Take arguably BMW's best known and most loved model. Make it even faster, as in silly fast. Then make it miles more efficient and much easier to live with than ever before.

Garnish with BMW's latest and greatest technology – you know, a fancy head up display, a clever new app, that kind of thing. Result? The new M3 saloon. It's a genuine game changer for both BMW and the segment in which the M3 operates.

What it will really be remembered for is rebooting performance expectations for this class of car. The M3 saloon and its closely related M4 coupé sibling are stupendously, staggeringly, sickeningly quick.

In fact, they feel faster even than BMW's sobering performance claims. But at the same time, this new model is both preposterously civilised when it wants to be and startlingly fuel efficient.

For the record, a few nagging questions do lurk amongst all this tarmac-trampling triumphalism. For instance, to what end all this performance? Is speed the same as driving enjoyment? How relevant is huge velocity in the current context? Hold those thoughts for a moment.

Power play

There have been many M3s down the years. But barring the 1986 original, which was something of a touring car refugee, all have been able to lay claim to the title of junior supercar. Back in 1993 when the second generation E36 M3 appeared, 286bhp was a big number.

Here in 2013, 431bhp for this latest model doesn't sound so spectacular, what with 500bhp-plus saloons from the category above (including BMW's own M5) now common place and the likes of Mercedes making hatchbacks with 360bhp. The world has gone a bit power mad.

BMW M3
Hello warp-drive turbo engine, goodbye screaming V8

Despite all that, the new M3 is still something special for its performance alone. Forget the 'junior' bit, this thing is a bona fide supercar.

That's been achieved through widespread application of BMW's latest tech. It starts with a major weight loss programme courtesy of a number of aluminium panels up front.

Then there's carbon fibre for the roof panel and chassis bracing pieces. Along with a range of detail measures, the upshot is a new M3 that's lighter than its predecessor for the very first time.

OK, it's only 85kg lighter than the old M3 saloon. But given the uptick in tech and equipment, 1,520kg overall is very impressive. Audi's competing RS5 is getting on for 1,800kg.

BMW M3
Our travels in the M3 included an obligatory stop to blow raspberries at the Porsche museum in Stuggart

The other part of the performance package is the shift away from BMW M Power's classic approach to high performance, namely a nut-job of a high-revving engine.

In its place comes turbo charging. The peak horsepower number of 431 from the new straight-six engine is only slightly up on the old V8 model. But torque is up massively across the rev range. Combine that with the lower weight and you have a recipe for a step-change in performance.

Mmm, technical...

As for broader tech, it falls into two categories. First there's kit directly related to the drive. Then there's more peripheral stuff including multimedia.

On the driving side, the big news is driver configurability. This M3 is more tunable to suit your preference than ever before.

Then main options are throttle response, gearbox (assuming you've gone for the optional dual-clutch robobox, which BMW reckons 90 per cent plus of buyers will), suspension and steering. Each offers three settings ranging from comfort / efficiency up to super sporty and aggressive.

BMW M3
The seat of power: It's mostly standard 3 Series in here

The two most dramatic are the gearbox and throttle response parameters. With the dual-clutch box in default mode, gearshifts are super smooth – you really only know they've happened due to the change in engine note.

In the most aggressive mode, they slam home, thump you in the kidneys and light up the rear tyres. It's almost a bit much and indeed it's the middle mode that works best unless you really must show off to your passengers.

The throttle response likewise ranges from soft and mild mannered to spiky and whip crack at the touch of a button.

BMW M3
Except for the clever cloggs, MDrive dynamic options clustered round the gear selector, of course

The suspension and steering modes are more subtle, but the general gist is firmer and weightier as you step through the levels.

If four settings each with three levels sounds complicated, BMW provides two memory profiles with corresponding buttons on the steering wheel. That way, you can quick-jump, say, between your preferred settings for cruising and hooning.

Overall, the result is just what BMW claims. An M3 that offers a combo of comfort and sharpness not seen before.