The year is 1986. BMW has a boxy 2-door sporting coupe called the 325i and aspirations to be in the German Touring Car championships. But a tweaked version of the 325i simply wouldn’t cut it, so BMW’s M-Division was tasked with making a high-performance version of the 3-Series – and the M3 Coupe was born.
The e30 generation of M3 was ground-breaking and has been heralded ever since as one of the best, if not THE best M-car of all time. It featured a 2.3 litre inline-4 cylinder naturally aspirated engine that produced just under 200hp and 230Nm of torque, revving out to almost 7000rpm and creating the kind of growl you’d previously have attributed to something with far more cylinders.
It also looked fantastic – the e30 was already a great looking car, with four round headlights and a big glasshouse, but the M3 needed some serious aerodynamic changes to be homologated for racing, the most obvious being the swollen box wheelarches front and rear, giant front splitter and huge rear wing. But there were a few more changes that showed how far the M-Division went – the rear glass was flatter for aerodynamic airflow, while the bootlid itself was 40mm higher and made of GRP for lightness. The windscreen was even glued in, instead of the traditional rubber and piping to smooth airflow over the car. And it worked too – the e30 M3 was a brilliant thing to drive and won over 18 Championships in its time.
Come 1992 there was a new e36 generation 3-Series and though it did go racing, this existed because BMW M-fans knew the M3 was a proper sports car and wanted more. So the E36 M3 wasn’t as visually outlandish as the previous generation, in fact relatively subtle in looks, but it made up for it with the legendary S50 straight-six engine. Initially 3.0 litres, producing 286bhp it eventually grew to 3.2 litres and 316bhp, screaming to a 7,400rpm redline. The looks are certainly less exciting than what came before and after, with no flared arches and a front end virtually indistinguishable from a 325i Sport. This worked in its favour for some though, who liked the fact that this rather quick coupe flew under the radar somewhat. The E36 M3 also came as a convertible and for the first time – a saloon – which is quite important to note, even though it sold in very small numbers.
E36 became E46 at the dawn of the new millennium, with arguably the prettiest M3 of recent times. Swollen wheelarches returned, as did a reworked 3.2 litre straight-six engine now producing 343hp and 365Nm. The styling was a clear evolution of the e36’s style, but there were now curves aplenty and a stance that really shouted that this was a performance car. The front wheelarch sat so close to the bonnet’s leading edge that it actually blended into it, which gave the front end the dynamic look of a DTM race car. The rear was also squat and purposeful, with the now-iconic quad inset tailpipes finishing things off. The e46 M3 was initially criticised for being less raw than the car it replaced, but buyers soon found that this meant the car was even more usable yet still excited when the mood arose. There was a convertible version offered, but this time no saloon.
In 2004 the incredible e46 M3 CSL was launched to critical acclaim. The name CSL (Coupe Sport Leichtbau) meant light weight and thanks to weight reducing GRP in structural parts, a carbon fibre roof panel, carbon body panels, reduced sound deadening material, even thinner glass for the rear windows meant that it weighed in at 110kg less than the standard M3. The engine’s output was also increased to 360hp and 370Nm. The front bumper was reprofiled to be lower, more blanked off for aerodynamics and a single intake hole on one side. The bootlid was carbon and featured a gorgeous duck-tail design that really made the stance that bit more aggressive, while it sat on possibly the best wheel design of the last 20yrs. The thorn in the CSL’s side was that it only came with the SMG automated manual gearbox, BMW chose this so it mimicked a race car more, but in reality the SMG II just wasn’t quick or engaging enough. The CSL was already brilliant, had it been available as a manual there’s a fair chance it would reach legendary status – though this hasn’t stopped some owners spending £10,000 on a manual conversion for a rapidly appreciating car to get the car it always should’ve been.
