Although the introduction of a Competition Package has become a traditional part of the M3 (and now M4) lifecycle, you could be forgiven for not having fully absorbed the fact. That’s because the earliest E46 edition was badged CS in the UK (a clever wheeze intended to highlight the model’s similarities with the low-weight, very low-volume and therefore highly sought-after CSL), while the follow-up E90/E92 version – limited to shorter springs and a set of forged wheels – lacked the kind of consequential alterations that might have made it more memorable.
With the current F80/F82 version, BMW M has endeavoured not to repeat the mistake. Notably, it has opted to make increased output from the turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six part of the bargain. That the gain is modest – just 19bhp – is less important than the fact of its inclusion: more is better in this class, and just as it helps distinguish the Competition Pack from the standard car, so the uprated 444bhp helps reduce the model’s headline deficiency compared with the latest fire-breathing Mercedes-AMG C63.
Its chassis alterations go deeper, too. New springs are again on the menu but are accompanied this time by updated dampers and anti-roll bars, as well as a reconfiguring of the drive modes and stability control. The M sports exhaust is standard, as are the gargantuan, machine-polished 20in alloy wheels clad in Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres. Special lightweight sports seats are also part of the deal, but a significant overall reduction in mass is not – confirmation that the Competition Package is more about gilding the lily than stripping it back to its elements.
When we drove the E90 version almost six years ago, we mourned the lack of a recent go in the standard car by which to measure its differences – so subtle was their impact. In the F80, the same is true, only this time it would hopefully serve to corroborate the improvements that have apparently been delivered by M division’s hardware rethink. My working memory of the current model, culled mostly from a group test involving the M4 last year, is of a brusquely fast and fidgety car; hugely talented, certainly, but all too often over-stimulated and short on the shine of universally applied polish.
The Competition Package, in the quest for greater dynamism, irons out many if not most of the kinks. Initially, that outcome seems implausible. So monumentally stiff was the M3 in question that if it registered the introduction of 100kg to its starboard side, I didn’t feel it. Combined with the liquorice-strip tyres, the suspension’s stringency is plain enough to have you screwed up in a preparatory wince at the first sign of road furniture – but the predicted bony impact never comes.
The overt tautness, it turns out, is not of the unyielding sort. In fact, it flexes as required with the precision of a fell runner’s calf muscle. By retaining this splendidly thin and tactile layer of compliance, the Competition Pack’s tacked-down firmness enhances the M3’s poise and composure across the board. Nowhere is this more telling than in the realisation that its Sport+ mode, previously an unrelenting suspension setting best reserved for the track, is not only selectable on British roads but also desirable. Follow suit with the engine, gearbox and steering, and the saloon now hardens delectably yet never gets fraught or threatening, eschewing the standard car’s manufacture of cold sweat for a grippier, sharper, even more direct sense of control.
The greater straight-line speed implied by the Competition Pack (and quantified by a 0.1sec drop in 0-62mph time) is, of course, undetectable. But the car’s better management of the rear axle is not. Refinement of diff and ESP response complement the beefier feel of the chassis. The warning light flutters less, and the tail wags far more infrequently. Impressively, though, the outcome doesn’t feel overly strangled, even if BMW has clearly opted to reduce the entertaining waywardness that can be coaxed from the standard car in its halfway-off M Dynamic Mode. Considering the obliging sideways balance typically located beyond that button, I’d take superior traction in the build-up to switching it out.
Throw in the swagger of bigger, shinier wheels, black gloss exterior trim and the slightly deeper melody of the sports exhaust, and the Competition Pack’s £3k premium is a no-brainer. Little wonder BMW expects as much as 80% of UK buyers to take up the option. Its addition doesn’t perhaps elevate the F80 to classic status, but the M3 driven felt like a far more complete and likable solution than it did previously – and while we wait for Quattro GmbH to see to the A4 and Jaguar SVO to the XE, that graduation marks it out as the compact sports saloon to beat.
Engine: 6 cyls, 2979cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 444bhp at 7000rpm
Torque: 406lb ft at 1850rpm
Gearbox: 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
Kerb weight: 1595kg
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: 34.0mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 194g/km, 33%