BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — I stand on the gas pedal for what must be the hundredth time of the day, pressing my toe in just a little bit harder to get past the full-throttle detent built into the travel. My slight annoyance at this tiny inhibitor to flat-foot applications bubbles up again. This is a BMW M3 Competition, dammit. If I put my foot down, that means I want it all.
I gently lift my foot before the road turns skyward, then crests and falls back down into a tight left-hander. A quick brush of the stiff brake pedal is all that’s necessary to scrub some speed and get the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires through the corner without protest. The road climbs higher, and I’m constantly moving the steering wheel left and right at the endless twists and turns. Only in these especially narrow and tight sections do I wish for a smaller, lighter car, perhaps even one with less power. Uncorking this engine and using all 7,200 rpm in especially technical parts of this road is like smacking the extra-boost button at an inopportune time in a video game. You simply can’t use it all.
However, I’m at a place where there are plenty of opportunities to use all 503 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque in this 2021 BMW M3 Competition: the Indiana Nürburgring. Don’t laugh. It’s legit. The locals even named it the Schweinefiletring due to the number of pork tenderloin restaurants in the area. OK, you can laugh at that bit.
Buried in southern Indiana is this long, patched-together lap of squiggly, fun roads. Drawn together on a map, the resulting shape resembles the Nürburgring — seriously, check it out. The green forest crowds either side of the winding pavement, like the Nürburgring. Elevation changes are constant and oftentimes abrupt, like the Nürburgring. Most of it is in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, also like the Nürburgring. This set of roads is the best you’ll find in the Midwest, bar none. Hocking Hills in Ohio is good, but I promise you the pork tenderloin ‘ring is better.
If it weren’t for travel restrictions and caution over Covid-19, there’s a good chance someone at Autoblog would've driven the new M3 on the actual Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany. Packing up and heading out on a four-hour road trip to Indiana sounds much less romantic, but consider this: The Schweinefiletring is 175 miles long with plenty of detours along the way. Germany’s Nürburgring is only 12.9 miles long, and the brochure says nothing about track-side pork restaurants.
Upon leaving Bloomington, Ind. (the most logical starting point along the route), things get a little dicey. Morning temperatures hovering around 50 degrees means less stiction for those meaty summer tires, making grip hard to come by. Add a little dampness to the pavement from an overnight rain, and slashing through the road at speed is more scary than fun. BMW’s traction-control system helps matters by keeping big slides in check, but the wide rear end dances around no matter how gentle I am on the throttle.
After a quick stop for some breakfast at the aptly named OoeyGooey Cinnamon Rolls and So Much More in Nashville, Ind., the sun is fully up, and the M3 is a happy fella.
For the first 45 minutes of switchbacks, it would’ve been nice to have the M3 Competition’s optional xDrive all-wheel-drive, but for the rest of the day, I’m thankful to be in a proper rear-drive version. And on the topic of purity, it’s time to address the eight-speed automatic transmission that is exclusively paired with the more powerful and significantly more torquey Competition model of the M3 and M4. It’s clear from the first paddle pull that this traditional torque-converter ZF-supplied transmission is not as snappy or engaging as the dual-clutch seven-speed it replaces. Even if shifts are seamless and without interruption in auto mode, smacking the paddles simply isn’t as crisp an experience as before. That said, I’d also argue this is the best version of the astoundingly good ZF eight-speed in any performance luxury car today. The difference is in shift feel, not necessarily shift speed and overall performance.
Throughout the rest of the day, I’m largely shuffling through third, fourth and fifth gears. First and second are basically just spin cycles, and only in third do the 285-section-width rear tires manage to start capably applying all 479 pound-feet of torque to the road. From 35 mph on up, the M3 Competition pulls nearly as hard as a Porsche 911 Turbo. Its effective acceleration is going to make you question BMW’s claimed 3.8-second 0¬–60 mph time. Only 503 horsepower? Really? The non-Competition M4 felt damn quick, but the extra 73 pound-feet of torque is what hits so hard in this M3 Competition.
Where that torque hits is another big differentiator between the base and Competition models. The 2,750-5,500-rpm peak torque range in the Competition looks relatively narrow on paper, but it doesn’t feel it. Thrust smacks early and remains consistently brutal throughout the rev band. Meanwhile in the base M3/M4, the wider peak torque bounds — 2,650-6,130 rpm — comes closer to the feeling of a naturally aspirated engine where acceleration gradually increases as rpms rise. More engaging? Absolutely. But there’s no doubt the Competition’s engine is more effective at whisking you down the road from any rpm.
