Then vs. Now: 2015 BMW M3 vs 2006 E46 vs 1991 E30

Robert Kerian
#BMW, #M3

Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Madonna or Lady Gaga? The first love or the new flame? It’s in our nature to look in the rearview mirror, to measure the brightness of the present against the best of the past. It’s no different with car enthusiasts. For all the areas in which automobiles have improved—safety, performance, efficiency, reliability—they still live in the shadow of the past. The great thing about cars, though, is that we don’t have to rely solely on our memories. We’ll never know how twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jordan would have fared against twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James, but we can find well-kept classic cars—the icons that enthusiasts worship—and pit them against their modern equivalents. That’s just what we did with these matchups. It’s throttle cables versus direct injection. AM radios versus infotainment screens. Old-car patina versus new-car smell. So, was it really better then? Come back next Thursday for the next entry in this series.

Three out of five isn’t bad, especially when the trio that could have been a quintet contains such star performers as the first BMW M3 (built on the chassis known as E30), the supersweet E46 version built between 2000 and 2006, and the new F80 - otherwise known as the 2015 BMW M3 - powered by an all-new twin-turbo straight six.

Missing from the class reunion is the understated E36 M3, which received weakened engines in the United States but enjoyed sales success. Also absent is the 2007–2013 (E90/92/93) version, which fielded a creamy and sonorous 4.0-liter V-8 that rested heavily on the front wheels but would light up the rear tires, Zippo-style, even in third gear.

BMW M3s have come in three different shapes: sedan, coupe, and cabriolet. For this M-agic showdown, we picked the two-door E30 with a five-speed manual transmission (there was no automatic available at the time), the E46 coupe with the standard six-speed manual, and the four-door F80 M3, also with a six-speed DIY gearbox (the two-door version—F82—will be tagged M4).

For an object lesson in time travel, grab the key to the red 1991 E30 M3. It looks a bit like a cartoon car with its chubby-cheeked wheel arches, petite fifteen-inch BBS wheels, shovel front spoiler, and rear air dam. You sit close to the door and stare at a gaggle of beautiful extralarge gauges that easily beat today’s all-in-and-then-some dials for clarity and class. Although the center stack is conveniently angled toward the driver, it contains little more than a push-button radio and rudimentary climate controls.

The brand-new 2015 M3 is a much more complex machine. Its steering wheel features two buttons for preset levels of hooliganism. Its iDrive controller accesses a variety of submenus and a host of vehicle traits. The color monitor that sits atop the dash shows a better picture than a TV set purchased the year the first M3 was introduced. The latest model invites you to shape its persona via four instant-access buttons to the left of the shift lever. Stability control and throttle response are highly adjustable, and a three-stage selection process labeled Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ alters elements such as steering calibration and damper setting. Compile your favorite mixes and call them up anytime by storing them on the aforementioned steering-wheel buttons.

The E46-based M3 looks and feels like a fusion of epochs. It is still raw enough to share a bloodline with the very first M3—which in turn owes a lot to the 2002tii—yet it offers modern conveniences that might encourage you to use this tail-happy supersled as a prescription-free antidepressant. Navigation? Check. Xenon headlights? Check. Sequential manual transmission? No, thank you. When they released the clutchless SMG transmission in 1997, M engineers were extremely proud of the racy feature that promised so much and delivered so little. Operated by flicking a shift lever forward or pulling it back, the electrohydraulic gearbox combined the worst of all worlds. In their quest for higher technology and easier driving, nearly half of E46 buyers fell for it, only to experience jerky downshifts, tardy upshifts, and lower resale values. There’s no doubt about it: the E46 gearbox of choice—fitted to our test car, naturally—is the one masterminded by your right arm and your left foot. It is mated to a high-revving, normally aspirated straight six that develops 333 hp at a melodious and deep-voiced 7900 rpm.

Although the E30 in Europe was offered in various tuning stages and limited-edition series, we drove the standard 192-hp version, 4996 of which found their way to the States. The 16-valve, 2.3-liter four-cylinder whisks up 170 lb-ft of torque at a lofty 4750 rpm, good enough to push the car to 60 mph in about seven seconds and on to a top speed of more than 140 mph. At 2850 pounds, the M3 is even lighter than a period Porsche 911, and it feels every bit as nimble and tactile. But stepping back almost three decades does come as a bit of a shock. Suddenly everything feels heavy and slow: steering, brakes, clutch . . . all the key man/machine interfaces. Having said that, the E30 quickly grows on you, and before lunch is served, body and mind have adjusted to the car’s back-to-basics personality.

