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Peak Performance

Peak Performance

Posted 26 April 2015   |   1218 views   |   Aviation & Transport   |   Comments (0) There are some who maintain that the E39 M5 and E46 M3 represented a high water mark for M cars. Are they right? And if so, which is the pick of the pair?

Logic dictates that newer is better. That the advancement of science and engineering can only mean improvement in all things, and that each new incarnation of a product will bring refinement and innovation. The Blu-ray will offer better quality than the VCR, for example; the washing machine will be less hassle to use than, say, a mangle and a washtub. 

But this argument is not without its detractors. In the world of music, for example, vinyl is considered by many to deliver a more soulful, authentic sound than the common MP3 file. Books, others contend, offer a feel and a smell that no e-reader can match. But nowhere are the lines in the old-versus-new argument more readily drawn than among car enthusiasts. 

Take BMW M cars. Irrespective of their age, you can’t fail to be impressed by their broad range of talents. Every M car is something to savour. But while some BMW enthusiasts will contend that the latest, most technologically-advanced Ms are the greatest, others feel that there was something of a sweet spot around the turn of the millennium, during which BMW produced two seminal masterpieces that have never quite been bettered by their successors – the E39 M5, and the E46 M3.
That’s quite a statement to make, though, when you consider that those successors have included the E6x and F10 M5s, and the E9x M3. All are mind-blowing bits of kit, with capabilities far in excess of anything anyone could have imagined ten or twenty years ago. How can either of the two older cars compete? Well today, we’re going to find out. We’ve brought both of these legendary BMWs together, to find out whether that argument holds any water –and indeed, whether we can crown a winner between them; the king of kings, so to speak.  But first, let’s try and define what it is about these two that makes them so hallowed. The most obvious factor, as shallow and superficial as it is, is probably styling. Both of these cars were the last pre-Bangle M cars.

There’s no doubting that their successors were notably more divisive cosmetically, and while today the impact Chris Bangle’s flame surfacing had when new has been blunted by time and familiarity, the E39 and E46 share timelessly neat lines that their fussier successors can’t match.

Looks are, of course, subjective, but common consensus among those on our photoshoot was that the M3 is the more rakish of the two, its two-door body, power bulge, wing vents and aggressively flared arches differentiating it from its cooking brethren far more than the M5. For that very reason, though, the M5 is more subtle, its aggression more muted, which is undoubtedly going to suit some more than the ‘in your face’ M3. And indeed, subtlety has always been an M5 hallmark, though it has to be said that the beefy bumpers and quad rear exhausts mean the E39 doesn’t exactly blend in in quite the same way as the E28 or E34 before it.

Inside, however, it becomes harder to split the two cars. Both interiors are extremely similar, both in concept and execution. The design and ergonomics are pitch perfect from the driving seat, these being the last of their respective lines to date to feature the traditional BMW canted dash. But it’s the materials and sense of quality that really stand out. Every touch point in both the E39 and the E46 has a sense of absolute quality; with materials a cut above the later cars in terms of their quality and finish. Every button and stalk offers just the right amount of resistance, the driving positions are perfectly judged, and even the seats are fantastic. Yes, we’re waxing lyrical here, but these two interiors are worth it.
Of course, interiors are all good and well – but the heart of every M car is the driving experience. And it’s here that things start to become fascinating. Because while the untrained observer might imagine that these two M cars from the same era would be similar to drive, with the M5 being simply a bigger version of the M3, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

We jump into the M3 first and instantly the two-door body, black roof lining and hunkered-down driving position betray the fact that this is the more sporting of the two. It’s an impression that only becomes more entrenched once you’re on the move. The controls are well-weighted; the steering, meaty without being overly heavy, and the pedals ideally-positioned and full of feel. It’s as docile as any other 3 – until you reach a stretch of open road, that is. 

Plant your foot with the rev counter reading anything less than about 3000rpm, and you could be forgiven for a brief moment of wondering what all the fuss is about. There’s plenty of torque, but not ballistic levels by modern standards. Brief’s the word, though; keep it pinned, and you’ve barely enough time to form that thought before the double Vanos starts doing its thing. Suddenly the S54 opens up properly, gaining an urgent, hard-edged snarl as it sprints ever more maniacally for the 8000rpm redline. The forward thrust increases seemingly exponentially as the revs build – maximum power doesn’t come until 7900rpm – until the addictive blend of power and noise peaks, leaving you unable to resist grabbing the next gear and repeating the whole show again until
your fuel – or license – runs out.

It’s an engine, in other words, that begs for you to wring its neck. If you want it to come out and play, you have to offer it a bit of commitment; while it’s never anything other than well-mannered, it doesn’t quite give you its all unless you give it yours. But when you do, the rewards are magnificent.

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