Which BMW M3 is for you?
BMW is officially celebrating the 50th anniversary of BMW M in 2022. It forces a look back at one of the most iconic BMWs to ever be honored by the M division – the M3. From the naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine to the twin-turbo six-cylinder and beyond, the M3 has always promised a balance between handling and straight-line performance. Over the generations, proving not only the most successful passenger car in history, but also the best-selling M product of all time, the M3 has come a long way from its humble origins in 1986.
And if you’ve never driven an M3, you might be wondering if the hype is really to be believed. After all, the E30 M3 gets away with around 200 horsepower, which isn’t exactly intimidating in today’s readily available 300-hp hatchback market. Even the mighty V8-powered M3 only launches from 0-60 in about four and a half seconds. Drag strip hero Teslas isn’t exactly losing sleep.
Now, when it comes to the M3, I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot more to it than just looking at the numbers. But even if you’re only into dyno racing, the G80 M3 – with xDrive testing under 3 seconds 0-60 times – will surely quench your thirst. By the way: there’s an M3 for everyone, and today we’re going to see which one might be best for you.
Introduced in 1986, the E30 M3 currently represents one of the worst possible values in terms of performance in numbers. 0-60 takes half the average male life expectancy and the four-cylinder S14 engine is good at generating 192 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, which barely fits into the horsepower wars of today. What is recorded is the car’s under 3000 pound weight and the 7250 rpm redline. Special Editions – now importable in the US – do a bit more, with top-of-the-line (and best-priced) Sport Evolution models boasting a glorious 235 horsepower.
Although the E30 M3 is tempting as a dynamic car, prices have skyrocketed and make good examples a little hard to justify. Anything under 100,000 miles will cost about double its original MSRP of $34,000. If you’re looking for something reasonable, the E30 M3 just isn’t.
The cost to repair can be high, the miles are expensive (meaning every thousand miles put on the car will measurably depreciate it), and the car just isn’t very fast. Its charm lies not only in its discreet and now emblematic look, but also in its reassuring dynamics which allow it to be driven constantly at 9/10th, wherever you are. The E30 M3 remains the kingpin of high-priced M3s – up to a quarter of a million dollars – and is still worth a penny, as long as you can afford to spend it.
Certainly the joker of this article, the E36 M3 arrived in North America in 1995 with a sterilized version of the S50 RoW engine (rest of the world, read: outside of North America). Good for 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, it’s a questionable value proposition compared to the 328i, which offers a similar weight balance and only thirty horsepower less.
But it offers a very different driving experience – with different suspension and brakes, power delivery and differential, interior and other small tweaks, the M3 quickly stands apart from the non-M brethren. And the RoW M3s make it even more confusing – offering benefits like individual throttle bodies and up to 321 horsepower, but real-world performance that doesn’t differ hugely from North American cars.
On paper, a RoW E36 M3 strikes the perfect balance between incredible power and weight, uniqueness, overall reliability, and price. But in reality, parts can be very expensive, actual performance isn’t drastically different, and I’m never quite convinced it performs better than its successor, the E46 M3.
But it has to be said – the ZF five-speed manual has a considerably better shift feel than the E46’s Getrag. And the E36 weighs just a little less. And the interior is a bit more spartan, and either engine – North American or RoW – is just that bit stronger than the E46’s S54. Thereby; the E36 M3 is the perfect M3 for the person who wants most of the drama of the E46 M3, but half the headache – which for some will be enough.
The E46 M3 is what most automotive connoisseurs call an “icon”. It’s a cliche, but it’s in character with the rest of the recycled praise the chassis receives. The fantastic S54 straight-six is a sonic experience unmatched by any other M3 – except perhaps one – and the car revs freely to a nearly 8,000 rpm redline. It was only available as a coupe or convertible and shared very few parts with the non-M3 series, which made it much more special. Add the optional “Competition Pack” for perks like better brakes, wider wheels, special traction control modes, and more.
But with every pink sprint to the red line, there are a lot of thorns. The E46 M3 is an incredibly enjoyable driving experience when running properly. But generally, it will take a lot of time, money and mechanical know-how to take full advantage of it. In my opinion, if you can’t afford a new BMW, you probably can’t afford to service an E46 M3, due to the extent and range of problems the car can encounter.
