2021 BMW M3 Competition review: Champing at the bit

Don’t let those four doors fool you, the M3 Competition was born to run.


Craig Cole/Roadshow

Griping about the 2021 BMW M3 Competition’s new grille is like shoving a toddler; it’s just too easy. Either you’ve made peace with this car’s flared nostrils or you haven’t. If the looks tickle your fancy, this Bimmer obliges with explosive acceleration and a wonderfully balanced chassis that begs to be flogged. If you can’t stomach the styling, there are plenty of other great cars to spend 74-plus grand on, like an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, an Audi RS5 Sportback or a Mercedes-AMG C63 S.

Like

  • Rip-snorting engine
  • Playful chassis
  • Luxury digs

Don’t Like

  • So… many… settings…
  • Synthesized steering
  • Raucous Michelins

High-performance luxury

The sixth-generation M3 is slightly larger than before, having ballooned 4.6 inches in length and 0.4 inches in width. Saving some weight, however, the roof is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. As for the Competition model, it’s a big step above the standard version, offering loads more power and a quick-shifting automatic transmission.

Delivering a luxury experience, the Comp’s cabin is loaded with supple leather, miles of laser-straight stitching and better-than-expected comfort. The front buckets are plenty adjustable (even if the backrests are lumpy) and the rear seat is surprisingly spacious, though getting in and out requires some gymnastics. Making this car more versatile than you might expect, those backrests fold down, providing a cavernous amount of cargo space.

Six in a row make it go

Giving the M3 Competition all the rip-snort you could ask for is the automaker’s charming S58 engine. With twin mono-scroll turbochargers cramming air down its throat, this 3.0-liter I6 belts out a herculean 503 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. If you’re counting, that’s 30 more ponies and 73 additional torques than the regular M3 is endowed with, a car that is by no means slow.

With a standard eight-speed automatic transmission routing all that oomph to the rear wheels (for added grip, all-wheel drive will be offered on the M3 Competition and M4 Competition starting in the 2022 model year), Competition variants can rocket from 0 to 60 mph in a dizzying 3.8 seconds or convert their pricey Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires into plumes of acrid smoke. It’s your choice.

The M3’s turbocharged inline-six is as smooth as it is potent.


Craig Cole/Roadshow

Still, this car’s performance is a bit deceptive. Aside from the exhaust system, which features a pair of blunderbuss-caliber double-barrel outlets and sounds as raspy as your elementary school library aid who smoked two packs of Newports every day, the engine is smooth and tractable, responding with enthusiasm from just off idle. This makes everyday drivability in the M3 Competition a cinch, though dip your toes a little deeper into the throttle and the powertrain really wakes up at about 3,000 rpm, where it revs explosively to its 7,200-rpm redline. This car’s top speed is 155 mph, or a heady 180 with the optional M Driver’s Package ($2,500), which also gets you a day of driver training at a BMW Performance Center.

If you want a traditional manual gearbox BMW still offers one (yay!), but you’ll have to settle for the regular M3 (boo!). The Competition model’s transmission features a torque converter instead of a dual-clutch setup, which sounds like a step backwards in such a high-performance car, but trust me, it’s perfectly fine. Providing the best of both worlds, this unit shifts with lightning speed when you’re wildin’ out, yet it will happily slur each gearchange when slogging through traffic.

You shouldn’t be concerned about fuel economy in a car like this, but if you’re morbidly curious, the Comp stickers at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. Combined, it’s rated by the EPA at 19 mpg, exactly the same as the standard M3. In real-world use I’m actually beating that average. According to the car, it’s returning around 22 mpg, which means I’m being way too gentle.

Sharp but muted

Matching its well-honed drivetrain, the M3 Comp’s other dynamic elements mostly feel cut from the same cloth. The car’s electronically controlled shock absorbers, which offer myriad adjustments, react in milliseconds and can infinitely vary damping force. In comfort mode, the M3’s softest setting, its ride quality has plenty of starch, though it’s still livable. Things get far stiffer when you switch to Sport or especially the Sport Plus setting.

The M3 Competition’s steering wheel rim is thicc with two C’s.


