M3 4Play: BMW E90 M3 CRT & F80 M3 Driven [review]

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Are the four-door BMW E90 M3 CRT and F80 M3 screaming climaxes or just a passing titillation? We get into the thick of it to find out

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SINGAPORE - Is a four-door any less focused than its coupe counterpart? Driven b@lls-out on a track it might well be, but not be much slower. There’s no denying the insidious cult appeal and stealthy incongruity of a fast four-door ‘Q-car’ sedan. If you're scratching your head now, ‘Q-cars’ take their name from the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Q-ships of the two world wars, which were submarine-killers that took were disguised as innocuous looking merchant ships, albeit equipped with concealed weaponry.

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Q-cars have come to refer to sports-sedans (or even wagons, like Audi’s mad Avant-only RS2 or the T5-R iterations of the Volvo 850) that prima facie look like decent god-fearing Plain Vanilla models. However, they secretly harbour huge firepower that lets them see-off and dispatch more ‘sporty-looking’ contenders who make the mistake of judging a book by its cover. Before the advent of today’s muscular bulging bodywork, cars from a more genteel era saw only the barest of visual differences from the normal variants, save perhaps for a lowered ride height, bigger wheels/tyres/brakes, and in some cases subtle body addenda.

Those were far simpler times of course, since you need to make a huge visual statement to make any kind of impact with today’s consumers. It used to be about debadging and being recognised only by the cognoscenti, where the dynamic talent of a car would more than make up for the price difference between a performance flagship and its more mundane models, but today's consumer zeitgeist seems more skewed towards range-topping sports models for the sake of it, and more importantly, have it look the part so everybody can recognise it for what it is... so that's money well-spent then, innit?

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M3 sedans have always enjoyed an underground appeal, especially since they weren’t a regular phenomenon. In the five generations of the M3, the sedan variants were found only in the E36, E90 and now the F80. The E30 original and E46 M3, which saw the last of the screaming naturally-aspirated inline6 before the E90/92/93 V8s, were never available in sedan guise.

The F80/82/83 don’t just mark a return of the M3 to its inline6 roots (albeit in turbocharged form), BMW has also continued with the sedan form from the E90. In the spirit of innovation, every successive model on the evolutionary scale tends to surpass its best of its predecessors in terms of performance. Having said that, this latest-is-greatest mentality tends to be more prevalent in the context of mass market models. On the other hand, motoring enthusiasts recognise that there is a lot more to sportscars than paper statistics, as straight-line speed and engine performance aren’t always accurate barometers for guaranteed cult car status.

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Even in today’s context of the E9x and F8x M3s, I doubt any car hack would willingly turn down an offer to drive an original E30 M3 Evo, E36 M3 LTW or E46 M3 CSL... or all of the above! Later special editions are no less special and certainly very much faster, but it’s not just nostalgia and whimsy that leads us to actively track down older cars, since there’s an unadulterated feel to these classics that many enthusiasts now realise is being eradicated from the latest electronica.

With the latest F80 M3 in town (until other variants are announced, we’re dropping the ‘sedan’ from its nomenclature: if you haven’t been following BMW’s latest developments, 3s for sedans, 4s for Coupes/Convertibles), it was only fitting that it kicked tyres with the last great four-door from the E9x series – the M3 CRT.

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Liquid Silver - BMW (E90) M3 CRT

Touted as a four-door version of the E92 M3 GTS ‘clubsport’ track-ready road car, the CRT (for Carbon Racing Technology) is a slippery devil  that seems to be an altogether more friendly beast if you judged it purely on its four-doors and rear seats. First off, it’s limited to just 67 units in the world (versus the GTS’ 135 units) and we’re told the right-hand drive tally might be well under ten units, which makes the three or so cars in Singapore part of a very small band of brothers.

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You’d have imagined it would be hard to top the E46 M3 CSL in terms of discretion, but the CRT takes this gentility to extremes – there isn’t even a ‘CRT’ badge on the car.

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Apart from the Frozen Polar Silver paintwork, rear boot-lip extension and Melbourne Red highlights about the front fender gills and bonnet louvres, there’s nothing else to clue one in to the CRT’s limited production credentials, since well, everything good is found inside and under the skin. Best of all, the CRT bits are all bespoke to the car, just like the E46 M3 CSL, and not just the result of raiding a parts bin and bolting-on whatever's within reach.

