2021 BMW M3 Review: The Benchmark Gets Faster But Leaves a Lot Behind

The new BMW M3 is a great car. But driving it is a bit like playing a video game.

2021 BMW M3_KL_66
Kristen Lee

Among fast cars that you can actually live with day-to-day, there is no more obvious or longstanding benchmark than the BMW M3. The M3 has been the practical performance car to beat since the mid-1980s. When car companies build sport sedans and sport coupes, the M3 is what they're trying to kill. So when a new one comes out, like the 2021 BMW M3 here, it's worth checking in to see if it's still worthy of the crown. 

The trick is to evaluate the M3 as the car that it is while divorcing it from its pedestal. That's a tough headspace to get into, considering that these things are everywhere and generally ranked among stuff like the Porsche 911 and Lotus Elise in terms of notoriety. 

But even with the manual gearbox thankfully included, and impressive specs on paper, this is a very different—and much more digital—M3 than what I've experienced before. It's no secret that the M3 has been far removed from the high-revving, naturally aspirated, homologation special of the '80s for a long time now. It's just that with this go-around, it feels like it's too much Gran Turismo 7 and not enough Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft.

2021 BMW M3: By the Numbers

  • Base price (as tested): $70,895 ($94,645)
  • Powertrain: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6 | 6-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 473 @ 6,250 rpm
  • Torque: 406 @ 2,650 to 6,130 rpm
  • 0-60: 4.1 seconds (est)
  • Top speed: 155 mph (180 with M Performance Package)
  • Curb weight: 3,840 pounds
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Cargo volume: 13 cubic feet
  • EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city | 23 highway | 19 combined
  • Quick take: Highly capable as a modern sport sedan, it's also a bit too digitized for its own good.

Era of the G80

Today's 3 Series bears the G80 chassis code and with it came the new M3. The outgoing twin-turbocharged S55 3.0-liter straight-six has been replaced by the twin-turbocharged S58 3.0-liter straight-six, now good for 473 horsepower. Launched in September 2020, the new M3 sedan comes with either an eight-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual transmission, which is how the test car was outfitted. Doing so shaved 50 pounds from the overall weight as compared to one equipped with the automatic. The forthcoming Competition models will bring all-wheel-drive, but for now, and preferably for some, the M3 remains rear-wheel-drive. 

Size-wise, the new M3 is 4.6 inches longer, 0.4 inches wider, 0.1 inches higher, and has a 1.8-inch longer wheelbase than the outgoing sedan. The rest of the body features your typical M stuff, such as puffier fenders, quad-exhaust pipes, a carbon roof, M badging, a contoured hood, and wheels that look like metallic spiderwebs. The test car came optioned with the M carbon exterior package that gave it front-intake inlays, a rear diffuser, wing mirror caps, and a lip spoiler, as well as the $8,150 carbon-ceramic brake kit, highly identifiable by its gold-painted calipers.

And yes, I am aware of how the front facia looks. If you think you hate it, try staring at it for four hours while photographing it and then editing those photos. 

The interior still features a driver-oriented console that includes buttons for the climate and a volume knob. The rest of the infotainment features are handled via either the main center touchscreen or the iDrive controller. All in all, it's a tidy and unobtrusive system that takes no time in getting used to. I would have liked a physical handbrake, however. If I'm driving a stick, I'd like a handbrake, too. Like peanut butter and jelly, gin and tonic, and wearing pink on Wednesdays, you just can't have one without the other.

Start Your Role-Playing Game

Overwhelmingly, I came away from my days with the new M3 convinced that it's now far more digital than analog. Yes, there was a clutch pedal and a stick, but everything I touched to get the car moving across the earth had the polished sheen of electronic assistance. There was brake-assist, steering-assist, traction-assist, and gear shift-assist. In fact, the car started up with Gear Shift Assistant with auto rev-matching engaged. I found it obtrusive and unnatural-feeling and I was wholly convinced I was bad at driving stick until I figured out how to turn it off. 

But all these assists are there to be customized, I suppose, because that's what the two red M buttons on the steering wheel are for. After making doubly sure the Gear Shift Assistant was off for both, I set the M1 button with the tightest steering, most economical engine characteristics, most responsive brakes, and with the softest suspension setting. This was the one for cruising. I set the M2 button with the tightest steering, the most responsive engine and brake settings, the sportiest shifts, and left traction control on. This was for the back roads. Character creation in this RPG complete, it was time to go.

Right away, the M3's chassis and suspension setup proved incredible. Even with its hardest damping, it never made my bones hurt. It carried itself fluidly over bumps and in turns that relayed a sense of cohesion—something most typically found in cars with monocoques. It was a delight. And despite me being a huge fan of General Motors’ magnetic ride suspension—I think it’s one of the best things GM currently makes—against the M3’s damping, I’m not actually sure which I’d prefer here. Simultaneously relaxed but sharply acute, it was ride quality done just right: with the kind of honed duality you want in all your performance cars.

Just like in my other favorites, the clutch grabs high off the ground, which rewards faster and more spirited gear shifts, though the transmission gates feel a bit rubbery when you slot the shifter into them. But with my M2 settings engaged, things did sharpen up noticeably and became more alive, more awake. 

However, the steering—though responsive—was never direct enough for my liking. I didn't feel like I could accurately parse out what the front wheels were up to, despite them reacting to even a light twiddle of the steering wheel. And I tried out the steering in every setting available. It was just a bit too electronically boosted to deliver satisfying feedback.

