Street Legal…and Sold Out

To celebrate the M3’s 25th anniversary, BMW let us loose at Ascari in the limited-production M3 GTS. With each of 150 examples already sold, it was an extra-special day in a superlative BMW.

Photo: Street Legal…and Sold Out 1
August 24, 2010

For the M3’s 25th anniversary, BMW has given itself and 150 customers a very special present, a car that every track day enthusiast would be happy to have in the garage. The new M3 GTS is, in effect, a street-legal race car, at least in Europe. As such, it’s an E92 M3 whose weight has been reduced, reflexes sharpened, ride height lowered and aerodynamics improved.

It’s also an E92 M3 whose motor has been modified to produce another 30 horsepower and 30 lb-ft of torque—numbers that can’t do justice to just how special this eight-cylinder powerplant truly is.

The heart of any car is its motor, and the GTS uses the naturally aspirated S65 V8 already well known to those familiar with the current M3. Here, however, stroke has been increased from 75.2 to 82.0mm via new pistons and rods, bumping displacement from 3,999cc to 4,361cc even as bore remains the same at 92.0mm.

The steel crankshaft remains as original, as does the S65’s 12.0:1 compression ratio, but each of the two twin-cam cylinder heads have been ported and polished. A modified intake system improves gas flow into the cylinders, and spent gases are extracted via new headers and downpipes, more efficient primary metal catalytic converters and the beautifully crafted, ultralight Akrapovic titanium muffler, whose distinctive acoustic signature contributes mightily to the beefier, more intoxicating exhaust note of the GTS.

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With the fuel and ignition curves in the ECU remapped to take all these mechanical changes into account, power goes from 420 hp at 8,300 rpm to 450 hp at the same engine speed, while torque increases from 295 lb-ft at 3,900 rpm to 325 lb-ft at 3,750 rpm.

Zero to 62 mph tumbles by 0.2 seconds to 4.4 seconds, the standing kilometer (0.6214 miles) is covered in 22.5 seconds instead of 23.3 and the unlimited top speed goes up to an impressive 189.5 mph from a restricted 155 mph.

One of the truly great engines

As impressive as those numbers are, they don’t tell the whole story. To say that the change in the engine’s character is spectacular would be an understatement.

I have long thought that the standard M3’s S65 felt a tad restricted. This is partly down to the 3,476-lb. weight of the car, and partly because the 4.0-liter motor has to rev out some to deliver its torque. Even blipping the throttle at rest gave the impression that the flywheel could be lighter.

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All these reservations are booted out the door the moment you press the Start button on the GTS dashboard. The bigger engine explodes into life with an exhaust note that really turns heads. Blip the throttle and revs rise and fall instantly—just like you would expect of a race car motor. Yet even though BMW carved a few pounds of excess mass from the flywheel, the tetchy behavior that often comes along with a lightweight flywheel simply does not arise thanks to the refined digital motor electronics and the seven-speed DCT transmission.

Coming off the start line at the Ascari Race Resort, which BMW thoughtfully provided for our test, it was immediately apparent that the extra slug of torque, along with the weight reduction to 3,366 lbs., has turned a good car into a great one. (The weight reduction program actually took a total of 176 lbs. out of the car, but the roll cage and fire extinguisher system put back 66 lbs.)

With M Dynamic Mode enabled via the steering wheel button, the GTS is a veritable rocketship from just off idle until the rev limiter calls time at the other end of the scale. No figures on a sheet of paper can come close to describing the palpable effect of lightweight engine internals, linear delivery and high revs on the throttle response. This is one of those rare engines that doesn’t just deliver its power willingly. Instead, the power seems to explode from the motor. It wants to get out, and the more throttle you use, the happier it feels.

Even those who voted for the standard S65 in the best engine awards will be stunned by how much better the 4.4-liter GTS version is. No punches pulled, this is one of the truly great engines of all time.

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Beautiful balance

The GTS is more than just a motor, of course. BMW’s M division makes beautifully balanced cars, and the chassis and brakes have been carefully honed to the same level as the bombastic motor.

The KW coilover suspension is adjustable for ride height, compression and rebound damping. Ride height is set 16mm lower in front and 12mm lower at the rear, and you can alter camber by up to -1.5° at both ends for serious track work. The rear axle subframe also gets semi-solid bushings for more precise handling.

Given the criticism that BMW M has taken for issuing cars with brakes that fail to meet expectations on the track, the engineers were keen to get this right for the GTS, which is born to the racetrack. Behind the ultra-light alloy wheels are the largest compound brakes fitted to any M3 yet. The cross-drilled, vented discs measure 278 × 32mm in front and 280 × 28mm at the rear. They’re clamped by six- and four-piston calipers, respectively, activated through steel-braided hoses. While caning the GTS around the Nürburgring, BMW’s test drivers encountered no brake fade, and we had no problems at Ascari despite ambient temperatures over 30°C.

