The average person is perfectly happy driving a car exactly how it rolled off the assembly line. Cars have improved exponentially over the last couple of decades, so it's hard to fault that thinking. The more products we test here at ec, the more we see how difficult it is to outdo the factory in terms of achieving a mix of driveability and performance on enthusiast-focused models. Considering the challenge itself and the number of high-quality aftermarket manufacturers out there, it might be surprising that BWM has decided to take it on. It certainly won't be an easy choice for enthusiasts to decide whether they should leave a car stock, opt for tuning parts from a third party, or use components straight out of Bavaria. A fact that might sway your decision is M Performance parts can be installed at the port, meaning they are covered by a standard warranty and the cost is added to the sticker price of the car. That last part means those coilovers may only cost you a couple more bucks a month on your lease payment. They can also be purchased like any other BMW part, either from your parts department or even online.
Recently, I tested a number of BMWs equipped with various products from its M Performance line at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. Everything from completely stock M2/3/4s were lined up alongside M Performance-tuned versions for real back-to-back comparisons around one of the best racetracks in the world. Besides the M Cars, a single tuned 340i was also on hand and nearly flew under the radar amongst the bigger horsepower cars in pit lane.
To start with, BMW is offering all sorts of exterior add-ons: stripe kits running the gamut from "23-year-old trust-fund college kid racer" all the way to 340s "I'm president of the Vin Diesel artistic appreciation society." I love the Motorsports colors, but I can't see driving something like this every day—as a grown-up. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, we have aero add-ons BMW is hesitant to call performance modifications. The carbon-fiber wing you see on the back of the M3 is a beautifully made piece; it doesn't, however, have a very aggressive angle of attack and it doesn't appear to be high enough up in the airflow to be all that effective. There are splitters offered for most models, as well as carbon-fiber add-ons to front valences. BMW won't give any numbers, but the company will say front and rear modifications should be done together to maintain aero balance; that gives an indication that they must have some effect—right?
For the interior: pedal covers, floor mats, shift knobs and boots, and even fuzzy steering wheels with flashing shift lights are available. I will admit, I like the steering wheel, and at $1,880 retail, it isn't unreasonable. Sadly, at least as of right now, none of the aggressive sport seats offered in European models, like the M4 GTS, are available—likely because of airbag and crash certification.
I've mentioned in the past, modern cars wearing M badges have stiff suspension straight from the factory, and there hasn't really been any evidence to convince me that stiffening them further really makes a meaningful performance difference. As a matter of fact, after talking to numerous industry experts and insiders, the consensus seems to be that the F8X chassis doesn't like being either much stiffer or much lower than the factory settings. So for the most part, spring/damper modifications on these cars are aesthetic, although with ride height adjustability, corner balancing is still a possible improvement, even on cars that are long celebrated for 50:50 weight distribution.
The M Performance coilovers offer ride adjustability between 5 and 20mm lower than factory. BMW recommends setting them roughly a half an inch below the factory ride height for M models. I know, some of you just dropped your gold-plated vape pens, as the idea of spending money to not-slam your car on the ground is not only completely alien, but ludicrous. Why would anyone spend money on a performance modification you can't recognize while parked? Remember, we are trying to improve performance, not our social media standings. M Performance doesn't list spring or damping rates for the coilovers, but on track at least, they weren't perceptibly stiffer. Being one of the world's newest FIA-approved circuits, it goes without saying the surface is smooth as glass compared to public roads.
Most of the test cars were equipped with M Performance wheels with Michelin Pilot SportCup 2 tires, and for good reason. This is hands down the biggest difference you can make to your M2/3/4. The level of grip compared to the Michelin Pilot Super Sport is staggering. The M3/4 fitment uses a Style763M wheel with a 19x9-inch wheel in front and 20x10 inches in the rear. Upgrading to these wheels removes 19 pounds of unsprung and rotating mass when compared to the stock setup. The M2 uses a 19x9 front and a 19x10 on the rear, but apparently the stock M2 wheels are lighter than the M3/4, as you only save 7 pounds over the standard 437M wheels. Although mostly suited for track use, the SportCup 2 tire can be used for daily driving, but it would be blasphemous to burn these tires away trundling back and forth between work, coffee house, Whole Foods, and home. If you're wondering, the price for wheels and tires for the M2 is listed at $5,495, but that appears to be the price when getting them directly from the dealership, not port installed.
Lastly, BMW is offering sports exhausts for the M cars and a Power and Sound Kit for the F30 cars. I've said in the past that I don't really care for the sound of BMW's turbocharged sixes, and every aftermarket exhaust I've heard makes the car louder, but no better. The BMW M Performance exhaust is no exception. For the M3/4, you get stainless steel mid-pipes connecting to a titanium rear muffler. The system maintains the stock valve actuators, meaning you have multiple modes for different sound levels. The system saves roughly 17 pounds—off of the lowest and rear-most part of the car. BMW claims no power gains. The exhaust itself retails at $4,400 and then you can choose either titanium exhaust tips for $980 or carbon-fiber tips for $1,348. The Power and Sound Kit for the F30 provides an additional 35 hp and 39 lb-ft of torque—for automatics, manual transmission cars are limited to a 24-lb-ft increase to protect the stock clutch. The kit includes new ECU software and a stainless cat-back exhaust that, again, utilizes the factory valve actuators. It's worth noting that the BMW documentation for this kit includes this bullet point: "The performance values quoted by some tuning suppliers of more than 265 kW (355 hp) are not feasible from the perspective of engine experts. BMW-internal tests confirm this." While we have certainly seen some big numbers on dynos that would contradict this, we've also seen that a lot of the aftermarket power-adders work great for single pulls on dynos or even the highway, but quickly lose power in real driving either in canyons or on racetracks.
