2021 BMW M3 First Look: Big Grille, Big Power

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Good news, stick-shift enthusiasts: The 2021 BMW M3 comes standard with a six-speed manual gearbox. That’s right, the German brand’s iconic sports sedan refuses to give in to peer pressure and nix the row-it-yourself transmission from its features list. In other words, BMW listened to its enthusiast fanbase. 

Alas, the company opted to ignore the cries of dismay caused by the tall and narrow kidney grilles found on the 2021 4 Series. Rather than limit the large nostrils to the 3 Series sedan’s lower-slung sibling, BMW went right ahead and applied them to the new M3. Is this a sign of what’s to come for the run-of-the-mill 3 Series? We hope not. If the previous M3 is anything to go by, though, it’s likely the latest M3 will serve as the sole 3 Series variant to share its schnoz with its 4 Series counterparts, including its all-new 2021 M4 mechanical sibling.

2021 BMW M3: Big Mouth Strikes Again

BMW notes the M3’s large grille serves more than a styling purpose, as the openings are “designed to feed the massive amount of air needed for fulfilling the cooling requirements under the most rigorous conditions.” That bodes well for M3 fans who care more about driving the high-powered sedan than ogling or debating its exterior design. 

Like its X3 M and X4 M crossover stablemates, the 2021 M3 utilizes BMW’s S58 twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. In its standard M3 form, the straight-six pumps out 473 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. The former figure matches that of the X3 M and X4 M, while the latter falls short by 36 lb-ft due to the limitations of the M3’s standard six-speed stick. Even so, the rear-drive sedan remains properly quick, with BMW claiming a 4.1-second sprint to 60 mph and a top speed of 180 mph with the M Driver’s package (without it, the car tops out at 155 mph). 

Those in search of additional power can always opt for the M3 Competition. Available exclusively with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Competition kit blesses the sedan with a stable of 503 horses and 479 lb-ft of torque. The extra grunt helps the model scoot to 60 mph in a manufacturer-claimed 3.8 seconds. The achievable top speeds, however, remain the same as the standard car.

2021 BMW M3: Competition Spec

Choosing the Competition model also gives the M3 additional black exterior trim details, M-specific seatbelts, and a transmission oil cooler to complement the standard engine oil cooler. It also affords buyers the option to tack on BMW’s M xDrive all-wheel-drive system.

Despite the addition of a front differential, BMW promises all-wheel-drive M3 Competitions ought to offer all the thrills of its rear-drive kin. And so the AWD system has a rear-drive bias, as well as the torque-vectoring capabilities of the system’s standard Active M rear differential. Three drive modes are available: the default 4WD, sportier 4WD Sport, and drift-worthy 2WD. As its name implies, 4WD Sport builds on 4WD by directing more power to the rear wheels in dynamic driving situations. Meanwhile, 2WD lives up to its name by directing all of the engine’s power to the rear wheels. Accessing this mode requires the driver to disable the car’s stability control.

This also enables the driver to take advantage of the new M Drift Analyzer also available in rear-drive cars, which rates the quality of your drift by recording the line, angle, and distance covered. It’s part of the M Drive Professional suite of functions that also includes M Laptimer, which places lap and split times, among other information, in the gauge cluster screen and head-up display; the car records additional data during a session that can then be exported to an iPhone app for further analysis.  

Regardless of trim, transmission, or drivetrain, every 2021 M3 boasts a long list of model-specific features aimed at optimizing its on-track performance. Alongside its gaping grille, various openings within the lower fascia feed additional air to the likes of the car’s standard front-mounted 15.0-inch rotors and six-piston calipers, painted in blue (black or red paint is optional). Those front units are complemented by 14.6-inch rotors and single piston calipers at the rear. Drivers looking for additional braking performance can opt for a set of carbon ceramics that feature gold-painted calipers and massive 15.7-inch rotors at the front and 15.0-inch plates at the rear.

For better or worse, the latest M3 employs brake-by-wire technology, which relies on an electric actuator to apply pressure to the brakes in response to inputs made to the brake pedal itself. As such, BMW’s able to offer the M3 with two brake pedal settings: Comfort and Sport. We’ll need to spend time behind the wheel of the new car to determine if either mode offers the feel we typically desire from a well-tuned mechanically connected brake pedal but having sampled BMW’s adjustable brake feel before, it seemed like a novelty where each setting was perfectly acceptable on its own. 

2021 BMW M3: Large and in Charge

Additional dynamic capability comes courtesy of the M3’s 74.3-inch width, which betters that of the standard 3 Series by 2.4 inches. Better yet, BMW notes the new car’s track is 1.5 inches wider than that of its predecessor. Thanks to its girthier fenders, the M3 comes standard with a set of 275-mm wide 18-inch front tires and 285-mm wide 19-inch rears (19-inch front and 20-inch rears are optional), which work with additional chassis bracing and standard adaptive dampers that offer Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings to bestow the sedan with superior handling over lesser 3 Series models. 

That said, the latest M3 is a good deal portlier than its forebear. At 3,840 pounds (add 50 pounds to the automatic-only Competition trim), the German brand’s small sports sedan weighs 265 pounds more than the prior model according to BMW’s numbers, and that’s with the standard carbon-fiber roof panel in place. Opt for the no-cost sunroof and the 2021 M3 surely tips the scales even further.

2021 BMW M3: Inner Beauty?

In contrast to the car’s front end, the cabin of the 2021 M3 is rather subdued. Building on the style of the run-of-the-mill 3 Series sedan’s innards, the M3 adds a variety of model-specific buttons to the center console and steering wheel, distinct menus to its 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, and a racy set of leather-lined front seats with backlit badges and large bolsters. A set of optionally available carbon-fiber bucket seats shed 21 pounds relative to the standard units, afford an even lower seating position, have slots for racing harnesses, and add an extra dose of style to the cabin.

In spite of its sporting intentions, the M3 is still a luxury car at heart, and it predictably comes standard with niceties such as LED head- and taillights, an in-dash navigation system, parking sensors, a proximity key, a Harman/Kardon audio system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and various modern safety features including automatic high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. While the likes of a head-up display system, heated steering wheel, and front-ventilated seats are optional across the board, only the M3 Competition is available with convenience items such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering.

2021 BMW M3: The Price of Power

Look for the 2021 BMW M3 to reach showrooms in March 2021 with a base price of $70,895 for the manual model; should you opt for the self-shifting Competition trim, plan to drop at least $73,795. Although BMW’s mum on pricing for the Competition’s optional all-wheel-drive system, the company notes these versions will arrive in the summer of 2021. Admittedly, getting into the new M3 certainly requires a sizable chunk of change, but its price is not far off those of the previous model or of the 469-hp 2020 Mercedes-AMG C 63 and 503-hp C 63 S, which come in at $69,095 and $76,695.

The 2021 BMW M3’s sheet metal might not exactly be pretty to behold, but its standard six-speed manual gearbox, surely scintillating performance, and impressive feature set might add up to a beautiful beast anyway. And besides, where else—besides the M4—are you going to get an onboard Drift Analyzer?

2021 BMW M3 Specifications
PRICE $70,895-$73,795
LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD/AWD*, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 3.0L/473-503-hp/406-479-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual, 8-speed auto
CURB WEIGHT 3,850-3,900 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 112.5 in
L x W x H 189.1 x 74.3 x 56.4 in
0-60 MPH 3.8-4.1 sec (mfr est)
EPA FUEL ECON Not yet rated
ON SALE March 2021
*M xDrive available on Competition models summer 2021.

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