BMW is officially celebrating the 50th anniversary of the BMW M in 2022. This prompts one to take a look at one of the most iconic BMW cars ever honored by the M division – M3. From a naturally aspirated four-cylinder to a twin-turbo six-cylinder and beyond, the M3 has always promised a balance between handling and straight-line performance. In separate generations proven to be not only the most successful touring car in history, but the best-selling M product of all time, the M3 has come a long way since its humble inception in 1986.
And if you’ve never cut an M3 you might be wondering if the hype is really believable. After all – the E30 M3 conjures about 200 hp, which isn’t exactly daunting in today’s market of a readily available 300 hp hatchback. Even the powerful V8-powered M3 only sprints from 0-60 in about four and a half seconds. Drag sector champ Teslas never completely loses sleep.
Now, when it comes to the M3, my gaining opinion is that there’s a lot more to it than just looking at the numbers. But even if you’re only bench racing, the G80 M3 – with xDrive’s under 3-second 0-60 test – will surely quench your thirst. To the point: There’s an M3 for everyone, and today we’re going to look at which one might be best for you.
E30 m 3
Introduced in 1986, the E30 M3 currently represents one of the worst possible values of performance by numbers. 0-60 takes half a male’s life expectancy, and the S14’s four-cylinder engine is good at generating 192 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, which hardly registers in the horsepower wars today. What is logged is the car weighs just under 3000 pounds and redline 7250 rpm. The Special Editions — which can now be imported into the US — do a bit more, with higher (and pricier) Sport Evolution models delivering an impressive 235 horsepower.
Although the E30 M3 is alluring as a momentum car, the prices have gone up significantly and provided good examples that are a bit hard to justify. Anything under 100,000 miles will fetch a price somewhere around double its original $34,000. If you’re looking for something reasonable – the E30 M3 isn’t.
The cost of repair can be high, mileage is expensive (for example, every thousand miles put on a car will significantly decrease in value), and the car is simply not very fast. Her charm lies not only in her now humble and imaginative looks, but in her confidence-inspiring dynamics that allow her to be constantly driven in a 9/10, wherever you are. The E30 M3 remains the centerpiece of the high-dollar M3s – worth a quarter of a million dollars – and they are absolutely worth a penny, as long as you can afford to spend it.
Definitely a wildcard in this article, the E36 M3 came to North America in 1995 with a RoW-neutral (rest of the world, read: outside North America) S50 engine. Good for 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, it’s a questionable value proposition over the 328i, which offers a similar weight balance and just thirty horsepower less power.
But it offers a much different driving experience—with different suspension and brakes, power delivery and differential, interior, and other small tweaks, the M3 quickly distinguishes itself from its other siblings. And the RoW M3 makes it even more confusing—offering good things like single throttle bodies and up to 321 horsepower, but real-world performance isn’t much different from North American cars.
On paper, the RoW E36 M3 strikes the perfect balance of impressive power, balance of weight, exclusivity, overall reliability and price. But in reality, parts can be pricey, real-world performance is not drastically different, and I’m not entirely convinced that it does anything better than its successor, the E46 M3.
But it must be said – the ZF’s five-speed manual is a dramatically better shift feel than the Getrag in the E46. And the E36 weighs a little less. The interior is a little more austere, and either the engine — North American or RoW — is a bit more powerful than the E46’s S54. thus; The E36 M3 is the perfect M3 for someone who wants most of the drama from the E46 M3, but half the headache—which would be too much for some.
E46 m 3
The E46 M3 is what most car fans refer to as an “icon.” It’s a cliché, but it goes with the recycled praise the structure receives. The superb S54 inline-six is an aural experience unlike any other M3 – except perhaps one – and the car spins freely to nearly 8000 rpm. It only comes as a coupe or convertible and shares very few parts with the non-M 3 trim – which makes it feel even more special. Use the optional Competition Package to get good stuff like high-performance brakes, wider wheels, special traction control modes, and more.
But with every sprint in pink to red streak comes a lot of thorns. The E46 M3 is an insanely fun driving experience when it’s working properly. But in general, it will take a lot of time, money and mechanical knowledge to fully enjoy it. In my opinion, if you can’t buy a new BMW, you probably can’t afford to maintain the E46 M3, given the scope and range of problems the car can have.
