The M3 we've waited almost 40 years for is finally here – was it worth the wait?
By Matt Bird / Friday, 20 January 2023 / Loading comments
That subhead looks hyperbolic, only it’s not; the M3 really has been around for that long (the E30 first shown at the Frankfurt show in 1985), and there really hasn’t been a Touring in all that time. Which is crazy when you think about it. Instinct suggests that the original was too pure, too focused on homologation and touring car domination, for a wagon to be spun from it – only for BMW to make an M3 Convertible in 1988 and tarnish that belief entirely. Anything was game, clearly.
There are still cherished E36 328i Tourings out there, indicating affection for those, and what an alternative to the all-conquering Audi RS2 an M3 of the mid-90s might have been. BMW loved the idea of an E46 M3 so much it made a working prototype and told us how easy it was to get together; an E90 M3 Touring could have been sold alongside the M5 equivalent with which it shared 80 per cent of a V10. And the previous generation, with all its lovely twin-turbo torque, would have surely made a sublime wagon – especially with such a handsome F31 body to stuff it into.
But that’s the past – the coulda, woulda, shoulda M3 Tourings. Now we have a real one, all 1,865kg and £103,135 (as tested) of it. And while it wouldn’t be a review of a G8x M car without discussing the design, the news is more positive than ever this time around. We’re all a bit more familiar with the front end by now, and it almost feels like the Touring is an appropriately large car for such big grilles. Maybe. Everywhere else is brilliant, however. Granted, the profile is made to seem interesting partly because an M3 Touring has actually happened and it’s hard to get over it, but in the always subjective visual race for admiration, it probably overhauls the two-door M4. The sculpting of the doors and the flanks works well, and the black along the sill enhances its hunkered-down stance.
Any concern that this generation lacks attitude or tension should be answered by the rear, which is easily the Touring’s best angle. The arches are downright rude, like the track of an M5 has been crammed in there and is fit to burst out, with the 20-inch wheels (19s at the front) wedged in perfectly. The way the rear lights meet a crease in the bodywork only serves to make the M3 look even broader, and the quartet of exhausts appear bigger than ever. It comes together so well it’s almost like the M3 and M4 were designed around this model first, rather than the other way around. Shorn of its badges, you’d know it was an M car. Just an M car with the dog hatch rear screen.
What a shame then that the inside is worse than the current saloon and coupe. That’s not a Touring specific thing, in fairness, but rather a symptom of the new BMW Curved Display, which has introduced a terrible dial design that will migrate to all new M3s and M4s. Perhaps there are more significant things to gripe about – especially when the head-up display is excellent – but to see speed, revs, remaining fuel and oil temperature (i.e., the really important stuff) communicated via an unholy combination of energy smart meter and kids game show graphics is remarkably dispiriting. Toggling M Mode through Road, Sport and Track, which alters assistance and the screens, only serves to introduce a laser tag theme to the mix.
The eyesore is doubly unfortunate because the rest of the interior is terrific. BMW has arguably fallen into the trap of trying to show too much on its enormous wraparound display, but the resolution is so good it’s like operating iDrive in iMax format. Naturally, there is a great driving position – aided by optional seats – but the revelation, as you might expect, is behind them. The 3 Series Touring has never been the most accommodating of estates, we all know that, but the glass-half-full view is that this is by some distance the most practical M3 ever.
Any passenger over six feet will be accommodated well enough behind a driver of the same height, with headroom to spare in a comfy pew and seemingly unimpacted by those arches. And while 500 litres isn’t the biggest boot ever, it’s a sensible shape and the seats fold forward at the touch of a button by the bootlid. A roof box could go on too, if needed, and the Isofix is dead easy to use as well. With the new C63 now having to accommodate hybrid bits, it would be a surprise to find the Mercedes any bigger for people and stuff. If you want to make an M3 Touring work with a family, you’ll surely be able to.
The estate is only going to be offered in xDrive Competition format here, which is no bad thing given four driven wheels suits the remit and BMW’s all-wheel-drive system is one of the best. The model’s hefty kerbweight is 90kg more than the equivalent saloon, which sort of sounds like a lot but then is less than five per cent when talking about such a heavy car. Whether it makes a difference is one of dozens of questions you’ll likely experience driving the first M3 Touring for the first time – is it turning in less eagerly there? Is it slower here? Does the rear axle behave differently when this happens?
