BMW M3 Generation Drive
E30, E36, E46, E92 - Gotta Drive 'Em All
Soon, we'll bid farewell to the E92 M3, a car that's received no shortage of praise from us over the years. With its departure will also come the end of the naturally aspirated engines that have powered the M3 for nearly 30 years. To give them a proper farewell, we gathered an example from each generation and spent two days driving them at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina. Each car represents the best of what was available in the U.S. -- coupe body, manual gearbox, and as few luxury options as possible.
E30: 1991 BMW M3
The story of the first M3 is well-known and well-told, but I can't help running through it again while approaching the car. Its box fenders (the result of widening the front and rear track) and the shape of the C-pillar (adjusted for aerodynamic purposes) are the functional pieces that turned the car into the icon that has guided its successors and competition. It's a car that couldn't exist in today's market, and not just because of the nuance its assembly would require. No, it was because BMW produced them for racing homologation. That it was a sales success was fortunate.
The pristinely maintained example here has just over 25,600 miles on the odometer. With leather seats and a sunroof, it's the most luxuriously trimmed of the group. I plop into the driver's seat and take a beat before firing the engine. It's strange. It doesn't seem like a car with sporting intentions -- there's too much headroom and the windshield is massive, as is the steering wheel. The inline-four cranks to life easily and settles into a clean idle. The engine may be bored out to 2.3 liters and topped with a modified head from the M1, but it too doesn't seem special. The humdrum acceleration it generates at light to moderate load makes you suspicious of the massive praise this car has received.
When the tach passes 5000 rpm, it starts to make sense. The engine note becomes sweeter and more metallic as it inches closer to 7000 rpm and the acceleration begins to surge in that old Honda VTEC way. I'm in the powerband now, and reaching for it becomes addicting. What makes this engine special isn't its specific output but its character. It feels thrilling because of how it comes to life in the top end of its rev range. Its character changes, and I understand that the E30 M3 gets better, sweeter, and infinitely more enjoyable the harder I push it.
Under g-load, a few squeaks and rattles demonstrate the car's age, but its driving capabilities shine through. The big steering wheel may feel light off-center, but it firms up nicely as the front tires load up. There isn't much body roll, just enough to know when the car's approaching its limits. The overall sensation is one of tightness and control; when you chuck towards and through an apex, you feel the entire car load up with you. When I lift off the throttle to tighten my line, the rear rotates agreeably, requiring just the smallest degree of steering correction. Modest grip and power combined with a communicative chassis is the steadfast recipe for a good driver's car, and the E30 exemplifies this.
The more time I spend in the E30, the more it grows on me. Its eagerness and friendliness is addicting, and it's easy to see why this car received so much praise when it reached our shores. It provides an excellent start to the M3 story and sits properly in automotive history.
E36: 1995 BMW M3 Lightweight
The next generation of the M3 represented massive growth of the M brand, with the car available as a sedan, coupe, or convertible, and an automatic transmission was optional. But while the focus of the car shifted from racing homologation to sales, we sourced the purest, most motorsports-oriented variant available in the U.S.: the Lightweight.
Internally coded CSL (Coupe Sport Lightweight), the 1995-only model shed the standard car's radio, air conditioning, leather seats, and various noise suppression mats and insulation. In place, it gained a strut tower brace, a shorter rear end, aluminum doors, and carbon-fiber trim, among other items. While there were no engine modifications, the story says BMW handpicked the best performing examples off the assembly line.
Here in white, wearing blue-and-red checkered flag graphics and a rather large wing, the E36 is a clear product of '90s German vehicle design, all straight lines and slab sides. The majority of the bodywork might be shared with the standard 3 Series to save costs, but it's the details -- the thick black horizontal striping and extended fascia -- that give the E36 M3 a subtle edge. This example had just 800 miles on it and took a few minutes to stop smoking once started. Despite the fact that it's spent the majority of its life sitting in a museum, BMW inspected it, changing fluids and lines, to make sure it would run without issue.
It does. Running it around slowly on track, getting everything up to temperature, the added grip is noticeable, as is the sharpness in the response of the steering wheel and throttle. The car instantly feels more capable than the E30, even at low speeds. When the temp needle settled in the middle of the gauge for some time, I gave it the spurs on the straight. The 3.0-liter six offers a noticeable increase in torque - it's far happier in the lower revs. Approaching redline though, it still has that rasp, that metallic sweetness that was part of the E30's allure. Still, I long to experience the sound and thrust from the Euro-spec E36, with its individual throttle bodies and variable valve timing.
The interior is a clear evolution of the E30's, one that's changed at a calculated pace. The shifter might be identical, but the shift action is different. Although the throws are lighter and easier in this car, the gap between second and third feels slightly longer. The steering wheel seems to be the same diameter but the rim feels thicker. While enthusiasts often look to the E36 as a car with ideal steering, driving one back-to-back with modern steering systems proves enlightening. The E36 is very light off center and firms up almost unnecessarily as I go towards lock. We might be remembering it too fondly.
Without the sound deadening of the standard M3, small rocks and road debris audibly bounce off the floor pan while the normally quiet engine accessories tick and surge away on the other side of the firewall. It's only after a few minutes that the thread that runs through the M3s starts to appear. There's a balance and predictability to these cars; there's outward visibility; there's a sense of great control. The E36 and E30 aren't overpowered cars, although they are quick. It's the communication from the chassis and everything attached to it that makes them so enjoyable.
