The M3 that started it all. Sold in the US from 1988 to 1991, the E30 M3 is one of the purest driver’s cars ever sold.
A modern Si likely outperforms an E30 M3 in every measurable way, but the M3 returns the favor by beating the Si in every non-measurable way. And it obliterates just about everything else, too.
If you’ve ever heard someone use the term “driver’s car,” they’re talking about an E30 M3. It’s a car that’s as comfortable on the track as it is on the street, a package that seduces despite a lack of overwhelming power or grip. Whether getting groceries or grabbing apexes, the M3 never stops communicating with the driver–from behind that blocky, three-spoked steering wheel, you receive a never-ending, near-addictive cocktail of chassis, engine, and tire feedback.
Driving an E30 M3, you’ll feel little brake dive, pitch, or body roll, and yet the suspension soaks up even the biggest of bumps. You’ll never tire of revving the 192-hp, 2.3-liter 16-valve four-cylinder to its 7200-rpm redline. You’ll never tire of hearing it scream. In short, you’ll never get sick of driving it.
As a testament to that, many M3 enthusiasts hang on to their E30-chassis cars for decades, using them as both daily drivers and track rats. They’re reliable, comfortable, and long-lived–200,000 or more trouble-free miles out of the M3’s S14B23 four-cylinder isn’t unheard of–and despite the car’s modest performance figures, not much can keep up with one when the road gets twisty. BMW used the M3’s combination of talents effectively in international touring car racing as well; during the five years that the E30 M3 was in production, it won more touring car races than any car before or since.
While each successive generation of M3 has upped the performance bar, none is as keenly focused a tool or as inherently sastisfying to drive, and the market tends show it. The average E30 M3 is now worth more than an E36-chassis example in similar condition, and well-preserved examples of Munich’s four-cylinder rocket still command more than two-thirds their original late-’80s MSRP.
The second-generation M3 lost some focus – and fans – but gained mass-market appeal and a good bit of refinement.
Heresy, they cried! Fans of the E30 M3 were distraught when they drove the E36. The E30’s roots were obviously in racing homologation – it had massive fender flares, custom glass, a racing engine, and thousands of changes to distinguish it from lesser E30s.
By comparison, the 1995 E36 M3 was a less focused and more refined effort; it came across more as a supremely capable GT car, a more polished version of the ordinary 3-series coupe with stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, and a larger, less racing-inspired six-cylinder. Purists decried it, calling it the “330iS” or “the watered-down M3.” But despite all of their complaints, it was hard to argue with the E36’s recipe – its sales figures massively eclipsed those of its older brother, and the second-generation car outperformed the first in just about every way.
In place of the E30’s high-strung four-cylinder, the E36 received a smooth-as-silk 3.0-liter inline-six derived from the 2.5-liter engine in the 325i. The M3’s 24-valve unit generated 240 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque. In 1996, displacement was bumped to 3.2-liters, but peak power output remained the same. That motor-which was essentially a stroked version of the earlier three-liter-remains, in some ways, the red-headed stepchild of the M3 lineage. It wasn’t by any means a poor execution, but enthusiasts knew that European E36s received a 321-hp 3.2-liter (and that the earlier, 3.0-liter incarnation of the euro E36 had also received more power, checking in at just over 300 ponies). And hell hath no fury like a jaded M3 fan.
The E36 M3 was offered in convertible, coupe, and sedan trim – the latter outselling the coupe in the U.S during the few years it was offered. Engine- and focus-oriented quibbles aside, the E36 was a sales success, and it ensured the continued life of the M3 as a model.
By the numbers, an E36 M3 was:– 1.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the E30 M3.
– 1.2 seconds quicker in the quarter mile than the E30 M3.
– $3150 more expensive than the E30 M3.
– 48 hp more powerful than the E30 M3.
– 484 lbs heavier than the E30 M3.
With an 8000-rpm, 333-hp inline-six that was unlike anything the world had ever seen, the E46 left burnout marks across showroom floors-and straight into most enthusiasts’ hearts.
This time, BMW didn’t withhold the Real Engine from U.S. customers – with 333 horsepower on tap, the E46 M3 launched with a bang. The E46 M3 was so much faster than the E36 – and just about everything else with a back seat and a trunk, for that matter – that its motor became its focal point. The E46’s S54B30 six may have been a tad rougher and less aurally refined than its American-market predecessor, but it produced tremendous torque across its operating range and a demonic wail at high rpm.
The E36 M3’s suspension was taught, but it lacked wheel travel, and consequently tended to bottom out over large bumps. The E46, by comparison, had a kidney-punishing ride, but loads of travel. It all served to make the car better in every way than the M3 that came before it, regardless of road surface. The E46 shrugged off its considerable weight with fantastic balance, great steering feel, and cat-like responses. It whipped the E36 in every category except versatility; there was no four-door E46 M3.
BMW’s SMG automated manual transmission debuted on the E46 in 2002, and while European buyers loved its lightning-fast gearchanges, Americans complained about its truly awful shift quality. The North American market never got the lightweight, track-oriented M3 CSL, which featured up to 360 horsepower, a carbon-fiber roof, and a host of other weight-reduction measures, but a swan-song Competition Package gave the E46 other CSL features, including a revised steering rack, nineteen-inch BBS wheels, and an alcantara steering wheel.
By the numbers, an E46 M3 was:– 1.2 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the E36 M3.
– 1.4 seconds quicker in the quarter mile than the E36 M3.
– $7450 more expensive than the E36 M3.
– 93 hp more powerful than the E36 M3.
– 261 lbs heavier than the E36 M3.
The fourth-generation M3 gains a V-8 and some more weight. But with 420 horsepower on tap, it’s sure to raise the bar again.
The purists among us lament the end of the six-cylinder M3 era – the fourth-generation M3 has a 4.0-liter V-8. But as soon as we heard sound clips of the new 420-hp monster (links are below) we stopped whining and started getting excited. We haven’t driven the new-generation M3 yet, but we can’t wait.
The 2009 M3 is based on the E92 3-series coupe, which is itself a tremendously better car than the outgoing E46. The problem lies in its styling: with a little too much Toyota Solara in the rear three-quarters, the coupe comes across as more euro-generic-elegant than sporty. And we’ve yet to decide whether or not that that look really works for an M3.
As for performance, it’s a safe bet that the E92 will outperform the E46 in every measurable way, as has each successive M3. But as history has shown, each generation has gotten a little flabbier, a little more clinical, and a little less fun. Here’s to hoping that the E92 is the first to break that tradition.
By the numbers, the E92 M3 is:– equally quick to 60 mph as the E46 M3.
– $25,600 (est.) more expensive than the E46 M3.
– 81 hp more powerful than the E46 M3.
– 161 lbs heavier than the E46 M3.