Even if you’re not a car enthusiast you’ve probably heard of the BMW M3. Born as a homologation special, this model became one of the best-known performance cars in the world, spanning through five generations, thousands of racing wins and millions of fans worldwide. It has not only done what it was supposed to do, and that was bringing BMW multiple racing trophies, but it has done much so more, becoming one of BMWs signature models and a landmark car for the industry.
Long before the M3, BMW was known as a brand with sporty pretensions, compact sedans and powerful engines. Of course, it was also known as a company which was involved in racing mostly in touring car championships all over the world. During the `60s and the `70s BMW`s motorsport department was really busy building various racing cars which all had big success on the track. In fact, BMW Motorsport was closely working with various tuners and small companies like Alpine or AC Schnitzer in order to produce the best racing cars. You might remember the fantastic BMW 3.0 CSL or Group 5 BMW 320 Turbo which dominated the touring championships in the `70s equipped with flame spitting engines, wild graphics and big spoilers.
However, in the early ’80s BMW reached the end of racing career of the E21 3 Series model, and was in need of a new racing car to compete in touring championships. The introduction of the new 3 Series in 1983 gave the M-Sport department a great basis for development, but it was Mercedes, BMW`s arch rival who really influenced the birth of the first BMW M3. In those days, Germany had a very interesting touring car racing series called DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Maistershaft) which featured almost regular production cars. The championship soon gained on popularity all over Europe and manufacturers saw it as the perfect opportunity to race, win and promote their cars. So, in late 1983, Mercedes presented a compact homologation model called 190E 2.3-16 with a 2.3 liter four-cylinder engine and 16 valve heads. It was sporty, well-built, good looking and perfect for touring car championships. BMW wasn`t expecting such a move and was completely caught off guard. So, very soon, M-Sport department got the order to start developing a brand new homologation special based on the new 3 Series and to make it better looking, faster and more capable than the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. And that is how the first BMW M3 was born.
BMW M3 E30 (1985-1992)
The first BMW M3 was introduced in late 1985 in front of eager audience. It was 2 door model, based on the regular E30 3 Series, but with extensive modifications and much bigger price. In fact, the BMW M3 cost two times more than the 325i, the most powerful regular model. The M3 had 12 different exterior modifications, totally revised suspension, and a brand new engine with the code S14. It was a high revving 2.3 liter four cylinder with individual throttle bodies and 195 hp in base trim. It may not sound much these days, but back in mid-80s this was a respectful number in a very light and compact car. The power was transmitted to the rear wheels via a 5-speed gearbox, and the performance was pretty good with less-than-7-second 0 to 60 mph times.
BMW took an interesting approach to this car giving it loads of unique features and details while concentrating on lightness, driving dynamics and uncompromised road holding. Immediately after the introduction, the E30 M3 was prepared for racing duty and started dominating world`s touring championships. In hands of some of the best drivers of the period, M3 E30 has won 1200 races all over the world and won practically every championship it entered! This record stands today and M3 E30 is winningest car in the racing word. Production ended in early 1992 after a little more than 16.000 cars were made. Almost all of them were coupes but a handful of convertibles was built as well.
BMW M3 E36 (1992-1999)
After the big success of original E30 M3, BMW realized that the M3 should be developed further than just a homologation special. For next generation, the Bavarian company decided to offer M3 as coupe, sedan and convertible right from the start. The E36 M3 was introduced in 1992 and featured a brand new 3.0-liter six cylinder engine with 282 hp. It was a significant increase compared to the previous model, and this generation grew not only in power but in size and comfort features. The original M3 was a pure street legal racing machine but the second M3 has become more of a compact grand tourer or luxury cruiser, especially in its sedan form. In 1995, M3 E36 got an engine upgrade and the 3.0-liter engine was replaced by a 3.2-liter six cylinder with 321 hp which had improved performance. The 0 to 60 mph time was in 6 seconds range which was pretty fast by ’90s standards.
Of course, this generation earned its reputation on the track as well, since BMW produced several racing versions which competed all over the world. The motorsport success, great design, and almost supercar performance all made the E36 M3 one of the best performance cars of the ’90s and a true performance bargain today. During seven years of production, over 70.000 examples were produced in coupe, convertible and sedan form showing that the BMW M3 cult was by then fully established.
