We know what you're wondering: Is this a real BMW M3? Literally speaking, the answer is no. This car, with its flamboyant paint job and special trim, is merely a concept. The new coupe isn't an M3 at all. Rather, it's an M4, since it's based on the new 4-series coupe. The sedan remains an M3.
With BMW slapping the M badge on an ever increasing number of cars and SUVs, there's reason to worry that not just the M3 name, but also its very essence, is at stake. There has even been speculation that the cars would feature V-6 power. "Over my dead body," says Friedrich Nitschke, head of the M division. Wild rumors also spoke of a 3.2-liter straight six and three or four turbos.
Code-named S55, the engine actually is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo in-line six that puts out about 420 hp. The new engine is far more efficient than the thirsty (but lovely) V-8 in the outgoing M3 and puts down lots more torque -- about 400 lb-ft. Not surprisingly, the M4 will be very fast -- BMW estimates a 0-to-62-mph time of 4.4 seconds, and it may find another tenth or two during final homologation. Top speed is a governed 155 mph. A go-faster options package, still uncertain for the American market, lifts the limit to 175 mph.
M engineers had planned on stepping up to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT) to control all that power, but late in the program, cost and weight concerns led them to revert to the current M3's seven-speed DCT. Purists can breathe a sigh of relief, as they will still be able to get a clutch pedal and a six-speed manual.
The M4 employs the kind of technical wizardry we've come to expect in modern BMWs: electrically assisted steering, adjustable dampers, multimode stability control, and extended M Drive functions. When asked to name the biggest step forward from old to new, though, Nitschke doesn't select any high-tech doodad. Instead, he exclaims, "The lighter weight!" The M4 drops about 230 pounds compared with an old DCT-equipped M3 coupe. At 3300 pounds, the M4 still weighs a good 200 pounds more than a Porsche 911, but it's notably lighter than an Audi RS5 or a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG coupe. It also weighs less than a 328i or a 428i, even though the M car has a stiffer body, a stronger suspension, and a bigger radiator, brakes, and wheels. The M4 manages without all-wheel drive and instead relies on its 50/50 weight distribution and a beefed-up active differential for balance and traction.
We'll have to wait until the Detroit auto show to see the M3 sedan and the M4 coupe in production form and, not long after, to get behind the wheel. Only then will we be able to definitively say whether these cars are worthy of an M3 badge -- or M4 (we're still wrapping our heads around that name, too). Until then, we have faith in the M division and its lighter, more powerful cars.