The BMW M3s We Never Got

December 20, 2010
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For a quarter of a century, the BMW M3 has been the archetypal transportation choice for the well-heeled German-car enthusiast looking for a sport coupe with four usable seats. Although the M3 has evolved greatly over time-growing in cylinder count from four to six to eight along the way-each M3 arguably represents the best sedan-based driver's car of its time.
BMW M3 Generations Front End
But there's one more thing all four generations of the M3 have in common: each M3 came in an even more potent form that, sadly, didn't come to America. We went to Munich to drive them back-to-back and see what we've been missing.
Generation I: E30 Sport Evolution
The final evolution of a sports car revolution.
The original M3 wasn't designed to sell, it was designed to race. Homologation rules dictated that, in order to take their vehicles racing in various touring-car series, manufacturers had to produce 5000 street-going versions of the race car. That explains the story of the M3's appearance on public roads-and in the United States, the E30-series M3's story ends there.
But there's more to it. Remember that the E30 M3 was a brass-knuckled backhand to the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, and these two cars were embroiled in one of the most fervent racetrack rivalries of their time. To remain competitive season after season, the dueling Germans invested in systematic tweaking. Evolutionary changes were permitted-so long as 500 copies of the new model were built for public consumption. BMW and Mercedes each produced three updates of their cars, and the ultimate BMW was the 1990 M3 Sport Evolution.
To remain competitive with Mercedes, the M3's 2.3-liter four-cylinder was bored and stroked to 2.5 liters. Horsepower and torque increased accordingly. So did vibration, a side effect exacerbated by the fitment of a lighter flywheel. Sodium-filled exhaust valves and piston oil squirters helped keep the new engine ticking, and bigger intake valves and more aggressive timing and lift helped it breathe. An automatic transmission was unthinkable-the Sport Evo kept the dogleg five-speed from the regular Euro-spec E30 M3.
The Sport Evo came with adjustable front and rear spoilers as well as some weight-saving measures first seen on the Evolution I, including thinner and lighter side and rear glass and a restyled trunk lid. The Sport had lightweight bumpers, and the foglights were replaced with cooling ducts for the front brakes, which were outfitted with more aggressive pads. The front suspension was lowered by 0.4 inch, and the front wheel arches were enlarged to fit bigger wheels for the track. At sixteen inches, the Evo's BBS street wheels were also an inch larger than the M3's and were painted brake-dust gray.
1990 BMW M3 E30 Sport Evolution Rear In Motion
Inside, the Sport Evo was fitted with more supportive seats, and the steering wheel, emergency-brake handle, and (lighted!) shift knob were covered in suede. Optional electronically adjustable shocks tailored the damping according to three modes: K for Comfort, N for Normal, and S for Sport. A green indicator light in the instrument cluster mirrors the center-console-mounted switch's position. Move between Normal and Sport, and the dash indicator changes immediately. Switch into Comfort, though, and the light goes out for a moment before the "K" finally deigns to illuminate. It's as if the Sport Evo is clenching its eyelids deliberately and asking, "Seriously? Comfort? Do you have any idea what I am?"
You'll know what the Sport Evo is the second you start driving it. Unlike the base M3's well-adjusted 2.3-liter, the 2.5 doesn't really wake up until the farthest reaches of its rev range. The engine guns for its rev limiter as if its tach needle were magnetically attracted to the color red-the surge to the redline is more frenetic than even in modern variable-valve-timing engines.
Although the Sport Evo is a whole order quicker than the base M3, its trump card is actually its chassis. With no sacrifice to comfort (we can only wish modern big-wheeled cars rode like this), the baddest M3 makes a stock E30 M3 feel like a wet noodle. The Sport Evo eliminates all perceptible roll and pitch, and its steeringreplaces the M3's trace amount of bushing compliance with immediate responses. Understeer is almost nowhere to be found in this car's repertoire, and yet at the limit it is docile and predictable. The Sport Evolution does to the standard M3 what the M3 did to the lesser 3-series-which itself was a revelation.
E30 specs
U.S. M3
PRODUCTION: 4996 (1988-91)
ENGINE: DOHC DOHC 16-valve I-4
CODE NAME: S14B23
DISPLACEMENT: 2302 cc
POWER: 192 hp @ 6750 rpm
TORQUE: 170 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
REDLINE: 7300 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 7.7 sec
TOP SPEED: 143 mph
M3 Sport Evolution
PRODUCTION: 600 (1990)
ENGINE: DOHC 16-valve I-4
CODE NAME: S14B25
DISPLACEMENT: 2467 cc
POWER: 235 hp @ 7000 rpm
TORQUE: 177 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
REDLINE: 7300 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 6.5 sec
TOP SPEED: 154 mph
Generation II: E36 M3 "3.2 Evo"
Will the real M engine please stand up?
