Can you believe that is has already been thirty years since BMW set the industry-wide precedent for sporty, compact-executive vehicles known as M3? That’s right, 2015 is the 30th Anniversary of the BMW E30 M3 being released to the public. Since 1985, the simple formula of eliminating excess and weight before adding power has become a staple of the M3 – and an example that many other makers have attempted to follow with varying degrees of success. With today’s horsepower wars, we have seen the M3 evolve into a sophisticated horsepower-wielding torque monster that looks like a beefed-up motorsport mutant in comparison to its first generation sibling.
This raises an interesting question; which of the five M3 generations would you want most in your garage? And the choices are:
1. The O.G. – E30 M3
Production of the E30 M3 began in 1985, and was based on the 1986 model-year E30 3-series. It was originally equipped with the 2.3 liter 16 valve I-4 S14 engine that produced 192 horsepower. By the end of the E30’s production life, this generation of M3 would sport a 2.5 liter unit producing nearly 235 horsepower!
Weighing in between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds, the E30 handled exceptionally for its time. Heck, this M3 even had a remarkable motorsport career – winning in both the Touring Car Championships and World Rally Championship.
Trying to find one of these legendary M’s for a reasonable price is almost impossible these days. Somehow the secret got out as to how special these cars truly are, causing what some refer to as the “ricer tax.”
2. The Popular One – E36 M3
Before the dreaded “ricer tax” hit the E30…it was feasting on the E36. Luckily, the inflated prices of the second generation M3 have somewhat subsided, and enthusiasts can begin to enjoy the popular E36 platform once again.
Although production on the E36 M3 began in 1992, the first model to be imported to the States didn’t arrive until 1995. The 240 horsepower 3.0L S50 that came in the 1995 North American models was replaced in 1996 by a 3.2L S52 that produced the same 240 horsepower, but offered more torque.
Today, the E36 remains one of the more sought-after vehicles for the price – not to mention the ease in which they can be modified. From autocross events and drifting to even road courses; the E36 M3 is an extremely well-rounded automobile, making it difficult not to choose it as the favorite M3 of all time.
3. The Gold Standard – E46 M3
When the third generation of M3, E46, began production in 2000 – it did so with a 3.2L S54 tuned by the M-Division. The Euro-spec engine was the highest output naturally aspirated engine BMW had produced to date (besides the McLaren F1) with 338 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque.
It was at this point where the M3 became less “car enthusiast secret weapon” and more “all-around automotive badass.” Depending on what upgrades and modifications are done, this Bavarian jewel can easily produce well over 500 horsepower – giving anyone looking to roast some tires and get a little sideways the thrill of a lifetime.
Just like its predecessors, finding a used E46 in decent shape that won’t cost an arm, a leg, and first born child might be a tad difficult. Although, if you do come across one, I can guarantee you’ll be hooked almost immediately.
4. The Heavyweight – E9X M3
Speaking of addicting, have you heard the exhaust of a 4.0L V8 powered E9x M3? And I thought the legendary BMW inline 6 made my heart skip a beat. Needless to say, BMW’s formula of less weight and more power continued to work with the fourth generation of M3, but with the added twist of a V-8 engine.
This next era of M3 was full of firsts. First M3 to be available with the venerable DCT transmission. First M3 to be offered with a V-8 that wasn’t a special edition. First M3 to confuse the shit out of you when trying to identify the chassis code, but that’s neither here nor there. Finally, it was the first M3 to produce more than 400 horsepower.
With this amount of power at your disposal from the factory, imagine the potential to be had after just a few upgrades. Although it may have a more refined and less sporty look compared to the older M3’s, the E9X was the perfect stepping stone to lead us into the future of the marque.
5. The Pinnacle – F80 M3
After thirty years and four different generations of M3, I am convinced the fifth generation F80 is as good as the M3 (and M4) can possibly get. It seems that the engineers at BMW have gathered everything they have learned about M3 over the years, figured out what NOT to do, then created the perfect vehicle.
No, it doesn’t have the barebones style of the E30, the iconic sound of a naturally aspirated inline 6 like the E36 or E46, or the deep, and throaty exhaust notes of the E9X; but who cares?! It has the best attributes of all the previous generations rolled up into one fascinating piece of automobile engineering. It handles, accelerates, and stops like a dream, all while providing plenty of comfort for the day to day commute. There’s nothing else available like it.
So which is your all-time favorite? Let us know in the comments below!