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A Dream Revisited: Driving the G81 BMW M3 Touring Competition in Japan

Punching through the six-speed in a San Remo Green metallic Z4 as I chased the rising sunlight into the horizon, A cool spring breeze swirled around me, carrying the sweet scent of Sakura blooms. The vibrant pink flowers blurred past, their beauty momentarily overshadowed by the sound of my Z4’s B58 as it crackles and thunders on the overrun as I powered into another cog. It was the perfect scene—a fitting farewell to BMW’s venerable Zukunft roadster as it heads towards the end of its production run.

Alas, as I sliced through the rain-soaked roads and ascended into the thick, fog-covered summit of Hakone, that perfect scene was not to be. But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s hit the rewind button once again.

Earlier this year, I had the incredible opportunity to navigate the mountainous Touge roads of Hakone and the mesmerising stretches of the Wangan in Tokyo. It wasn’t just a memorable drive; it marked the realisation of a dream that began over two decades ago when I first set foot in Japan. And as we all know, the best of dreams deserve a revisit, so with another trip to Tokyo lined up towards the tail-end of Spring, it was time to set things into motion.

The Plan
While my first run through the roads of Hakone in January was exhilarating, it was also an intense journey that began and ended in Tokyo on the same day, leaving my body battered and exhausted by nightfall. The tight schedule allowed little time to savour the sights as I blitzed through each checkpoint, aiming to cover as much ground as possible before daylight faded.

This time, however, while I planned to revisit and dive even deeper into the beautiful driving roads of Hakone, I also added a night in nearby Gotemba, allowing for a slightly more relaxed drive and the opportunity to explore the magnificent vista and surroundings of Mt. Fuji before making the return journey back into Tokyo, with a brief stop in Yokohama.

The Car
As you might have ascertained from the title and pictures, I didn’t get the Z4. It wasn’t for the lack of trying though because as it turned out, the Z4 Manual was not destined for Japan. At least, not officially. Instead, I found myself behind the wheel of something at the opposite end of BMW’s performance spectrum: Their ultimate touring machine. In place of a gorgeous and compact, 2-seater drop-top Handschalter Z4 M40i roadster with its 335 horsepower, I was about to push the starter button in BMW’s formidable 503-horsepower M3 xDrive Competition Touring, an ex-show car with every single M Performance option ticked off. It had quite the presence.

Yes, the entire M Performance catalogue for the G81 is here, boasting handmade carbon fibre body parts and panels both inside and out, an M Performance Coilover suspension setup, 20 and 21-inch M Performance forged wheels, a multitude of M Performance enhanced interior trim accents, and their bombastic M Performance titanium exhaust system with quad pipes exiting through a central position. Needless to say, fitting these additional goodies would significantly alter one’s final purchase price—I didn’t dare ask.

Departure Tokyo
With my luggage stowed in the cavernous boot (hot tip: never load luggage into an M3 equipped with an M Performance exhaust with the engine running), it was time to once again navigate out of the city and head towards Hakone. This time, however, the skies were grey and ominous, signalling what was to become the start of a very wet but very memorable day.

As I powered out of the metropolis, the M Performance Coilovers immediately made their presence known. Despite Tokyo’s typically smooth highways, the M3 Touring’s suspension was so responsive that every imperfection and painted road marking sent a distinct sensation through the chassis. Accelerating slightly improved the ride as it smoothed out the minor bumps, but it also heightened the car’s spirited nature, subtly encouraging me to push the accelerator deeper into the carpet at the expense of my license. Such is the nature of M.

Dancing the very fine line between smooth progress and possibly breaking the law, the light drizzle that had been showering Tokyo’s skyscrapers escalated into a full-blown thunderstorm as I pressed on southwards the legendary Hakone Turnpike.

The Highs of Hakone and the Izu Skyline
Turning off the highway, the heavy downpour finally subsided, giving me a moment of calm as I headed toward the Hakone Turnpike. This famous toll road in Japan is a favourite among drivers. It stretches about 15.7 kilometres (9.8 miles), beginning in Odawara and climbing into the Hakone mountain range. The road, which reaches elevations around 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) above sea level, offers a thrilling drive with sharp hairpin turns, sweeping curves, and long straights.

Today, this illustrious road is wet, and with a 503-horsepower, 650 Nm twin-turbocharged engine under my right foot, I felt a mix of excitement, hesitation and trepidation as I charged up the hill.

With my brief respite from the rain ending, the JDM heavens opened up once again, but the M3 stayed firmly planted and always a step ahead of my intentions. The massive tires spewing water out their sides, clawing for any grip the damp surface could offer. As I pressed the accelerator deeper, the M3 unleashed a ferocious surge of power. My heart pounded in sync with the rhythm of the elevated road’s expansion joints, yet the M3 tore forward with uncanny confidence, undeterred by the relentless downpour.

