The understated M3 is lined up against flashier dancers and bears comparison with the likes of the Porsche 911, Maserati 3200 GT, Jaguar XKR, and the AMG versions of Mercedes-Benz's CLK and E-class
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BMW M is the specialist company within the BMW fold that makes the sporty M-badged Beemers, whose red-violet and blue "M" emblem is highly sought after.

Started in 1972 as BMW Motorsport GmbH, the company has since become known simply as M GmbH, and is best remembered for its legendary models such as the M1, M535i, M5, M635 CSi.

The M3 actually started life in 1986, with 5,000 examples to be made solely for the purpose of racing. It was such a success that 18,000 units were produced in the end. It was then a stripped down, no-nonsense 3-series coupe. This was the birth of a genre that would be the basis of BMW's motorsport participation as well as its sporty image.

With the latest M3, BMW has deviated from its original script. But then, so have most other manufacturers. In this light, the current M3 can bear comparison with the likes of the Porsche 911, Maserati 3200GT and the Jaguar XKR. In the same diverse marketplace, we find the AMG versions of Mercedes-Benz's CLK and E-class. The other Teuton, Audi, offers its own twist on this concept with the RS4 Avant, a 380-horsepower super-hot stationwagon. 

In this sector of the market, the Porsche 911 is probably the image leader and the most targeted car on the drawing board of every designer. It has moved away from the raw-edged driving experience that it championed through the last three 911 models.

As it stands today, it is very much comparable to the M3. Perhaps the M3 in full sport mode is a sharper tool but many do not buy the car for what it can do - because most of these cars can do far more than their owners can handle.

More importantly, these cars must be instantly recognisable as special. And the 911's shape does just that. The M3 is far more difficult to spot, especially with all the tarted up "ordinary" BMWs running around. Pitted against the Maserati 3200GT and Jaguar XKR, for example, it still has that keener driving edge but does not have the same visual impact.

Although BMW loathes to admit it, its closest rival is probably the AMG-CLK 55 and E55. Almost identical in concept and execution, the AMGs, although more than a match for the other cars in the same clandestine way, also loses out on looks. They do, however, come with automatic transmission, but even this is not enough to spark a cult following.

While we may compare the M3 with the likes of a 911, it bears pointing out that we are indeed comparing Porsche's least sporting 911 with BMW's most sporting 3-series coupe - and from thereon, the gulf widens. The simple fact is, where the lines cross, will be where you find most of the potential owners. Admittedly, they are not part of the racing fraternity per se, though very much true enthusiasts at heart.

It became obvious when discussing strategies with Adolf Prommesberger, managing director of M GmbH, that the 911 has become a target for BMW. So it should come as no surprise that both cars hit 100kmh in exactly 5.2 seconds.

The argument put forward was: would you not consider a 343-horsepower M3 over a 300-horsepower 911 when the M3 is roughly 20 per cent less expensive?

Here is where BMW may have miscalculated. The 911 offers a Tiptronic automatic gearbox against the M3's six-speed manual. However, a fix is on the way - BMW's SMG transmission, similar to the F1 transmission of Ferrari fame. It is still a manual gearbox, but operated electronically via a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel. It has a fully automatic mode, although limited in its shift patterns compared with a Tiptronic.

However, the M3 SMG will have the advantage of producing tyre-scorching standing starts in first gear unlike the torque-converter Tiptronic. Just how many are likely to subject their prized possession to this sort of torture is another matter.

Locally, almost all 911s are ordered with Tiptronic, indicating clearly where the money and preferences are. But most M3's would end up in Europe, where even 911's are ordered with a manual gearbox. This is where the M3 makes most sense. However, for those weaned on a diet of steroid-fed, race-ready production coupes, the M3 will always be special - wherever it is.