Especially when mated to the “F1-inspired” SMG automated manual gearbox. So the E46 M3 is my recommendation for someone who really wants to enjoy the car that solidified the M3 as the “ultimate driving machine” – and who has the time, money and/or experience to save it. It’s easily the most balanced and arguably the most rewarding to drive M3. But it’s not for the faint of heart. It will break, a lot. And from a red light, you’re still smoking by the grams in his TRD Pro Camry. If you’re not concerned with all that, the E46 M3 is probably for you.
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 for “the race team looked at it once,” the S65 really does work. The 4.0-liter V8 weighs less than 500 pounds — notably, about 30 pounds lighter than the previous S54, with two fewer cylinders. And it was made in the Landshut Foundry – the same manufacturing facility responsible for the BMW Sauber Formula 1 engines.
Don’t forget it’s spinning on another planet, with an operatic crescendo at 8300 rpm and a maximum output of 414 horsepower. It’s not bad, but the E9X M3s are still getting better. Think, a glimpse of the future. Features such as a carbon roof, modern navigation systems, capable automatic transmission and electronic damping are all making their first appearance on an M3.
While not without flaws, the E9X M3s do an excellent job of bridging the gap between the sterile later generations of the M3 and the slow but engaging feel of older cars. The E9X M3 is perfect as someone’s ‘second’ BMW – meaning you’re familiar and prepared with servicing a German driving machine, and ready to get your hands dirty and to empty your wallet.
It’s a hugely rewarding car to drive, but it weighs a bit more than the E46 and drives a bit bigger. The E9X also performs as a decent daily, especially when left in storage – just be mindful of maintenance. Plus, a model without navigation or DCT offers one of the most exuberant driving experiences ever. It’s no compromise – it’s a Swiss army knife with a banshee-scream V8.
F80/F82/F83 M3 and M4
After four generations and nearly three decades of naturally aspirated M power, the F80 M3 made its debut with its twin-turbocharged S55 engine. And that drove a lot of people crazy – heck, it still does. But the numbers are hard to fight, with 444 horsepower in Competition package guise and a totally irresponsible 406 pound-feet of torque available from just 1850 rpm. The result? The F80 M3 and F82/83 M4 Coupe and Cabriolet could burn out and induce oversteer like no M3 came before, sometimes to the chagrin of the 0-60 dyno racing crowd.
Change is all over the F80 and its platform mates. There is no more hydraulic steering; there’s no option that eliminates the large center console display, and you have on-the-fly adjustable ride modes, controlling everything from throttle response to suspension stiffness. What makes it even more of an underdog in the M3 world is that it almost never breaks; apart from various gaskets, there is not much that fails on these cars, even many years later.
So the Jekyll and Hyde F80 and friends are the perfect choice for someone who just wants a high performance car. The ubiquitous screen detracts from the driving experience a bit, but the convenience pays off in everyday driving. And Hyde is just around the corner – ready to go into burnout at any moment. It’s also a fantastic car for someone who wants to be on the side most of the time. It’s also a great car solution, especially in the form of a four-door M3, exciting enough to take on aimless weekend drives, but practical enough to ferry your friends to and from the pub.
G80/G82/G83 M3 and M4
The G80 M3 and G82 G83 M4 coupe and convertible are finally here. And sadly, I don’t have much to say – they offer pretty much the same benefits as their predecessors. Finally, receiving an available xDrive AWD system makes this car the fastest around town and the grippiest in the corners of any M3. For performance buffs and raw numbers aficionados, there’s no substitute – newer is better.
And like every other M3 and M4 before it, there’s an audible band screaming loudly to anyone listening that the feeling is gone. The flame has gone out and BMW M has once again gone astray for the 50th year in a row. But the numbers don’t like it – on paper the G8X is the most capable M3 and M4 ever produced. And if that’s the kind of statement you want to be associated with, G8X cars are the ones you should own. In fairness, it’s also reasonable to assume that they’ll be quite reliable, as much of the engine is based on knowledge gained during the S55 development cycle.
Hope you learned a bit more about an M3 or two today. And if you’re considering buying one, I hope this guide has given you a good overview of what each car does best and what it can mean to other enthusiasts. That being said, the best way to find out is to drive, and I encourage you to drive as many as you can before picking one up. Good hunt!