A 3-Series with an M badge means one thing – monster performance. So does BMW’s new M3 live up the reputation of its predecessors? – Auto Express
According to BMW, M is “the most powerful letter in the world.” But to us the M Department sounds more like something from a spy movie. The cars that have rolled out of the factory gates in the 29 years since BMW Motorsport was founded have more than a hint of James Bond about them. Cultured, stylish and discreet by sports car standards, yet with a fearsome hidden armoury. The M3 displays these traits to perfection. With the new model recently landed in the UK, we took the chance to gather together one of the most acclaimed sports car bloodlines of all.
But how did the M3 come about? The M Department was set up to go racing and had huge success though the ranks before turning to formula One, where it developed a turbocharged engine which powered Nelson Piquet in a Brabham BT52 to the world championship in 1983. Five years prior to that, the M Department had made its first attempt at building a road car, the M1 supercar. Others followed, and in 1986 the first M3 appeared. Rooted firmly in racing, it was an instant hit, and is still talked about in hushed tones among enthusiasts. Ten versions were built in all, including a few convertibles, which are now very collectable. Our car is the original article – a 200bhp 2.3 litre.
Changes came in 1993. A new M3 emerged and BMW’s Motorsport arm was renamed M as the bias moved away from racing. Unfortunately, many felt that shift was reflected in the E36 M3. Even so, the broader appeal sold more cars – 71, 279 altogether. This early model boasts 286bhp from its straight-six; later Evolution cars had 321bhp.
Which brings us to the present day and the all-new £38,500 M3. BMW obviously hopes to replicate the sales success of the last-generation machine, but has also intimated that the 343bhp road rocket will recapture the driving appeal of the E30. So how does the newcomer measure up against the ultimate benchmark? We went into action on a test track – coincidentally alongside the M3 motorway – to find out.
BMW M3 (E46)
Contrary to opinion, BMW’s M Department does not get it right every time. Although there have been plenty of highs, these were interspersed with a few lows. The M Roadster is a disappointment, but more importantly for the aspirations of the new M3, the last generation car was awarded a ‘could do better’ on its report card. However, the company has been on a roll lately. The M Coupé proved that the Germans do have a sense of fun, while the M5 is a super-saloon par excellence.
In common with its big brother, and in the finest spy hero traditions, the new M3 shows little hint of its potential. It’s smartly dressed, with extremely subtle muscular bulges. But the small alterations all add up. A blistered arch here, a minimal spoiler there, some extra chromework and coloured badges. Up close, the visual impact is like a slap in the face – helped in no small measure by the lurid yellow paintwork of our test car. This machine has presence – and performance. Externally, the four exhaust tailpipes tell their own story. Follow them back to the engine bay and you’ll find what has long been the M3′s heart – its engine. The last-generation model was often said to have the finest production engine in the world – but it’s been exceeded here. It’s fair to say that no manufacturer builds better powerplants than BMW, and this 3.2litre straight-six is the pinnacle of its achievements.
Although only 45cc bigger than the outgoing Evolution unit, and producing slightly superior power and torque, it feels more potent and purposeful. Elements of the M5 V8 are evident in the low-rev bass burble and ultra-flexible power delivery. It’s loud from the word go and the fantastic noise builds, covering every octave up to a scream. The 265Nm of torque makes itself felt early, but as you’d expect from a car capable of more than 8,000rpm, it’s at the top end where things really take off.
In the low gears, acceleration is genuinely uncomfortable and full throttle is an unnecessary indulgence with overtaking only a flex of the ankle away. Even in sixth gear, 50-70mph is despatched in seven seconds. Flat out, the M3 returned figures to match a Ferrari 550 Maranello, sprinting from a standstill to 60mph in 4.6seconds and from 30-70mph in 3.8.
And yet, if you can ignore the weighty clutch and heavy, although satisfying, six-speed gearbox, the 1,570kg M3 is docile to drive. It’s also a crushingly competent cruiser. Despite the firm ride and vocal engine, the well insulated cabin and flexible engine make long distance travel the effortless task you would expect from a car built to eat up autobahns at 155mph. more surprisingly, we averaged 21.7mpg during the course of 1,500 miles. The only area in which the new car has to prove itself is driver involvement, the sole chink in its predeccessor’s armour. Right from the word go it’s obvious that the latest model is a very different beast. Thanks to a much broader track, the M3 has vice-like grip and the balance and stability of a ballet dancer. Powering into, around and out of corners reveals a sparkling chassis and a great deal of finesse.
