During the recent Monterey Car Week, BMW North America loaned me a new 2021 M3 to travel around the Northern California peninsula. I was both excited and worried.
I had not previously seen the car, let alone driven one, but I’d heard so many comments about how the grille was too big. Though in the same breath, people also said how well the car drove.
My M3 week behind me, I am here to say that I simply love the car, and I even love the grille.
To get the whole grille bit out of the way, I will say that the color of the car is a great determiner of how people might react to the enlarged grille. My friend Jason Cammisa simply hates it (more on that later), but on the car I drove in Monterey, an M3 finished in Isle of Man Green, I thought the grille looked fantastic.
Yes, the styling of this new M3 is a bit over the top and very aggressive, but the M3 as a driver’s car that needs to be recognized as it emerges in the rearview mirror of slower vehicles. The bright shade of green, the big grille, and especially combined with the Kyalami orange and Merino black leather interior, this M3 was more frequently praised than panned by those who took note.
After a flight delayed by three hours on the way west, I finally picked up the car at SFO at 5:15 p.m. Pacific time. In other words, just in time for the worst afternoon traffic in the Bay area.
I put my restaurant destination in Monterey into the onboard navigation system and headed down the road. I had a 6:30 p.m. reservation in Monterey with a group of friends and I called them to let them know I would ring them from the road if I’d arrive before dessert.
Instead of taking 101 south, which was a parking lot, the nav system put me on the route thru the Santa Cruz mountains. The M3’s 6-speed manual gearbox was the perfect tool for this drive, basically an automotive scalpel, able to deal with the constant switchbacks on the route as if it were taking a relaxed drive through the park.
As the drive started, the nav system said I’d arrive by 7:05, but I walked into the Turn 12 Bar and Grill at 6:28 p.m., just in time for dinner. Being a Monday, I was actually able to park on the street only a block away from the restaurant, a miracle in itself during car week.
Over that pre-dinner drive, the M3 really showed me what it could do, with strong acceleration, perfectly balanced handling and — thankfully — the optional carbon-ceramic brakes. I say thankfully as during the drive, a mail truck decided to do a full 360-degree spin about 50 yards in front of me, and the M3 was able to stop in time from an impressive speed.
The most amazing thing about the drive is that even though I was paying extreme attention to the road, slow-moving minivans, and on the lookout for the authorities, the drive was always controlled and relaxing, and the M3 did not beat me to death with an over-dampened suspension as other cars in its class tend to do.
The next day, I took the car to the Carmel Concours on the Avenue and then to the Grassroots Motorsports welcome party in Pacific Grove. Although I was going to be a judge at the show, publisher Tim Suddard asked me to display the M3, which I did, placing an entry card on the windshield.
It seemed that from the minute I arrived, tons of younger enthusiasts were drawn to the car like moths to a flame. All simply loved the car.
After returning to my car after judging, I looked at my windshield card and found that someone had defaced it, writing that the car was “ugly.” I knew this was the work of my friend Jason Cammisa.
During the rest of the week, the M3 remained a joy to drive, easily able to hold as many people as needed and yet, even with four doors, to act like a sports car. I was able to put my now sadly late friend Eric Keller, a BMW M-car expert and co-founder of the Enthusiast Auto Group, behind the wheel (he died in a motorcycle accident last week).
He, too, came away impressed with how well the new M3 drove and liked not only the gregarious color combo but the styling as well.
The M3 and I headed to Legends of the Autobahn and yet again, people really seemed to love the car, even the person I parked next to in his E36 M3 who said that he loved the new M3 and could not wait to get one. I got the impression that BMW might know more than a lot of automotive journalists do about its customers, and with this design has really done very well by them, and especially the younger buyers.
Speaking of the Legends, my hat is off to the team that put on this event. It seems people living in the neighborhood where the event was originally supposed to take place were able to get it ejected even after local officials had approved the show.
The Legends team had only a few days o find a new location (the county fairgrounds) and to pull off a great event. Unless you have run a similar event, you have no idea the amount of work this took.
This new M3 is the first I’ve driven since the E36 version, and it is the most enjoyable and drivable M3 I recall. It truly is a 4-door sports car, something Nissan tried to convince us that the second-generation Maxima was, but failed in the attempt.
The M3 feels to me almost as light as the E36 but with considerably more power. It is also comfortable. It is not the hammer that the M5 Competition is, but much more of a scalpel, made for making short and involving work out of a twisty road or even a race track.
Being rear-wheel drive, it will allow you to break it lose, but the car rotates so well that doing so is easily managed with a little counter steer.
A new M3 CS has been released and offers even more power and all-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox. That might be good for some, but the rear-wheel drive 2021 M3 with a manual gearbox is the one I would choose. It is not just a sports sedan but a true 4-door sports car that can handle the most mundane chores as well as the most-aggressive track day.
Driven: 2021 BMW M3
Vehicle type: 5-passenger sedan, rear-wheel drive
Base price: $69,900 Price as tested: $90,295
Engine: Twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder, 473 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, 406 pound-feet torque at 6,150 rpm. Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 112.5 inches Overall length/width: 189.1 inches / 74.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,850 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 16 city / 23 highway / 19 combined
Assembled in: Munich, Germany