Recently, we talked about which M5 we would have if given the chance. We talked about each one and then we each ranked them, giving each other our opinions. I had opined that the E28 was the best, while many said the E39 and the E60 even had some votes in there. It was a fun and interesting topic. So I decided we should do it again, except this time, with the M3.
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The M3 is what everyone thinks of when they think of BMW. It’s the first car to come to mind, and rightfully so, as it is the car that made the brand the Ultimate “Driving Machine”. So let’s go through the list of M3s, talk a little about each and then we’ll rank them in order of which we’d have if money were no option.
Let’s begin, shall we?
E30 M3 (1986-1991)
The E30 M3 is the one that comes to mind first when anyone mentions the M3. I would go as far as to say that the E30 M3 is the most revered car of the 80’s, aside from maybe the Ferrari F40. It presented a near-perfect steering and handling with ample, usable power and a wonderful soundtrack to match. Using the S14 engine, a 2.3 liter I4, the M3 produced 197 hp, mated to a 5-Speed manual and a limited-slip differential. It also had seats for four and a decent enough ride to make the car usable every day.
The great thing about the E30, is that it matches its pedigree. So many people claim the E30 M3 to be automotive perfection, so much so, in fact that you might start to doubt them. “It can’t be that good, can it?” you might say. The answer is yes, it is that good. It also dominated touring-car races all throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, so there’s great history there too. Overall the E30 is just an incredible machine with pedigree and history.
E36 M3 (1992-1998)
The E36 M3 was bigger, heavier, more comfortable and more powerful. People seem to complain about modern M3s getting bigger and heavier than the previous, but the fact is that it started happening with the first successor. Upsizing is nothing new for BMW. Now, did all of that upsizing make the E36 better? I would say no. I own an E36 328i and, while no M3, it isn’t as good of a driver’s car as an E30. And if I’m honest, it isn’t as good as an E46 either, the model that came after.
What the E36 M3 is, to me at least, is an entry-level M3. Yes, it still is fast and handles great, but it just isn’t as pure as the E30 and not as god of a car as the E46. But it is significantly cheaper than both and easier to work on/fix. The E36 M3 was the first M3 to use a six-cylinder engine. The S50, 3.0 liter I6 produced 240 hp, which could hit 60 mph in under six seconds, was used up until 1995. In 1996, BMW bumped the engine up to 3.2 liters which, while keeping the same hp figure, bumped torque up as well to 240 lb-ft from 225. The E36 M3 was a good car and can be found for cheap. It’s a great car for people who’ve never driven an M3 and want to try it out on the cheap.
E46 M3 (2000-2006)
I call the E46 the muscle car of the M3s. It had so much power and torque, coming from its 3.2 liter, 338 hp engine that it could light its rear tires up on command. It was by far and away the most powerful M3 at the time, and turned the M3 into a serious speed machine. Before the E46, handling seemed to be the primary goal for the M3, over straight-line speed.
The E46, though, had both. It still handled fantastic and is considered one of the better handling sports cars of all time. But boy was it fast, too. The E46 M3 was available with a 6-Speed manual only, up until BMW released it with their SMG gearbox, which worked well on track but no so well on the road. The manual is the one to have. Where the previous two M3s were fun, the E46 was an all-out hooligan. A truly fantastic car, and one everyone should drive before they die. Road and Track, back in 2009, proclaimed the 2006 M3 with the SMG to be their favorite sports car of all time. That’s saying something.
E90/E92 M3 (2007-2013)
The first of the M3s to start getting crucified for being different. Many balked at the idea of the E90/92 M3 because of its V8 engine, instead of BMW’s legendary inline-six. What an engine it was, though. The 4.0 liter V8 made 414 hp and revved to 8,250 RPM and made an incredible noise doing it. This paired to either a 6-Speed manual or a quick-shifting, 7-Speed DCT gearbox, got the M3 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds.
The E90/E92 M3, took heat at first, but once people warmed to it, they couldn’t stop singing its praises. With a beautifully linear power band, wonderful exhaust note, fantastic steering and incredible handling, the E90 M3 will go down as one of the best. It had such great balance between being a normal everyday 3 Series and an absolute lunatic as well. It was also one of the more charismatic M3s. The E90/E92 was very different from the rest, therefore it holds a special place in my, as well as many other enthusiast’s, heart.
F80 M3 (2013-present)
Well get your pitchforks ready, everyone because there is going to be some sort of riot. Just mentioning the F80 M3 gets so many BMW purists outraged. “How dare they make it turbocharged!” some will say or “Eww, it has electric power-steering?”. For some reason, just like the M5, BMW purists don’t like when ///M cars change. Even if the newer car is faster, handles better and seats more people, it’s still an outrage to them because it isn’t an old one.
Well they don’t know what they’re talking about because the F80 is wonderful. With polarizing looks, insane speed and pinpoint handling, the F80 M3 is everything an M3 should be. It also goes back to using an inline-six like the fans wanted. The motor in question is a 3.0 liter, twin-turbo I6 making 425 hp sent through either 6-Speed manual or 7-Speed DCT to a limited-slip differential. The F80 can hit 60 mph, using the DCT, in blistering 3.9 seconds. The F80 M3 is faster to 60 mph than the original Lamborghini Gallardo. That’s fast any way you slice it. So while people might bemoan the use of turbocharging or the EPS, or even the speaker-enhanced soundtrack, the F80 M3 remains one of the finer sports cars on the market today and a worthy successor in a line of great cars.
It’s tough to rank them and especially tough to pick a favorite. But if I had to own just one every day, I think it would be the E46.
It combines comfort, speed, performance, exceptional handling and timeless looks all in one package. It also still has some old-school feel, which is nice. Every M3 has been fantastic and I don’t think there’s a real dog in the lineup, so there’s no wrong answer here. So let me know which your favorite is and how you would rank them all.