We love that in today’s hyperautomated, everything-at-your-fingertips world, the 2021 BMW M3 (and mechanically identical M4 coupe) is still available with a good ol’ six-speed manual transmission. For a driver, few things heighten the connection with a car as effectively as working a clutch pedal and rowing your own gears. But the reality is that even BMW‘s most iconic driver’s car is not immune to the demands of the modern age. If you want the ultimate version of the latest M3—the upgraded 503-hp Competition model—you’re going to have to settle for an automatic. The reasoning for that split is simple: more speed.
As a refresher, the standard $70,895 M3 comes only with a six-speed stick and produces 473 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque from a wonderfully smooth twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six. Opting for the $2900 Competition upgrade, however, necessitates the fitment of an eight-speed automatic, yet brings more turbo boost (24.7 psi versus 18.9) and an additional 30 ponies and 73 pound-feet. According to BMW, the automatic also plays nicer with the all-wheel-drive system that the Competition version will gain as an option for the 2022 model year.
We’ve already flung the new M3 around BMW’s Performance Center in South Carolina and lined up the Competition model against the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio in a comparison test. And although we’ve yet to test a manual version, we have put a stick-shift M4 through its paces in California. While the Competition’s ZF-sourced eight-speed will never be as involving to operate as a manual nor quite as sharp as the previous-generation M3’s optional seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, this is one of the best torque-converter automatics on the market, and BMW’s tuning is excellent. Depending on which of its six settings (three each for automatic and manual modes) you’ve selected, upshifts range from luxury-car mushy to rifle-bolt quick with almost no torque interruption. Downshifts are well coordinated when pushing the car hard, and despite the small amount of turbo lag from the engine, the transmission’s computer brain is adept enough at picking ratios that we rarely felt the need to toggle the shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel.
With its additional power and aided by the automatic’s launch-control programming, our 3820-pound test car shot to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, beating the manual M4 by 0.3 second, despite the latter weighing 111 pounds less. That effort makes it the quickest M3 we’ve ever tested. In the quarter-mile, the Competition stretches the gap by a tenth of second and is traveling 3 mph faster when it trips the lights in 11.6 seconds at 124 mph. By 160 mph, the Competition has pulled ahead by 2.5 seconds. (For reference, the previous, 444-hp M3 Competition with the dual-clutch was roughly a half-second slower both to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile.) Almost as impressive, our 2021 example bettered its EPA estimate by a huge 9 mpg on our 75-mph highway test, returning 32 mpg. Driven more aggressively, our 22-mpg average still is 3 mpg greater than the car’s combined federal rating.
Being a modern BMW, the M3 Competition’s heady test results—which also include 1.03 g of grip on the skidpad and a 150-foot stop from 70 mph—are complicated by a Byzantine number of drive-mode adjustments. Some, such as the two settings for brake-pedal feel, have little effect on the driving experience. Others proved to be welcome during our mostly rainy drive, such as the new 10-stage traction-control system that comes with the $900 M Drive Professional package. Make the effort to find your preferred performance recipe (or two) and program it into one of the M Drive mode preset buttons on the steering wheel, and this BMW bristles with precision. Although a rich sense of cornering loads and pavement imperfections continues to escape the helms of most new BMWs, the latest M3 does impart a far better connection to the road than the previous-gen 3-series did as a whole. And its chassis is both reassuringly planted yet easy to control with prods of the twin-turbo six, the better for smoothly stringing together apexes—or earning a pat on the back from the car’s M Drift Analyzer coach, if that’s your thing.
Thanks mostly to the bandwidth of the M3 Competition’s adaptive dampers, its go-fast ability doesn’t come at the expense of reasonable day-to-day livability. It helped that our test car featured the M3’s standard, highly supportive front seats instead of the racy, carbon-fiber-shelled thrones that cost $3800 extra, but this is still the most refined and comfortable-riding M3 we can remember. Trips to the racetrack or your favorite driving roads are much less fun if you’re already worn out from the commute. And now that today’s 3-series is about the size of what the larger 5-series used to be, rear-seat passengers won’t spend their entire time complaining about a lack of legroom. We recorded a decently civil 72 decibels of noise inside at a steady 70 mph, which is four decibels quieter than in the Competition model’s predecessor. Maximum thrust results in 84 decibels of silky inline-six growl, but we still wish BMW would let more of the engine’s natural song into the cabin instead of boosting it through the audio system. At least you can turn off the auto-tune effect via a menu on the touchscreen.
Of our $93,495 test car’s numerous options—the grandest being an $8150 set of carbon-ceramic brakes—perhaps our favorite was its $1950 Tanzanite Blue II Metallic paint, which lessens the visual wallop of the new M3’s front end better than some of the brighter available hues. Rationalists will point out that a few more Ben Franklins will buy you a $105,495 BMW M5 with 600 horsepower. But go easy on the Competition model’s extras and you’ll still have an awesome-performing M3, one with a finer man-machine connection than we’ve experienced in years. It’s just that the standard car with a stick will form an even stronger bond with its pilot. To us, that’s worth a few tenths of a second.
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