The BMW M3 Guide

Guide Version: 1.1. This guide was updated on 08-27-2015


After 25 years, the BMW M3 still remains as the manufacturers’ bewitching product that disputes anyone in doubt against their reliability.

When it comes to compact sports coupes, the BMW M3 has long been regarded as its benchmark. With their M3s, the M version of this athletic vehicle had already soared to new heights. And what better significance stands for the M other than the company’s Motorsports performance division. Bringing more output and an upgraded suspension for more agile handling, BMW M3’s fun-loving engineers has tweaked the engine to provide outstanding performance. That and they also added interior design and sporty exterior elements as well.

Having dashboards absent of cracks, soft, wrinkle-free leather, the BMW M3 also possess an engine that makes something out of its advertised horsepower while the suspensions digests tracks without arthritic clunks or shudders. And throughout almost two decades, the BMW M3 have been a fan favorite of BMW enthusiasts–mostly coming from those seeking a handle of a four-place car with the sports-car handling. And when conditions allow, that old car capable of only doing daily driver duty, can transform into a back-road burner once again, allowing the vehicle and the driver to rocket with gusto and attack corners with precision.

But the age-old question comes to mind: which one should you get? Although there is no definite or conclusive answer that we can provide, perhaps the following primers in each vehicle can serve as a guide to help you choose which one suits you.


The M3 was created to satisfy the homologation requirements often seen in the European touring-car racing seen. The M3 was primarily created for being a weapon, with sales in mind only coming as its second priority. While it’s recognizable as a livable sedan with a back seat and a trunk, it does live up to the hype of being a sports car. Some strengths that lie within the BMW E30 is its rock-solid reliability, astounding balance, and an unforgiving suspension. The Baron von Asskicken styling topped with its 7200-rpm is also just the icing on the cake.

While European buyers had the option to choose a special-edition, a convertible, or an “evolution” BMW M3’s (which had more power), the American market were only given the choice of coupes. BMW M3’s sold in America only came in a wide-ratio manual transmission with a standard pattern. Options and model-year updates in America were all but nonexistent, so choices were only down t exterior color. That, and if you wanted a driver-side airbag or not.

There is, however, a notable supply of good-conditioned E30 BMW M3’s that can be easily located in the US. Out of the19,000 E30 BMW M3’s built, only 5300 came to the US. The BMW Car Club of America’s classifieds and enthusiasts forums are the best places to find for-sale E30s.

The BMW M3, as we all know, the most durable and long lived series by BMW. The E30 is no exception to that, being one of the most well-known the 3-series. Although the 2.3-liter four can be derided as a temperamental powerplant that’s often finicky, its reputation is quite undeserved. Actually, the engine’s life can depend on how it was driven. Well treated models can clock at 150,000 to 200,000 without any problems.

When buying your own BMW M3, the regular valve adjustments need to be performed. Gearbox mounts and engine should be checked if healthy, and that the timing-chain noise isn’t much of a hassle. Other samples that have been abused may suffer from subframe cracks, body cracks, dimples, or even connecting-rod-bearing-wear. But of all, having a mechanic inspect the prospective model can be your cheapest insurance.

Although there are track-focused modifications that are present in almost all models, it’s best to do your homework prior to a purchase. Noticeable difference in terms of output can be seen in the aftermarket engine-management, which, when timely, offers a few drawbacks. Common locations of rust includes above the license-plate lights, base of the windshields, and near the rocker panels, but it can show up in almost any part of Snowbelt cars.

Engine: 325 im3i1

Power: 168 Hp

Maximum Speed: 217 km/h

0-100 km/h: 8.3 seconds

Fuel Tank Volume: 64l

Max power: 5800 rpm.

Torque: 167/4200 Nm

Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission

Wheel Drive: Rear Wheel Drive

Cylinders: Inline-6


√ Defining image of the 1980’s saloon,

√ Lots of options, saloon, coupe, estate and convertible

√ Available in four- and six-cylinder engines,

√ Well-engineered and good to drive


× Questionable history of models

× Limited buying supply

× Be careful when buying

BMW M3 E36

With the automakers desire to breathe a new model out of their M division as a whole, their BMW M3 second gen, the E36, was thus created. Though it doesn’t come with too much appeal for the BMW die-hard enthusiasts, it was aimed primarily for speed-junkies. What replaced the E30’s roaring four-cylinder was a smooth and torquey inlined-six. Its new engine then offered a laid back vibe with an almost pleasurable engine-grunt, all the while matching the comfortable cockpit and quieter exterior. As compared to the previous 3-series, the brakes and components were significantly improved. It’s also a bit heavier, weighing a few more hundred pounds that its predecessor with only 2,800 pounds.