E46: 2005 BMW M3
BMW's effort to differentiate the E46 M3 from the standard 3 Series is evident throughout its bodywork. The fenders pay homage to the E30, but also are a part of a substantial increase in width, while the hood hosts the beginnings of a bulge that will grow even more impressive on the E92. The white example here has few extras, just cloth seats and a manual transmission.
Growth is a running theme through the M3's history, and here it's most apparent. The interior feels much larger, and while the roof doesn't seem as high as it was in the E30, the growth in width is evident. The steering wheel, wrapped with worn and frayed Alcantara, is smaller than before. Sitting ahead of the shifter is a button labeled "Sport" -- like the hood bulge, that button marks the beginning of a trend.
The engine may displace the same 3.2-liters as post-1995 E36 M3s, but what it does with that space is comparatively monstrous. BMW opted for an iron block (the standard 3 Series used aluminum) because its strength permitted an 8000 rpm redline, which the engineers needed to make 333 hp -- nearly a 100-horse increase.
The mill fires and idles raspily. The shifter, still the same shape as the E30's, slots neatly into gear, but flops around strangely in neutral. Like the E36, the responses from the inputs immediately seem sharper and the grip appreciably greater. The redline changes as the engine warms up; lighted orange boxes fade away in 500 rpm increments until they reach 8000 rpm. Dipping into the throttle reveals that iconic straight-six rasp, like an amplified buzzsaw relentlessly hacking through tires. There's a similarity in the rasp to the predecessors, but the E46's mechanical howl has a timbre all its own.
Called the S54, the engine has a nasty midrange too, with peak torque arriving at 4900 rpm. Thanks to that and an electronically controlled differential, the M3 exhibits power oversteer for the first time. In the E30 and E36, you work the chassis, flick the car in or lift off the throttle abruptly and the rear would pivot. Now, you have to watch the tach and make sure the wheel is near straight before you hit the torque peak. (This also might have to do with the aftermarket tires and TC Kline suspension parts the owner of this car has installed.)
It's apparent that the jump to the E46 was larger than the one that led to the previous car. This M3 feels significantly bigger, heavier, and more powerful, such that it would seem a momentous change of philosophy within the M Division occurred during its development. But despite a considerable increase in width, the car seems to shrink around me at speed.
Despite feeling like a big mighty German coupe now, the balance and control of its predecessors remains, and the E46 has matured into the sweet spot of the group. A used example costs about the same as a clean E30, and while it doesn't have the history of that car, it's every bit as entertaining. That it's much faster and reaps the benefits of two decades of automotive development makes it the most desirable of the group.
E92: 2013 BMW M3 Lime Rock
Our love for the E92 M3 is no secret -- in 2009, we called our long-term sedan the greatest all-around car in the world. While that claim wasn't made lightly, it's easier to say when you don't have the headlights of that car's predecessors staring at you. The matter now is whether this M3 retains the magic of this group.
It does. The orange Lime Rock edition we have here (one of the 200 produced) comes with an assortment of OEM upgrades: Competition package, carbon-fiber splitter and spoiler, Alcantara-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel, and a lighter exhaust system made of a lightweight material called Inconel. These affect the package little. Sure, the exhaust plays the sound of the big-bore/short-stroke V-8 a touch more sweetly and that steering wheel is a delight to grab, but the crucial, most memorable and enjoyable parts seem to be hard-coded into this car's DNA.
It might be strange, as its dimensions and stats would indicate otherwise. This is the biggest M3 in terms of exterior size, weight, and engine size. But that's somewhat misleading -- even though the engine gained two cylinders, its aluminum construction means it weighs 33 fewer pounds than the iron block straight-six. That it makes an additional 80 hp doesn't hurt.
Like the E46, this M3 has a moving redline, but it also has possibly the freest and quickest throttle response of the group. Stabs on the gas pedal instantly produce lascivious, metallic barks from the pipes -- few engines in production cars costing less than $100,000 sound this exotic or racy. And yet there's a silkiness throughout the powerband. Where the E30 comes to life sharply and pleasantly at 5000 rpm, the M3's forward thrust transitions from an ooze to an fire hose with deceptive smoothness -- you pass 8000 rpm before you know it. When it comes to this engine's successor, the M Division has their work cut out for them.
After watching our video, you may think that the M3 is some kind of drift car. It isn't. Rather, it isn't when you don't want it to be. The ease with which the M3 does all those silly slides is a product of how communicative the car is as a whole. Turn in smoothly and the front tires respond with a gentle, telling push. Gradually apply throttle through the apex and the car will ride the outer edge of its friction circle as if guided by a protractor. Flick it in while mashing the throttle and you'll engulf the track with white smoke.
After driving these four spectacular cars, I found that the enjoyment of the M3 comes with a controllability combined with engines that are spectacular not simply for their power output, but for their character. Each car in this group has a different personality, and they've grown larger and heavier, yet they retain the core elements that made the first M3 an icon. The problem with constant success, of course, is repeating it. Regardless, we're eagerly anticipating the next entrant in this dynasty.