Originally built for racing homologation purposes, BMW’s E30 M3 was designed to push the envelope of what an already capable 3-Series could do. It was an automotive icon back in the ’80s — though now its power output is now easily eclipsed by a Toyota Camry. Over the decades, the M3 has only grown in power, performance (and in most cases, weight), growing from a niche sports sedan to one of the most popular performance-focused automobiles in the industry. BMW even created spicier one-off versions that upped the ante on the base M3: the E30 Sport Evolution, the E46 CSL and the E92 Lime Rock Park Edition. But you don’t have to search high and low for one of those limited edition models to get your asphalt thrills. They’re all incredibly easy to drive very quickly, a trait deeply envied by the M3’s competitors. Yes, any M3 will do — there are five generations of them, all with scintillating, unique details and underlying qualities of greatness.
Calling the E30 M3 a sports car isn’t giving it enough credit — it’s a race car through and through. Yes, it looks like a regular E30 that’s been put through an ‘80s movie training montage, but it shares very few parts in common with the standard 3-Series. The M3’s engine is actually derived from the M1’s six-cylinder and churns out 192 horsepower — not a bad hand-me-down. It weighs a mere 2,645 pounds, making it a nimble, purpose-built racer that you can use to get groceries if you so choose. Its 6.5-second 0-60 time could easily be matched by your modern garden-variety hot hatchback, but the M3 provides a distinctly pure and visceral driving experience that remains largely unmatched today. BMW only ever intended to build 5,000 M3s so it could run in Group A Touring Car racing, but they ended up building nearly 18,000 — and many are still on the road for the world to worship. To this day, the original M3 consistently lands on lists of best-performing cars, and a decently-preserved model fetches over $30k. Find one and the prices will climb — but so will the the automotive endorphins.
Engine: 2.3-liter inline 4-Cylinder
Torque: 177 lb-ft
0-60: 6.5 seconds
Top Speed: 146 mph
Weight: 2,645 lbs
It may bear the M3 name, but compared to the E30 M3, the E36 is an almost entirely different car. For starters, BMW dropped the lighter four cylinder engine in favor of a three liter straight six engine that pumps out 240 horsepower. It packed on a few pounds, too — nearly 800 of them. But don’t go thinking for a second that the E36 M3 went the way of Val Kilmer; it reaches 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, which is quicker than the old M3 by nearly a full second. Gone is the ethos of a lightweight road racer; the M3 is a refined, powerful sports saloon — you can even get it with an automatic transmission. If the current prices for E63 M3s are any indication, it’s perhaps the least desirable M3 out there (which is like saying Christie Turlington is the least desirable supermodel) — but we consider it under-appreciated. If you can find one that hasn’t been neglected, poorly modified or hooned to death, a used E36 M3 is a veritable performance bargain, and is only likely to go up in price.
Engine: 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder
Torque: 225 lb-ft
0-60: 5.6 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Weight: 3,439 lbs (coupe)
Like the E36 before it, the E46 M3 ditched the obvious signs that it was a performance monster. Apart from the slight hint of madness from the beefed-up wheel arches (meant to contain its widened tack) and the hood bulge, it looks a hell of a lot like the regular 3-Series coupe and convertible. The new generation also held onto its inline-six engine, but displacement increased to 3.2 liters and power was increased to a whopping 333 horses. The E46 surpasses the E36 in refinement and comfort, offering improved power and an upscaled interior, despite a less driver-focused center stack. Rather than a typical automatic, the E46 generation was offered with a somewhat rough SMG transmission that used an electrohydraulic actuated clutch. A standard manual was also offered. Compared to other iterations of the M3, the E46 is perhaps the best blend of track-focused handling and power with modest luxury. The downsides? Well, it won’t be the easiest car to maintain if you pick one up secondhand — but then again, it’s worth it.
Engine: 3.2-liter inline 6-cylinder
Torque: 262 lb-ft
0-60: 5.1 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Weight: 3,399 lbs (coupe)
The E90 generation M3 isn’t a bad car, but it marks the biggest departure from the original lightweight racer M3. In ’07, the E90 was the heaviest and most luxurious M3 yet; its 414 horsepower V8 can rev well past 8,000 rpm, but lacks some low-end torque. Couple this with either a 6-speed manual or 7-speed DCT and you’re on your way to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. Although the E90 was, at that point, the fastest M3 yet, it wasn’t as powerful as its competitor at the time, the Mercedes C63 AMG. Moreover, it isn’t as sharp and responsive as the E46. The E90 M3 makes for a powerful executive sports sedan, and it still has the right chops for an M3, but somewhere in the making, it lost a bit of the sporty flavor the M3 is known for.
Engine: 4.0-liter V8
Torque: 295 lb-ft
0-60: 4.8 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
Weight: 3,648 lbs (coupe) | 3,538 lbs (sedan)
BMW Motorsport took a look at some of the disappointing aspects of the E90/E92 and went about fixing them. Gone is the big V8 with the disappointing torque numbers, and in its place the sweet BMW inline 6-cylinder engine — but this time they strapped two turbos to it for a whopping 425 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, resulting in on-demand power at virtually any speed. Then, they dropped the weight by nearly a couple of hundred pounds — the first weight reduction for the M3 from generation to generation in its lifetime. They even beefed up the brakes, eliminating the sliding calipers and replacing them with two-piston setups, with an optional 4-piston carbon ceramic setup for track fiends. And then they decided to give the coupe its own name, the M4. Confused? Who gives a crap — it’ll hit 60 in under four seconds! Both models are bargain supercars that you can frighten your family with. There’s nothing quite like dropping off the kiddies at summer camp in a German rocket sled with launch control.
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline 6-cylinder
Torque: 406 lb-ft
0-60: 3.9 seconds (DCT); 4.1 seconds (manual)
Top Speed: 155 (limited)
Weight: 3,530 (M4); 3,540 (M3)