The BMW M3. It's a car that we as enthusiasts all know and love. Most of us have coveted one at some point, in one of its many flavors; many, myself included, have been lucky enough to own. In every format, it's a gem of a car and each brings something unique to the table.
One thing that remains the same: you cannot go wrong.
It's also an intriguing look at how cars change over time. Every generation, every variation is still uniquely and inarguably an M3 due to things besides its badging. While retaining its original character in some manner, the car has changed drastically in its various E30 through E9x incarnations. It's been a two-door, a four-door, and a convertible, both hard- and soft-top. It's had a four-cylinder, a couple sixes, and a thundering V8. I'll leave the upcoming F8x M3/M4 out of this since no one has driven one yet, but there can be little doubt that those twins will be another study in how much a car can change while remaining somehow characteristically the same.
"No guys, it's totally cool, I said 'platonic'."
To frame my argument, I'm going to talk about a guy called Plato. Plato was, by all accounts, a pretty smart guy with some bright ideas. My particular institution of higher learning had a thing for the Greek philosophers similar to how the Greek philosophers had one for athletic young men (Hint- "Platonic love" really seems like a bit of a euphemism in that context).
Anyways, one of the central tenets of his philosophy was the theory of the Realm of Forms: Simplified, the concept that all things have an ideal form that is defining of their nature. There is not solid form of anything as we know it; these forms do not exist in the real world, they are however comparable to their real world counterparts.
I think that this is a good philosophical lens through which to examine the development of the M3, or any such iconic, long-lasting car. What is the form of an M3? When you reduce an M3 to its most basic, conceptual level, what is it that defines a BMW M3, beyond all other characteristics and in comparison to all other cars? I think that we can pick up bits and pieces of that through examining each successive generation of the Bavarians' greatest hit, and draw a pretty cohesive picture of what the M3 is, was, and ought to be. M3: The Anthology, if you will.
Like fine red wine, it seems the E30 M3 only improves with age. The box flares, the absurd wing, mesh BBSs, and a thoroughbred S14 screaming to over 7k RPM have guaranteed that this homologation special is a true classic. It was a remarkable car at the time of its 1985 introduction, and still is. (Disclosure time: This is the only generation of M3 I've never driven, so I cannot fully address it as I'd like to. If anyone in the VA/DC/MD area has one and likes showing it off, I'd happily trade seat time in the p-car!) Regardless, this is in many regards the most extreme M3 hitherto made. The styling, racecar engine, and massive differences from the standard E30 made it as great as it is, but at great cost- an issue BMW would address with their next generation of car.
The main takeaways here: Aggressive, race-inspired styling; high-revving, NA motor; handling prioritized over straightline speed. Basis in the standard 3-series, but radically different in aims and outcomes.
The Unloved Bastard Son
With the E36, BMW made a much more conservative M3. It shared nearly all of its bodywork with the standard E36. It was also the first sedan model, and the first convertible to make it over to the states. As M3-people (M-threople?) will know, we did not receive the full-bore S50B30 (282-291hp) and later S50B32 (316hp) motors here in the US: In order to reduce costs, we got the 240hp S50B30US and S52B32. The European-spec motors were high-rev screamers, while we received motors based off of the standard 325/328 M50 and M52 motors. Which isn't as bad as it sounds for us, because this country almost didn't get the E36 M3 at all.
Having owned an E36 M3, I will be the first to say that while a great motor, the S52 does not feel special in the way other M-motors do. It delivers power in much the same way as any BMW straight-six. The Europeans, meanwhile, also had better brakes and slightly more aggressive suspension tuning. The E36 does, however, have fantastic handling in a lightweight, exceptionally well-balanced package. A true driver's car in every sense.
Key Points? It brought the M3 in a more luxurious and comfortable direction, the natural progression most modern cars seem to take. While we were denied the Euro-spec motor, the E36 M3 is still a fantastic car to drive- its handling is superb, and with wheels and tires in sizes at home on modern sports cars, it added a ton of grip to the party as well. I feel the E36 is a criminally underrated car, and as such they are by far the cheapest to buy. They are also very easy to work on yourself.
The Overachieving Asshole
The E46 could be the pinnacle of the M3. It is gorgeous, we finally got the proper motor those smug cheese-eating bastards in Europe had been getting all along, and it's as good a handler as any. The S54 is a real peach of a motor; it's an evolution of the European E36 motor, and as such revs joyously to 8,000RPM, making 333hp along the way. It gained 200lbs on the E36, and over 500 on its grandfather, but given the newer cars BMW is making is now looked upon as being small and light. It is a fantastic driver's car; the engine dares you to redline each gear, and while its metallic rasp can be a love/hate affair, there is no denying that it is distinctive.
What to know: More electronics, like traction control (US E36s from 96-0n had TCS, but it was garbage and often deleted), M-mode, stability control, satnav; electronic throttle; many more luxury features and a more opulent interior; phenomenal powerplant; superb handling; optional SMG gearbox; once again, those goddamn Europeans got the last laugh with the CSL version.
The Son That Studied Abroad in America
With the E90/92/93 M3, BMW shoved in a 4.0 V8, a shitton of luxury features, such as- no joke- seatbelt presenters, and almost didn't make it in manual. The take-rate of the M-DCT gearbox beat out the 6-speed, and satnav was standard on later models. Curb weight was around 3700lbs. I will admit, I didn't really want to like this car. The M3 has grown with the base 3-series into a vehicle 181.8in long: For reference, that's only 6 inches shorter than an E39 5-series; the E30 M3 was over 10 inches shorter at 171in. It's less involving and more isolating than the earlier cars in every way, and lacks the "conversation" that the steering in older BMWs has with the driver.
I, guilty of being an automotive hipster at times, tend to disparage cars that become more complex while sacrificing driving purity on the altar of luxury and comfort. And that is what I thought of the E90 until I actually went and drove one. On paper, I do not like a lot of the developments. In practice, well... have you ever revved a V8 to 8,400RPM? It was astounding to drive the E90 because all of my concerns, aspersions, and preconceived notions faded away very quickly. I even have to confess to having liked the DCT in the example that I drove. The M3 may have grown heavier and more luxurious, but it is also a more capable car than its predecessors in every way, and every bit as enjoyable to drive when you start to push it. It just has a more exaggerated Clark Kent personality when you don't.
So, Which is It?
The fact is, when you think about it, people buy M3s over other sporty cars for rather practical reasons. It is first and foremost an imminently livable daily driver. While the E30 was a racecar, the M3 has never really been a pure full-on sports car. It is, inherently, a sports sedan. Even in two-door format, it shares literally every dimension with the sedan, save for chassis stiffness- where the sedans are actually stiffer and in theory handle better. The M3 isn't made to take on purpose built sports cars: It's about adding the performance of a sports car to a preexisting, highly practical platform that happens to be well-suited for the application. It's specialty is not being specialized. It can be all things to all people.
I truly have come to think that a softer, more livable, Clark Kent M3 is where this car is actually at its best. For those that want a pure, hardcore experience and have the luxury of not needing rear seats or some degree of practicality, there always have been and will be better options. With the advent of the M235i and the impending M2, BMW itself offers things for people in the market for a smaller, nimbler M- or M-lite car. For those that need a Swiss Army Knife, there is really only one option of this caliber. The E90 M3 nailed it on that front. Let's hope the F80 can live up.