The ultimate BMW M3 test: E30 Sport Evo v E36 Evo v E46 CSL
M3. No confusion, just instant comprehension. The badge, the name, is universally understood. One letter and one number that combined are as globally recognisable as Schuey’s chin. BMW is launching a new one and can’t afford to get it wrong. Here are three reasons why: the three greatest M3s of their generation, an E30 Sport Evo, an E36 Evo saloon and an E46 CSL, made-in-metal reminders of everything the M3 stands for. Yet the moniker has come to stand for something quite different to the original E30 that BMW first revealed at the ’85 Frankfurt Motor Show. Like so many of the greatest road cars, the M3 started off on the circuit, only finding its way onto autobahns because 5000 road cars were required to satisfy homologation requirements. That first M3, based on the E30 saloon, was an unqualified success in every respect. It dominated touring car championships here and abroad, fending off the attack of Sierra and Merc 190 Cosworths and was a commercial success too, developing a strong following worldwide, and particularly in Britain; this despite coming in left-hand drive only and carrying a lofty £23k price tag that made it appear, on paper at least, dubious value in the face of Ford’s faster, cheaper and lairier Cossie.
£23k for an M3? Makes the new one seem cheap...
A close look at the E30 M3 reveals just where that money went - and a drive confirms that it was worth it. Much more than a tarted-up 325i Sport, the original E30 shares only the bonnet with its humbler siblings. Those fabulous arches are all steel and flared to allow the racing version to run big rubber, the rear windscreen is uniquely raked to help direct air towards the rear spoiler and both screens are bonded to the body rather than housed in old fashioned rubbers to improve aerodynamics which was probably like urinating on a bonfire given the cliff-face grille’s ability to scythe through the air. If, like me, you remember Saturday afternoons glued to the TV while Steve Soper doorhandled his E30 around Brands, you will not fail to get goose bumps standing in the company of what, to most people, is just another square old BMW. Then if, like me, you’re very lucky, you get given the keys and lose the plot altogether. Maths was never my strongest suit but you don’t need a degree in hard sums to realise that the original M3 is so much more than the total of those parts. It’s not particularly quick, it doesn’t sound that special, you have to sit on the left and from inside it looks and feels no better than the mouldy 318i that some thoughtless sod has abandoned in the layby down the road.
Doesn't the original M3 now drive like a 20-year-old car, though?
By the first corner you’ve worked out that although the first-to-second change is a little slow, the dog-leg pattern ’box with first down and to the left is a breeze and that neither it nor the left-hand drive layout are remotely hindering your progress. By the second corner you’re convinced that the steering is almost everything everyone says about it. Light, full of feel and razor sharp, its only slight failing is longish gearing (3.7 between the stops) which means that it never turns in quite as quickly as you’d expect. By the third corner your mind is focused on the incredible combination of ride comfort and body control, how light and alert the car feels, how great the visibility is thanks to those slim pillars, and you begin to fully understand why millionaires with garages full of exotica are beating a path to E30 M3 ownership in the hope of fulfilment. But the last corner, well that’s the most dangerous corner of all. By then you’re reaching for the cheque book yourself. Which in the case of this beautiful black, one-of-600 Sport Evo would mean shelling out £17k as opposed to the £11k a regular M3 would set you back. That extra money buys different spoilers front and rear; a special interior with some very ’80s red seatbelts; lower suspension; thinner glass and a smaller petrol tank to reduce weight. The 2.3-litre four is also stretched to 2.5-litres and from around 200bhp and 176lb ft (depending on year and spec) to 237bhp and 177lb ft.
Tell me more! That screaming four was a legend in its day...
It was certainly brisk. The E30 took a scant 6.0sec to 60mph and 16sec to the ton – a healthy improvement on the 7.0sec/18sec of the standard car, but little better than hot-hatch performance these days. ‘Too many people have got the wrong idea about the E30 M3 and come back from a drive disappointed,’ says Tony Halse of premier BMW finders and fettlers Munich Legends. ‘What you’re buying is a brilliant chassis, but none of them is truly quick. If it’s straight-line go you’re after you’re looking at the wrong car.’ But that’s not to say the M3’s big-capacity short-stroke four isn’t without soul. It’s not hugely refined or even that pleasant to listen to, but it is purposeful, just about torquey enough to pull the 1200kg shell along happily at low revs, and leaps to the redline when pushed, seemingly coming on cam twice, first at 5000rpm and then again at 6000rpm for the final 1000rpm flourish. There are only five rather than six forward gears but they’re well stacked and fifth is a direct drive rather than overdrive, the pedals are ideal for heel and toeing and, just like every other control, perfectly weighted. And despite sharing its semi-trailing arm rear end with the regular E30 whose tail happy waywardness is the stuff of legend, the limited-slip-equipped M3 seems perfectly planted, happy to indulge you when you wish but only at your bidding. Frankly, this thing is a revelation, agile and communicative like an Elise but practical, comfortable and equipped with anti-lock brakes, air con and most of the other things we expect of modern grown up cars. Could you really happily spend £22k on a new VW Golf GTI when you could have a nice one of these for half as much? Your only problem might be finding one; those with good cars tend to hang on to them and the cheap stuff is a vortex waiting to swallow your wallet whole.
