In most BMW enthusiast-circles, the E36 BMW 3 Series Compact is not a well-regarded car. While not exactly a bad car, it is widely considered one of BMW’s failed attempts at making an entry-level offering. While less expensive than the 3 Series sedans and coupes of its time, the Compact felt noticeably cheaper and featured worse materials as well as a polarizing design which wasn’t well-received. However, it would have actually made an excellent M car. In fact, it sort of did. A BMW M3 Compact prototype was actually built and it was surprisingly great.
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As part of BMW’s collection of secret prototype M cars, which finally saw the light of day not too long ago, the M3 Compact is one of the more interesting prototypes to never be put into production. Although, it is one of the ones that actually came quite close.
“To a certain extent, the M3 Compact can be regarded as the forefather of today’s BMW M2,” says Jakob Polschak, head of vehicle prototype building and workshops at BMW M Division.
Back in 1996, German publication Auto Motor und Sport had the chance to test the BMW M3 Compact prototype and actually came away very impressed. “It is 150 kilograms lighter [than the M3 Coupe], more agile, firmer and even more uncompromising,” they said.
That year, the M3 Compact sported a double VANOS 3.2 liter inline-six with 321 hp and five-speed manual gearbox. It also featured fixed carbon fiber Recaro bucket seats and some Alcantara bits inside, such as the steering wheel and hand brake lever. So it was a proper little riot.
Although, Polschak did go on to say that if the BMW M3 Compact ever made production, it would have been given a de-tuned version of the engine, to make it a bit less tail-happy. Its lighter curb weight and shorter wheelbase meant that its 321 hp allowed it to get out of hand rather easily. So it would have had the same engine but with less power, similar to how the M2 Competition has the same engine as the outgoing M3, just with less power.
So it’s clear that BMW at least entertained the idea of realistically building it. We don’t know how far those talks went but we do know that there was a plan in place for it to hit the market at some point.
There’s no way to tell if the M3 Compact would have been well-received by fans or not. The standard 3 Series Compact wasn’t a very loved machine but an M3 version could have been a blast to drive. We’ll never know, though, as BMW never produced more than the one you see in these photos and no one outside of BMW is ever likely to drive it again.