In 2007, BMW really stepped up its game for the new E92 M3. There were V8 rivals from Mercedes, Audi and Lexus, so this new M3 featured a V8 for the first and only time – a glorious 4.0 litre V8 with 420hp and 400Nm, revving to an amazing 8,400rpm. The engine really was the focal point of the E92 M3, with a glorious howl from those quad exhaust tips as it wound around to the redline. There was a manual gearbox offered again, but this time there was the option of a dual clutch M-DCT transmission, offering lightning-quick shifts from the paddles behind the steering wheel. The handling wasn’t praised as much as the e46 at the time, mainly due to the e92 growing substantially in size and hence, weight. This more grown-up GT character didn’t sit well with the howling V8 engine.
Styling wise it was a little disappointing too, with a plain front end that could again be easily mistaken for an M-Sport diesel coupe. But the swollen rear arches made the M3’s intent known for sure, as did the subtle lip spoiler and quad exhausts. There was a convertible version as before, but now for the first time it had a folding hard top as was fashionable at the time. And with the E90 M3 there was a saloon model again as well.
Which is important, as when the replacement 3-series came around in 2014, the M3 was saloon-only! The coupe model had been turned into its own model – the M4, leaving the M3 to keep its four-door practical role. Sadly the V8 engine went, to be replaced by another first – a turbocharged straight-six of 3.0 litres with the same power as the V8 (420hp), but a whole load more torque at 550Nm thanks to those two turbos. This M3 was not only the biggest-ever selling M3 model, but also one of the most widely praised, especially with the 2016 M3 Competition update which brought 450hp and a whole host of changes. It was now a proper driver’s saloon and more than looked the part with those swollen arches, aggressive nose and trademark quad exhaust pipes.
The M4 followed the same path, but with a little more added style – in the rear three-quarter you can clearly see the influence of the e46 M3 CSL with the bootlid and rear wheelarches. The M4 was tuned for a sportier drive as well to reflect its sports car coupe status rather than a saloon. It still offered a manual gearbox, a true rarity these days (a dual clutch auto gearbox was optional) and made the f82 stand out as the kind of sports car that you could drive every day yet still be rewarded when you hit the country lanes on a Sunday morning. The final M3 and M4 CS models took things to their most impressive conclusion, with 455hp, 600Nm of torque and a 50kg weight reduction.
And now we are brought bang up to date with the recently launched g80 M3 and g82 M4 – the controversial ones.
Because since it was revealed in 2020, all the talk about the latest M3 and M4 has been about one thing – the front grille. It’s certainly a bold design move from BMW, with the traditional double kidney grille being stretched the full depth of the front end. It’s a seriously aggressive front end, with massive intakes and vents all over, you’ll definitely move out of the way when you see one come up behind you on the motorway!
The wider wheelarches are present again, and the M3 uses the headlights from the M4 for the first time, giving a totally unique look to the front end when combined with the front grille and making this M-car stand out in its own right. The M4 somehow doesn’t look as muscular as the M3 though, as it doesn’t get the bulging rear arches thanks to being based on the already wider 4-Series.
Once again there’s a 3.0 litre twin turbo straight-six, but this new S58 engine puts out a staggering 503bhp and 650Nm of torque. In some markets there’s a base model with a manual gearbox, but only the M3 and M4 Competition is offered in the UK, which has the outstanding ZF 8-speed auto, controversially replacing the dual clutch unit in the previous generation. Performance is nothing to worry about though, hitting 62mph in just 3.9 seconds, all while emitting a serious growl from the four huge exhaust pipes.
Be careful when browsing the options list though – choose the absolutely gorgeous carbon backed seats and the exterior carbon and you’re looking at £6,000, or there’s a ‘tick every box’ Ultimate Pack at £12,000! Thankfully the gorgeous green paint is standard. There’s also an xDrive AWD version to help put all that power down in questionable weather, while for the first time, 2022 will see an M3 Touring join the range (see our render below for how gorgeous it looks).
An AWD, 503bhp M3 estate car? Sign us up! The M3 just gets better and better…