Every generation of BMW M3 ranked from good to great

The BMW M3 is arguably the most enduring sports sedan/coupe ever produced. Thanks to sports car racing in the late 1980s BMW created a car very much in the same vein as their celebrated 2002 Turbo. They took a standard E30 and changed as much as they could resulting in an aggressive Touring Car with boxed and pumped guards which also ended up as a category winner, dominating race tracks around the world. 

This is the reason the M3 exists.

Desire levels were high, as they still are today, and set the tone for M-division cars with a renewed focus on delivering high performance cars for the road. While the E30 M3 may have been born from motorsport requirements, subsequent models didn’t have to meet homologation in any way as motorsport regulations changed, so were free to be developed in other ways and in other areas. This meant less focus on the extremes of motorsport and more focus on road going capabilities.  

Despite changes over the years, there are no bad M3s! Every single generation offers something different however the connection to the original recipe is being stretched further and further each time a new M3 is released, so much so that many consider the M2 to be the natural successor to the original M3 given its size and dynamics.

So here they all are ranked from good to great:

6. F80 M3

The F80 BMW M3 was a big departure from the previous generation. A bigger car and a return to six-cylinders but with turbo-charging this was the first M3 to include forced induction. That didn’t stop the car from performing or being mightily impressive on debut but many believed up until that point that a true M-car should be naturally aspirated. Today, naturally aspirated performance cars are rare.

The size and styling of the F80 challenged a lot of the traditional M3 visual cues such as short overhangs (although the front was still fairly short) and with surfaces and details looking decidedly squarer and sharper edged. This was a big car compared to its predecessors with many believing the then new M2 to be the natural successor simply down to size. The traditional M3 had morphed into two distinct lines. Now the M3 was a four door sedan while the new M4 badge took hold of the coupe, again upsetting many who believe the M3 badge is the badge and should be on the sportiest version.

Another big change was the absence of a manual transmission. Some markets were able to specify a manual but the amount of manual cars produced worldwide is miniscule. The F80 had become so fast, to extract the best from it required a track and that’s where an auto works best to deliver the best lap time possible.

The new car also lacked a decent soundtrack unlike the previous generation’s glorious V8. Far removed from the earlier M3s with their metallic buzzsaw sounds this six-cylinder had turbo-charging and stricter emissions to deal with and as such sounded rather muted. If those earlier cars sound like Chris Cornell (RIP), the F80 was a Chris Cornell with a serious head cold.

A very fast, very competent and aggressive looking M3 but far removed from the original blueprint. 

5. G80 M3

What’s BMW’s design signature? Undoubtedly its kidney grille. Designers will often look to these brand cues as a means to develop a design language that informs the rest of the car or line up, and to give the vehicle some sense of identity and distinction. Except for this new G80 M3, using the most sacred of all BMW design cues has resulted in an almost comical interpretation. 

I feel for the designers. Too small and it doesn’t have the desired effect, and can end up looking apologetic. But they‘ve also gone so far to the point where it looks like it belongs on a different vehicle altogether, say a utility truck. Ok, that’s probably a little harsh, and over time we will come to accept the grille and potentially celebrate it amongst a sea of me-too homogenised design.

So the G80 takes the F80 recipe and fine tunes it. It’s still a big car with roughly the same dimensions and long overhangs. It still has a turbo-charged six-cylinder engine producing epic amounts of power and torque, and customers can order a manual in the lower non-Competition spec M3 sedan and M4 coupe but like before, in select countries.

Early reports suggest this G80 is a bit of a gem in the chassis stakes, so say what you will about the grille, it’s going to be an epic drive. The fact the talk is mostly about the chassis kind of swings the pendulum back to the original E30 M3’s chassis bias by a fraction.

BMW is considering the possibility of a BMW M3 Touring which will provide a stern challenge to Audi’s RS4 and RS6. It seems conservatism is being thrown out the window and car makers are finding way to give customers what they are asking for.

It’s still big, it still sounds a little dull, but it’s “more M3” than the previous gen.

4. E36 M3

The E36 just pips the highly competent G80 based on its raw mechanical nature and the fact more of its performance can be extracted on the road than the newer M3s of the last 7 years.

Where the E30 M3 was all boxed arches with pugnacious intent, the E36 M3 that replaced it towed the conservative line ready to take on Porsche’s new 996 generation 911 as a more practical alternative. Everything it did was conservative right down to the steering but it still had a glorious inline-6 cylinder engine and rear wheel drive dynamics mated to a manual gearbox that is so coveted today we can expect prices to start going up as numbers dwindle. 

This was a completely different proposition to the original E30 M3 and as such must’ve been a bit of a shock to those looking to upgrade. But if they did, they would’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the interior, the competence in the chassis, and the sound of the BMW 6-cylinder engine. It was even available as a sedan for the ultimate Q-car.

The E36 M3 was very popular in the day and with so many units sold has kept the price down on used examples for quite some time.  

If you want a purist M3 like the E36, you’d better start looking. There aren’t quite as many BMW E36’s for sale right now as there were a couple of years ago which usually is a sign of attrition taking hold, restorations beginning, and owners wanting to hold onto a good thing.

