I was walking into the office today when my boss Patrick George swung down from the ceiling, capturing me with a weighted net. “I WILL NOT PICK!” I howled. “YOU HAVE PUT THIS OFF LONG ENOUGH,” he howled back. “WHICH M3... IS THE BEST M3?”
We have five strong contenders. Well, I mean, uh, we have five M3s. I get the feeling that, you know, maybe one of them isn’t going to be on everybody’s wish list. Anyway, one through five are as follows:
BMW E30 M3
The icon. The legendmaker. The car that was actually just a kind of hasty response to the Mercedes 190E Cosworth. (Ignore that last part, BMW people.)
Light and good-handling with a high-revving S14 four-cylinder up front rather than the top road trim straight six, the original E30 M3 was a homologation special in a way no future M3 would be.
BMW E36 M3
The first modern M3. Bigger. Closer to the regular 3 Series, particularly in that it came with a straight six. This was the S50, though in various forms depending on where you bought your car. This was the trouble that kept the E36 down for years: the American-market E36 was famously watered-down compared to what you’d get over in Europe, and the car got a bit of a soft reputation.
Now, though, people are coming to appreciate the car, something of a goldilocks for size, power and complexity. Go to any trackday or drift event anywhere in the world and spot three of these things driving hard.
BMW E46 M3
The end of an era. This is the one that people like to point to as the perfect M3. The last pure M3. The last simple M3. The last [insert nostalgic adjective here] M3.
This was the last one with a naturally-aspirated straight six, the utterly alluring S54, with individual throttle bodies from the factory and a near-perfect 333 horsepower. You find tons with manuals still around. They look absolutely gorgeous.
BMW E90 M3
The V8 M3, the blasphemous one, the wicked brother, and my personal favorite. This is the fattest M3 and at the time seemed like the greatest leap away from those light, E30 roots. Twice the cylinders! What a bastard.
But the more you look at it, the more appealing the E90 generation (particularly the under-the-radar sedan) looks. Its S65 V8 also has individual throttle bodies from the factory. It also revs sky high, well over 8,000 RPM. It also has a near-perfect 414 horsepower (aka 420 PS). And it’s not actually much heavier or complex than the “pure and simple” E46 it replaced. Oy, my nostalgia is getting the better of me.
BMW F80 M3
The most capable M3 and M4. This is the one that marked the return to the straight six, if nothing else. Rather than sing with natural aspiration, the current M3 is turbocharged, muffled, and utterly planted. It steamrolls the road ahead of you. According to Patrick, it’s one of the most capable track cars he’s ever driven. According to me, it’s one of the most boring road cars I’ve ever been in.
But we’ll all probably be waxing romantic about it in a couple years, reminiscing of the days before the M3 was a GranCoupeActiveXBlueHybrid. That’s what always happens to BMWs.
Which M3 is your favorite M3? Where do you fit in all the weird editions, like the E36 Lightweight, the E46 CSL, the E90 CRT and whatever else you pulled off of Wikipedia? Please email tips at jalopnik dot com with your hottest takes, particularly if your favorite M3 is an E36 with a 1JZ swap.