I get into a rhythm once the tires warm up. Rolling farmland whips by as the exhaust bellows out its guttural scream. It echoes through the forested sections where foliage presses in on the roads. They’re stunning in the fall, but seeing everything so freshly alive and coming back to life after winter is nearly as satisfying. A sign reads “high motorcycle crash zone.” I’m not surprised. This 25-mile section of road is full of blind crests leading into tight corners, and there’s seemingly no let-up.
I’m having a ball with the M3, but the occasional hard braking zone keeps reminding me that an M2 would be even more fun. The M3 Competition weighs 3,890 pounds now. That may be 455 pounds lighter than today’s M5, but it's only 122 pounds lighter than an E60 M5 from 11 years ago. And that wasn't a small car – it even had a V10. So there’s no doubt that today’s M3 is more like yesterday’s M5 than ever, but despite the extra weight and swollen dimensions, it’s still a light and playful M3 at heart. Today’s epic 617-horsepower M5 Competition can be tossed around, but it’s more of a grand tourer — a completely different experience than this M3.
I get braver with the go-pedal through corners in the hot afternoon, and the M3 responds with beautiful predictability. Some of the steering weighting complaints I had with the M4 are whittling away the longer I drive. All of the separate strings — throttle, steering, traction control — are acting as one to make driving the M3 quickly a holistic experience. Those electric systems are synced together beautifully in a way that provides a deeper connection to the car. Inputs equal instant and precise outputs, and the car chats more than any other recent BMW does. The chassis gracefully leans in and out of sweepers. Small squiggles of black rubber are left on the trailing end of tighter corners. Even the brake-by-wire setup doesn’t leave me out in the cold when it comes to braking-pressure modulations and pedal feel.
About 100 miles into the route, I pull off to check out the Williams Covered Bridge, thinking I’ll stop for a break. But to my surprise, I don’t need one. Some performance cars wear you out, leaving you sweating and mentally beaten; this one doesn’t. It’s easy and accessible fun. Even the ride is agreeable — the five-hour commutes back and forth to Michigan were painless and pleasant. The standard seats are comfortable with big enough bolsters for this kind of driving. No modern luxuries are missing, just as it should be in the do-everything M3. The loud tire roar is the only thing that’ll keep your passengers from snoozing.
After I exit the last especially thrilling stretch of road, I make a stop at the Salt Creek Brewery. They serve beers out of an old garage, undoubtedly to the many car enthusiasts who make the pilgrimage down for the Schweinefiletring rally each year where hundreds run the same route I just did. It's a nice spot, perfectly in character with the German-themed day I’ve been having so far. After purchasing of a few cans for later, I get back onto the road.
There’s one more 30-mile stretch that isn’t included in the official Nürburgring loop, but I’ve been down here enough times to know it’s not to be missed. State Route 43 — consider it the Nordschleife-Plus. Many of the elevation changes here are so abrupt you’ll be wishing for GT3-like downforce to keep the car glued down over crests. The M3 obliges by staying planted and friendly. Miles of empty land surrounds, but the road is full of sharp 90-degree corners, hairpins and wide-open stretches in between that are just begging you to pin the throttle. It’s perfect for the M3. All of BMW’s best qualities are on display here, just as I assume they'd be on Germany’s Nürburgring. The lack of civilization leaves room to be a little uncivilized with the M3, and it’s up for the task as though it didn’t just spend the last eight hours hanging out around redline. There surely will be spicier versions of the M3 during this G20 generation — a CS and maybe a GTS, too — but it’s hard to imagine wanting for any more speed and performance on the road than what the Competition already provides.
I finish the day on that hot streak. Trundling back into Bloomington feels a bit like rolling back into the paddock after some hard lapping. I get out and take another good look at the nose that I’ve been staring at during photo stops throughout the day. It’s taken time, a dark blue paint job and much thought, but I’m now fully onboard with the new M3/M4 grilles. The vertical twin kidneys work better on the more upright and flamboyant M3 sedan than they do on the sleek M4 coupe, and the rest of the car follows with its flared hips and gorgeously intricate Competition wheel design. I’m pretty sure a day on Indiana’s Nürburgring in the M3’s driver seat will have anyone turning into a full M3 believer, too. It’s worth the drive, and the M3 Competition is worth its admission price.
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