But it must come as no surprise that the M3 is easy to drive fast. BMW tuned the twin-turbocharged motor so that it actually didn’t feel terribly turbocharged, pulling powerfully up to redline with more than enough power to tickle the base of your skull. It's a buttery smooth unit that enjoyed being revved and adored being floored. Third gear is predictably the power gear, but fourth was actually the most versatile. In fourth, the M3 would both sing up its rev range as things blurred with speed out the windows or it would happily cruise around town while keeping the engine spins low.

It’s just a shame the S58 isn’t better to listen to. Here:

But whatever heights the engine takes you to, the brakes are there to vanish speed like it’s a magic act. The calipers grab expectedly at low speeds without jerking you around, and from higher-velocity stops, they bring the car smoothly down and without a fuss. 

Shenanigans aside, though, the M3 is also a beautiful long-distance cruiser. For all its go-fast abilities, it’s also remarkably easy to keep at speed and is quite comfortable over hundreds of highway miles. It was reasonably quiet in the cabin and the bolstered seats were cushioned enough that I didn't feel like I was sitting on a strip of foam stapled to a two-by-four. Wrapped in soft and fragrant Merino leather, my posterior had zero complaints after riding around for about 700 miles in the car. 

The driver's seat also could also be raised up nice and high so I was able to easily see down the hood of the car. Over-the-shoulder visibility was decent as well. Combined with its roomy trunk and totally usable back row, the M3 is truly a daily drivable performance car. The back seats are just a tad claustrophobic because the fronts are large and difficult to see around.

The one thing I staunchly disliked about the car was its gesture control. I’m from Jersey—we pump our fists, not our gas—and a few times, the car interpreted my animated way of talking with my hands as a desire to change the music volume. My partner suggested I gesture more quietly so the car couldn’t hear.

The M3 Versus Me

With destination, the 2021 M3 starts at $70,895. The test car's MSRP came to approximately $94,645 because it had options such as the carbon-ceramic brakes, carbon fiber trim, the M carbon exterior package, and Merino leather. I say approximately because the included Monroney didn't list the final price, so that's a figure I cobbled together on a calculator with my best guess at the options list. Either way, it's nearly $100,000 for a well-optioned M3 now. Blah blah cars are too expensive blah.

Among competitors, the most obvious one is the Mercedes-AMG C63. And I won’t lie to you: The Affalterbach V8s are works of art. They sound better than the BMW straight-six and they feel more raw and brutal. (I will note here that the next-gen C63 could ditch the V8 for a hybrid four-cylinder.) The current M3 will stick around for much longer and it comes with the option of a manual. It’s a bit of a rubbery and very assisted-feeling manual, but dammit, it’s still a manual. That gets points in my book. As it stands now, the C63 is certainly more emotional, but the M3 is the commitment to enthusiasts.

But unfortunately for BMW, the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing also exists. And it is lovely. It’s playful in ways that the M3 is serious. It sounds better. It’s cheaper. And I think it looks better. The Cadillac brand may not be what it was even a few years ago, but that doesn't change the fact that the CT4-V Blackwing may be the better sport sedan. But the M brand is a powerful and desirable one, a household name in ways its competitors aren't. 

Objectively, the new M3 is a fantastic sport sedan. It is all the things M3s have always been designed to be: fast, sporty, comfortable. It’s powerful, handles well, and is an incredible all-arounder. You can fit quite a bit in it, and it is perfectly livable. Anyone who gets it would be getting the ideal daily driver. 

But the last and trickiest variable in that equation is being able to deliver on a rewarding driving experience—which, I am sorry to say, I did not find this new one to be able to do.

I just couldn’t shake the sensation that what I was driving was akin to a video game simulation; a sensation that just further removed me from the real-life experience. Flooring the throttle pedal, for example, yielded no tactile feedback. It was just foot to pedal and then flat on the floor. No vibration in the pedal, no resistance. If I’m shooting gasoline into a twin-turbocharged straight-six that gets turned into nearly 500 horsepower of heat, noise, exhaust gas, and acceleration, I’d like to feel at least a little inkling of it in my right foot. But there was nothing. I could have been flooring anything.

And the fact that I could adjust everything from the engine’s behavior to the transmission speed, steering, brakes, and suspension begged the question as to why I’d be allowed to adjust these things to begin with. It’s a performance car—shouldn’t everything be sporty by default? I understand the need to appeal as a daily driver, but must everything be customizable? Must everything have an adjustable setting? That was just evidence to me that many, many aspects of the car have been digitized, whereas before—short of opening the thing up and doing it yourself with a wrench—adjusting stuff just wasn't an option.

I’m not ignorant to the fact that I’m probably speaking to a minority. If tomorrow, you decide to go down to your local BMW dealership and cough up for a new M3, you’d be getting something good in return. Really good. You'd be getting a car with an approachable and agreeable demeanor that'll do fast in a heroically capable way. 

But, having driven past M3s such as the E92, I also see what’s missing in this new one: a tactility, the last bit of feral anger that set the cars apart from merely being sporty sedans and that made them M3s. It felt like someone took what was an M3, shoved it through a refinement sieve, and this is what came out the other end.

Perhaps this is just the way of things. Everything is shifting to a more digital direction by the day, so to maintain its benchmark status, this is what the M3 must now become. Computerized efficiency blended with impressive—but refined—performance. It's balanced in ways that would catch the envy of a tightrope walker and for most people, that's more than enough. 

Yet, if that’s the case, then I fear I've been left behind.

Want to yell at me about M3s? Hit me up at kristen@thedrive.com.