It is hugely talented and great fun, but, because of its weight and power, requires judicious use of the throttle – it’s not as fabulously exploitable as the original M3. The advanced traction control helps keep you on the straight and narrow, but if you do decide to experiment you’ll discover that this M3 is far more friendly and progressive than its snappy middle sibling, the E36. By its high standards, the E46′s steering isn’t great. Being direct and pleasingly meaty doesn’t compensate fully for the mediocre level of information trickling back from the tyres. In comparison, the E30 practically floods the driver with torrents of feedback. Arguably, however, the steering’s major pitfall is the wheel’s uncomfortably thick rim.
As for the interior, it’s more cockpit than cabin. There’s a real aircraft feel to the instruments and controls that surround the driver. The sensation is heightened by a comfortable driving position and superb seats. Leather covered and electrically operated as standard, you can even opt to have inflatable figure-hugging side bolsters. Take away the extra buttons and equipment and you’re left with a standard 3-Series Coupé interior. That means there’s room for four adults, and a boot large enough to take their luggage. It’s such practicality which puts the M3 in a different class from the Porsche 911.
That and the price, of course. Costing £38,500, the M3 is a relative bargain. This year’s UK allocation of 1,300 cars has been sold already, and we can’t imagine BMW having any difficulty shifting 1,800 units next year and beating the E36′s annual sales record. Especially not when the sequential gearbox and cabrio versions arrive. Without doubt, this is the most rounded and capable M3 yet.
BMW M3 (E36)
Say BMW M3 to most people with a smattering of motoring knowledge and this is the model that will spring to mind. And given the success of the E36, that’s hardly surprising – it defined the breed and was a radical departure from the first car, having little in common with the racing fraternity that had spawned the E30. The origins of this car can be traced back to BMW’s marketing department which managed to slot the M3 into a unique and highly desirable niche.
The second-generation M3 is a genuine coupé, and a practical one at that, rather than the two-door saloon shape of the original. It’s a less aggressive machine than its successor, having a leaner, more slender appearance. The rear spoiler with incorporated brake light was an option, but unquestionably the finest details are the twin-link mirrors – much envied and copied by the boy racer brigade. The privately owned car featured here is one of the early pre-Evolution models.
But, as with all the best presents, it’s the contents rather than the packaging which count. The E36 was the first M3 with a straight-six engine, and this incarnation has a 2,990cc capacity. When the car was launched in 1993, it achieved a specific output of 95.7bhp per litre, which was a world record for a production car engine. VANOSE valve timing allowed early access to 320Nm of torque, while you had to venture to 7,000rpm to access the 286bhp available. Such figures clearly indicate where the new M3 inherits its characteristics from.
Linked to the same six-speed manual gearbox as used in the latest car (although it feels notchier), the mid-Nineties version was extremely quick. The E36 lacks the thumping mid-range punch and flexibility of its replacement, and the figures confirm this as the in-gear times are around 10 per cent slower.
But wind the 3.0 litre unit up and it sings a clean, rasping song at high revs. There’s an extra surge of power as the needle swings past 5,000rpm and the valve timing does its work. In 5.4 seconds you’ll hit 60mph from a standing start. Under braking, the lighter kerbweight means the E36 stops in a slightly shorter distance, although the later car has more feel and better resistance. The 1,460kg weight also helped the E36 achieve 22.6mpg in our hands. The engine was undoubtedly the star of the show for second-generation M3s. It appealed to those who put driver involvement and chassis ability further down the wish list than image and power. Even so, the M3 was not a shoddy car to drive on a good road. Although it was the engine that captured the imagination, the E36 was capable rather than invigorating.
If the truth be told, the chassis wasn’t quite up to the task. While the better balance 328 was brilliant, it was overshadowed by an M3 that suffered from too much understeer and snappy behaviour near the limit. In that respect, it was a step backwards from the phenomenal E30.