The 2015 M3 more than doubles the original M3’s power output. Its 425 hp is available between 5500 and 7300 rpm. As a result, acceleration is obviously on a different level. In-gear agility improves, too, but the subjective sensation of speed is eerily similar. The first M3 is noisier, rougher, almost uncouth in its mechanical manners. The latest version is quieter, calmer, more refined, and more progressive in the way it delivers the goods. It is a lot quicker against the stopwatch but doesn’t make your heart beat much faster than yesterday’s hero. On the contrary, whenever the latest M3 approaches its physical boundaries, it will be called on to see reason by a network of acronyms such as ASR, CBC, DBC, DSC, and MDM. Not so the E30, which relies primarily on a set of period BFGoodrich tires and a limited-slip differential to keep both terminal understeer and snap oversteer in check. In direct comparison, the old car is a live wire, a high-voltage tool thinly insulated between drama and disaster.

In this group, the middle-child E46 impresses with a sweet mix of expressive attitude and relaxed demeanor. Although it weighs slightly more than the latest variation of the theme, the 333-hp M3 is less than a second slower off the mark than the newest M3. In terms of handling prowess, however, the E46 is the leeriest M car of them all. Encouraged by a slightly nose-heavy weight distribution, not-so-well- educated electronics, and a playful variable-rate diff lock, this BMW is notorious for its loose rear end even when fitted with optional nineteen-inch wheels and tires. With stability control switched off, burning rubber is all too easy, and impromptu power oversteer is second nature. The brakes could be stronger, and the second-generation SMG transmission is still to be avoided. On the other hand, the hydraulic power steering is a magic wand, and that amazing 3246-cc straight six manages to dish up 80 percent of its maximum torque at 2000 rpm while pushing toward the 8000-rpm redline only a few seconds later.

The 2015 M3 extends the performance envelope by refusing to put on weight while acquiring a host of new talents. The most obvious improvement concerns the engine, which loses two cylinders and 1020 cc of displacement but gains two turbochargers. While max power increases by a token eleven horses, max torque soars from 295 to a mighty 406 lb-ft. Better still, the 3.0-liter six spreads the peak twist action from 1850 rpm all the way to 5500 rpm. Stab the throttle in top gear at 2000 rpm, and then quickly brace yourself as the M3 takes one big fast swig before building momentum like a slingshot and zooming toward the horizon. According to BMW, this potent thrust beams the manual-transmission version to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds (3.9 seconds with the M-DCT gearbox). About 9.5 seconds later, the car reaches the 124-mph mark. At the same time, fuel economy beats its vocal but thirsty eight-cylinder predecessor by “nearly 25 percent.”

As you would expect, there are many more exciting facets to this blue four-door gem, which aims to fly high enough to challenge class leaders such as the Porsche 911 Carrera S. The Active M Differential will, depending on stability control setting and driving style, either maximize cornering grip and exit speed or support tail slides long enough to send Michelin profits through the roof. Check out the bigger brakes that combine enhanced stamina and a stronger initial bite with a pedal that is even easier to modulate. Relish the remixed soundtrack that comes courtesy of the free-flow exhaust that boasts four tailpipes and two unequal-size lungs, one for part-throttle preludes and the other one for high-rev quadraphonic arias. Enjoy chip-controlled wizardries such as automatic throttle blipping during downshifts (which relegates heeling and toeing to an art of the past), try all of the vehicle dynamic settings also in Sport+ for the most direct and immediate response, and don’t miss the automatic transmission’s smoky-burnout launch control.

The original E30 M3 is light and tight and stiff, but its chassis dates back to an era when we still flew DC-9s and 727s. The later E46 M3 is markedly heavier and rather loose, but its suspension, steering, and brakes celebrate the fine art of communication, and the brawny engine was designed before CO2 became a synonym for guilty conscience. The new F80 M3 is Efficient Dynamics at its purest and finest—strong performance meets lean consumption on a dynamic plateau few competitors can match at any price. Yes, Audi RS models have Quattro for ultimate all-weather traction, and rear-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz AMGs have even more power paired with a very high-strung temperament, but in terms of overall balance and ability, the BMW is both underdog and overachiever.

This M3 stands apart from previous generations not only because of its design, engineering, and cylinder count. The big difference is that body and chassis form, for the first time, a very strong and totally integrated whole. Visible means to this end are the carbon-fiber upper front strut brace and the lower aluminum support structure; the rear subframe that, together with the five-link suspension, bolts directly onto the steel floorpan; and the lightweight wheels, axles, and composite driveshaft. Although all three cars here are equipped with manual transmissions, the new model’s improved M-DCT seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is definitely worth a look. It hastens acceleration, further reduces fuel consumption, lets you flip through the gears with your fingertips, and is a real relief in stop-and-go traffic.