Craig Cole/Roadshow

The Competition’s brake feel has two driver-selectable settings: grabby and purse-snatcher. Yes, the pedal controlling this car’s optional M Carbon Ceramic brakes, which cost a whopping $8,150, is touchy to say the least. On the plus side, these binders should provide nearly inexhaustible amounts of stopping power, but unless you live life a quarter mile at a time or spend every Saturday at your local road course where you can really exercise them, save your money. The standard brakes should be perfectly fine for normal use and even track-day fun.

The M3 Competition’s steering is quick and heavy, but also very synthetic, something Roadshow managing editor Steven Ewing mentioned in his review of the standard model. “The speed-sensitive, variable-ratio setup means the M3 turns in quickly and instantly responds to changes in direction, but the whole experience is lifeless,” he wrote, and the same applies to the Competition model. The car feels strung out on stimulants, yet there’s almost no feel coming up from the road surface to your palms. The M3’s steering wheel is also comically thick, at least 20% too meaty. Look, I love a chunky wheel, but this is like trying to control the car while gripping a pool noodle.

Those gummy Michelins and the beautiful, staggered-size wheels (19-inchers up front and 20s at the rear) they’re wrapped around provide loads of traction and help the Comp feel incredibly balanced. The steering may be dull, but the car feels lively, like you can easily make it rotate with a tap of your right foot. One downside to those tires, however, is they transmit loads of noise to the interior no matter what surface you’re driving on.

It’s complicated…

Inside, BMW Live Cockpit Professional is standard equipment. This includes a huge 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a head-up display that’s 70% larger than before as well as a 10.3-inch panel on the dashboard. Conveniently, this central screen is touch-enabled but you can also operate it via a control knob on the console.

The M3 Competition features iDrive 7, an exceedingly speedy infotainment system. Seriously, this setup is basically ready to go as soon as you open the door, turning on instantaneously. Swift as it may be, this multimedia array is, unfortunately, far from intuitive. There’s a metric ton of functionality crammed in there. Thankfully, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, though the car had a hell of a time trying to connect to my iPhone ($900 at Boost Mobile). It took about five tries and a restart of the vehicle before the two devices were able to communicate with each other.

This BMW’s interior is roomier than you might expect and it’s pretty luxurious. 


Craig Cole/Roadshow

If you love customizing every little aspect of your cosplay outfit, you’ll adore this BMW. Beyond iDrive, the M3 Competition has waaaaay more settings to tinker with. The M Mode button on the center console allows you to rifle through a few preset driving modes. The transmission has six adjustments (three in drive and three in manual mode) so you can change how it performs. Tap the Setup button near the iDrive knob and it activates a menu where you can tweak the engine’s performance, the chassis stiffness, braking feel, steering weight and, when fitted with the $900 M Drive Professional package, even how aggressive the traction-control system is (there are 10 different levels). Being able to fine-tune all these parameters is neat, but it doesn’t really add to the driving experience — rather, it feels gimmicky.

As for other tech, BMW’s Active Driving Assistant is standard. This suite of handy helpers includes forward collision alert, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, front and rear parking sensors and perhaps the most responsive automatic high beams I’ve ever experienced. Cruise control is standard, though adaptive cruise is not. To get this ever-helpful feature, you have to spend an extra $1,700 for the Driving Assistance Professional Package.

This M3 tester is also fitted with ventilated front seats, a $350 option and the $3,000 Executive Package, which includes remote engine start, a heated steering wheel, power trunk lid, wireless charging plate, head-up display and a couple other things that should probably be standard on a $74,000 car.

The 2021 BMW M3 Competition is a true driver’s car, even if its steering could be improved. 


Craig Cole/Roadshow

A strong performer but not a great value

Yep, the 2021 BMW M3 Competition starts north of 70 big ones, though it’s only $2,900 richer than the standard M3, which isn’t that bad considering the automatic transmission probably represents a large part of that delta. As it sits, the example I’m testing checks out for a whopping $93,495 including $995 in delivery fees. That figure is padded out by the options mentioned above, plus $1,950 for Tanzanite Blue II Metallic paint, $2,550 for a full Merino leather interior and $300 for the Shadowline Lights, an option that adds darkened inlays to the headlamp assemblies.

The 2021 BMW M3 Competition is a driver’s delight, offering startling speed, a beautifully balanced chassis and enough stopping power to practically break ribs. This car is track-day sharp but still plenty livable thanks to its reasonable ride quality and spacious interior. It’s a shame about the dull steering and overwhelming settings, but hey, at least you can’t see that grille from behind the wheel.

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