Yet as with the car that eventually replaced it, the E36 is a fine all-rounder, with good noise insulation and a decent motorway ride. Away from smoother surfaces, though, the positiveness of the new model is missing – its parent feels more patchy and not as tautly controlled.
It’s easier to trace the links between the two interiors. In common with all M3s, the widely adjustable sport seats are truly supportive and the driving position easy to live with. The newer car feels darker and more enclosed, but the build quality and user-friendly dash and console layouts are similar. The same goes for the rear seats and boot space, making this the first practical everyday supercar.
And now it’s one of the most affordable. A good car with average mileage can be yours for less than £15,000. True, it’s expensive to run and insure, but reliability can be taken for granted.
BMW M3 (E30)
The original BMW E30 M3 was built to race – pure and simple. But it went beyond that and became the most successful touring car of all, with 80 titles to its name. Although a race to road car conversion had been seen before – the Audi Quattro is a notable example – the M3 fired the imagination of motorsport fans, and still does 11 years after its demise.
One of the first cars to have cosmetic surgery at the M Department, the M3 has bits bolted on all over. Jagged and angular, the body has a sense of purpose. This is no sculpted coupé, it’s a straightforward two-door racing. BMW put the wings and spoilers on the 3-Series because it wanted to go racing and had to make 5,000 cars to meet regulations. The fact that 17,184 examples drove through the factory gates between 1986-1990 demonstrates the E30′s cult appeal.
The body was designed to win races, but the 2.3 litre engine has a much more impressive claim to fame. It also saw action in the 1983 Brabham-BMW F1 car. The block was unmodified, but the use of a turbocharger allowed a few more horsepower to be extracted for Nelson Piquet to use – 1,300bhp to be precise.
On the road, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the engine’s exotic roots. After the rich and creamy straight-sixes of the later M3′s, the four-cylinder sounds about as racy and exciting as a wet weekend in Scarborough. It’s rough and lumpy at idle, and not much better at full chat. It does the job, though, pushing out 200bhp and 240Nm of torque, although you have to send the needle round to the higher section of the rev counter before anything meaningful starts to happen.
By present day standards, the 1,200kg machine is not particularly quick, returning acceleration times across the board that are matched by the current 325Ci – 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and 50-70mph in fifth in around 9.5. But the oldest M3 feels much faster, thanks to its minimal sound-proofing, short gearing and raw manner. The gearbox is worth mentioning, too. A five-speed unit, it’s notable for having a dog-leg first gear, then forward for second, back for third and so on. It’s surprisingly easy to get to grips with.
So is the car itself. Although the powerplants dominate proceedings in the newer pair, the older car is far better balanced and comes as refreshing change. Whereas power defines the new model, its grandfather has a chassis and engine that complement each other beautifully.
There’s enough grunt to be enjoyable, but the smiles widen at the first corner. The E30 has an extraordinary intimacy – the steering is light and trembles constantly with feedback, while the communicative chassis is extremely user-friendly. More importantly, you don’t need to be travelling at light speed to enjoy it. Up the pace and the front end will eventually push wide into understeer. But despite more modest grip, this is not a characteristic you’ll notice on public roads, where the older car feels vice-free.
Surprisingly for a machine with its roots planted so firmly in the racing world, the ride quality is rather good. The suspension is geared to providing the driver with information. So although the hard ride and noise means we would steer clear of long motorway journeys, the setup feels secure and compliant on B-roads. As you’d expect of a BMW, the interior has aged well, but the same can’t be said for the design. Time has now taken its toll on the brittle plastics and sharp-edged switchgear. More than those of the later cars, this is a cabin where the driver is the really important occupant – the suede-trimmed steering wheel feels superb and the driving position in the bucket seat is business-like. However, the upright body does at least mean passengers can get in and out without a struggle.
Ten versions of the E30 appeared – most of them limited editions – with later Evolution models having 220bhp and, finally 238bhp. All are superb and far more affordable now than in 1986 when the cost £22,750. Don’t expect luxuries, but for around £5,500 there’s nothing to touch the driving experience.