Winding back the clock—2015, 2006, 1991—has rarely been more exciting than stepping out of one M3 and into the next. Steering? In the first M3, it was power-operated and connected your palms to the road like a fly fisherman playing a trophy trout. Years later, the E46’s rack-and-pinion device lets you scan the road surface with even greater depth and enhanced poise. In contrast, the very latest M3’s steering is more of an ultrasophisticated driver-assistance system than a mere direction changer. Unlike the steering of the big M5, which simply progresses from light to heavy, the new M3 invites you to tweak its temperament, which ranges from relaxed to rowdy. While the competition prefers underassisted (C63 AMG) or overstrung (RS4) setups, BMW succeeds once more in combining a reassuring beefiness around the straight-ahead position with an amazing cornering transparency that streams all vectors that matter to the fat-rimmed helm.

The progress in traction and roadholding is best exemplified by the tires fitted to these three musketeers. For the E30, the manufacturer’s choice was size 205/55R-15, which today feels like walking in a pair of lace-up leather ski boots—rigid, wooden, upright, and not very progressive at the limit. Most E46s were shod with compliant eighteen-inchers, but the wider nineteen-inch footwear fitted to our specimen was an option, sized 225/40 in the front and even fatter 255/35 in back. This formula sounds grippier than it actually is, but breakaway is wonderfully easy to control. The Michelin Pilot Supersports fitted to the 2015 car blend low sidewalls seemingly made of concrete with a wide tread made of licorice, even though the degree of stickiness is quite temperature dependent. On cold tires and in cold weather, this M3 needs to be treated with care.

Three cars, three eras, three very different identities. Viewed through modern Ray-Bans, the first M3 now seems like more of a midsummer plaything than a daily driver. An undeniable classic, it epitomizes all the old-school dynamic virtues the brand is famous for. The puny progenitor is the ultimate reduce-to-the-max driving machine that can’t wait to repeat those heart-stopping, rear-wheel-drive antics. The E46 definitely is a future collectible, and a couple of hot laps is all it takes to remind you why. A rare amalgam of on-demand aggressiveness and intrinsic harmony, this is a beautifully accessible yet radiantly extroverted sport coupe. What makes the 2006 M3 so special is the connectivity of its controls: steering, brakes, suspension, gearbox, and engine work in such close accord with the driver that this vehicle should have come with addiction-warning labels. Not surprisingly, the 2015 M3 does almost everything even better. But on top of all that extra go, grunt, and grip, the latest M car also raises the bar in terms of involvement, response, and satisfaction. Which is no mean feat in the company of a real legend and a true standard bearer.