The rest of the car is equally track-oriented. As BMW M boss Dr. Kay Segler explains, “The GTS is a street-legal club sport model.”

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The cabin of the GTS certainly reflects this role. Stripped of obvious refinements like air conditioning, audio system and rear seat, this M3 also loses most of its soundproofing and has a lighter center console and door trim panels. Its half roll cage has black plastic plugs for the optional side impact bars, plus pickup points for a full six-point safety harness system. As a final touch, it also gets lightweight rear side and back windows made from a polycarbonate material called Macrolon.

The lightweight Recaro race seats, adjustable for fore and aft movement only, hold you firmly in place, while the chunky Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel connects you perfectly to the front wheels.

The moment you adopt the driving position, you feel an integral part of this car. And from the very first corner we turned together at Ascari, the GTS’ acute responses told me it was something special.

Supple and stable

Through the downhill 180° left-hander that falls away under gradient, the steering wheel provides informative feedback from the grippy front, while the back end hunkers down nicely as it delivers the strong torque of the punchy V8 to the hot tarmac.

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The steering ratio has been quickened from the stock 12.5:1 to 19.6:1, and it makes a big difference. So does the recalibrated suspension, which allows the car to go quickly into a turn without any hint of nervousness.

As I open the steering angle, simultaneously squeezing on throttle in third gear, the strong mechanical grip of the 255/35R-19 and 295/30R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires is very apparent as the car launches itself strongly out of its arc. With a touch of the right paddle, the DCT gearbox fires off a smooth upshift. We’ re really hauling, eating up the short straight towards the left-right sequence of bends in no time at all.

Firm pressure on the brakes, pull the left paddle to downshift and trail-brake smoothly into the left-hander. The nose keys into the tarmac beautifully, while the tail gently rotates to turn the car onto the ideal line. Back on the gas progressively to balance the car through the transition, and the GTS once again goes exactly where it’s pointed.

With one gentle sweep of the slightly heavier but faster and more precise steering, I swing into the right-hand part of this medium-speed S-bend. We head full bore down the short straight for a couple of seconds, enjoying the stability conferred by the GTS’ improved aerodynamics.

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When the front spoiler is extended the full 40mm forwards, it generates an extra 66 lbs. of downforce over the front axle at 125 mph. The rear wing is derived from the one used on the 320si that races in the World Touring Car Championship, and it can be adjusted for five more degrees of attack angle and up to 110 lbs. of additional downforce over the rear axle at the same speed.

The spoilers make the GTS noticeably more stable in the really fast bends and under hard braking from high speed, as we notice when it’s time to stand on the brakes really hard for the slow 90° right-hander. Again, trail braking reduces any tendency for the front end to run wide, and the nose goes exactly where I point it.

This bend can be taken in either second or third gear, but I prefer the latter as you can carry a bit more speed in third without upsetting the grip of the big rear tires. The potent V8 has more than enough low-speed grunt to make this possible.

Project Jagermeister

Compared to the standard E92 M3—which we were also able to drive at Ascari on this day—the GTS’ combination of firmer, lower suspension and increased downforce is really confidence inspiring, especially in situations where you might be mentally walking the fine line between lifting the throttle slightly or taking it flat in a normal M3. This was clear from the first and tighter of the two kinks after the hairpin on Ascari’s back straight.

In the course of my three track sessions in the GTS, I was able to push harder each time, reaping the rewards as this magnificent orange beast rose to the challenge. Whether on the limit or just a notch or two below, this track-hardened M3 is a real peach of a car with no handling vices. The more you put in, the more it gives back, but even a moderately competent track driver can have a bundle of fun at eight-tenths, going ecstatic over the throttle response and the chassis balance. In that respect, the GTS is a king maker, and by far the greatest M3 yet.

Sadly, only 150 people will have the pleasure of owning one from new, as BMW is limiting production of this 25th anniversary special. Every car will be painted the same lurid shade of orange—BMW Individual Feuerorange II (Fire Orange II), Code U94/2—which led the M3 GTS project to be internally referred to as “Jagermeister” after the orange race cars sponsored by the German beverage company.

It may be loud, but the color hasn’t dimmed the car’s appeal. All 150 examples of the GTS have already been sold at a price of €130,000 in Germany, effectively double that of a basic M3. The premium reflects the number of low-volume bespoke components, as well as the fact that the GTS won’t be mass-produced but will instead be lovingly put together by hand at BMW M GmbH.

Looked at another way, the M3 GTS is cheaper than a Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo, neither of which have quite the edge on track that the GTS offers. For a car of like appeal and similar racing pedigree, you’d have to seek out a Ferrari Scuderia or Porsche GT3 RS, both of which make this BMW seem like a monetary bargain.

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