Why the BMW E36 M3 deserves more love
The unloved child of the M3 family is better than you think.
The second generation of the BMW M3 arrived in 1992 and was based on the E36. It introduced the iconic inline-six engine that is so dear to the M3 family, and it was offered in three different body styles; coupé, cabriolet, or for the first time as a sedan. Seems like the perfect start, right? Well, not exactly. Many BMW fanboys and other normal people consider this car to be the worst M3 ever. Their argument? It's too big compared to the E30, not special enough, not M enough. But I tend to disagree!
In fact, it seems the E36 M3 is making a comeback. Why? It's affordable, available, and the '90s era is cool again. Even though this classic may not have yet reached the consensus set by the E46 that came eight years later, the E36 is still a high-performance car that will put a huge smile on your face every time you take it out on the road.
The E36 is still the cheapest way to get into the M3 club, but it may not stay that way for long. The first E36 I found on the Swiss second-hand market is priced at CHF 16'900.- (£14K). For this amount, you get a 1996 model with 235'000 km (146'000 miles) on the odo. If you're looking for a car like the one you see in the photo gallery of this article, the asking price will be closer to three times this amount. Why? It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a 100% original car that hasn't been smashed or with decent mileage. Fortunately enough, our friends Private Car Collection were kind enough to let us discover this mint 1998 M3, which has only covered 75'000 km (46'600 miles). Their M3 is a beautifully specced car that looks exactly like it left the factory over 20 years ago. Honestly, I think it's superb.
The E36 doesn't only look good; it's amazing to drive. The rear-wheel-drive sports car is equipped with a high-revving inline-six, a five-speed manual gearbox, and a limited-slip differential. The real deal! When it came out, the engine had a capacity of 2.99-litre for a total output of 286 horsepower. Later in 1995, all M3s received the upgraded 3.2-litre engine that made 321 horsepower. This was enough to go from 0-100 km/h in only 5.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 250 km/h. Yes, it's fast, but it also corners like a charm thanks to the precision of its steering and its nimbleness. The M3 only weighs 1'460 kg, and you truly feel it when driving it on small windy roads. Back in the days, BMW even advertised the M3 as the best handling car in America, in front of cars like the Ferrari 355, Porsche 993, Honda NSX, or Dodge Viper.
Dubbed the wolf in sheep's clothing by none other than BMW, the E36 M3 did a marvelous job at hiding how quick it actually was. It's true, the design is civilized and if you're not a car enthusiast, you'd never know this car could actually go really fast. Some minor elements like the side mirrors, the redesigned bumpers, the sporty wheels, or in some cases the wing could let you know that you were in presence of a car prepared by BMW's M division. I find this philosophy very German, and maybe BMW should have kept using it for the conception of their modern cars. Yeah, still not a huge fan of the new M3/M4's massive front grille. If you like your M3 to be more extravagant, BMW still managed to create special editions like the homologation-special GT for Europe (356 units), or the Lightweight in the United States (~125 units), which had very distinctive looks.
Still wondering why so much hate? It may be because of our fellow North Americans. Indeed back then, US dealerships believed the M3 would be too expensive to sell well in their market. Therefore, in order to lower the price, BMW cooked a mild version of its performance car, and the result was very poor. The result is a 240 horsepower car that was available with the optional five-speed automatic gearbox, softer suspension, and less efficient brakes. Unfortunately, things did not get any better when the facelift arrived. The engine was indeed upgraded to the 3.2-litre inline-six, but the power remained at 240 horsepower. To make things worse, BMW did not even bother to fit the car with the updated six-speed manual gearbox that the European car received.
Hate it or love it the M3 is becoming more and more popular again. Time has passed and people seem to like the nostalgia as well as its simplicity. The BMW E36 M3 reminds its driver of the good old days with its screaming inline-six and driving dynamics which are a blast to experience. It may not be as sought-after as the E30, or the E46, but the E36 has some tricks up its sleeve to be loved again. With fewer of these cars on the road every year, we can only expect the prices to go up, and it may be your last chance to get one at a decent price. Come on, it's time to show some love!
I would like to extend my gratitude to my friends from Private Car Collection. They have been nice enough to let us review their car. They have a pretty cool collection of cars that you can see on their Instagram account, or Facebook page. Without them, this article could have never been possible.
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BMW E36 M3