With a 240-hp, 3.0-liter inline-six cylinder engine, the E36 BMW M3 was launched in the US in 1995. Primarily, the model was developed with the American market in mind. In 1996, the engine was then replaced with a 3.2-liter version that offered 11 lb-ft more torque with a slightly lower rpm, but with the same hp.

A host of models promptly ensued to keep up with their growing list of M3 enthusiasts. The convertible, the four-door sedan, and the 1995-only Lightweight were among the few that were added to their laundry list of makes. It was the E36 BMW M3, too, that marked the debut of BMW M3’s automatic transmission. The transmission consisted of the five-speed unit from ZF. In the US alone, thanks to their long lines of enthusiasts, there were 36,000 units sold.

Save the few rattly convertible and anticlimactic models, inherently bad models were all but non-existent in the bunch. But don’t let that stop you from lurking in used parking lots. A lot of E36’s are still in good conditions, most of them offered in countless colors and optional packages; credited to their production run in 1995-1998 that had served their customers en masse.

Most owners of the E36 BMW M3 note that the main selling point of the model is that it is the friendliest to maintain among the bunch. Yes, it does share a great deal of the lesser 3-series models’ components—notably more than any M3 before or since. Parts are also easy and cheap to come by, with the E36 325i spec drivetrain having the most reserves.

While they were a favorite among most, which led to the models becoming ragged passed down from one generation to another, there were albeit a few problem areas, really. Check the factory reinforcement plates and make sure that they are fitted; this is due to the weak front strut that early cars suffered from. The radiator and water pumps need to be considered that they have the cap of 60,000-mile consumable. Failure of either may leave you stranded by the side of the road during the best case scenario or destroy your engine at worst. The head gaskets may usually fail between the 100,000 to 150,000 mile differential. Again, check for rusts. It’s usually in the bottoms of doors, on fender bottoms, or on the edges of its trunk lid.

Same as with the E30, cars that had been tinkered with needs to be examined extra carefully. As the E36 BMW M3’s began hounding the used-car market, owners and enthusiasts alike added turbo and superchargers to the engine—often times dangerously. Maintenance of the factory specs may not be on point. Since the E36 became a mainstream car, owners were not limited to anyone. It was either a soccer mom wanting the hottest car in the market or a know-it-all- apex-snarfing track hound.

Engine: 320 im3i2

Power: 150 Hp

Maximum Speed: 214 km/h

0-100 km/h: 9.2 seconds

Fuel Tank Volume: 65l

Max power: 5900 rpm.

Torque: 190/4200 Nm

Transmission: 5-speed automatic transmission

Wheel Drive: Rear Wheel Drive

Cylinders: Inline-6


√ Excellent build quality

√ Great performance

√ Economical

√ Plenty around to choose from.


× Clocked mega-mileage ones around now

× Average crash test rating.

× Several models are unremarkable to drive.

× Available units have questionable differential specs.

BMW M3 E46

A combination of the best qualities of the previous M3’s before it, the E46 managed to silence any complaints in their M division. From subframes damper anchor points—all of its body components and suspensions, really—were all stiffened, relocated, or strengthened for their search of durability and speed.

Although it was cosmetically polished with a modern design, it was then paired with a straight-line speed which made it a beguiling combination that resulted to the BMW M3 E46 becoming a stout car. In terms of durability, everything was improved. Unlike its predecessor E36, it coped better with hard use. The interior wear was almost invisible and the suspension hardly deteriorated.

Another issue with most cars stemming from the early stages of the M3 series was the rod-bearing-wear issues. Although it was dealt with by the automakers factory recall, still check with your local dealer to confirm if it was done to your prospective purchase. Same as the E30, valve adjustment usually clocks in at 30,000 miles.

A combination of the best qualities of the previous M3’s before it, the E46 managed to silence any complaints in their M division. From subframes damper anchor points—all of its body components and suspensions, really—were all stiffened, relocated, or strengthened for their search of durability and speed.

Engine: 316 im3i3

Power: 116 Hp

Maximum Speed: 206 km/h

0-100 km/h: 10.9 seconds

Fuel Tank Volume: 63l

Max power: 5500 rpm.