Even as I pushed into the wide, expansive bends of the Turnpike, the M3 tracked its line with unwavering accuracy. As the rear hinted at slip, the front end swiftly hooked up, pulling me out of each corner with surefooted traction. Powering up the rain-soaked roads of the turnpike, xDrive worked its magic seamlessly, and as the corners tightened further up the Hillclimb, the M3 delivered a confidence-inspiring drive with every turn of the wheel, urging me to push harder and deeper, even as the surfaces got wetter as I ascended the peak. Despite its 1,825 kilograms, the M3 blitzed straights and carved through corners with such agility that its published weight felt inconsequential.

Finally let off at the end of the final straight, my mouth was dry, my hands were buzzing, and my mind was still trying to comprehend just how eye-wateringly capable and ruthlessly the M3 Competition Touring had taken on the Turnpike, even in the rain. It was an exhilarating experience, and now, I needed a moment to calm down.

Finishing up my lunch (Katsu curry is fab here), it was time to strap in once again for the Izu Skyline. As you can see from the pictures, it was evident that while the rain had stopped, a thick fog had settled over the rugged mountainous terrain, shrouding the scenery in an eerie silence, a silence that was about to be broken with a rapturous bark of a BMW S58 coming back into life. Bwar!

With adrenaline still coursing through me, I set my sights and GPS on the Izu Skyline. Unlike the Hakone Turnpike’s fast, dynamic straights and sweeping curves, the Izu Skyline stretches approximately 40 kilometres through the lush Izu Peninsula. It is renowned for its narrow, tight technical curves and breathtaking vistas of the Pacific Ocean. When it’s not shrouded in thick fog, that is.

Today, the rain and misty clouds have transformed the serene landscape into a mysterious, almost otherworldly landscape for the M3 Competition Touring to explore and experience.

Even on the Izu Skyline’s challenging road surfaces and tight bends, the Competition Touring excels, delivering scintillating performance and steadfast ground-covering ability that instils confidence with each corner. It dives into turns and accelerates out with enthusiastic abandon, punctuated by a crackle of thunderous pops with every downshift, urging you to continue pushing further and faster in the pursuit of sheer driving pleasure.

While I was certain the car did most of the work keeping me planted in these slippery conditions, the engagement I felt behind the wheel was palpable. Every input elicited a precise response, enhancing my connection with both the machine and the road. It was a truly joyful experience, and one to be savoured for the full 40 kilometres.

Spirited Away
While the first day of driving delivered utmost joy even on one of the wettest days of Spring, what lay ahead of me as I dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:30am was a drive that promised an even greater state of driving bliss.

After the previous day’s grim weather obscured the beautiful surroundings, a brief look at day two’s weather forecast revealed a fleeting opportunity in the early morning to witness Fujinomiya in all its magnificent splendour. With sleep taking a backseat, I fired up the M3 for a brisk morning drive through the mountain roads of Fujikawaguchiko.

But first, a quick coffee and to take that photo. No, I’m not sorry for it. It was 530am, there was no one else around and it was just too beautiful to not take the shot.

Charging up a narrow Touge mountain road, the M3 Competition Touring, which had already performed exceptionally well in the rain, now revealed an even more ferocious demeanour on dry roads. It pulled and gripped even harder as it roared up into the mountains with increased tenacity, eagerly wanting to be unleashed.

With all four paws charging uphill through a series of rapid directional changes—left, right, left, right—the M3 Competition Touring continued to power and howl. Finally, the dense curtain of trees parted, unveiling one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever experienced in the land of the rising sun and my jaw hit the ground. This was what I woke up for. It was beyond words and a sight that will stay with me for a long time.

Nestled at the summit of this touge is Tenka Chaya ????, translated, it means tea house under the heavens and I think you can understand why they chose this name.

Beyond Tenka Chaya, the road winds its way downhill towards ground level. Like the ascent, it boasts an endless sequence of winding, flowing curves and tight hairpin corners—a playground perfectly tailored for the M3. With each bend, the car delighted in showcasing its exceptional handling, flawlessly manoeuvring through every twist and turn. The M Performance exhaust crackling and thundering as the M3 surged through the gears, with the S58 powerplant applying ample engine braking to temper our “enthusiastic” velocities. I was addicted.

A Dream Reimagined
As my time with the M3 drew to a close and Tokyo’s iconic skyline began to loom in the distance, I found myself reluctantly easing off the accelerator, not wanting to let go of the exhilaration that had defined every twist and turn. The M3 had been more than just a car; it had become a conduit for emotions—each roar of its engine, each precise cornering manoeuvre resonated deeply within.

In those moments, whether powering up the Hakone Turnpike, navigating the intricate bends of the Izu Skyline or powering hard into the Wangan, the M3 had transcended mere machinery. It had become a partner in an unforgettable journey, amplifying the thrill of speed with a symphony of exhaust notes and the tactile feedback of its steering wheel.

As I parked the M3, its engine ticking softly as it cooled, a wave of gratitude swept over me. This experience wasn’t just about driving; it was about connecting with the essence of automotive passion.

With a lingering sense of fulfilment and, nostalgia, I knew this journey would remain etched in my memory—a tribute to the enduring allure of the open road and the inseparable bond forged between driver and machine. It wasn’t just a dream revisited; it was a dream reimagined. What a drive, what a car. Truly, the ultimate driving machine and BMW at their finest.

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