BMW continues to make improvements to the F80 M cars. All cars brought out for testing were equipped with the Competition Package, which is a huge improvement over the standard car. I've been disappointed in the F80 from the beginning, finding the steering ponderous, suspension overly stiff, power delivery too blunt, and overall just too big and heavy. The Comp Pack smoothens out power delivery and takes the edge off the suspension harshness but hasn't done anything for the steering or size. While M cars of the past feel special from the moment you start rolling, making trips to the corner store an event, modern M cars are dreadful around town and don't come into their own until driven at or even past their limits on the track.
The F80 M Performance-equipped cars are better than stock, plain and simple. Grip levels are higher and the cars become more responsive to steering inputs. They still require an unnatural steering procedure; the fact that a procedure outside of just turning the wheel is the whole problem here. Brake, then turn the wheel more than you should need to, get the front end loaded up and committed, and then the back end follows suit and you unwind the steering a bit. This is all basically fighting through the steering gain. Now the car is letting go at both ends and you are nearing the apex. Decision time, roll into the throttle and get the rear to hook up and carry it out to the exit; or if you prefer, roll in more aggressively and get the car rotating. This is a little more dangerous as the car will get out from under you in a hurry if you aren't paying attention. As unresponsive as the front end is on turn-in, high caster levels mean the car will do a lot of counter steering itself, but be careful with the right foot. I've spun enough of these cars that I knew this wasn't going to be my method at COTA in all but a few lower speed corners with plenty of run-off. I didn't spin.
The best of the M cars on track was definitely the M2. I have said in the past that this is without question the best current M car, although I have to say the X5M is nearly as enjoyable to drive fast, but that's another story. COTA is a big place—it was built for high-horsepower and high-downforce cars like the F1 and WEC. This is the first time I felt the M2 was a little short on power, and in fairness, that was after jumping out of an M4 and straight into the M2. While I have driven some tuned M2s that I've felt were basically ruined, the M Performance-equipped car was actually improved over stock, even if just slightly. Again, I think the wheel and tire package is the superhero here. The aesthetic pieces work well on the slightly cartoonish little coupe, but I still just can't get on board with the stripes.
At the end of the session, I was getting tired and overheated and nearly hung up my helmet for the day. I caught a glimpse of a 340i sitting off to the side forlorn but fresh from lack of attention. I was shocked and elated to find a third pedal in the footwell. It was wearing pretty much everything M Performance can throw at it, and I tried not to think about the sticker price of this "just a 3-series." I did this from the driver seat also trying not to think about the "I love the '90s" stripe package. Driving down the hot pits, the car instantly feels light and responsive even compared to the M2. The steering feels better than the other cars, but don't read that as anything above adequate. Accelerating up the hill into Turn 1, the lack of power is negated by the manual transmission—even though the shifter was equipped with a miniscule shift knob whose size warrants a Mont Blanc Star rather than an H-pattern.
This 340i wasn't using SportCup2 tires that worked so well on all the other cars; it uses a Pirelli P Zero, which is probably adequate and maybe more appropriate for this application. The wheels are 20-inch-style 405M. I would probably go with a 19-inch wheel for ride quality, performance, and aesthetic reasons, but that's just me. The car was also equipped with M Performance brakes, 14.6-inch rotors in front with 13.6-inch rotors in the rear, the Power and Sound Kit, fixed height M Sport Chassis Kit—lowering the car 10 mm (0.4 inches) from the stock sport suspension, all the aesthetic add-ons, and most importantly, a mechanical limited-slip differential.
In the long sweepers, the limited-slip differential stabilizes the car and allows you to use the throttle to get the back end hooked up and putting power down. In the slower speed corners, it allows you to drive the car with your right foot. Trail brake into the turn, toss it sideways, get on the power, and counter steer. The 340i is more predictable and more consistent than an M3, and this car will turn you into a drifter pretty quickly. The 340i with the limited-slip differential was the most enjoyable car of the day. It was without question the slowest, but who cares? Again, I didn't drive this car on the street, so I can't really speak to how it would be to live with as a daily driver.
I will let you draw your own conclusions based on my observations from a track day with M Performance-equipped cars. It is hard to argue with the ability to roll the price of the modifications into your lease, and let's be honest, that's how most people are getting BMWs these days. It is also hard to find fault in wanting a part that is not only covered by a BMW warranty, but won't cause issues with your existing new-car warranty at the dealership. Most enthusiasts aren't really looking for solid performance increases when they are buying tuning parts anyway; they are looking for a perception of uniqueness. Those enthusiasts will hate the idea of buying a car pre-modified because buying the same wheels, same exhaust, same coilovers, same piggyback module, and the same front splitter as everyone else on the Internet will somehow "make the car yours."
The best way to find pricing and availability of these parts is to talk to your BMW dealer either at the time of purchase or talk to the parts department if you are interested in modifying a car you already have. I don't know for a fact, but I have heard the price of the parts with installation is not necessarily set in stone, and like anything else at a car dealership can be negotiated. If I were buying a new BMW, I would definitely be looking into getting some of these parts port installed.