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It might also upset those enamoured of that garish two-tone look whenever carbonfibre is involved that a great deal of the CRT is indeed made of that lovely motorsports material – it just doesn’t feel the need to blab about it apart from the tasteful visible bits.

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The cabin is awash in Sakhir Orange and the door trim, panels and sill strips are made from a trick-looking aluminium grain structure. There’s a serialised limited edition plaque in front of the passenger but that’s one of the very few concessions to vanity.

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Now on to the good stuff: the front bucket seats are constructed using the same cellular carbon honeycomb process as the i3 and i8 (just look at the gorgeous carbonfibre weave on the seatbacks); the bonnet, boot-lip extension and front under-spoiler are also made of the funky stuff, all in a bid to shed some weight from the car, which incidentally, weighs in at 1580kg. Other weight-saving measures include the CRT’s titanium muffler and reduced sound-proofing.

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The bucket seats are only adjustable for reach, but the rails feature a few different mounting levels for height (of the driver, in my case, not very tall!). Coupled to the Alcantara-clad steering wheel that is adjustable for reach and rake, it’s easy enough to find your perfect ‘attack’ driving position.

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Like all the brand’s focused driving machines, there’s just one properly ‘hard’ mode (think figurative not literal) to the proceedings, and would you really want it any other way? Well, the M-DCT features a full auto mode in case a nancy-boy wants to drive but your favourite drive setting can be recalled using the ‘M’ button on the steering wheel.

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The 4.4-litre V8 at the heart of this beast gives you all the low-end torque you felt the normal 4.0-litre in the 'regular' E9x M3s lacked. However, the most soulful part of the CRT drive is getting her to sing lustily as you wring the operatic engine out to its redline. The steering heft may not feature the strongly weighted feel that is so popular these days, but it’s keen, willing and more than able to translate helm inputs into precise commands to the wheels. Even when cornering hard, there’s always ample communication between the wheel to the driver but most importantly, you can always tell what the car is doing. 

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The engine is immensely elastic and the companion chassis is exceedingly lively, so there’s never any sense of stodginess or unwillingness to perform. The V8 is a product of an earlier time when the challenge to engineers was to eke out maximum performance from naturally-aspirated engines – there’s none of the F8x M3/M4’s explosive rage, but instead, there’s more satisfaction from the measured inputs of steering and accelerator to achieve a more holistic sense of motoring nirvana in the CRT. There’s that same sort of balanced eagerness about the CRT as its GTS sibling that constantly leads you to test its limits.

However, while the CRT enjoys a perfectly carved-out niche appeal that would happily serve daily-drive duties and B-road blasts, its E92 GTS counterpart has the uneviable task of competing against the likes of Porsche's very excellent GT3 and RS cars for the consumer dollar, as well as its AMG contemporary, the C 63 'Black Series'. 

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Blue Steel - BMW (F80) M3
You won’t mistake the 'smurfilicious' Yas Marina Blue M3 for anything other than the performance car it’s meant to be. The aero-functional body-work, bulges and cuts-slashes around the car leave nothing to chance – there’s no anonymity about this latest M3 (sedan) at all. It may not make more power than the CRT, but there’s helluva lot more torque thanks to the turbochargers, which will see it pip the CRT to the 100km/h mark by 0.3 seconds in dual-clutch guise – the 6spd manual takes 4.3secs.

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This might please the numbers brigade, but the truly sporty cars have a lot more in their repertoire than just raw numbers. It’s how the individual components work together with the driver that makes the difference between an involving car and one that just feels fast. True to the brand’s pursuit of intelligent lightweight design measures, the F80 weighs-in at 20kg less than even the CRT. Most notably, even the M3 gets the carbonfibre roof in this generation; previously only the Coupe got it.

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It’s not about just saving weight either, because the M3/M4 are intended to be track-ready, which means an array of cooling measures are present to keep both the M-DCT and turbocharged engine comfortably within safe operating temperatures.

