The BMW M3: A Retrospective

It’s 9 a.m. at the Algarve race circuit in Portugal. Towering grandstands are empty. The paddock is silent. Only one garage is open. Inside there might as well be a time machine. Five generations of M3, dating back to 1987, looking as shiny and new as the day they rolled off the line. And, this morning, they’re here just for me.

It’s like the Leafs opened up the Air Canada Centre so we could play a bit of shinny against Sundin and Sittler and Clark. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.

Time to settle it once and for all: which of these greats is greatest?



A product of West Germany, the original M3 was enough to make anyone renounce communism forever.

The idea for making a hot version of the 3 Series came from the motorsport division. They wanted a competitive machine to bring the fight to Mercedes in the DTM race series. So the first M3, a 1986 model, was a thinly disguised racecar. Check the boxed wheel arches and adjustable rear wing. The engine only wakes up when driven flat out. But when it does, it’s exhilarating.

Today, some remnants are worth upwards of $100,000 but they can usually be had for $25,000. As classic car investments go, this is the closest thing you can get to a blue chip.

You don’t so much drive it as fly it. Like a hang glider. Every little movement you make has drastic effect. There’s no mass to it. Then again, there are no airbags, either.


Boring is probably the best description of most German cars from the ’90s. They were all of one mind on design. Their inoffensive style catered to New Conservative Corporate Climbers. Picture them in the driver’s seat with their baggy suits, Palm Pilots, and an overriding sense they had reached the end of history; that it would be smooth sailing from here on out.

Following up the original M3 is like trying to reinvent the baseball bat. It is a near-perfect thing for its purpose. Predictably, the M3 seemed to momentarily stumble in the ’90s, unsure of its raison d’etre. No longer a racer for the road, what was it then? A grand-tourer? A sports car? The answer is that it was caught somewhere in between.

It’s not as quick as it should be and the engine fitted to the North American models wasn’t worthy of the M-badge. The second son is the underachiever in the M3 family.

The upshot is that unlike many other 1990s phenomena the inoffensive style given to this car has served it well. It’s aging beautifully.


This car exudes a quiet confidence. It’s learned wisely the lessons of its predecessors. But is it finally machine enough to eclipse the original?

Capable on a race track? Check. Flared wheel arches? Check. An engine artful enough to hang in the Guggenheim? Check.

This car cemented the meaning of the M3: it is an everyday fighter jet—a sports car you can live with. It’ll do the daily commute whilst keeping you in the lap of luxury. It’ll do the road trip across the Rockies carrying all of your luggage. But it’s never better than wrung out, smoking tires on a racetrack. If the ’87 was Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, this is Bourne in the The Bourne Ultimatum: a more rounded character, but just as deadly.

Only the ultimate feel and feedback of the original was missing, albeit replaced with much more power. And this one has airbags.

Better than the original? At the risk of an inbox full of hate mail, yes. It is.


A big V8 motor makes this car feel like a thug. You wouldn’t think such a handsome devil could be so brutal.

If the 2005 car figured out what the M3 was all about, the 2011 one refined the formula. It is, in almost every way, a better everyday fighter jet: more comfortable, more luxurious, more doors (this iteration gave you a choice of two or four), more feel and feedback. Plus, more power. With 414 hp, it comfortably doubles the output of the original.

It appears to have nothing in common with its great-grandfather, though. In many ways it’s the opposite: big, over-powered and heavy. But drive further, drive harder, and you feel the resemblance: a scalpel-like quality; a confidence; an abundance of capability to satisfy the most highly skilled driver and entertain the rest; more than slightly mischievous. They get better the harder they’re driven but they’re still comfortable on a trip to Whole Foods.

Nostalgia is overrated. Of all the old models, this is the one to have if you can have only one.



Engine: 3.0 Litre Twin-Turbo 16

Power: 425 HP

Gearbox: 6-Speed Manual or 7-Speed Auto

Price: $75,000 (M4)

Don’t ask why, but the coupe is now called the M4 while the sedan retains the M3 badge.

Coming out of the old cars, it feels like the buttons have been left to multiply like rabbits. They’re everywhere.

But initial impressions reveal the fifth-gen car is a further refinement of the M3 formula. Only this time, for the first time, fuel economy has been taken seriously. Purists will scoff at the addition of two turbochargers, but the straight-six is back. What it lacks in terms of soundtrack compared to the V8 it makes up for in torque. A clever rear differential means it’s easier to drive it sideways than ever now, too.

We may have seen peak-cylinder, but at this rate I doubt we’ll ever reach peak-fun.