BMW M3 30th Anniversary: A Look Back at the Ultimate Ultimate Driving Machine

The year 2016 marks two important milestones for BMW: the 100th anniversary of the brand and the 30th anniversary of the iconic M3. The M3 was introduced in 1986 as a mildly domesticated racing car for the street, and it quickly established itself as the beating heart of the brand. As highly regarded as the M3 is now, however, it’s somewhat ironic that BMW had to be convinced to send M cars to the United States. The M3 was available in Europe for two full years before turning a wheel in the United States.Back then the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Law, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1974, was still in full effect and had hamstrung the U.S. market for performance models. As a result, BMW’s management team couldn’t imagine any use for its fastest cars in the United States. Happily, the suits in Munich came to realize they’d completely overlooked the most fundamental aspect of the American psyche—our insatiable desire to possess far more than we’ll ever actually need. And so the first M3 landed here in June of 1988 on the heels of a limited run of its larger M5 brother.--Arriving to an avalanche of praise, the BMW M3 has been lauded by our editors ever since. On the occasion of its 30th birthday, let’s take a look back at the five generations of the BMW M3.Engine: 2.3-liter inline-four-Output: 192 horsepower, 170 lb-ft-Base price when new (1988): $34,810--“Gone are the anemic four-cylinder models that nearly ruined BMW’s image,” we wrote in the November 1988 issue of C/D. “The Bavarian Motor Works is back on track with a fleet of drivers’ cars, and the M3 is potent proof of its new direction.”“Potent” was exactly the right word, too—both for the way the M3 looked and the way it felt to drive.“Taken separately, the M3’s engine, handling, and wild sheetmetal are stellar,” we noted in the same issue. “Together, their effect is intoxicating. The demonic growl of the engine as it soars to redline, the racer’s-edge moves, and the rally-racer looks push it into another class entirely.”--READ OUR ORIGINAL E30 TEST HERE ››Engine: 3.0-liter inline-six-Output: 240 horsepower, 225 lb-ft-Base price when new (1995): $36,620--Still somewhat skeptical of our appetite for compact luxury hot rods, BMW made Americans wait until 1995 to get the E30’s replacement, even though the E36 had bowed in Germany in 1992. When it did arrive, 42 horsepower had been left on the dock back in Europe.“Our M3 trades 42 horsepower for a $14,000 slice off what the Euro car would have cost brought over as is,” we wrote in our July 1994 issue. “In return, we get a fatter torque curve that climbs to 190 lb-ft at just 2400 rpm and then flattens between 4000 and 5500 where more than 220 lb-ft is permanently on call.”Turns out, this made the car perfectly suited to American roads and driving styles and the E36 remains the best-selling M3 ever offered in the United States. It was also the first M3 to be offered as a sedan and a convertible in the U.S.--READ OUR ORIGINAL E36 TEST HERE ››Engine: 3.2-liter inline-six-Output: 333 horsepower, 262 lb-ft-Price when new (2000): $47,407--This time, BMW sent over the M3 unrestricted and we fell in love right away. The bodywork of the E46, though not as flamboyant as the E30’s, was decidedly more aggressive than that of the E36. But the best part of all was the engine, delivering 103 horsepower per liter, a 7900-rpm redline—and an atmosphere-shredding metallic snarl under heavy throttle.“The M3 pulls like a demon, with full driver participation and bags of aural and tactile feedback,” we observed in a 2001 road test. “The car is tightly focused on the sporting side, with brilliant intensity and delightful accuracy.”E46 coupes (the limited-build CSL version is pictured here) and convertibles combined the sophistication of the E36 with the unalloyed brashness of the E30 to brilliant effect. This is why so many enthusiasts consider the E46 the best M3 ever.--READ OUR E46 LONG-TERM ROAD TEST HERE ››Engine: 4.0-liter V-8-Output 414 horsepower, 295 lb-ft-Base price when new (2007): $58,625--BMW introduced more civility to the M3 with the E90 series. Despite its more muscular appearance (especially in GTS guise shown here), this version of the M3 was the most livable as a daily driver to date.“Like previous M3s, the E92 delivers the dynamic interface we normally associate with sports cars,” we said in the November 2008 issue. “But unlike its predecessors, it’s as compliant and civilized as other 3-series Bimmers when comfort—as opposed to absolute urgency—is the priority”The E90 once again upped the horsepower, and it was quick, clocking zero-to-60-mph runs in the low-four-second range in our various tests. It also was the only M3 to use a V-8 engine, the first to use separate chassis codes for the various body styles, the last normally aspirated M3, and the end of the line for coupes and convertibles with M3 badges. The next generation would see those body styles adopt the M4 moniker.--READ OUR ORIGINAL E90 TEST HERE ››Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six-Output: 425 horsepower, 406 lb-ft-Base price when new (2014): $62,925--A nomenclature shift applied by BMW in 2014 applied the 3-series designation to sedans (and wagons, of which we get no M variant), while coupes were badged 4-series. This effectively killed M3 coupes, as they are now known as M4s. Thus, today’s M3 is a four-door sedan, albeit mechanically identical in practically every respect to the M4 models.The first turbocharged M3 also is the only M3 to roll off the boat lighter than the model preceding it, by 100 pounds on our scales and in manual-transmission spec. Interestingly though, even though the current car boasts more horsepower and torque than its predecessor, the weight loss doesn’t make much difference in terms of performance.--“Adding an extra lawnmower’s worth of power and shedding one cheerleader’s worth of mass doesn’t make the new M3 significantly quicker than the old E90,” we stated in August 2014. “Controlling the massive torque with careful throttle modulation nets a 4.1-second zero-to-60 time and a 12.4-second quarter-mile. The shorter sprint is right on top of the old car’s, and the quarter-mile time is 0.2 second quicker.”Still, the F80 M3 is every bit the sharply focused driver’s machine we’ve come to expect when we see a tri-colored M3 badge adorning a trunklid. Perhaps too focused, as our long-term test of an F80 found the car to be too hard-core for many, particularly in its suspension tune. "Now, with adjustable suspensions predominant in its portfolio, the company seems to have lost sight of where that magic mark is." We concluded that the ludicrously capable F80 really belongs on a track, having lost the well-rounded nature we loved so much about earlier cars. While it remains to be seen if the next M3—which remains a few years away—will recapture that magic, there's no doubt that a model once thought inappropriate for the U.S. is here to stay.--READ OUR F80 TEST HERE ››
from Car and Driver BlogCar and Driver Blog


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