Weird technophiles are always speculating that we live in a simulation. Inspiring nobody but the most hopeless of nihilists, the hypothesis holds that our reality and the fundamental rules governing it are an artificial creation so elaborate that we could have no way of knowing. It’s existential nonsense that’s barely worth the oxygen.
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But for the first time, I’ve felt that they might be right.
The BMW M3 Competition xDrive is a sport sedan that seems to fracture reality. Here is a physical experience so forceful that one can flirt with mortality at any chosen moment, yet so planted that injury never comes. And for all that sensory overload, a driver would be at such a loss to explain the experience that one can fathom no other worldly explanation for the dissonance.
Of course, the M3 Competition isn’t actually an immersive simulation. It’s a real, tangible entity present in and bound by the same realities as anything else. But by its modernization and aggressive physicality, the dissonance of the experience is jarring.
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Since growing into a sedan, the M3 has maintained a place at the enthusiast table. But where it was once the fun version of a light economy coupe, today’s M3 is an exercise in outright German muscle. Weighing a moderate 1,810 kg (2,260 gross), the 2022 M3 Competition xDrive lays down an obscene 503 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque. That’s good for a supercar-matching acceleration figure of 3.5 seconds, on the way to a 290 km/h top speed.
This isn’t just muscle in the boorish, crowd-mulching American sense either: BMW’s M team has bitten deep into the tech to maximize that power’s utility, enabling drivers to point and power forth without the inefficiencies of wheelspin or hitting curbs. As a result, the platform is stretching into supercar performance, as was demonstrated when the M3’s platform-sibling G82 M4 Competition posted a faster Nürburgring time than even the Lexus LFA Nür, Zonda F, or Koenigsegg CCX.
The introduction of available all-wheel drive will be a point of contention for RWD M3 diehards, but BMW has done this right. Not content to bolt a transfer case on and call it a day, the M xDrive accommodates its powered front end with its own tuned geometry, as well as revised steering ratios to balance the circle-widening effects typical of AWD adaptations. The xDrive transfer case has also been revised for thermal efficiency under load, ensuring consistent tractive performance under heavy use.
Rear-drive purists can disengage the front axle at will, and this ability may prove critical in justifying the xDrive path to shoppers. More than just benefitting off-the-line traction and pulling through corners, adding all-wheel drive to such a powerful vehicle makes it more effective and controllable through more of the year. Driving the Competition in the deep snows of Toronto’s great blizzard of 2022, I appreciated the confidence afforded and the associated ease of applying more of the M3’s novel power. And thanks to that rear bias, I was still able to enjoy plenty of rear-end fun with the predictable controllability of all-wheel traction when it came time to straighten out.
For all its power, the M3 xDrive is as scary as it is approachable. The joy of feeling muscles tense with every threatening chassis rotation is underwritten by accurate, intuitive response. And as disappointingly numb as the electric steering is — remember, steering weight is not roadfeel — it is fabulously precise and so very manageable. Even as a manual-steering traditionalist, I’m finding myself with a begrudging respect for these systems.
It’s objectively remarkable, yet like a TV show interpolated to 60 frames per second, something feels off. Even on winter tires, the car darts and holds around potholes without blinking — but also without the gratification of tactile response. There’s a tickle to your sensory processing that suggests something is amiss, yet without any firmly identifiable, objective fault. Drivers are present and feel all of the good vibrations, but with no sense of how any of it is happening.
More contentious, however, is how it shifts. The M3 Competition models are only available with the venerable ZF 8-speed automatic transmission, though ‘regular’ M3s can still be ordered with a snappy three-pedal setup. While it is an understandable engineering decision given the Comp’s heavy torque load and the xDrive’s AWD requirements, it stings at a sensitive moment. The sunsetting of manual transmissions is drawing enthusiast demand ever higher while they’re still available, and this absence at the very top of the range will likely turn some enthusiast eyes to the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing.
Beyond the bewilderingly synthetic driving experiences, there are unique realities to consider.
Superficially, living with the M3 broke my usual behaviour, and I made a habit of parking the G80 nose-in. This serves several functions in the new M3: it allows the driver to appreciate the car’s imposing rear on approach while simultaneously saving them the disappointment of seeing the two-storey grille. More than this, such positioning saves neighbours from seeing what a hideously grilled car you’ve purchased. Yes, the face is still bad and BMW should feel bad.
Still, the cynical refrain holds true: you don’t have to see it from behind the wheel. And fortunately, behind the wheel is a pretty nice place to be for more than just the drive. Cabin experience has never been one of BMW’s strengths, but finally, after decades of drab black-plastic disappointment, BMW has designed something rousing. The dash is a shapely bit of sculpture, making effective use of contrasting materials and glossy carbon fibre. A carbon-faced pop-up panel conceals cupholders and a snug wireless charging pad, letting eyes fall to the smattering of controls surrounding the M drive selector. The digital gauge layouts are gimmicky but responsive, though the option of more conventional dial graphics would be appreciated.
Better still, this M3 is equipped with electronically adjustable M Carbon Bucket seats. These unyielding buckets are aggressively bolstered, with pneumatic sides that hug and a centre post that keeps thighs spread and braced. Fabulously supportive under cornering forces, these seats are a crowd-pleaser but are admittedly better tailored to the able-bodied, aggressive enthusiast than to the everyday driver. Climbing in and out is an awkward and uncomfortable process, and as enthusiastically as I welcomed them for my week with the Competition, that novelty may sour in the long term.
With this in mind, note that these seats are likely to prove a valuable option for later resale — especially if this turns out to be the last of the non-hybrid M3s. The $8,500 carbon pack isn’t an easy pill, but come on — you’re spending $100k on a 3 Series. Likewise, non-Comp M3 shoppers would do well to consider specifying a manual while they still can — it’s a fading experience that future generations will clamour for.
It’s not a sensible car by reasonable measure — not least of all at a $90,800 MSRP and 12.7 L/100 km combined (good luck keeping yourself close to that) economy rating on 93 octane. As tested, the desirable $6,550 Premium Package and a steep $2,480 destination charge lifts this carbon-equipped M3 Competition xDrive to $110,475.
The great question, then, is what to do with all of this. The M3 Competition may still just be a sedan in form, but it’s become a David to estate-agent supercars’ Goliath. It gets places in a hurry, and with a shameless sense of occasion. The M3 Competition xDrive is a remarkable vehicle, and as expensive as it is, this matching of performance and utility almost seems a bargain.
But without conventional feedback — and at such a digital pace — what’s lost in the translation of its thrills is the journey there. It’s the precision of clicking a computer mouse and excitement of whatever result that brings, but with the equally limited satisfaction of a mere button-press. This is not to say that the G80 is boring. Inputs lack emotion, but the M3’s outputs genuinely exhilarate in different ways. It’s a world apart from the brand’s old enthusiast standards, and it takes some getting used to on its own terms.
Its driving dynamics might feel simulated, but the merits of the 2022 M3 Competition xDrive are assuredly real. All-wheel drive is an understandable hangup on a car of such storied RWD lineage, but the M3 does a stand-up job of answering the everyday and enthusiast use-cases alike. Enjoyed for what it is, the M3 is a welcome presence in this late chapter of the internal-combustion era.
Look past the face and acknowledge its brash elegance. It’s not M3 as we’ve known it, but its new high-tech, high-output flavour steps the model in a direction that I can’t help but appreciate.