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Review: The 2021 BMW M3 Is The Last Of The Six-Speed German Muscle Sedans

As the third decade of the 21st century starts to unwind, if you want to buy a four-door, 400+ horsepower performance car with a manual transmission your options are extremely limited. In fact, even if you generously expand your criteria to include cars that have yet to hit the market, you'll land on exactly three potential purchases.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed front view

Photo: Benjamin Hunting

At the top of the pricing pyramid sits the not-quite-here-yet 2022 Cadillac CTV-5 Blackwing, a 668 hp supercharged V8 monster that retails for over $84,000, followed by the $60,000 2022 Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing with its 472 hp turbocharged V6. And right in the middle, checking in at $71,000 and delivering 473 hp from its also-turbo six-cylinder engine is the 2021 BMW M3, which rides into the current model year thoroughly refreshed as compared to last year's car.

2021 BMW M3 M buttons

As the only 6-speed, high-horsepower sedan currently available in showrooms—and the sole four-door BMW with a clutch pedal, period—the M3 is among the last of what was once a popular slice of the go-fast, stay-practical segment. It's also up against a tough cast of competitors that long ago swapped their manual boxes for slick automatics, sacrificing none of their speed in the process. The question becomes: where does the shift-it-yourself BMW M3 fit in to a world that has largely abandoned third-pedal configurations outside of the dedicated sports car set?

About That Nose…

For some, the big news on the M3's redesign is its equally-enormous schnozz, an exaggerated caricature of the kidney grille that has long decorated the auto's fascia. In truth it's far less distracting in person, and I found myself actually impressed by the sedan's neat proportions, curvy fender blisters, and relatively sleek profile.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed front 3/4 view

Photo: Benjamin Hunting

While not a pretty car, it's fair to say that the BMW's styling verges on handsome, and certainly in keeping with all but the most svelte (i.e. Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio) members of its peer group.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed seat logo

Inside the car continues to please, with an interior that features supportive sport seats up front (with a lit-up M3 logo beaming at the back of your head), the easy-to-use iDrive infotainment system, and a rear seat that's usable by actual adults.

Clutch Performer

More pertinent to this particular conversation is what resides under the 2021 BMW M3's hood. Its twin-turbo 3.0L inline six adds 406 lb-ft of torque to go with its 473 hp, managed by the previously-mentioned six-speed manual and a staggeringly long list of drive modes, traction and stability control settings, and suspension tunes, all accessed via iDrive and assignable to one of the two 'M' buttons affixed to the car's steering wheel.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed turbocharged engine

It's almost 50 hp more than the previous generation model, and it's enough to scoot the nearly 4,000 lbs of M3 to 60-mph in less than four seconds, provided you can master the somewhat hesitant nature of its gearbox. It's here that the bloom starts to just barely rub off the rose: compared to the auto-equipped version of the car (the M3 Competition, which adds another 30 ponies and a whopping 73 lb-ft of twist to the equation), the six-speed isn't always easy to drive smoothly.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed rear view

Photo: Benjamin Hunting

Enthusiasts are constantly clamoring for a manual option, so when a unicorn like this one appears in the wild it's possible to overlook some of its less-charming aspects. Shifts from the M3's stick aren't as direct as one would expect, which means slower swapping of cogs, and clutch uptake from a stop is less than linear at slower speeds. These trade-offs will be more than acceptable for those who prefer to keep the engine singing their own specific tune as they pummel their favorite set of corners into submission, but for everyone else the automatic in the Competition is a perfectly acceptable (and in some ways, more appealing) substitute.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed side profile

Photo: Benjamin Hunting

Twists and turns are indeed the M3's strong point, and while its electrically-assisted power steering isn't so chatty about what's happening under the front wheels, the chassis itself is fantastic. Whether you soften the dampers up for commuting or batten down the hatches for a hot stretch of pavement, the BMW does it all via simple software adjustments that let you play for hours trying to dial in your preferred spec. If anything, the car is overwhelming in terms of configurability, but although its weight may filter some of the visceral nature of its drive, it's still a compelling speed experience for those who prize precision-controlled velocity over all else.

Last Of Its Breed

The six-speed BMW M3 is probably the swan song for a manual transmission in a four-door sports sedan from any German automaker. Although some might argue that the clutch pedal makes the car more engaging when driven in anger, from a numbers perspective auto-equipped vehicles like the Mercedes-AMG C63, the Audi RS4, and even the similarly-priced Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat manages to best it in a straight line.

Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat on Nittos

With either a torque converter or a dual-clutch automated manual setup in place, gear changes take place in the blink of an eye, and rarely require human intervention even on a challenging road course.

2021 BMW M3 6-speed front view top-down 3/4

Photo: Benjamin Hunting

If you're one of the few remaining diehards who need a stick in their 155-mph family sedan, and you don't want to wait for either of Cadillac's would-be competitors to hit the scene, then the 2021 M3 is certainly worth a look. Much improved compared to last year's over-insulated model, and as comfortable as the standard 3 Series when not having its neck wrung, BMW's latest evolution of its flagship performance machine is likely the last link in a chain that goes all the way back to the E30's five-speed-only status. 

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