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The cabin sees us wrestle with a load of bells and whistles, but like most new machinery, could have a little too many things to configure. Instead of the CRT’s single M programme, we now have two to play with, which is presumably his and hers pre-sets that can be engaged through the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel. The front seats are supportive and firmly padded for both hard driving and highway cruising, even on the longer trips we took in Germany. There are more concessions to vanity inside, with ‘M’ badging in the instrument cluster and even emblazoned on the seats, which illuminate as you first unlock the car…

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Start-it-up and it’s loud; not in an obnoxious fashion, but angry and shouty enough to keep your neighbours on edge, yet thankfully not so loud as to rile them up into forming a lynch-mob. Unlike the high-revving nature of the V8, the inline6 gives access to its 550Nm from under 2000rpm, which makes light work of daily commutes, and a flex of the right foot is all it takes to transform the car from mundane to manic between one breath to the next. Pedal-to-metal, the shove never lets up till its 7+k redline, with an eye-watering second wave hitting hard mid-way up to this red-line. Despite its prodigious heft, we’d have preferred a more natural feel and communication through the steering wheel, although we reckon it isn’t anything you can’t get used to.

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There’s a sense of the Nissan GT-R in the way the M3 effortlessly shifts itself from point to point, and with all that drive only being sent to the rear wheels via the lightweight CFRP drive shaft (also like the R35 GT-R!), it’s easy enough to get into the mood for some serious hooning! There’s a weight to the steering wheel that provides a meaty heft, but we could have lived with the CRT’s lighter touch, yet more direct and communicative feel.

We had a chance to try both the carbon-ceramic and standard brakes: the former is possibly one of the most feel-some in the business thanks to its ease of use and modulation, especially when you’re really going at it, but of course, the carbon-ceramic brakes aren’t just about braking, they also save on unsprung weight. The standard items too, offer strong braking performance and a natural feel for fast-road feel.

SO WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?

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The F8x model can be optioned to come with all the mod-cons anyone could want, including trim or colours from the Individual or Individual Manufactory programmes, which is something the brand is more keen to push, as opposed to cookie-cutter specifications. It’s all about the consumer these days and it’s no longer enough to expect buyers to lap up whatever spec you deem them worthy of having when there are rivals who are happy to let the buyer have his cake and eat it too. As a complete daily drive package, there are few cars that can cover so much ground as quickly and as comfortably (for five) as the M3 Sedan, since every aspect of the drive experience from the ride to steering and engine performance can be customised to suit the conditions, which helps to make some sense these days when a car is intended to serve multiple functions.

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Of course, it’s always possible to have too much access to too much (torque) too quickly, and this is why the E90 CRT has its share of fans among more old school enthusiasts who appreciate the theatrical event of wringing a highly-tuned naturally-aspirated engine out to its screaming point. Driven in anger, there’s a wonderful fluidity and focus to the CRT’s package that lets you weave, bob and dance through any string of corners. The chassis’ balance is sublime and precision placing is never an issue; also with natural-aspiration, there’s never any second-guessing as to if/when you will get hit with a huge slab of torque mid-corner. The 400cc upsize over the standard M3’s 4.0-litre also gives it noticeably more urge in the low end, but flat-out, this quickly swells into a huge operatic wave of naturally-aspirated V8 goodness. However, love it as we did, all this hard-driving goodness and focus can be too much for many... PHOTOS: ZOTIQ VISUALS / DAVID KHOO

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BMW M3 CRT (E90)
Engine: 4361cc, V8, nat-asp
Power/rpm: 450bhp/8300rpm
Torque/rpm: 440Nm/3750rpm
Transmission: 7spd M-DCT dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 4.4secs
Top speed: 290km/h
Kerbweight: 1580kg
Fuel consumption: 12.7l/100km
CO2: 295g/km

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BMW M3 (F80)
Engine: 2979cc, inline6, biturbo
Power/rpm: 431bhp/5500-7300rpm
Torque/rpm: 550Nm/1850-5500rpm
Transmission: 7spd M-DCT dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 4.1secs
Top speed: 250km/h (electronically limited)
Kerbweight: 1560kg
Fuel consumption: 8.3l/100km
CO2: 194g/km

This feature first appeared in TopGear Singapore #31 (Oct'2014)

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.

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