BMW E36 M3 Front Three Quarters
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.
Kind of makes our M3 sound a little square, no? Well, on the plus side, we got the same brilliant chassis, wonderful clutch and shifter, and communicative steering. The M3 that came to America was, arguably, just a sixth gear, five throttle butterflies, and 1100 rpm short of perfection.
BMW E36 M3 Rear Three Quarters
Go, Canada
Before the U.S. version was developed, a bunch of E36 M3s made it legally to North America in 1994 with the "real" 3.0-liter S50 engine. Tom Plucinsky, an enthusiastic product planner at BMW's Canadian arm, convinced his bosses to bring in the 282-hp M3s-and they agreed to import as many as he could find takers for. That turned out to be forty-three buyers, plus one car to shine at auto shows and one for the press to flog. The S50B30 M3s were available with all options à la carte, and each received a numbered plaque. Plucinsky, who now works for BMW of North America's PR department, didn't have the money to buy one himself, but the proud papa still has the paperwork on all of his S50 babies, and it warms his heart to see them pop up on eBay Motors from time to time.
E36 Specs
U.S. M3 (3.2)
PRODUCTION: 27,573 (1996-99)
ENGINE: DOHC 24-valve I-6
CODE NAME: S52USB32
DISPLACEMENT: 3152 cc
POWER: 240 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE: 236 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm
REDLINE: 6500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 5.8 sec
TOP SPEED: 137 mph
Euro M3 (3.2)
PRODUCTION: 62,062 (1995-99)
ENGINE: DOHC 24-valve I-6
CODE NAME: S50B32
DISPLACEMENT: 3201 cc
POWER: 317 hp @ 7400 rpm
TORQUE: 258 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
REDLINE: 7600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 5.5 sec
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
Generation III: E46 M3 CSL
Light, loaded, and at the limit.
BMW E46 M3 CSL Rear Three Quarters
Grab the handle, slam the CSL's door shut, and you're treated to the tinniest tink this side of a Trabant. Turn the key, and the straight six coughs to life and then promptly stalls. When you restart it, there's a discordant choir of five or ten or fourteen exhaust heat shields all buzzing at different frequencies while the computer desperately tries-and fails-to keep the engine at a steady speed.
You drive around slowly, patiently waiting for the illuminated yellow segments on the tachometer to gradually extinguish, indicating that the engine is warmed up and ready to be flogged. The racing bucket seat is comfortable despite being rock hard, but the ride is brutal and you hear everything going on around you. There's precious little sound deadening in the CSL, and carbon fiber-the roof, the inner door panels, and the center console are all made of the lightweight stuff-conducts noise like the walls of a cheap motel. The ducktail rear trunk lid, the rear diffuser, and the front apron are also carbon fiber, and the trunk floor is cardboard. But the CSL wears big brakes from the E39-chassis M5. It's pretty clear where selective weight loss was important-and with more than 240 pounds gone, the diet was a success.
You're thinking that the semislick Michelin tires are warm because they're picking up pebbles and flinging them at the underside of the car. You tip in. Only slightly modified from the base E46 M3, the S54 engine boasts the same broad torque curve and chain-saw sound track. To your right, you spy a button labeled "Sport" and press it. Hmm, no discernible change-until you exercise your right ankle again. Suddenly the large, carbon-fiber air box under the hood sounds as if it's being ripped to pieces by the guttural, staccato intake pulses. In fact, the whole car seems like it's being shaken apart by the sound. Now freed from restriction by way of a five-inch air-box flap that swung open when you hit the button, this is the loudest intake roar you'll ever hear from a street car-it completely drowns out the buzzy exhaust note and transforms this M3 into a race car.
The Michelins lied-they weren't fully warm, and the CSL's rear steps to the side. Faster, more communicative steering makes the slide easy to catch, and the SMG automated manual will obediently hold whatever gear you ask of it. Too bad it has such a hard time moving the CSL smoothly off the line or shifting without attempting to either break your neck or smoke the clutch.
BMW 1 Series M Front Three Quarters In Motion
As you drive the CSL, it's immediately clear that this M3 was pushed to the absolute limit. It seems thatneither the engine, the transmission, the suspension, nor the body could handle another ounce of performance. Like all E46 M3s, the CSL looks restrained, dignified, and elegant, but underneath, the CSL is raw performance ready to burst at the seams. And isn't that the whole point of an M3?
The E46 M3's real successor?
While in Munich, we had the opportunity to sample a new M car that might, philosophically, be the closest thing to an E46 M3 successor: the 2011 1-series M coupe (pictured at top). We drove camouflaged mules, and BMW was hush-hush about the details, but a peek underneath revealed suspension, brakes, and a limited-slip differential that looked suspiciously like those in the current M3. The straight six under the hood appears to be the twin-turbo N54HP found in the Z4 sDrive35is. The shifter is short, the seats are aggressive, and the flared fenders are huge. After a quick drive, we were left wanting for only two things: some more engine noise and the disposable income to afford one.
