For decades, the recipe for a BMW M3 remained the same — engine up front, manual transmission in the middle, and drive going to the back. BMW’s tweaked it a bit over the years; its changed up the cylinder count, added some automatic transmissions as options, and even threw in some turbochargers. Ultimately, though, the M3 has always been a car that can seat four people, be used on a daily basis, lap a track like a hooligan, and put enormous grins on its passengers’ faces. This new G80 BMW M3 might look wildly different than any other M3 before it but the recipe remains the same.
Let’s get the looks out of the way, though. Along with every other automotive publication, BMW forum, car subreddit, and your grandma’s Bingo group, we’ve discussed the M3’s new grille ad nauseam. I’m personally sick of talking about it but there’s no getting around it — it’s the oddest looking front end on any BMW, ever. But that’s just the beginning.
The entire car is filled with annoying little design touches. For instance, the rear wheel arches stop abruptly before the rear door. It would have been nice for BMW to create a new door skin to accommodate a more subtle transition. Also, the now-signature BMW “Air Breather” is just a fake plastic vent. BMW always called it an “Air Breather” but this one doesn’t breathe air. That’s frustrating. The wing mirrors are also too bulky looking and they’re so big that they create little blind spots next to the A-pillar while driving, which makes seeing inside curbs more difficult.
So it’s not just the grille that looks weird, it’s honestly the whole car. It is, without question, the worst looking M3 in history. If that sounds harsh, it’s not, simply factual. Put it up against any other M3 generation and the new G80 just doesn’t stack up.
Is it better looking than the E30 M3, with its boxy rear wheel arches and massive wing? Hell to the no. How about the E36 M3? It wasn’t the sexiest of machines but its sophisticated handsomeness was certainly more appealing than the G80’s hyper-aggressive, massive-grilled face. What about the E46 M3? Absolutely not, the E46 M3 is one of the most perfectly proportioned BMWs in history. Same goes for the gorgeous E90/E92 M3, which is the very best looking M3 of them all. Lastly, the F80 M3 is looking better by the day, now that the G80 is here.
However, it’s not all bad. In profile, the new G80 does look muscular and, in the right color, can look quite special. Sadly, my test car was Alpine White, which isn’t interesting enough of a color to do anything to help. The rear diffuser is cool, though, as are the quad exhausts. I also like the front air intakes in carbon fiber, those are snazzy, and the wheels on my test car I really liked. Calling this new G80 M3 flat-out ugly seems a bit wrong (though, I don’t think I could make a valid counter argument) but when you look at the totality of the M3’s history, the G80 is definitely at the back of the pack.
I will say, though, once you start driving it, you stop caring about the way it looks. For one thing, you can’t see its grille from the inside (until you see the digital version of it in the gauges and wince all over again). For another, it’s flipping great to drive.
Being a standard BMW M3, my test car used the detuned version of BMW’s S58 engine — a 3.0 liter twin-turbocharged I6 with 473 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Though, no one is going to complain about it only having 473 horsepower. It’s seriously quick. Also, being a standard car, my test car had a six-speed manual transmission, rather than the Competition version’s eight-speed auto. There’s no option for an automatic on the standard car for now. Drive goes to the rear, as with any proper M car. So the recipe is classic BMW M — straight-six up front, manual ‘box in the middle, and rear-wheel drive.
Gearing is short on the manual, so the BMW M3’s low-down, twin-turbocharged thrust, feels especially potent. Due to that short gearing, you’re out of first gear very quickly, lest you want to rear end every car in front of you, and you’re shifting often, so 0-60 mph times are going to suffer but if you want the manual, you likely care not about such things. All you need to know is that it’s quick, has a proper manual shift, and is still fast enough to smoke most sports cars on the road.
What makes the new M3 so good, though, isn’t its powertrain, it’s the chassis. BMW M has worked wonders with the G80; it feels precise, planted, and incredibly balanced. The front end bites shockingly well, almost refusing to understeer, and the rest of the chassis follows beautifully. The best part is that you don’t need to be hooning it to feel that sense of balance. I felt it after just a handful of turns into driving it. Where I pick up press cars from has a couple of nice turns, through its business park roads, and after snaking the M3 through them, I immediately said, outload, “this car is special.”
There’s also so much mechanical grip, combined with sticky Michelin PS4 tires, that it just doesn’t want to come unglued from the road. The nice thing is, though, that once the rear tires do break traction, they do so progressively, in a nice controllable fashion. Not only is the chassis wonderful in that regard, but BMW and Michelin must have worked hard to get that perfect balance of grip and slip. It’s proper BMW M stuff.
In central New Jersey, where I live, there are about as many great driving roads as there are skyscrapers. Unless you like drag racing, it’s not exactly a car enthusiast’s paradise. However, if I drive about an hour south, there is one section of road that has a few decent turns, surrounded by some long sweepers, in a ribbon of road that stretches through the famous NJ pine barrens (no, I don’t know where that scene from the Sopranos was shot, stop asking me). On that road, the M3 really came alive.
I couldn’t get the smile off my face if I had it surgically removed. The combination of a stonking-fast engine, six-speed manual, and a beautifully balanced chassis had me ready to swoon. Flogging it as hard as I dared, I came to the conclusion that BMW M absolutely still has it, even if its design team seems to have been day drinking.
The M3 isn’t just fast and precise — it’s fun. Yes, there’s a ton of mechanical grip and you would be blown away at the speeds with which it can tackle corners if you try. But it will also just shimmy its ass on corner exit if you want it to, in an easy and predictable fashion, allowing for some fun without ever feeling sketchy. The chassis feels alive underneath you and it breathes with the road, far better than its predecessor.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. There are some flaws, for sure. I still don’t love its actual steering feel. I’m not talking about the lack of actual communication; the fine-tuned feedback from the road, through the steering wheel; that ship sailed a long time ago, so I stopped caring about it. I’m talking about the weight and how that weight builds, or doesn’t build, as you add steering lock. Like most M cars, there’s not enough build up of weight in the steering wheel as you apply lock, so it can feel a bit video game-y. It’s not a huge problem in the M3 because the steering rack is so quick and its front-end feels almost impossibly accurate, but it is a touch disappointing.
I also really still don’t like BMW’s digital gauges; they’re somehow too fussy and also not customizable enough. You’d think the lack of customization would make them simpler to read but it doesn’t. I don’t know how BMW managed to pull that imbalance off but it’s almost impressive.
Again, though, those problems faded away during my week behind the wheel. I kept finding excuses to go out for a drive, just to experience it. I felt as if I was driving something that wasn’t only special but something endangered, something that won’t last much longer. I know that great driver’s cars will still exist with electrification but not like this. There’s something about driving a four-door sedan with a great big engine, a manual transmission, and enough power to turn its tires into dust that still feels special, even toward the end of its existence.
No car is perfect. When reviewing cars, there are really only two different kinds; those that are great despite their flaws and those that are bad because of them. The G80 BMW M3, even in its standard, manual spec, is the former. It has flaws, a great many, but the final product is so much more than the sum of its parts that it makes you forgive it for all of them.
Once behind the wheel, I had zero concern as to how it looked. I still do think it’s ugly but I no longer care. It’s so good to drive that its looks don’t matter. At least not to anyone that actually likes driving.