The M3 is the performance variant of the popular BMW 3-series family that has been featured in every generation since 1986. Typically, each M3 differs by having a unique engine, uprated suspension and brakes, and lightweight, aerodynamic body panels, such as splitters, aprons, trunk lids, and flared wheel arches to reduce drag and aid downforce.
Each era of the M3 represents a new approach to producing a thrilling sports sedan, with thoughtful design stemming from an unmatched dominance in motorsport; the M3 is a pure driving machine. Ever since the first M3 in 1986, the M-model has appealed to rear-wheel drive enthusiasts seeking performance without having to sacrifice too many comforts.
Over six generations of development and the M3 has changed wildly from its humble beginnings as a feisty little coupe with less than 200 horsepower to a state-of-the-art sports sedan with 500 horsepower and the ability to still comfortably carry several passengers.
Birth of the M3
The M3 started out life as a homologation special in 1984, developed by BMW’s in-house motorsport division, BMW M GmbH, as a means to enter the touring car and endurance racing series. At the time, BMW wanted to enter the German touring series, the DTM. In order to satisfy the regulations, they were ordered to produce 5,000 roadgoing cars – and so the E30 M3 was born.
The car was boxy, lightweight, and relatively basic compared with traditional road-going coupes. There was no certainty whether the road-going models would be well-received, but as a means to race, production went ahead.
In racing, the E30 M3 was a phenomenal success and beat the likes of Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and Volvo to claim the most victories for any road-based race car ever, with over 1,400 wins in various global championships. The E30 M3 was produced in relatively low numbers, and considering the racing pedigree attached to this first-generation car, prices for the E30 M3 commonly surpass $100k at auctions.
The inline-6 era
The second generation of the BMW M3, the E36, arrived in 1992 and featured a 3.0l S50 inline-6 engine with a beautiful exhaust note. The car was capable around the track, and 0-62mph was achieved in an impressive 5.5 seconds. The E36 was revered for its smooth engine and responsive handling, although the visuals were not to everyone’s fancy.
The E36 M3 was produced in much greater numbers than the M3, yet it took years for the U.S. to receive 3.2l engine options that gave them access to the ‘full-power’ Europe had their hands-on from the beginning.
The E36 was the first M3 to be produced as a sedan, with convertible models also available. The E36 has a high-revving engine and is relatively light, with decent performance for a car of its time, and remains the most affordable used M3 in the family.
The best M3 of all time?
The E46 M3 was a significant release for BMW and showed off the very best inline-6 mastery seen yet from BMW. The engine was a 3.2l S54 inline-6 engine producing 338 hp and 269 lb/ft of torque. The engine was the final variant of the S50 engine and featured an unmistakable, metallic exhaust note.
The handling was direct and agile, and the E46 was a stunning car to admire from every angle. 50:50 weight distribution and a stiff chassis meant the E46 handled corners without oversteering or understeer.
The limited-edition E46 CSL featured a host of carbon parts, including a roof, front splitter, and rear diffuser that helped reduce weight by more than 100kg and boasted an extra ten horsepower over the standard M3.
The SMG-II transmission was a transmission option available and used F1-style paddles on the steering column, allowing the driver to make rapid gearshifts. However, due to low-speed operational issues and drivers reporting clunky gear changes, the 6-speed manual became the more sought-after choice.
The only V8 M3
The E90/E92 M3 debuted in 2007 and is the first and only standard M3 in the family powered by a V8 engine. The 4.0l S65 engine found in the E92 is a masterful piece of engineering and a real treat for the ears. The high-revving engine produces a whopping 414 horsepower at 8,300rpm and packs 295ft/lb of torque at 3,900rpm, making it a worthy track-day contender and popular novice race car platform.
This fourth-generation M3 is available as a sedan, coupe, or convertible with the choice of a 6-speed manual or 7-speed Getrag “M-DCT” dual-clutch transmission that helps propel the E92 from 0-60mph in just 4.6 seconds.
The E92 is hailed by many as the greatest M3 that BMW ever made, packing a truckload of power, sleek, sexy looks, and a plush interior full of trick features. Technology played a larger part in the construction of this car, so a good history of periodic maintenance is vital.
2022 BMW M3
The M3 has been seen in many guises throughout its history, and now for the first time, a touring model is on the horizon. The 2022 M3 is the sixth generation in the legendary M3 lineage, and while it might be uncomfortable for some to see the M3 as a 4-door sedan, not to mention the controversial grille and front bumper design causing a stir, the performance figures are not to be scoffed at.
In standard trim, the M3 produces 473 horsepower with 406lb/ft of torque, going from 0.62mph in 3.9 seconds, and a top speed limited to 155mph. The M3 Sedan uses a 6-speed manual transmission and weighs 3759 lbs.
Choose the Competition package, and horsepower in the S58 is upped to 503, with 479lb/ft of torque and 0-62mph completed in just 3.0 seconds using an 8-speed automatic transmission. The M3 Competition Sedan reaches a top speed of 175mph.
The sixth-generation M3 is the most powerful M3 to date, and also the first to be offered in all-wheel drive. The radical new face of the M3 has definitely divided fans that enjoyed the understated style the M3 has always been synonymous with, and other features that can be observed are not as smoothly executed as we’ve seen on cars like the E46 M3 and E92 M3.
The BMW M3 is an iconic family of sports coupes and sedans that deliver a sensational driving journey for the driver and all those inside. When BMW made the decision to rebrand the M3 in 2014, it most likely confused many people.
Now, the M4 is the coupe the M3 once was, and the M3 lives as an open-mouthed super-sedan that so far has received more insults than compliments, with a touring-bodied sibling on the way. Each M3 offers a unique opportunity for the owner and the chance to relive their motorsport fantasies in a car created by BMW’s successful motorsport division, the M division.
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