Especially when combined with the “F1-inspired” SMG automated manual gearbox. Thus, the E46 M3 is my recommendation for someone who really wants to enjoy a car that has cemented the M3 as “the ultimate driving machine” – and has the time, money and/or experience to back it up. It’s the most balanced and arguably the most useful for the M3 to drive. But this is not for the faint of heart. It will break a lot. And from the stop sign, I’m still smoking by the gram in the TRD Pro Camry. If you’re not interested in any of that – the E46 M3 is probably for you.
E90 / F92 / E93 M3
The E90, E92 and E93 M3 introduced a powerful V8 engine to the M3 lineup. They’re the only ones who get it, and while the “race-inspired” pedigree is often used as marketing talk about “the race team looked at it once,” the S65 really does walk. The 4.0-liter V8 weighs less than 500 pounds—in particular, about 30 pounds lighter than the previous S54, with two fewer cylinders. It was manufactured at the Landshut Foundry – the same manufacturing facility responsible for the BMW Sauber Formula 1 engines.
Don’t forget it turns out to be another planet, with an operatic ramp of 8300 rpm and 414 horsepower. That’s not a bad thing, but the E9X M3s get better. Think, a glimpse into the future. Features such as the carbon roof, modern navigation systems, a competent automatic transmission and extensive electronic damping make their first appearance on the M3.
Although the E9X M3s are not without their flaws, they do a great job of bridging the gap between later generations of M3s, and the sluggish but attractive feel of older cars. The E9X M3 is as perfect as someone’s “second” BMW – for example, you are familiar and ready to service a German driving machine, ready to warm your hands and empty your wallet.
It’s a very rewarding car to drive – but it weighs a little more than the E46 and drives a little more. The E9X also runs decently every day, especially when stock is left out – just be careful during maintenance. In addition, the model without navigation and DCT offers one of the most dynamic driving experiences ever. It’s no compromise – it’s a Swiss military knife with a V8 engine that screams evil.
F80 / F82 / F83 M3 and M4
After four generations and nearly three decades of naturally aspirated M power, the F80 M3 debuted the S55 twin-turbocharged engine. And it made a lot of people angry — heck, they still are. But the numbers are tough to fight, with 444 horsepower in the Competition package on tap, and a wholly irresponsible 406 pound-feet of torque available from just 1,850 rpm. Results? The F80 M3 and F82/83 M4 Coupe and Convertible can exhaust and cause over-starts like the lack of an M3 that precedes it, at times to the chagrin of the 0-60-seat race crowd.
Change is everywhere in the F80 and its platform mates. There is no more hydraulic steering. No option cancels out the big screen in the center console, and you have adjustable on-the-fly driving modes, controlling everything from throttle response to suspension stiffness. What makes it even more weird in the M3 world is that it rarely breaks; Apart from the various gaskets, there is not much that usually happens in these cars, even after many years.
Thus, the Jekyll, Hyde F80 and Friends are the perfect choice for anyone who just wants a car with great performance. The permanent display distracts from the driving experience a bit, but the comfort pays off in everyday driving. And Hyde is just around the corner – ready to go in case of fatigue literally anytime. It’s also a great car for anyone who wants to swerve more often. It also makes a great one-car solution – especially in its four-door M3 look, it’s exciting enough for aimless weekend trips but practical enough to take your friends to the pub and back.
G80/G82/G83 M3 and M4
Here is finally the G80 M3, G82 G83 M4 Coupe and Convertible. And unfortunately, I don’t have much to say – they offer many of the same advantages as their predecessors. Finally, receiving the available xDrive AWD system makes this the fastest around town, and the most powerful in corners, of any M3. For performance seekers and prime number analyzers, there is no alternative – newer is better.
And like every M3 and M4 before it, there is an audible group screaming at the top of their voice to anyone listening that the sensation is over. The flame was extinguished, and BMW M lost its way again for the 50th year in a row. But the numbers don’t like – on paper, the G8X is the best performing M3 and M4 ever produced. And if that’s the kind of statement you want to associate with, the G8X cars are your must-haves. In fairness, it’s also a reasonable guess that it will be very reliable, as much of the engine is based on knowledge gleaned from the S55’s development cycle.
We hope you learned a little bit about the M3 or two today. And if you’re considering buying one, we hope this guide has given you some insight into what each car does best, and what it might represent for other fans. However, the best way to find out is to drive, and I encourage you to drive as many as you can before settling on one. Happy fishing!