I've often heard of people trading in BMW, Audis, etc for MINIs but every once in a while I'll hear of someone doing the seemingly unthinkable and going from an M3 to an MCS. With that in mind I recently had a chance to put an M3 SMG through it's paces and found some interesting observations when comparing to the MCS and the MC. First off the M3 is almost stupid fast. If you aren't careful you easily get yourself into loads of trouble in no time. There are of course some areas that the M3 (and most BMWs for that matter) naturally excel in comparison to the MINI. General comfort is one. Even with 19" wheels the M3 has a more compliant ride than the current MINI with runflats. The M3 exudes a certain comfort and refinement that the MINI seemingly will never have. Another area the M3 naturally bests the MINI in is balance. The chassis is much better sorted in terms of balance and generally gives the driver an inspiring confidence while pushing the car. With the 50/50 weight distribution also helps the M3 easily outclasses the MINI when it comes to handling at the limit. That being said it can also be a little less forgiving in the hands of a novice. The back-end will come around on you in a heartbeat with the DSC turned off. You have to be ready to opposite lock the wheel quickly where as in the MINI it's much more point and shoot. I personally miss this little bit of excitement in my MINI and it's one of the reasons that I'll probably always want at least an older rear wheel drive BMW around to scare passengers from time to time.
I was also quite excited to get behind the wheel of an M3 with the much acclaimed SMG semi-automatic transmission. The SMG is one of the best semi-automatic transmissions out there today and takes much of it's technology from the F1 race track .
However before I go on and on about SMG it's important to remember that it's not an automatic with manual controls but a real clutchless manual transmission similar to what's in the BMW/Williams F1 car. It's a transmission that at once can shift faster than any human yet when in regular automatic mode can go almost unnoticed in daily operation.
Upon sitting down next to the SMG for the first time I have to admit I wasn't entirely sure how to get the thing going. It can be a bit tricky without some explanation at first. The default mode on the SMG is actually automatic but a quick flip of the wrist gets it in manual mode. To change gears there are two paddles just behind the wheel - one to upshift and another to downshift. My first thought was it's like playing Grand Tourismo with the best feedback controller in the world. My second thought was "oh my God this is for real"
One of the keys to fast acceleration in the SMG is switching the sport mode on and turning the shift mode to S5 (as high as it normally goes). If you want to really impress someone you can turn on the somewhat hidden S6 shift mode and enjoy some of the qiuckest and most neck snapping shifts you'll ever feel. Once more, when you downshift the engine it will automatically blimp the throttle to the optimal rpm. The sound is so addicting that you find yourself slowing down and speeding up just to hear it. These upshifts combined with the melodic inline six and the amazing factory exhaust make you want to forget about the radio or CD player. Let's hope this option makes it's way onto at least the next generation MCS.
Interestingly while pushing the car into hard corners the M3 almost seemed to have more body roll than the MCS or an MC with SS+. That is of course until I realized that I was going 20mph faster than I would have been in a MINI around the same corner. This is really one of the best aspects about the M3. Granted there is the advantage of 333 HP where the MCs only has 163 on tap but it's really the feeling of immense stability at speed and at the limit that is so thrilling. Simply put you feel like you can do about anything in this car. Yes the MINI is exceptional in this area but it simply can't overcome the fact that it's wheel base is short (by M3 standards), it's track isn't as wide, and it's a front wheel drive car with an unequal weight distribution.
All said the MINI makes a good showing in this comparison. Despite going up against a huge difference in power and sophistication there are few cars that feel more like a small version of the current M3 than even a base Cooper with SS+. Going from the M3 to my SS+ Cooper I was struck by how similar the two felt at low and midrange speeds in terms of handling. As long as you don't push the MINI beyond a certain point it's handling can be very balanced and confident. In fact the MINI actually had a sharper initial turn-in than the M3!
Beyond that my Cooper is generally more toss-able and in many ways more fun to whip around corners. It's not near as fast and not near as refined but I believe on many levels it's actually more fun.
At the end of the day I came away reaffirmed that the MINI remains an unbelievable value compared with what else is out there in it's price range. And for sheer driving fun there are simply few cars out there that can rival it.