The BMW M3s We Never Got

Paul Barshon
#BMW, #M3

Generation II: E36 M3 "3.2 Evo"
Will the real M engine please stand up?

If you never drive a European-spec E36 M3, you might think there's nothing wrong with the second-generation M3 that came to America. But despite the E36's huge commercial success here-not to mention the critical acclaim it earned-it has a dirty secret: the engine cover says M on it, but it's not an M engine.

All of the normally aspirated engines in M cars share two primary characteristics: they're high-revving, and they have an individual throttle butterfly for each cylinder. Neither of the two 240-hp engines in the U.S-spec E36 M3 (a 3.0-liter for 1995 and a 3.2 thereafter) fit the bill. In fact, they're little more than standard 3-series engines with higher displacements and more aggressive cams. Their 6500-rpm redline is hardly motorsportlike, but the engines' simpler design kept the M3's price palatable to American buyers.

The European E36 M3 also started life with a 3.0-liter under the hood. With six throttle bodies and a 7300-rpm redline, though, this one was a real M unit and produced 282 hp. It eventually gave way to a better engine: with more displacement and an even higher redline, the 3.2-liter version belted out 317 hp-77 hp more than the American-market 3.2-liter. It featured variable valve timing on both camshafts and an 11.3:1 compression ratio and was attached to a six-speed manual transmission (a first for the M3). Aluminum door skins helped offset the bigger engine's extra weight, and two-piece front brake rotors helped dissipate the extra energy.

The European 3.2 trades almost none of the trademark BMW six-cylinder refinement for the extra thrust, save for a nudge in the backside at 2200 rpm when the cams switch timing. At about 5200 rpm, when the U.S.-spec E36 is quickly nearing its redline, there's another cam phase shift, and this M3 snorts a metaphoric kilo of crystal meth, sprinting headfirst into its 7600-rpm limiter with clenched teeth and dilated pupils.

This is an interesting article, and good reading.I have an E36 M3 here in Australia. We got the "Euro spec" cars (Called "Evo" in the UK market). Not that it's a big difference but the power output is not 317bhp but 321bhp at 7,400 rpm, with a 7,500 rpm redline. This was an important design goal to BMW as it was their first road legal car to put out over 100bhp per litre. One of the significant advances (excuse the pun) of this engine is that the VANOS was not stepped, as noted above but was continuously variable, on both camshafts. The power delivery is very smooth and there is a lot of it. Although the maximum power is at 7,400 rpm, the maximum torque (258 lb/ft) at only 3,250 rpm. That was the great achievement of this engine design and it was evolved through the following series of M cars. The Euro M3 has a stronger (and heavier) limited slip differential and a fairly long list of other differences including those in the braking and ABS systems. The US car came close to the "rest of the world" car in the chassis but unfortunately not in the propulsion department. All M3s are exceptional cars, I agree.

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