The short answer, broadly speaking, is that the Touring feels very similar to its siblings. It shares with the two- and four-door variants a fiercely potent straight-six engine, the same spookily sorted drivetrain that’s apparently amenable to every request, and a doggedly determined front end that just never stops gripping. The same superlative damping means it can still do mellow when you want it, albeit of the tightly controlled sort. The Touring even shares the less desirable traits, like a Sport setting for the brakes; not only is it unnecessary when the optional ceramics are beyond much reproach anyway, it doesn’t make any difference. Similarly, it’s possible to get used to the extra heft of Sport steering, but it seldom does it seem like an improvement on Comfort. So why have it?
Only when driving a bit quicker (and a ‘bit’ in G8x terms tends to undersell the speed being piled on) does the wagon perhaps feel that bit heavier, that fraction less willing. That the differences are subtle enough to want back-to-back driving suggests that they might be of little concern to a Touring customer, but there are moments when you suspect the M4 might not have left a body movement unchecked, or have turned in a millisecond more abruptly. Regardless – or, perhaps more relevantly – the M3 makes the current Audi RS4 feel about 20 years old and 200kg heavier with the way it stops, turns and goes. It is on another level entirely, and, in terms of ground-covering ability, easily qualifies as one of the quickest and most capable estate cars ever made. If the new C63 proves superior (and early experience suggests it probably isn’t) it’ll be gobsmackingly good.
Certainly, the overriding sensation is that the M3 experience that we’ve become familiar with – and very fond of – has transferred impressively well to the Touring. If there’s a blemish, it’s the lingering suspicion that the wagon seemed a mite less rear-biased than earlier xDrive models or even the Alpinq B3 when in its default 4WD mode. Potentially the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres fitted here can claim to be grippier than the Alpina’s bespoke Pirelli P Zeroes – or potentially your correspondent was not being brave enough in MDM mode because you don’t want to be the person to ruin BMW’s week – but in comparable conditions, the Touring did seem that bit keener to hurl power forward and straighten itself out. Of course, if that matters to you, rest assured two-wheel drive is just a button press away, and still a hoot. A long wheelbase, a tightly wound M diff and the S58’s instantaneous response see to that.
Ultimately, the car’s ability to ape M car scallywaggery is obviously a reason to rejoice – but it does suggest a pause for reflection, too. By faithfully replicating the intensity and impressive bandwidth of the conventional M3 and M4, you do occasionally wonder if BMW has overshot the requirements of a car that will surely be bought with some family use in mind. We’ve praised Alpina’s version of the Touring at length recently, and with its cushier Comfort Plus suspension and much more subdued styling – not to mention an engine tune that plays up the effortlessness of a higher torque figure – and it isn’t hard to imagine it fitting into a broader, more mundane use case more conveniently, while still providing ample entertainment when necessary.
Or, to put it another way, you probably need to really want an M3 to want the Touring version. Because the B3 is already all the fast family estate car anyone could ever need. Depending on your personal preference, the M3 either falls just below it in the consummate all-rounder stakes – or soars above it as a B road-slaying performance car with the added convenience of a big boot. Don’t buy one without considering the other, basically. Which, of course, is the best bit – you now have a choice, and that’s what we’ve been waiting nearly four decades to be able to say. The fact that the first-ever M3 Touring is also a wonderful and properly legitimate M car just makes the moment all the sweeter.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M3 TOURING COMPETITION XDRIVE (G81)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],250rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],750-5,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,865kg DIN, 1,940kg EU
Price: £80,605 (price as standard; price as tested £103,135 (erk) comprised of BMW M 50 Years badges for £300, Ultimate Pack (Heated steering wheel, Comfort Access, Extended Storage Contents, M carbon bucket seats, Driving Assistant Professional, Laserlights, Parking Assistant Plus, Drive Recorder, M Carbon Exterior Styling) for £11,250, Frozen Pure Grey II metallic paint for £2,985 and M Pro Pack (M Carbon Ceramic Brakes with gold calipers and M Driver’s Pack) for £7,995
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