For millions of car enthusiasts around the world, the BMW M3 is the ultimate expression of the driving experience. Spanning over 30 years, five generations, and with several engine configurations, it has been one of the most successful performance cars of all times. It combines power, balance and fun with everyday practicality in one unrivaled package. We bring all generations together in what can only be described as undiluted M3 indulgence. Of course, the aim is to show how the car evolved through the years and to explore each cars pros and cons.
Unlike many similar cars, the first generation of M3 was not a tuned up version of a stock production car. Here, we had a case of a true racing car which was equipped with some carpets and a pair of license plates. Available as a coupe and later, limited convertible. And the reason for this? Rules of German touring cars (DTM) racing series, demanding at least 5,000 production models built and sold to the general public. Even by looking at it you will know instantly it is a M3, as it shared very few body panels with the standard E30 coupe. Everything else for the E30 M3 was completely new. A chassis setup with all new axle offered better kinematics, damping and braking performance. Under the hood a 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine producing 200 bhp, mated to a five-speed Getrag ‘dog-leg’ racing gearbox propelled the vehicle. Although the engine might seem a bit underpowered, have in mind that the car weighed less than 1200kg. As a result, acceleration of 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds was quite competitive.
Lastly, the BMW E30 M3 wasn’t all about the engine and the power. This car was about handling, feel and grip, and it has loads of it. There were two special editions were released: the ‘Evo’, with a 220bhp engine, and the ‘Sport Evo’, with a 238bhp 2.5-litre engine and a special rear wing. Although only 5,000 of them were needed to go racing against the Mercedes Benze 190e, BMW ended up selling 17,970 E30 M3s. Many which have now become collector type vehicles for those who really understand this street-legal race car heritage.
It won numerous races for BMW Motorsport in 1987 WTCC, and it took the DTM title in 1987 and 1989. It also won at the Nürburgring from 1989 to 1992. So, yes, it did quite good as a racing car.
Next up, we’re winding the clocks forward, in a period between 1992 and 1999. This is where we meet the E36 M3. BMW itself stated that this new M3 marked “the end of an era for uncompromising sports cars”, as this car featured a straight-6 engine. Earlier 3.0-litre versions developed a 286 bhp, and were combined with a five speed manual gearbox, although now with a conventional shift pattern. In 1995, an upgraded 3.2-litre producing 321 bhp was introduced.
Combined with an all new six-speed gearbox, it was capable of hitting 0-60 mph in under 5.5 seconds. Also, these naturally aspirated engines featured a variable camshaft timing device called VANOS, which enabled a wider and more favorable torque range. An optional sequential M gearbox might not have been the greatest on earth, but buyers loved it, as every second M3 sold had the ‘SMG’ gearbox. To widen a customer base, it was available as a saloon, coupe or a convertible. Yet, this generation was more of a luxury, grand touring car and it wasn’t quite so focused on dynamics and handling as E30 M3 was. Although having more power and being more refined, it felt less of an M3. It seemed as BMW tried to make a performance car for everybody wit E36 M3. Despite some shortcomings, 71.242 of them were sold in all three guises, proving that BMW was on the right track.
Unlike E36, which in a way lacked the hard-edged focus of the original E30, the BMW E46 M3 was yet again a proper racing tool. Produced between 2000 and 2006, it was distinctive for its wider wheel arches, the aluminum hood with a prominent power dome, the air intakes on the wings, and the four exhaust pipes in the rear. There was no doubt that this was M3 back to its best. The engine, although still being a naturally aspirated 3.2-litre six cylinder, was a newly developed unit. With double VANOS valve timing and a superior injection system, it put out 343 bhp at 7,900 rpm, yielding a record breaking 105 bhp per litre.
This was combined with a tighter chassis, more responsive steering and, in most cases, an optional sequential gearbox. All of that made the E46 M3 feel like an unshackled beast. And if that would leave anyone wanting more, a 110 kg lighter M3 CSL was introduced in 2003. This stripped out version featured carbon-fiber panels, thinner glass and plastic boot lid, making it light and nimble. Engine power was increased as well, now giving 360 bhp and 0-60 mph times less than 5 seconds. Even the sales figures confirm that this car was masterfully blended, with a total of 85,766 coupes and convertibles rolling of the line.
In the racing world department, there was a M3 GTR, as a first ever M3 to feature a V8 – the M3 GTR. This American Le Mans Series car produced 450bhp, won in 7 out of 10 races and dominated the 2001 Championship in the GT class.
Produced from 2007 to 2013, this was the first M3 that fashioned Chris Bangle’s flame surfacing design approach. At the time the car was released, this was still a subject of much criticism. Yet, that was not the only controversy around this car, as the iconic straight-6 engine was replaced with a V8. Still, don’t think for a minute that by this time M3 became a lazy muscle car, as this was truly a special V8. With individual throttle bodies and a rev limiter set to 8,400 rpm, this 4.0-litre powerhouse had nothing lazy in it. Pushing out 420 bhp and 295 lb-ft of torque, the new E92 M3 would still reach 0-60 mph in less than 5 seconds, despite weighing 1650kg. Other cool features, such as carbon fiber roof, perfectly balanced chassis and a variable M differential, made it a driving masterpiece. Couple that with many driver aids, refined luxury interior and overall practicality, and you end up with one car for all purposes. It’s the car for every occasion, from shop hopping to motorway destroying. There is nothing that this thing cannot do brilliantly.
Unlike an E46, in addition to a coupe or a convertible form, it was also available as saloon. Although not being a such seller as the predecessor, BMW ended up with 65,985 E90 M3s made in all three forms.
There were several special editions as well: the M3 DTM Champion Edition, limited to just 54 models, the M3 GT2 Art Car created by Jeff Koons, Lime Rock Track edition, and the brutal 450bhp M3 GTS.
With a current generation of 3 series, some changes in model naming were introduced. The M3 badge will remain only on the saloon, while coupe will bear the M4 name. However, this is less important, as this generation marks a significant change from any previous M3. This is the first time the M3 used a turbocharged engine, but definitely will not be the last. With a 431 bhp on the tap, this revamped version of BMW’s tried 3.0-litre twin-turbo 6-cylinder engine is just a bit more powerful than the predecessor. But it’s the torque that have really taken a leap, with 38% more torque than you got in the naturally aspirated v8 in the previous generation. A lot of focus has been made to make this car as light as possible, which is why carbon-fiber had been used quite a bit in the body panels and chassis components.
You’ll find a carbon-fiber roof, driveshaft and the engine struts, just to make sure that the m3 is as light and rigid as possible while increasing its agility as a race car. It worked, as the performance is mind numbing. Acceleration from 0-60 takes around 4 seconds, while the top speed, if not limited to 155 mph, would reach around 190 miles. Steering feel is a bit different, and perhaps not as good as in E46 or E90, as the electric power steering rack takes some time to get used to. However, as this car comes with adjustable damper settings, gearbox aggression and steering sharpness, everyone will find the best suited mode. Not only that, but in normal driving the new M3 is a comfortable cruiser which slips through gears smoothly, cocoons you in leather and comfort and keeps you safe. Still, flick a few buttons to sharpen up the settings, and it will transform into an axe-murderer of power repeatedly trying to kill you if you’re not paying complete attention.