Yeah, we know what you're thinking. Tributes typically come toward the end of a career, but the BMW M3's still in its prime. After all, the brand-new 2015 M3 sedan (joined by its coupe/convertible siblings, now known as the M4) is out right now, code-named F80. It looks great, it's got 425 horsepower, and the steering and suspension systems are purpose-built for people who love to drive. You could even argue that it's a decent value at $62,950 including fees, especially when you consider that the M5 starts at $94,550.
So what's this business about a "tribute"?
That's simple. We're here today to pay tribute to what the M3 used to be, what made it truly great. Because the new M3 is not a great car. It's merely a great numbers car, the kind that'll get armchair jockeys all excited about its 0-60 time, its cornering g-forces, that sort of thing. Look, at the end of the day, it's got a turbocharged inline-6 under the hood, just like the lesser 335i/435i. If you test-drive one, it's not going to feel like some wholly different beast; it's just going to be a 335i/435i cranked to 11. Previous M3s, on the other hand, had race-inspired, naturally aspirated engines that were unlike anything else in BMW's lineup, and that's what made them so special.
They were undeniably a breed apart, and sadly, now they're gone.
Let's take a minute and give them their proper due.
E30 (1985-'91) Photo credit: Rudolf Stricker
The M3 that got it all started was powered by a four-cylinder engine making a humble 194 horsepower, give or take, and it remains the only four-cylinder M3 ever built. But in terms of character, it's an M3 through and through, unlike the current 425-hp turbocharged model. You had to cane the little 2.3-liter four to get much action out of it, but once the tach needle swept past about 5,500 rpm, a whole new personality emerged. The E30 M3 rewarded drivers who were adept enough with three pedals (no automatic was offered) to keep the engine on boil through the turns. Driving one was a skill to be mastered, and that's what whetted everyone's appetite for the genuinely fast M3s to follow. Kids these days might laugh at the goofy rear wing and some other "period-correct" details, but the E30 got the M3 dynasty off on the right foot.
The E36 M3 was the first to get its power from an inline-6, which had long been BMW's trademark engine type (the four-cylinder E30 was an outlier). For M duty, the engineers whipped up a doozy -- a 3.0-liter mill that pumped out 282 hp. By the time the E36 M3 made it to American shores in 1995, however, BMW had elected to give us a tamer 3.0-liter straight six that dipped to 240 hp, but it still got the M3 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, an impressive feat for the day. BMW rubbed a little salt in our wounds for '96, when the displacement of both motors increased to 3.2 liters, yet the US-spec version held firm at 240 hp while the Euro version improved to a formidable 316. Nonetheless, even the defanged American E36 M3 was a sublime car, with a slightly feral roar at full throttle that would turn into a full-on yowl in the E46.
Ah, the E46 M3. Some say it's the greatest all-around car ever built, and we wouldn't disagree. It had luxury, style, space for four adults (though it wasn't offered as a sedan) -- and most importantly, it had the same engine around the globe, a 3.2-liter inline-6 cranking out 333 hp. That's a number that enthusiasts will always remember, and for those lucky enough to have driven this M3, the distinctive velvet-chainsaw wail near its 8,000-rpm redline is equally unforgettable. It's not that this engine lacked torque down low; on the contrary, it was a tiger at all operating speeds. But taking it to redline unlocked something extra, and once you experienced it, there was no turning back. You just had to keep doing it again and again.
The "X" signifies that the fourth-generation M3's three available body styles (the sedan returned from its E46-era exile) had individual codes: E90 for the sedan, E92 for the coupe and E93 for the new folding-hardtop convertible. Another departure from tradition was the 4.0-liter, 414-hp V8 under the hood. There was actually some grumbling at the time that this M3 wasn't a suitable heir to the throne. Too heavy, too insulated, too much technology -- the naysayers were initially out in droves. But as with its predecessors, the engine made the difference, and it would not be denied. Running the V8 through the gears, shifting at its 8,400-rpm redline, you could be forgiven for thinking BMW must have borrowed the engine from Ferrari. The E9X was faster than its forebears, yes, but that wasn't really the point. What mattered was that it had the spirit of those previous models, that insistent growl from under the hood constantly egging you on. Where would BMW go from here? Would we see a V10 M3? A return to a naturally aspirated inline-6? Whatever the answer, it seemed that the M division could be trusted to do the iconic M3 brand justice.
But then fuel-economy regulations got tighter, and automakers started realizing that they could achieve alluring economies of scale by tweaking existing engines for use in high-performance machines, and the F80 M3 happened. Turbocharging both dulls the new car's throttle response and strangles its exhaust note, which is why BMW has seen fit to pipe fake engine noises through the speakers during acceleration. A turbo inline-6 plays perfectly well in the 335i with its civilized sportiness, but the M3 had always been about authentic performance-car spirit, an exercise in joy rather than jadedness. The joy, alas, is gone.
Ah, but what a car it used to be.
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