E46 SPECS
U.S. M3
PRODUCTION: 40,522 (2001-06)
ENGINE: DOHC 24-valve I-6
CODE NAME: S54B32
DISPLACEMENT: 3246 cc
POWER: 333 hp @ 7900 rpm
TORQUE: 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm
REDLINE: 8000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 5.2 sec
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
Euro M3 CSL
PRODUCTION: 1400 (2003)
ENGINE: DOHC 24-valve I-6
CODE NAME: S54B32
DISPLACEMENT: 3246 cc
POWER: 355 hp @ 7900 rpm
TORQUE: 273 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm
REDLINE: 8000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed sequential manual
0-62 MPH: 4.9 sec
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
Generation IV: E92 M3 GTS
Orange you spoilered?
BMW E92 M3 GTS Side In Motion
The new M3 GTS came to be because, according to Albert Biermann, head of development for M cars, "we needed to have a little fun." Besides, there was excess capacity on the BMW Individual line, so M decided to produce twenty hi-po M3s for the German market. Then the E.U. sales team begged for a hundred of its own, so the car needed to be engineered for European certification standards, not just Germany's. Then the Swiss wanted in, followed by the U.K. Finally, Biermann said, "OK, no more." Homologating the GTS for each additional market meant more development and more compromises. Result? It's not street legal in the United States, and you can't have one.
The price is almost as shocking as the exclusive fire orange paint-at about $160,000, the GTS costs twice as much as a base M3 in Germany. But to deride this limited-production monster on its price is to miss the point completely.
The most expensive of the GTS's special parts is most likely the stroked version of the M3's V-8, which displaces 4.4 liters and produces 444 hp. Attached solely to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the big engine knocks 0.2 second off the M3's sprint to 62 mph, and its top speed is limited by air resistance, not a governor, at 190 mph.
The GTS was designed to go club racing, so there's a bright orange roll cage where the rear seats used to be and surprisingly comfortable racing buckets up front. Although the GTS we drove had rain-sensing wipers and cruise control (go figure), it had no radio, navigation system, Bluetooth, or air-conditioning. Climate controls are limited to three round lightweight knobs on the center console.
On the road, the ride is race-car firm but not overly harsh, despite being suspended even lower than the regular M3. Then again, you can ruin the ride if you desire, thanks to double-adjustable KW dampers (their tool kit is in the trunk). Camber is also user-selectable.
If only we could adjust the GTS's exhaust, which, at low engine speeds, might just cause your head to explode. In what could be this car's only major flaw, the mufflers transmit far more boom into the cabin than they do high-end scream.
BMW E92 M3 GTS Cockpit
The GTS is one of the most composed high-speed autobahn missiles on the planet. With the speedometer needle pointing to a number that, converted into mph, is three times the old "Arrive Alive!" double nickel, the GTS is unfazed by midcorner bumps, strong crosswinds, or hysterical passengers. Enlarged brakes are on call to bite off speed in a tremendous hurry.
In some regards, the GTS is the most extreme M3 ever. The roll cage, the paint, and the garish wing all look the part, but from behind the wheel, the GTS is actually the most clinical of all the M3s here. The dual-clutch transmission turns gearchanges into an Xbox game, the V-8's omnipresent torque takes the work out of going fast, and the steering is millimeter-precise but not particularly communicative, at least in this group.
Arranged chronologically, each generation of M3 has become quicker and more capable, and the GTS clearly is at the top of that heap. The rare opportunity to drive four generations of the M3 in one day-and the four most potent variants of each generation, at that-makes it clear, however, that the level of driver involvement is inversely proportionate to the M3's cylinder count. That said, if you handed us the keys to any M3-even the regular ones that made it to the U.S.-you'll hear no complaining. The grass may be greener in Munich, but the lawns here are still plenty lush.
E92 SPECS
U.S. M3
PRODUCTION: 17,200* (2008-present)
ENGINE: DOHC 48-valve V-8
CODE NAME: S65B40
DISPLACEMENT: 3999 cc
POWER: 414 hp @ 8300 rpm
TORQUE: 295 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
REDLINE: 8250 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-62 MPH: 4.6 sec
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
*all body styles
M3 Sport Evolution
PRODUCTION: less than 150 (2010)
ENGINE: DOHC 48-valve V-8
CODE NAME: S65B44
DISPLACEMENT: 4361 cc
POWER: 444 hp @ 8300 rpm
TORQUE: 325 lb-ft @ 3750 rpm
REDLINE: 8250 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-62 MPH: 4.4 sec
TOP SPEED: 190 mph
*all body styles

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