setup to its firmest setting we head out on track. Carrying slightly more speed into the first corner, we brake hard and turn in. The M3 responds with razor sharp precision and immediate feedback. Dead flat through the corner a firmly sprung suspension keeps us on the knife-edge – suddenly the 335iS feels a touch soft to our recollection! Clipping the apex we power out and feel the rear wheels fight for grip. A small wiggle from the tail is reigned in as we put the power down, all 414 hp released before a quick up-shift at 8,400 rpm – what magic!

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Every input you feed is returned with instantaneous response, this car is electric. As your fingertips guide the wheel, every neuron is on high alert. Unlike the 335iS, the M3 demands precision at the limit, it is less forgiving (though still forgiving in the greater arena of sports cars).

“… suddenly the 335iS feels a touch soft to our recollection!”

Perfect balance runs in the family tree, at apex the M3 is neutral and ready for corner exit. Such precise handling seems to open up new possibilities in each corner; with such impressive accuracy you can place the car exactly as you want it.

Large brakes burn off momentum as you prepare for the next corner. Cross-drilled and ventilated discs provide the stopping power. Sport tuned ABS management resists intervention when driving hard on track. During our time behind the wheel we did not suffer from bake fade, and petal feel remained consistent.

BMW’s M3 has a mandate to perform.”

Lap after lap, the M3 sets a blistering pace, never feeling stressed by your sporting antics. It is a supreme sports car, worthy of the many accolades rewarded by a unanimous press core.

///M lineage runs deep in its blood; BMW’s M3 has a mandate to perform.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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The M3 is a proper sports car, one that closer emulates racecar behavior relative to the 335iS. Whereas the 335iS has a playful, fun spirit – the M3 is dominated by a focused demeanor, it is not here to play: this is serious business.

Performance figures split the siblings perfectly in thirds. We find the 335i Coupe to have a 0-60 acceleration time of 4.8 seconds, while the 335iS finds 60 in an estimated 4.6 sec, topped only by the M3’s 4.1 second acceleration time. Power figures follow a similar trend, the 335i Coupe outputs 300 hp / 300 lb-ft torque while the 335iS turns 320 hp / 332 lb ft of torque, topped again by the mighty M3’s 414 hp / 295 lb-ft torque. The curb weight of each car tells a different story; to summarize, the 335i Coupe is laden with 3,542 lbs, the 335iS with 3,650 lbs while the M3 tips 3,704 lbs at the scales.

“This is not a car, it’s artwork. And it’s worth every penny.”

The M3’s weight is felt behind the wheel – though so well compensated for, it becomes a non-issue while lapping the track. As a hardened sports car and when facing exotic competition, excessive weight really is the M3’s only drawback.

Both the 335iS and M3 come equipped with proper 6 speed manual transmissions; however those numb from the waist down can opt for a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. Don’t get me wrong, the DCT is excellent – but when exploring a car’s limits on track, the gratification and reward of switching your own gears is unmatched by any automated system. Yes, it’s faster by a tenth or two, but unless your last paycheck was received from an F1 team, you can probably trade a tenth for the joy of rowing your own gears.

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For those who insist on the DCT, smooth, fast shifts are actuated by solid metal petals on either side of the wheel – just as God intended: Right for up shift, Left for down shift. A fully “automatic” mode will allow you to eat breakfast, text message all your friends, shave or perhaps do your makeup while driving. Or, you could pay attention to the road, and fully engage yourself in the driving experience. We hope you pick the latter.

Finally we arrive at the cost equation. Again, BMW has quite literally split all three siblings by an equal gap. BMW’s 335i lists for $42,650 followed by the 335iS at $50,525 and the M3’s $58,400 price tag.

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Choices, Choices

And the winner is: … entirely based upon your needs. Yes, anti-climatic, we know.

For all those who lust after tire burning, track ready performance with a great blend of public road usability and value – it’s tough to arrive at any other car than the 335iS (inside, or outside of the company, for that matter). It’s every man’s sports car, full of passion and awfully fast.

“… it sounds like angels singing, and leaves you smiling after a playful drive.”

For those who yearn for something of a higher calling, the M3 offers race-bred pedigree, prestige, cache, and the excellence of M design that pervades every detail. This is not a car, it’s artwork. And it’s worth every penny.

In conclusion: if you have the money, there is no substitute for an M car. But if your budget is closer to mine, you will not be let down by the underdog of this comparison. BMW’s 335iS is brilliant on track and comfortable on the road, it sounds like angels singing, and leaves you smiling after a playful drive.

This younger brother packs a punch, and it will fight for space in your driveway.

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