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.
- 2.3L I-4, 192 hp, 170 lb-ft
- 3.2L I-6, 333 hp, 262 lb-ft
- 3.0L twin-turbo I-6, 425 hp, 406 lb-ft
- 5-speed manual
- 6-speed manual
- 6-speed manual
- Curb Weight
- 2850 lb
- 3480 lb
- 3540 lb
- $35,900 ($61,700 after inflation)
- 49595 ($57,500 after inflation)
- Value Today: