BMW knows that M car owners have a lot of aftermarket choices when it comes to upgrading their cars. Instead of sending customers that want to modify their cars elsewhere, why not offer those parts from the factory? Sure, that KW coil-over kit might give you a few seconds on the track, but BMW’s M Performance Parts do potentially the same thing without hurting the factory warranty.
BMW seems to think owners will turn back to the dealer rather than risk it with the aftermarket, so the company expanded its parts offerings with a number items, both for cosmetic and performance-enhancing upgrades. The company invited us out to the Circuit of the Americas Formula One track in Austin, and gave us two straight hours of open track time to see just how much these parts improve the M driving experience.
After a short presentation showing off all the upgrades on the cars we were about to drive, BMW let us loose on track with over a dozen different M2s, M3s, M4s. At least one of every model was equipped with all the M Performance parts available. This way, we could drive the cars equipped with parts back-to-back with cars that were not, and see how much of a difference they made.
BMW asked us to have an instructor ride along for our first few laps to make sure we learned the track and actually knew where to go. That's because Circuit of the Americas (or COTA) is one of the more complex tracks out there, with 20 turns, 133 feet of elevation change, and some seriously fast cornering speeds. Luckily for me, my instructor was Matt Mullins, head of the instructor program at BMW and stunt driver for the most recent BMW Film, The Escape. He gave me a bunch of pointers regarding how to attack some of the track’s tougher bends, and how to use BMW’s traction management to my advantage on corner exit. After three laps with Mullins sitting right seat to make sure I wouldn’t wreck a car, we parked up on pit lane, and he hopped out. From then on, it was open season.
The first car on deck was a standard competition pack-equipped M3. All of the M3s and M4s available that day had the competition package, whether they had M Performance parts installed or not. This was a perfect control car to compare with the upgraded counterparts, as it gives us an idea of what BMW's most famous performance model is capable of. The M dynamic mode's progressive throttle management saved me from a spin more than once, while those optional carbon ceramic brakes slowed my overconfident pace on those first few solo laps with ease. The competition pack’s retuned suspension settings are a serious improvement over the standard car, but it still seems there isn’t enough tire on tap to unlock the powertrain’s maximum potential.
At the limit, the M3’s 3651-pound curb weight makes itself known, and those Michelin Pilot Super Sports—while very good—couldn’t seem to hold up to repeated abuse on the 100-degree track surface. Not surprising, and proof the car wasn’t prepared from the factory for all-out hardcore track sessions. Those limitations didn’t stop it from being incredibly easy to get sideways, though, as I found out near the end of the day.
Up next, the Performance parts-equipped cars. As you can see, BMW offers a variety of cosmetic accessories for the M3 and M4, most of which are made entirely of carbon fiber. Splitters, mirror caps, diffusers, and lip spoilers are just a few of the woven accessories on tap. The rear wing—a single $3000 hand-assembled carbon fiber piece that takes 2-3 days to make—isn’t considered cosmetic, but BMW doesn’t claim any performance gains. If you’d like to stand out at your local BMW Car Club of America meet, M stripes and M Performance decals are also available. Inside is more of the same, with a seemingly endless amount of carbon fiber trim pieces offered.
Where this $112,990 decked-out M3 steps up from its unmodified sibling is how it drives. For M3s and M4s, BMW offers a $1480 adjustable coil-over suspension kit that lowers the car 5-20 millimeters, along with a $5500 wheel and tire package not unlike the setup on the new M4 CS. The setup drops 19 pounds of unsprung weight, and adds super sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. Taking that mass away from the wheels does wonders for response, and the extra grip gives the M3 another breath of capability. Unlike most of the other cars available, this example had a six-speed manual between the seats that, while satisfying to use, didn’t really match well with the rest of the powertrain. The 444-horsepower 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six is quick to rev, and required constant shifting to keep in boost. The M4 is pretty similar, minus the rear doors, obviously. If you’re planning on tracking your M3 or M4, get the dual-clutch. Your hardcore enthusiast friends might call you out, but trust me, you'll enjoy yourself a lot more.
After a few sessions in the flagship M-cars, I grabbed a blue, DCT-equipped M2 to feel out the company's smallest model on the big, wide F1 track. Though it’s only around 100 pounds lighter than its bigger siblings, the M2 is much more eager to turn in, especially through the back-to-back esses after turn one. The shorter wheelbase gives a more neutral setup, with sincere predictability. At 365 horsepower, the M2 was noticeably slower once the track straightened out, but overall, it’s a much better package.
Unlike any of the bigger M cars, you can’t option BMW’s gold-caliper carbon ceramic brake system on the M2, meaning at the end of some of the bigger straightaways, there was some noticeable vibration coming through the pedal—but somehow, not much fade. Pretty impressive stuff considering the weight, and the fact these cars were being beaten on for several sessions before I even got in. But it was only after I got a chance behind the wheel of the M Performance parts M2 that I found out how truly great the cheapest M car can be on track.
This car was fully decked out with pretty much every M2 part you can buy from BMW. Those decals, an exhaust, that previously-mentioned wheel and tire set, and a $2670 manually adjustable coil-over suspension were all included, as well as a collection of interior and exterior trim pieces. Combined with those standard flared fenders and snarly face, this M2 looked like one serious machine. And at a total cost of $75,175 with everything included, it better.
On track, this M2 was by far the most enjoyable choice among the swarms of different M cars available. Equipped with the Cup 2 tires, this car’s neutral handling shined, giving buckets of confidence through every corner of the track. Its predictability was unmatched, and with all of the traction systems turned off, the electronic limited-slip differential was able to sort out full-throttle corner exits nicely. It’s the car I’d take home if given the chance, hands-down.
That’s not to say the cars were perfect, though. Neither this M2 nor any of the other Ms available had much steering feel, no matter what drive mode the cars set the car to. The weighting increases as the modes go from Comfort, to Sport, to Sport+, but the lack of feedback remains constant. The M2's auto rev-matching can't be turned off unless all the traction systems are shut off, meaning you'd have to risk it all to practice your heel-toe action, which isn't the best for someone learning on track, where traction control could be helpful in case you can't catch a slide. And while the $4400 M Performance exhaust certainly makes the M2, M3, and M4 louder, I wouldn’t necessarily call it better. Maybe save that cash for a few sets of race pads and high-temp brake fluid instead.
From the factory, BMW’s M cars are still true to form. They can comfortably bring you to work every day on the street, and as we've experienced, make you smile on track. They may not have the great-sounding naturally aspirated V8s and V10s of the last generation, but as performance cars, there’s few that can match their duality. BMW’s new OEM parts take it another step, offering true track-rats that extra bit of performance, and a manufacturer-backed quality guarantee. Personally, I'd skip the try-hard cosmetic pieces—but the performance stuff? That's the real deal. If you're willing to spend the money, BMW's accessories will be hard to stay away from.