3. E92 M3

The E92 M3 will go down as one of the great M3s for many reasons but one in particular: a glorious high revving naturally aspirated V8 engine. Engines and power outputs had been getting bigger and bigger over the years with the E92 effectively doubling the number of cylinders of the original E30. The character of the M3 had changed in one fell swoop turning the M3 into a Germanic muscle car, one with outstanding build quality and sophisticated design.

Here was a car that took the M3 recipe and finessed it retaining those short overhangs with beautiful lines front to back and with enough muscular surfacing as needed. It will certainly go down as one of the most beautiful M3s of all time even in the 4-door sedan guise. It was bigger than the previous generation and just about tipped the scale into the large car territory, however nothing compared to what lay ahead. 

But that engine. And mated to a manual transmission as was expected in those days, despite the increased uptake of DCT auto transmission, it was a marvellous combination. Again it competed with Porsche’s 911, and yes it didn’t quite have the class of the 911 but it sure as hell was just as, if not more, entertaining.

The E92 M3 (or E90 if you wanted the four door) can be had for a fraction of its original price today and while parts and repairs may be pricey, if you want one of the best M3s of all time, now would be a good time to buy.

2. E30 M3

The original M3 will be for many, the best M3 of all time, without argument. It is of course the first and the only one built for homologation rather than starting out as a road car turned into a racer as the new G80 M4 currently is. It has a true M-division motorsports engine, significant body changes over the original donor car, and significant mechanical changes over the original. It looked and performed brilliantly with classic BMW styling and interior design. It was small but at the time considered of average size, and today it seems almost novel.

What also cemented the original M3’s greatness was its motorsports success not only in Germany but around the world. How’s this for a list:

  • World Touring Car Championship (1987)
  • European Touring Car Championship (1987 and 1988)
  • British Touring Car Championship (1988 and 1991)
  • Italia Superturismo Championship (1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991)
  • Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (1987 and 1989)
  • Australian Touring Car Championship (1987)
  • Australian 2.0 Litre Touring Car Championship (1993)
  • Australian Manufacturers’ Championship (1987 and 1988 – both shared)
  • AMSCAR Series (1987, 1991)
  • Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (1990)

It ticked so many boxes it’s no wonder it has retained high values. The only downside? That four cylinder engine is a little wheezy in standard trim, easily outperformed by a small hot hatch from today. But that’s selling it short because the degree of mechanical connection and chassis dynamics is far more entertaining than any hot hatch. 

It also set up the M-division for further success, defining what a hot BMW could be, striking a practicality and performance balance with outstanding quality. Those boxed arches are a thing of beauty and yet to be replicated in any M3 since with designers preferring smoothed bulges instead. Maybe one day those boxed arches will return. 

Every E30 M3 is left hand drive although in some markets like Australia, owners have gone to the trouble to turn them into right hand drive. Many will suggest this isn’t necessary and can devalue the car but it’s certainly a personal preference. Most of the converted cars I’ve seen are of a very high quality and if it means a more comfortable and confident driving experience, why not. 

The M3 will never again be as small, mechanical, or chassis-biased as the E30 and it will remain as one of the most coveted cars of all time.

1. E46 M3

Number one. Why? It simply is the pinnacle of what an M3 is, both by design and circumstance. The E46 M3 when it was released took the recipe the E36 had and turned everything up to 11. It’s Captain America to Steve Rogers—well perhaps not that dramatic but you get the point. 

It was a marginally bigger car than the one it replaced, retaining the same form and dimension, the same small overhangs, yet with pumped guards that gave it a meaningful stance. Even today the side profile is so balanced it’s a lesson in what a coupe should look like. 

The size of the car means it fits perfectly on the road, capable of attacking corners yet cosseting enough to do long highway miles. The only downside is the introduction of the infotainment screen but this is easy rectified with a retro fit unit. At least it didn’t protrude and interrupt the dashboard line like in many cars of the last decade.

The performance from that glorious S54 BMW straight-six is outstanding as is the metallic rasp, never illustrated better than in the low volume E46 M3 CSL. This is the last naturally aspirated BMW M-division engine and it is quite simply the high point in BMW’s production engine development. 

Handling was predictable and entertaining too, never letting the engine take all the glory. When mated to a manual transmission it is the perfect intersection of power, handling, and involvement that you can actually use on the road without feeling like a douchebag. 

Yes the F80 and G80 are the fastest most competent M3s ever but because of this very reason require insane levels of speed to begin to tap into their potential. For some, that won’t matter one bit as straight line acceleration is useful for everyday driving and traffic light grand prix while a track day would take care of the rest.

For others, the philosophy of the M3 is never better represented than in the original E30 despite it being outclassed by a small hot hatch today. 

E36 fans meanwhile appreciate the classy subtleties of their generation of M3, while E92 owners revel in their uniqueness of having one of the best looking M3s while flexing that great naturally aspirated V8.

But it’s the E46 M3 that combines all of the best of those qualities in the one car.

Do you agree? How would you rank BMW’s M3s over the years?

1 Comment
  1. Of course E46M3 is the top one. Aside from its performance and quality of build it has become an affordable modern classic. Top speed is not what I am after. It is the acceleration that I enjoy at traffic lights. In summer a cabriolet adds extra fun to it. The SMG gear helps more relaxing crusing in windy mountain roads.

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