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A quick history of the BMW M3

The M3 nameplate is one of the most famous in performance car circles.

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The latest generation of the BMW M3 has arrived – and it’s the boldest and most powerful model to wear the covted nameplate yet.

And while the new car might be grabbing the headlines, it’s important to appreciate just how important a car the M3 is for performance car fans and for BMW itself. Let’s take a quick look back through the history of the BMW M3, starting with arguably the most important ‘M’ car ever…

The original: The E30

The BMW 3 Series has been around since 1975 as the firm’s junior executive saloon, but buyers had to wait until 1985 for the German manufacturer to create a hot version – the M3. The first M3 was created as a homologation special based on the 3 Series coupé, so BMW could use it to compete in various touring car championships around the world.

Only 5,000 had to be produced to meet Group A regulations but, in the end, nearly 18,000 rolled out of the factory. A handful of those were M3 Cabriolets, which obviously were not homologated for racing…

While quite slow by today’s standards, the E30 M3 was a revelation at the time and is still revered today. The 200bhp, 2.3-litre petrol engine allowed it to reach 60mph in 6.5 seconds. Handling was generally considered sublime by all who drove it. Power would be increased to 240hp on the Sport Evo versions during its lifetime, in conjunction with other improvements to the car’s specification.

Today, decent examples of the original M3 are easily worth £50,000 – and often a lot more – despite only ever being built in left-hand drive. It also started a dynasty, although none of its successors was built to go motor racing.

The boxy one: The E36

Often the forgotten piece of the M3 jigsaw, the E36 M3 came along in 1992. No longer a homologation special to qualify BMW to go racing, it was a more upmarket, more luxurious and heavier vehicle then the original.

Buyers could get a right-hand-drive version for the first time, as well as a new saloon model to sit alongside the familar coupé and convertible versions. Power was increased to 285hp due to a larger 3.0-litre petrol engine, while a revised 1996 model pushed the power to 320hp, thanks to its larger 3.2-litre unit.

An automatic gearbox would also be introduced for the first time as well, which helped to reinforce opinion that the second-generation M3 was a softer, less-defined model than its celebrated predecessor.

A return to form: The E46

BMW ditched the saloon model to concentrate on the the coupé and convertible body styles for the E46 M3, which was introduced in 2000. It was again a further step upmarket thanks to its plush interior.

As is customary of every M3, power increased again to 337hp from a 3.2-litre unit. This was sent through either a six-speed manual or BMW’s latest SMG semi-automatic gearbox. Although intended to provide a racier paddle-shift experience than a traditional automatic transmission, its clunky operation and reputation for braking in a very expensive fashion has resulted in it being viewed as one of the least-popular innovations in M3 history.

The most famous of all the E46 M3s is the CSL (standing for Coupé Sport Lightweight) – a model that harked back to the original 3.0 CSL model from the 1970s. It was worthy of the name, too, as BMW shaved 10% from the weight thanks to a host of carbon-fibre parts and a stripped-out interior. The engine uprated to 360hp as well, to provide a substatial jump in performance.

The only downside was that all CSL models came with the unloved SMG automatic gearbox. Mind you, given that a good CSL today can be easily worth £60,000 (triple the price of the standard M3), it certainly hasn’t held back enthusiasm for this model.

The V8 one: The E92

The original E30 M3 had a four-cylinder engine, while the second and third models were powered by straight-six units. For the E92 model that arrived in 2007, BMW upped the cylinder count to eight – utilising a 430hp 4.0-litre V8. This dropped the 0-60mph time to 4.6 seconds, which made it the quickest M3 to date.

The saloon body style returned, which continued to be sold alongside the coupé and convertible models, while there were several special editions that largely celebrated BMW’s achievements in motorsport. These include the DTM Champion Edition and the CRT, but the most memorable E93 M3 is the GTS – a bright orange and lighter M3 that used a larger 450hp 4.4-litre V8 engine and was essentially a track car for the road.

The confusing one: M3 becomes M4 with the F80/F82

Up until 2014, the BMW was best known as a fast and sleek coupé. But with the arrival of the fifth-generation model, it was only available as a saloon.

BMW decided to spin the coupé and convertible versions of the 3 Series off into their own model range, called the 4 Series. As a result, the two-door M3 became the M4. The complex evolution of the range didn’t end there, either. BMW decided to revert back to six cylinders for these new cars, as well turbocharging an M3 for the first time – the latter proving controversial.

Power stayed at a similar level to the V8 M3, producing 432hp. This was bumped up to 450hp in the case of the later ‘Competition’ models, which would prove to be the most popular.

This outgoing generation of M3 and M4 has also had its fair chase of special editions, including the CS, DTM Champion Edition ‘30 Jahre’ models celebrating 30 years of the M3. The hottest of the lot, though, was the M4 GTS – a track-focused special edition available with a roll cage and increasing power to almost 500hp.

The new one: The G80 M3 and G82 M4

And now we have a new generation of M3 and M4. The new models are just hitting UK streets now and are undoubtedly the boldest yet, with huge front grille predictably splitting opinion among car enthusiasts.

Six-cylinder engines remain, though, and purists will be delighted that there’s no whiff of electrification either (although this is almost certainly the last generation of M car to be purely petrol-powered). Two variants are offered – the standard models and the Competition, with the latter producing 510hp to make it the most powerful M3 ever.

There is one other key new development with the latest BMW M3, though. For the first time, you’ll be able to buy an M3 Touring (estate). It’s something BMW has teased on several occasions, while backyard modders have created their own versions on many occasions, but an official M3 Touring will finally be a reality by 2022. So if you want an M3 but also need more boot space, this could be right up your street.

The latest from The Car Expert

Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.