Now to the second generation: the BMW M3 E36
You’ll have no trouble finding the car that replaced the original M3 - but you're best off avoiding the cheapest E36 models, as they'll have been thrashed to hell and back. If Halse is right and the chassis is the heart of an E30, then it’s the engine that takes centre stage in its successor. The parallel with Carol Shelby’s Mustangs 20 years earlier is uncanny. Like the first-generation GT350s, the E30 was built as a road-going racer, but by the second generation the lure of the dollar had turned the cars into faster, softer, more usable machines. There was even an M3 saloon, but don’t overlook it based on the number of doors. The E36 M3 saloon is a forgotten gem. Marrying the 318i’s soul of discretion exterior with the luxury of a 7-series and the wickedness of the M3 coupe’s new six-cylinder motor, it’s the perfect Q-car and much rarer than its M3 coupe or convertible stablemates. And there’s nothing remotely soft about the engine. Starting out as a sophisticated 3.0-litre straight six fitted with variable valve timing on the inlet side and producing 286bhp and 238lb ft of churn, it transformed the M3’s performance, dropping the 60mph sprint into the high fives and making 150mph a reality.
Does the E36 drive differently from the original E30 M3?
In contemporary tests CAR said the early saloon’s bespoke, softer suspension settings made it more satisfying than the coupe; later Evo saloons like the one we drove got the coupe’s set-up and its bigger 3.2-litre engine and corresponding increase in power: 321bhp and 258lb ft made the then-new Porsche 996 appear as undernourished as a Kenyan marathon runner. Inevitably, with its priorities shifted so far from those of the E30, the E36 feels radically different to its predecessor today, just as it did to the puzzled journalists who first drove it in 1992. Objectively it isn’t a bad car, but it’s easy to understand why hacks pleaded with BMW to call it the 330i instead and give them a proper M3. The steering – heavier and deader than the E30’s, though pleasingly shorter between the lockstops – doesn’t fizz with feedback like the older car’s. Evo versions are better than the 3.0-litre cars in this respect, and you can certainly feel that extra 250kg of kerbweight with every degree of lock applied to the wheel - and every bump that passes beneath the 17-inch rims. The control weights are a mess too, the Evo’s six-speed gearbox isn’t as slick as the 3.0-litre E36’s five-speeder, the clutch requires serious legwork and the throttle is absurdly stiff. You jump into the E30 and everything clicks, but not here, not in the E36.
So the E36 is the weakest of the lot?
Probably in this test. But it’s no boat and certainly doesn’t fall to pieces when you up the pace, remaining composed if hardly as sharp as the E30. And once you’re accustomed to the greater physical effort required to drive quickly, you find the confidence to exploit the stronger brakes and better stiction on faster corners. You also feel increasingly confident to delve into the straight six’s huge reserves of power through slower bends, creating the sort of controlled smokey slides the E30 has the balance but not the grunt to perform, at least not in the dry. And the E36’s huge reserves of torque, greater refinement and bigger cabin make it a genuinely appealing everyday prospect, especially with prices stretching down so low.
Ok. So onto the outgoing M3... the E46
We've tested the definitive E46, the lightweight and very desirable CSL. But let’s rewind to 2000 and the launch of the car on which the CSL was based, a car whose mission was to deliver the sales success of the E36 but reclaim some of that respect lost in the switch from E30. The rear wheelarches bulged, the front wings gained gills from the ’70s CSL and the exhaust sprouted an extra pair of pipes to further mark the differentiation between it and its more mundane coupe siblings. The engine continued in 3.2-litre guise, but power shot up to 343bhp, 60mph tumbled to five dead and rear tyres began to fear for their lives in the face of a new M-diff which could provide 100 percent lock up across the back axle; sideways showboating had never been easier. Regular M3s were, and still are great, but the CSL is better; just not the £20k better BMW seemed to think when it set the price at close to £60,000 in 2003. Plenty of speculators lost their shirts and immaculate sub-10,000-mile cars are now changing hands for as little as half that, making them phenomenal used buys.
Sixty grand for a 3-series! Who'd buy one of those?
Despite the carbon roof and interior embellishments, the special alloys, lightweight bumpers and boot lid and extra 17bhp, Halse reckons most potential buyers just don’t see the CSL as different enough from a newer, regular E46 at the same price to take the plunge. But it is a different experience, even shorn of the Michelin Cup tyres as this car was for our rainswept photoshoot. Curiously, steering feel just off centre seems better without the Cup tyres, removing that leap of faith feeling you got when first turning in on the silly rubber. Definitely more at home on the smooth stuff, the more hardcore springs and dampers can struggle on messy B-roads but there’s a taste of E30 Sport Evo in its alertness. This is helped by the quicker steering rack and the 110kg that was lopped from the tubby standard car’s 1570kg kerbweight. But best of all, it sounds absolutely glorious, the huge carbon airbox complete with dinner plate-sized butterfly valve filling the cabin with an incredible demonic shriek as you work your way up to 8200rpm before grabbing the next of six ratios in the mandatory SMG paddle-shift ’box. Turn down the wick and you’ve got a respectable motorway cruiser.
The acid question... which M3 is best?
Which would you have? Office opinion here leans in favour of the CSL but if pressed I’d take an E30 for its purity. It’s a car that can still teach us so much, and one which surely has a place in 2007. A simple, light, fun rear-driver that can fit the family and do the trackday stuff; no-one makes anything comparable these days. An RX-8 is on the right lines but falls short. So what about it, Nissan? Another thought occurs, however. For the £50,625 the new E90 M3 will cost, you could easily afford one car from each of these three previous generations. Focused E30, usable E36 and bonkers E46 CSL: even by the standards of the do-it-all M3, that’s one pretty formidable line-up. Extract from a feature in CAR Magazine, February 2007