I was at the Texas World Speedway this weekend for a couple days of track sessions. My fun with the M5 was cut short when one of my front tires corded on the first day. I feverishly called around for replacements (it was 4pm on a Saturday and options were narrowing fast) with no luck.
A fellow member of the BMW Club of Dallas with a brand new 2002 M3 with 3100 miles was there and entrusted me with his car to finish the rest of my sessions the next day. (Thanks Cyril !!)
After a day at the track with my M5 and a day with an M3, some thoughts:
It was a Carbon Black with red interior and a manual 6-speed. Although I would have been thrilled with an SMG model, the manual allowed for a better M5 comparison. The shifter was precise; dare I say better feeling than the M5's? The clutch was less "sudden" in its engagement and disengagement. The seats' variable side bolsters (via air bladders) were a nice touch. The steering was fine, but on the lighter side of fine. And oh in case you have not heard, the engine sounds awesome at full tilt.
It handled quite well (duh!), with a healthy dose of understeer. It kept pretty good composure through the tighter stuff with very little tailing out, which you could induce with more throttle....but nothing like the M5's sideways tendencies. I knew it was quite a bit lighter than the M5, but 500 pounds off of a very heavy car and you still have a heavy car. I guess I expected too much here; the M3 certainly IS a hefty auto.
Although I tried my best to not late-brake, the car is very capable in the stopping category and almost fade free. The engineers did a good job of keeping everything in proportion, just like the M5. Only problem with the M5 is its extra bulk stresses the poor brakes to fade quite a bit sooner. Pedal feel was perhaps a bit more responsive than the M5's but not much.
The M3's torque surprised me. There was plenty of torque on tap at lower RPM's and it came on pretty evenly and smoothly. Something that the M5 spoils you with, but a 3.2 liter normally aspirated engine? Before driving it, I tried to guess which turns I'd want to downshift for to be able to power out well. Granted I wasn't driving his car at 10/10th's, I could leave it 4th gear for much of track and have satisfactory acceleration like I might of in the M5. Keeping it in 3rd gear and a high rev range would of been fun but not necessary. Well done BMW ///M.
The car was equipped with Michelin Pilot Sports, just like my M5. The grip seems comparable to the M5. This I cannot explain because with the extra body roll from my stock suspension M5 shifting more weight around in the corners...shouldn't the relatively roll-free M3 have better grip? The difference in the two cars' tire dimensions is the only thing I can think of....but then there's the weight difference.
I can tell you that the tires wore much better at the track than in the M5. No matter what pressure I try in the M5, I get too much wear on the tires' shoulders. I attribute this to weight.
Overall it's a Beast Jr. with body roll dialed out from the factory. The M3 is undoubtedly better suited for a road circuit. Since I only track my car 5 or so times year, I'm perfectly happy to stick with Beast Sr. because of its nicer interior, higher feature content and V8 grunt. Besides, there is a Dinan authorized shop less than 10 minutes away who would be glad to fit a Stage3 suspension if I find myself wanting it.