BMW M3 through the ages by Ben Barry

Published: 22 July 2010

When it comes to dream garages, I have a terrible lack of imagination. Dream classic? E30 M3 Sport Evo – the last of the first M3s with the bigger 2.5-litre engine. Family car? Early E36 M3 saloon – the one with the softer suspension, smoother 3.0-litre engine and slicker five-speed gearbox. Dream track car? E46 M3 CSL – you know the CSL, right? The lightweight grey or black one with the SMG gearbox and carbon roof? I’d love one of those. Dream daily driver? New E92 M3 coupe – supple ride, awesome comfort, great engine, brilliant chassis.

Anyway, I and hordes of other journalists from around the world was recently invited to Ascari racetrack in southern Spain to drive the new M3 GTS, to get a passenger ride in the new 1-series M, and, almost incidental to the programme this, to drive a collection of BMW M’s heritage cars, from E30 through to E92.

I couldn’t quite believe it when I arrived: there before me, lined up, was my dream garage. All of the M3s were museum pieces, the vast majority showing under 10,000km, and all were simply left in the pitlane with the keys in the ignition. A load more lurked in an underground garage. It was without doubt the most complete, most immaculately presented collection of M3s in the world, and here was BMW M essentially handing the keys to complete strangers – Spanish! Greeks! – at a fast racetrack that most of us didn’t know. Crackers.

I had to act fast, to get in as many cars as I could and keep them out of the others’ careless paws for as long as possible.

I started with the E30 Sport Evo, a black one with just 7000km. Yes, it feels slow these days, the four-cylinder engine is a bit coarse, and that dog-leg gearbox takes some getting used to, but the steering is superb and – the best bit – the front end just goes where you point it. No understeer, no sense of weight pulling you wide of the apex. It just points and points and points until you ask to much of it and, eventually – through momentum rather than power – it oversteers.

Lovely car, the Sport Evo, and you can understand why us hacks slated its bigger, softer successor – the E36 – when it appeared in the early ’90s. But I’m fond of these cars – I’ve had two, the 3.0-litre coupe that I still own, and a 3.2-litre saloon – and it was a treat to drive a virtually factory fresh Daytona Violet 3.0-litre coupe and compare it with my leggy 3.0-litre that I’ve long ago converted into a trackday toy.

The E36 feels incredibly plush after the E30, but it also feels very nose heavy, its steering is ponderously uncommunicative and the body wallows alarmingly through transitions – the sensations feel muddied after the clarity of the E30. Yet the engine was the smoothest of all the M3s I drove at Ascari, its gear change the sweetest and, as I’ve discovered, a set of coilovers, some decent brakes and the removal of all that mollycoddling interior makes it a decent track car that’d leave the E30 trailing.

In this context, the E36 also stands as the trailblazer, the car that still really defines what an M3 is today – a plush, fast coupe with a smoky pair of rear boots, not a raw homologation special with bags of grip.

I drove the E46 next but, interestingly, the E46 CSL was left out of bounds in the garage – I reckon BMW feared direct comparison with the GTS, a car that will cost double or more the price of a standard M3, where the CSL got stick for a circa 50% price hike when it was launched and is, if anything, the more impressive package.

Anyway, the stock E46; it feels on its toes and alive after the E36, the steering far more direct, the nose still not as pointy as the E30 but far keener to dive at the apex and let the tail swing wide. Unlike the E36, it stays comparatively flat through transitions, so you can swing it around from lock-to-lock without setting some horrifically flabby pendulum swinging. Great engine too, but I was surprised how lethargic it felt in the upper reaches of the rev range – the new V8 has spoiled us with the way it zips around the dial so much more freely.

I tried two cars, one with the SMG ’box, one with the six-speed manual. Manual please. A good manual is always a good manual, but the advances in semi-auto/dual-clutch gearboxes leave these early generations feeling ponderous, clunky and outmoded.

All in, though, the E46 feels like an E30/E36 greatest hits package. Amazing that you can snaffle them for £8k these days.

The E90 manual saloon and E92 Competition Package brings us up to date. Yes, you could actually feel that the saloon sits a little higher and rolls a little more through turns than even the standard coupe, but it was still an incredibly engaging car, especially when you factor in all that practicality. But this time it’s the auto gearbox that makes the manual feel slow – seriously, the new DCT is awesome, offering everything from buttery smooth changes, to entirely manual control, and slack-free changes when you’re absolutely nailing it.

The Competition Package with its uprated suspension also feels keener to turn in and hold its line than either the regular coupe or saloon, but you’ve still got to be more patient than you first expect or the nose will wash wide, and you’ve got to be disciplined with all that power or you’ll smoke the rear tyres and lose your speed on exit.

What you want is something that’s stickier on both ends, that builds on the M attitude of a pointy front and an agile rear, but brings a whole new level of grip to the party. That, as you’ll see in the August issue of CAR, is the new M3 GTS.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator