A Glimpse at the BMW M3 Over the Years
No Bimmer is as instantly recognizable as the M3, BMW’s sporty version of its popular small coupe/sedan. It debuted in Frankfurt in 1985 and has since set the standard for luxury-sport coupes/sedans: Audi’s RS4 and -6, Lexus’s IS-F, and Mercedes-Benz’s C63 AMG are just the latest examples that come to mind.
There have been four generations of M3 (going on five) out of six total generations of 3-Series. The M is derived from BMW’s Motorsport division, which was founded in the early 1970s to build racing hardware. The division’s first street car was the M1, a BMW/Lamborghini exotic that debuted for 1978. The M-badge appeared the following year on a more mainstream vehicle, the M535i, a modified version of BMW’s medium-sized sedan. The M-division installed a larger and more powerful engine, an upgraded transmission to better handle the higher output, a stiffer suspension, and cosmetic tweaks. The M635 CSi (M6), a modified version of BMW’s mid-size coupe, debuted four years later.
The E30 M3, the first-generation car, premiered in Frankfurt as an ‘86 model. BMW developed the M3 in order to compete in touring car racing; involvement in those series mandated five thousand road-going examples. Though this first-generation of M3 resembled a traditional 3-Series, every body panel (except for the hood) was unique. The distinguishing features were front/rear spoilers, flared wheel arches, and widened fenders. (The interior was largely the same, except for a “M” badging and sport seats.) Engineers installed a front anti-roll bar (and enlarged the existing rear), stiffened the springs, put in heavy-duty shock-absorbers, and fitted larger brakes.
Engineers then put in the S14, a high-revving 2.3 L I-4 engine that delivered almost double the horsepower of a base 3-Series engine. North American consumers, who already had to wait two years for the car, received slightly de-tuned engines delivering 192 HP. They also missed out on Europe’s gritter “Evolution” series that were equipped with 240+ HP 2.5 L engines. (Americans would get used to being left out of specials for years to come.) All M3s were equipped with Getrag five-speed manual gearboxes. The North American E30 M3’s specs were formidable for the time: 0-60 in about 7 sec. and a top speed of 130+ MPH. Though the E30 generation was the lightest of all M3s (2,740 lbs.), the car was hardly spartan: buyers could find A/C, a moonroof, heated seats, and an eight-speaker stereo system. Starting price was a hefty $34,800—four times the cost of a base Ford Mustang. But there were customers willing fork that amount—especially since M3s won eleven touring car championships,as well as endurance races at both Spa and Nürburgring. When all was said and done, BMW created an iconic sub-brand unto itself.
In the ‘95 model year, Americans received the E36 M3—the “red-headed stepchild,” as BWS’s Marc Norris put it. This negative view has to do with the nature of the second-gen M3, which was more subdued in styling and (for Americans, at least) integrity. Once again, North American shoppers received their M3s later than Europe and with less power. The US S50 engine, a 3.0 L I-6, generated only 240 HP—substantially less than the Euro-rated 320 HP variant. Larger brakes (12 in. as opposed to the E30’s 11) were needed to harness the 300 lb. weight-gain. For all the flack leveled at it, the E36 put forth respectable performance numbers: 0-60 between 5 and 6 sec. and a top speed of nearly 140 MPH. In this one finds the car’s redeeming factor: The present used-car examples are bargain performers with a rich aftermarket. Small wonder it’s become a tuner favorite.
The E46 M3 debuted in North America for 2001, representing a more refined vehicle than its predecessor. BMW carefully tuned the S54, a 3.2 L I-6, to deliver almost identical power to the European model. This tuning resulted in 328 HP that, combined with a six-speed automated (semi-manual) gearbox, could sprint the car to sixty in 5 sec., while also being able to hit 155 MPH. The E46’s refinement came at a cost of weight (200+ lb. increase) and price ($45,400). Nonetheless, the E46 broke the previous production record with 85,700 units sold worldwide.
The E90 is the most recent generation of M3, having debuted for 2008 and been retired for the outgoing ‘13 model year. The E90 is the most powerful M3 thus far, with a 414 HP four-liter V-8; engineers mated the V-8 to a smooth seven-speed automated MT. The E90 series is marked along three codes: E90 for sedan, E92 for coupe, and E93 for convertible. While the E90 generation marked the quickest and most powerful of M3s, it also revealed just how much the M3 had evolved. The good: the E90 sprinted to sixty in just four seconds—down three from the E30 era. The bad: the E92 was eleven inches longer, five inches wider, a half-ton heavier, and twenty grand more expensive than the ‘88 E30 M3.
Special thanks to Marc Norris and the Bavarian Workshop for all they’ve done. You can expect much more between EF and BWS in the future. Image credits to Deviantart users Chaossity, melkorius, marcusavedis, and konax.