BMW M3 E46 (2000-2006)
After criticism that the E36 generation M3 was not more than a regular 3 Series with a powerful engine, and a car that distanced itself from the original concept, BMW introduced the all-new M3 in late 2000. This was a totally new model with many unique features, exterior details and was only available as a coupe or a convertible. Understanding the importance of the M3 as a model, BMW tried hard to present a sporty, yet usable car with big power, great handling and traditional BMW driving feel. BMW succeeded again, and E46 is now considered one of the greatest M3 models of all times due to the combination of fantastic styling, perfect high revving six cylinder engine and sharp road holding.
Under the hood was a new 3.2-liter engine with 343 hp which sent power to the rear wheels through six-speed manual or SMG automatic transmission, the first time in an M3. The performance levels were even better and 0 to 60 mph time took around 5 seconds which was very fast and still is pretty good for a car which is based on an ordinary sedan. Immediately after the introduction, the automotive press praised the abilities and driving dynamics and even today, fans of the M3 series consider it to be the perfect balance of performance, luxury, and style. Of course, this M3 had its racing version in form of M3 GTR which was very successful in GT championships and American racing series.
However, the most interesting version of E46 was a limited production lightweight special called the M3 CSL. It was an improved version of the standard M3 with slightly more power, better suspension, SMG gearbox, and less weight. It was produced in 1.400 copies for 2004 model year only, and it is now considered a collector’s item which commands high price tags. The M3 CSL had slightly better performance due to SMG transmission and better road holding characteristics. In the end, E46 was produced in almost 86.000 examples which was quite a success for BMW.
BMW M3 E90/92/93 (2007-2013)
The success of the E46 M3 encouraged BMW to try something new for the next generation, introduced in 2007. The basic formula stayed the same: compact coupe or convertible with a powerful engine, world-class handling, and performance. However, this time BMW included the sedan as well and give all three body styles different chassis codes. The sedan was called E90, the coupe was E92 and convertible was E93. But, the biggest surprise was the engine. Gone were the torquey six cylinders in favor of a brand new high revving V8. The traditionalists were a little bit suspicious about the new set up, but the performance and dynamics of the new M3 shut them up.
The new engine had 4.0 liters in displacement and 414 hp which was a significant increase over the previous M3 model. It was a high revving unit with relatively low torque figures (400 Nm) but still powerful enough to propel M3 to 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Buyers could choose from three body styles, two transmissions, and various other options. BMW also produced several special versions with the M3 GTS being the most interesting. This was a hardcore street performance model with an upgraded 4.4-liter engine, 440 bhp and 300 kilograms less. It improved performance and road holding, and BMW only produced 135 of these fierce orange machines. The total global production of this generation M3 in all forms was just above 57.000 cars, less than previous generations.
Of course, racing was not abandoned and this generation M3 proved itself on the tracks all over the world, most notably in FIA GT2 and GT3 championships in Europe and America. In 2009, BMW Motorsport introduced the M3 E92 GT2 which was a factory-prepared racing car available for sale to private teams and gentleman racers. It was very successful in America, and it even participated in 24 Hours of Le Mans.
BMW M3 F30 and M4 F82/F83 (2014- )
BMW continued to develop the M3 as a model with the current generation, presented in 2014. This time, the traditionalists were up for another surprise since the M3 coupe, which always counted for the majority of the sales was now dead, and the M3 is only a sedan. Of course, BMW isn`t killing one of its most iconic products, but it’s just giving it a different name and now, M3 in coupe form is called M4. A Little bit confusing but wait until you hear the chassis numbers. The regular M3 (sedan) has a chassis code F30 but M4 (coupe) has a chassis code F82 for the coupe and F83 for the convertible. It is not exactly clear why BMW did that, since those all are basically the same cars with a similar design, same platform, and engine.
The heart of the new M3/M4 duo is a six-cylinder engine which marked a return to the roots, but with a twist in form of two turbochargers which make this 3.0-litre unit capable of delivering 425 hp and 550 Nm of torque. The horsepower figures are not much higher than the previous model, but there is much more torque which results in improved performance. The 0 to 60 sprint is possible in just 4.1 seconds with the dual-clutch automatic transmission and 4.2 with the six-speed manual. The engine is a true work of art with special materials and innovative components, while the car itself benefits from use of aluminum and carbon fiber.
There are plans of producing several racing specials based on current M3 and M4 cars, but BMW has so far produced just the M4 GTS. Similar to the previous models with the GTS moniker, this is a street fighting and fire breathing machine with more power, less weight, and trick technology which makes it even faster. This model has an interesting feature of water injection into the engine’s intake system achieving better combustion, resulting in delivering more power. This is the first factory M4 with the power of 500 hp and acceleration figure of below 4 seconds, 3.8s to be exact. Of course, this kind of performance doesn’t come cheap, but BMW already sold all of 700 produced examples.