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Comparison: 2021 BMW M3 vs BMW M4 Competition, or the Manual v Automatic Debate

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Bowmanville, ON – The atmosphere was definitely on the friendly side on this day at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park track outside of Toronto, organized by the good folks at BMW Canada. The Bavarian manufacturer's Canuck division invited a few members of the Canadian automotive press to visit, on the very first day the Quebec-Ontario border reopened for non-essential travel. Awaiting us at the closed-circuit track was a nice selection of M vehicles... as well as a freshly redesigned Mini Cooper JCW!

And yet, even if this kind of activity would satisfy any car performance enthusiast - I include myself in the group - there was a slightly gloomy vibe palpable in the background. No, it wasn’t the weather – which was perfect on this summer day in mid-June –, it wasn’t the welcome given us by BMW Canada, which was warm and celebratory, and it wasn’t the quality of the cars on hand, which was exceptional.

No, this melancholy feeling we felt of an era ending was best articulated by BMW itself, more specifically by the Director of Corporate Communications for BMW Canada. Marc Belcourt reminded us that this type of day on which only gasoline-engine cars are featured will not happen as often in the future.

That's one reason why friend and fellow Auto123 contributor Benoit Charette joined me in a friendly match in which we matched head-to-head two variants of the performance car that’s been around in one form another for over a century.

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The 2021 BMW M4 Competition
The 2021 BMW M4 Competition

In one corner, in the grey shorts, the new BMW M3 sedan in “regular” configuration, with rear-wheel drive and manual transmission. In the other, in blue shorts, the M4 Competition coupe, which still relies on a rear-wheel drive system but swaps the three-pedal gearbox for an 8-speed automatic unit. That's right, an automatic in an iconic car like the BMW M3 or M4! Both combinations are possible for this sixth generation of the M3 (recall that the M4 made its debut in the previous generation).

Enough about the oversized double-kidney grille
Since the day the manufacturer unveiled the new car's front end, the online debating about it has become so heated that some tuners are even proposing kits to transform the front end of one or the other M car into something more discreet.

No matter where you stand in the argument surrounding the appearance of the M3/M4, know one thing: the nose is less off-putting in person than it is in photos. Take the time to walk around both cars, and you realize there’s some consistency with the rest of the silhouette. Those more dramatic edges match up perfectly with the other end of the two closely related versions. Beyond that controversial grille, the M3 and M4 respect tradition with their widened fenders, intricately designed wheels, functional rear diffuser and that famous quartet of exhaust pipes. So, never mind the nose - overall the design makes sense.

The 2021 BMW M3, three-quarters front
The 2021 BMW M3, three-quarters front

Competition or not?
For the uninitiated, the Competition badge was added to the M lineup just a few seasons ago, and it gets the same mandate as the "S" on Mercedes-Benz’s AMG cars. The Competition badge doesn’t just mean a few cosmetic tricks are added; there's also a pretty big bonus placed under the hood, and felt under the right foot.

In this case, the M3 sedan is equipped with the same twin-turbocharged 3.0L inline-6 engine found in the X3 M/X4 M SUV tandem. The "regular" M3 is rated at “only” 473 hp, while torque peaks at 406 lb-ft. The M4 Competition Coupe, on the other hand, is more of a gorilla at 503 hp and, more importantly, 479 lb-ft of peak torque. Probably the biggest difference between the two cars lies in that last figure.

The M4 Competition's badging
The M4 Competition's badging

While the M3 retains the purist's choice of a good old-fashioned 6-speed manual transmission, the M4 Competition comes with, and only with, an 8-speed automatic from ZF. Old-school drivers will likely make their choice right then and there; the mere mention of an M with manual gearbox is enough to force a signature on the purchase contract. But the auto setup also means the mechanics aren't as energetic as in the Competition-badged model. And believe me, you notice the difference.

In fact, you’ll want to think about it before choosing your transmission option, because, while there's a gain in power and torque from the manual-equipped edition, the Competition option becomes more attractive when paying the bill for your new Beemer. To go from the regular edition to the more-explosive Competition version will set you back only $4,600 more.

M3 badging
M3 badging

Behind the wheel
On the track, BMW put the two cars at our disposal and that’s fine, because it's really in these conditions that you can feel how the car behaves when pushed a little more than on the road, where several factors slow down the driver's ardor.

Even when limited to the first two gears in an autocross exercise, the M3 sedan with manual and the M4 Competition with automatic both performed in exemplary fashion, but in different ways. The coupe with its automatic has the advantage over the manual-equipped sedan in that it allows the driver to keep both hands on the wheel at all times - a clear advantage in a tight corner. While the manual unit is (very) precise and pleasant to handle, it's not as quick as the automatic transmission, which I must confess behaves wonderfully when downshifting. It's not as surgical as a dual-clutch, but it's pretty darn close!

I also found the sedan to be more understeerable than the more-powerful coupe. Yet, the two cars are very similar. Where the difference is easier to discern is under the right pedal. The extra 30 hp and 73 lb-ft of torque improve the Competition edition’s performance enough to be noticeable right away.

The BMW M4 Competition, on the track
The BMW M4 Competition, on the track

I should mention the optional Carbon M package (found in the M4 Competition), which adds carbon-fibre molded bucket seats and a few other carbon-fibre details. The seats are much more enveloping than the bolt-on ones in the M3 sedan, a feature that helps keep the driver in place on a more technical track like in Bowmanville. Is it possible to live with these rigid seats on a daily basis? The answer is yes, but with such buckets, getting in and out of the car can occasionally be more difficult. Nevertheless, the fact that they’re power-adjustable is already a big plus compared to other molded and fixed seats available elsewhere in the industry.

Need I add that the mechanics - which we got to experience in the X3 M and X4 M - are majestic, especially in the M4 Competition coupe? Acceleration is lightning-fast, the sound is close to perfection, the performance is phenomenal, and even braking is breathtaking. In fact, I was even able to experience the automatic window closing system during emergency braking. Works like a charm. You have to try it to believe it!

The BMW M3, front
The BMW M3, front

The last word, or which one do I choose?
Let’s be clear: no matter which of the versions highlighted here you choose, you won't be disappointed. The adrenalin will flow whether you get the manual gearbox or the automatic transmission. That said, the M3 with manual transmission is the way to go for purists who aren’t ready to say goodbye to this old-school technology. On the other hand, the Competition is a killer on the track, if that’s your thing. On the other, OTHER hand, the less-powerful of the two Beemers is absolutely well-suited to a day at the track as well.

Benoit chose the M3 for the reasons listed above, while I was seduced by the M4 Competition for the reasons listed above. This even though it has become increasingly difficult to drive on closed circuits in the summer.

One last note: BMW hasn't confirmed it, but it wouldn't be surprising if this manual-transmission M3/M4 is the last of the line. After all, the shift to electric vehicles is well underway and picking up pace!

See also: Here are the 2021 BMW M3 and M4

See also: 2021 BMW 330e xDrive Review: The Imperfect Plug-In Option for the 3 Series

The BMW M4 Competition and the BMW M3
The BMW M4 Competition and the BMW M3
The BMW M3, profile
The BMW M3, profile
The BMW M4 Competition, rear
The BMW M4 Competition, rear
The BMW M3, interior
The BMW M3, interior
The BMW M4 Competition, interior
The BMW M4 Competition, interior
The BMW M3, on the track
The BMW M3, on the track
The 2021 BMW M4 Competition, on the track
The 2021 BMW M4 Competition, on the track