New & Used BMW M3: In Depth
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Competition for BMW's M3 and its siblings, the M4 coupe and convertible that were spun off from the M3 lineup last year, include sedans and coupes from German and Japanese automakers, many of which have been trying to steal some of the M3's mojo for years. Cadillac has its new ATS-V coupe and sedan, Mercedes-Benz recently announced a new C63 AMG four-door, Audi has its S4, and the new Lexus RC F coupe picks up where the IS F four-door left off.
The M3 is the performance version of the German automaker's 3-Series sedan, the archetype for BMW as an automaker: tactile, trackable, powerful and sporty, while remaining comfortable enough for everyday use.
BMW M3 History
It all started with the E30 edition of the BMW 3-Series in 1986. That original M3 was a small, relatively light two-door coupe (and later a convertible in other markets). Power came from a 2.3-liter four-cylinder, and though output hovered around 200 hp--with most of that delivered near peak engine speeds--the car quickly won fans and followers. The E30 M3 was only offered with a manual transmission. It saw wide use in racing, which continues to this day in vintage circles.
The second generation of the M3 arrived along with the next generation of the 3-Series: the E36. Bowing in 1992, the new model upgraded to a 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder (and then expanded to 3.2 liters in 1996) rated at 240 horsepower. A sedan version of the M3 was introduced for the E36 generation. Both five-speed manual and automatic transmissions were available. This model ran through 1999.
In late 2000, the E46 M3 came on the scene, with a much more potent 3.2-liter S54 in-line six-cylinder engine rated at 333 horsepower. It offered a choice of the six-speed manual transmission or a new, stiff-shifting SMG automatic transmission with an electro-hydraulic clutch, and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Next came the E90-series (E90, E92, and E93) M3, first sold in 2007. A V-8 engine, displacing 4.0 liters and generating 414 horsepower, raised M3 performance to new levels. At the same time, the E90 M3 gained considerable weight, pushing it more into the realm of grand tourer than sports car. A wave of technology also brought the M3 more fully into the modern era, with advanced traction and stability-control programs to enhance performance, a new optional dual-clutch transmission, and other advances. A number of special editions were offered, primarily in the form of appearance packages. The overall level of the M3's luxury and equipment also rose with this generation, wrapping in more advanced navigation, entertainment, and creature comforts. The fourth M3 was offered here as a coupe, sedan, and hardtop convertible.
The Current M3
For 2015, BMW refocused the M3 on performance, keeping its weight in line while giving it a leaner, touring-car-champion driving feel. The key piece of equipment was the new 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged in-line six. It produces 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, revs to 7,600 rpm, and carries its peak output from 5,500 rpm to 7,300 rpm.
To go along with the new engine, BMW developed a new rear differential, called the Active M Differential. The system is able to vary its locking percentage from one wheel to the other between 0 and 100, all within milliseconds. The variable locking helps improve traction and allows the car to rotate nicely in turns and also put the most power down in a straight line. Coupled to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the current M3 leaps to 60 mph in a claimed 3.9 seconds, or 4.1 seconds with the standard six-speed manual. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
A lighter chassis also helps the new M3's overall performance. Up to 176 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the M3 makes more extensive use of aluminum, including in the front fenders and hood, as well as carbon fiber in the trunk lid, drive shaft, and roof--a first for the M3 sedan. An Adaptive M suspension system offers Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes that are made possible by variable-rate dampers. The same three mode settings also control the electric power steering in all M3s, increasing or decreasing the steering force and feedback to suit the mission.
The M3 receives some mild updates for 2016, coinciding with changes being made across the 3-Series line. The front and rear fascias get some tweaks, the headlights switch to all-LED units, and the taillights are LEDs arranged in an L shape. There are two new exterior colors as well. Keyless access, satellite radio with a one-year subscription, and a Harmon/Kardon sound system are now standard equipment. Inside, it gets additional touches of chrome, ambient lighting around the center stack, and new navigation unit hardware that promises faster startup, over-the-air map updates, better overall performance, and more realistic presentation of city details.