1991 BMW M3 (E30)2006 BMW M3 (E46)2015 BMW M3 (F80)
Engine2.3L I-4, 192 hp, 170 lb-ft3.2L I-6, 333 hp, 262 lb-ft3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 425 hp, 406 lb-ft
Transmission5-speed manual6-speed manual6-speed manual
DriveRear-wheelRear-wheelRear-wheel
Wheelbase100.9"107.5"110.7"
Length171.1"176.9"184.5"
Width66.1"70.1"73.9"
Height53.9"54.0"56.1"
Curb Weight2850 lb3480 lb3540 lb
Price$35,900 ($61,700 after inflation)49595 ($57,500 after inflation)$62,925
Value Today:$15,000-25,000$20,000-$30,000n/a
David Niemann
They leave out e36 and e92?! e30 is still the best, but the e36 is better than e46.
Zak Gor
Tree gods of steel!!
Christian Schmidt
Love them all
Francis Tudo
Read your mail while driving with https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.maildriving
Gary Craig
New is better.
Gordon Monsen
The progressive "everybody wins/everybody's a winner" thing doesn't really work with cars.  I bought an E30 when it was new and still drive one.  It cost 10 times what my 2002 cost me new in 1972.  Having driven all the newer M3's, there's not one I would trade my E30 for.  Too heavy.  Too many computers.  And, whatever the power, the notion of twin turbos in an M3 is just wrong.  Likely they wanted the high torque only turbos can deliver to hide the weight and give the car some responsiveness to the throttle.  But, for those of us who grew up with BMW's New Classe, its really hard to get up much affection for these newer BMW's.  The E46 is the only other M3 I like, because they consciously went back to the basics of the original E30.  The car was a lot lighter and the engine was all about rpms.  If you haven't driven an E30, do it.
Sergey Popov
today only C63 & RS5 could compete them
Sergey Popov
they all are the best ever produced sportscars based on regular D-class cars, and only BMW produced that sort of masterpieces.
Mehul Gangwar
all of them
Timothy Purba Jr
E46 the best...
Tom Champion
E46   Best example (in my eye) of Form & Function.  It is a driving machine that makes you smile!
Jure Spruk
i would mate E30 and E46 for sure; twin front lights with new technology! Just beautiful
Dickus Dell
The E30 all day, everybody who's honest with themselves knows it's the purest M car ever. The people claiming E46 are doing it only because they own one or want one, which is bias, not truth. At least the E46 is still a good car though. Every M car after that is for homos.  
Chris Taketa
WTF? Where is the historic E92?
Michael Anderson
Ill say e46 til I drive the new one
Michael Anderson
Awee why do ya gotta ask that question? So hard to choose
Tony Schnellmann
E30
Freddie Redding II
none
JeanLaurent Mike
E46 all the way !
Vasanth Vasanthan
My fav brand &drivebilitty&comfort.....grate....
Robert May
E46>E30>2015 M3
drumwagon
"V-8 that rested heavily on the front wheels"
Um...you know that V8 weighed 33lbs less than the S54 and sat further behind the front wheels, right?
Bob Plantenberg
e30 in a new York minute!
DriverTT
I'm on my 3rd BMW, and I do NOT like the all too common "performance by button".  WTF!?  If I buy a BMW and choose the "sport" or "M sport" or pure "M", then why do I want "modes" that give the car less than optimal performance?  "Economy" mode?  In a SPORT sedan, or worse, in an M?  "COMFORT" mode?BMW seems to have forgotten what "SPORT" means.  But the darn comfort in to the chassis and suspension tuning, and leave it off of the namby pamby wimp switch.
DSC, DTC that's fine as long as I can shut if off when I want to.  But, comfort, economy, sport, sport +, sport supreme, sport supreme with extra cheese + hot sauce, come one already!Leave that silliness in the more pedestrian daily driving BMW's who's owners seek comfort and brand recognition over actually wanting a sporty BMW.
Sounds like BMW saddles the new M3 with the same selectable silliness.  Audi and MB aren't much better, nor other brands who are doing the same thing.  At least Audi will let you adjust the selectable parameters yourself.  So, if you want a comfort setting on you suspension, but want the most aggressive throttle, along with firmest steering, you can have that.In my 335i Msport, I can only choose what BMW engineers think I want.  But wait, who paid for my car?  Right, I did.I want to choose, not them.I can't set my dynamic suspension to comfort AND have the firmest steering.  Oh no, that would be contrary to what BMW thinks is appropriate.  And If I set my AT to sport, then I don't get full use of 7th and 8th gear.  7th doesn't come until around 70mph and 8th doesn't come unless I go to manual mode.
So, basically I don't like "selectable" dynamics.  Either give me the opportunity to dial in exactly what I want, and to have MY car default to those settings, or just leave the crap off.Of the things we can select, all of them go back to standard settings every time we restart the car.That's not brilliant engineering.  That, sucks.
I didn't read in this article of the new M3 suffers this same fate.  But knowing that it too has these "selectable" settings, sends questions into my mind as to what a modern M means these days.
Tom Elerding
The E46 is overall, the best car I have ever owned, and I have owned some good ones!
MattAtDoyle
The E30 has a weight/power ratio of 16.76 lbs for every 1 hp. The E46 has a ratio of 13.28 lbs for every 1hp. The F80 is at 8.32 lbs for every 1 hp, literally HALF that of the E30.  No wonder it feels so smooth comparatively.
Bob Kelly
Impressive article indeed. But l would have preferred to see how the new F30 M3 stacks up against the E90/92 M3, which l am the proud owner of. (E92)
Tikka Lal
Red one is the only good looking car BMW have made so far. That one had a real overwhelming presence. New ones are just mish-mash. X 1 is their ugliest creation .
Armorama
I drive an E30, a 1986 325es to be precise, so I am probably a bit biased, but did you all look at that photo of the 91 M3's interior? Look at it again. That is a 1982 design! And yet it still looks modern as if it was a new car today. I was never a huge fan of BMW before owning this car. I have owned many (this one is like number 19), but it has made me truly appreciate how well engineered they are. My 325es does things like ping me when the temperature starts to get near freezing. Heck my 2008 Honda Odyssey doesn't do that! And after almost 30 years almost everything still WORKS on the car. This thing was a true game-changer... and for that reason I would pick the 1991 M3 over the others every time.
Karl Stevens
Neither!!!
Christian Schmidt
e 46
Matthew Wolfe
E46
Hayden Lorell
E46
Roy J. Adams
The E30 is awesome, but I'd prefer the E46 I lusted after in college - with a proper German straight 6.
Yanick Vaughn Prout
E30
renato fernandes
I have an M3E46 and choose it instead of the E 30 because of the engine. The hi-reving S54 is really a mind oppener! I think the E30 is superb, but is a step behind the E46.

New Car Research

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price

subscribe

new cars

Read Related Articles

TO TOP