Torque: 175/3750 Nm

Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission

Wheel Drive: Rear Wheel Drive

Cylinders: Inline-4

Unlike the M3 E30 were options are limited, the E46 were more like the E36 were a variety of colors and numerous options offered. The coupes were the common models for the E46 as the sedan configurations were dropped. They, too, were desirable as much their performance.

Albeit minimal, the model-year changes were constant. The most significant was its introduction of the six-speed sequential manual gearbox. It was BMW M3’s electronically shifted version of their previous standard six-speed manual. However, as the US market was turned off by lack of involvement in its stick control, traditional shifts were more common in the E46 BMW M3’s in the US soil.

Factory navigation in the E46 was also a first in the M3 series. So models equipped with that were less on the used-car market, but would still depend in the overall condition and the location. The BMW Car Club of America’s classifieds and enthusiasts forums are the best places to find for-sale E46’s.

Aesthetically, it’s special fender flares front and rear were a nod to the E30, and the fender vents was a paid homage to the 3.0 CSL of the 1970s.

A 3.2 liter inline-six was donned with an aluminum hood, often saluted as the evolution of a more expensive engine to power the E36S. With a coarse metallic rasp that leaps 7900-rpm, it spat out 333 hp like a machine possessed. This, for the enthusiasts who wanted to satisfy their concern for the 3450-pound curb weight, was more than enough.


√ Smooth Driving

√ Comfortable interior

√ Comes with a lot of options

√ Aerodynamic body


× Noticeable change in handling after some time

× Radiator tank has been known to burst

× Dashboard features malfunctions at times

× Central locking issue

BMW M3 E90

This is the current BMW M3 in the market. The BMW M3 E90 was first introduced in the market in 2008 and arguably the best one in the bunch—yet. It consisted of fairly simple components that thundered to life: a 4.0-liter V-8 that roars 414-hp; massive wheels and tires; a stiff chassis; a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual or a six-speed manual; and the complete wheelspin you can do. Since it’s the freshest one in the market yet, it’s considered as the best one with the most excellent package. The engagement with the car is one that you’ll stay up nights thinking about.

Your choices come down to their simple body types: the four-door sedan, the folding-hardtop convertible, and the standard coupe. But really, no one can go wrong when it comes to choosing the body style.

At this point of choosing your car, the dealer may be the only choice left for you, and if you’re a bit picky, this may be the most important one. But still, most used E90’s can still be snagged for less than their MSRP. For the best deal that won’t burn a hole in your diesel-filled-pocket, check out BMW’s pre-owned program. They’ll offer you that same, new car-smell with a slightly smaller hole punched in your pocketbook.

Since BMW made this with every inch of caution they had, there really isn’t much to worry about. Typical used-car warnings can go a long way here. The newest car with the lowest-mile may be your best choice, provided that it’s still under warranty. If not, then have a mechanic or, better yet, a certified BMW technician perform a prepurchase inspection. Don’t forget to check the records, too; oil changes, maintenance, etc. They all should be eyed warily.

For industrious enthusiasts, little things when observed can mean a great deal. Since the E90’s are probably fresh out the market, or at least their tires are still on their first set, the tread can tell you how the car has been driven. The drivetrain must also be inspected carefully too. If you see any sign of leaking fluids, then take caution—it’s a sign that the car has been used for drag racing or track used.

If you’re industrious, you can learn a great deal from the little things. Given that most E90 BMW M3s are probably still on their first set of tires, a careful look at the tread should tell you how the car has been driven. (If the tires show blistering and zero tread depth, run away.) Leaking fluids are also a warning sign and potentially indicate that part of the drivetrain has gotten very hot—a possible giveaway to track use or drag racing.


Maximum Speed: 220 km/h

0-100 km/h: 8.5 seconds

Fuel Tank Volume: 60l

Max power: 6200 rpm

Torque: 200/3600 Nm

Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission

Wheel Drive: Rear Wheel Drive

Cylinders: Inline-4


√ Superb to drive

√ Great handling and steering

√ Upmarket image

√ Economical


× Firm ride

× No spare wheel

× Limited rear legroom.

× Too many coil, injector and high pressure fuel pump problems on petrol engines


bmw fun fact 5

The M1, their first “M” car was supposed to be a Lamborghini. The First “M” car, the legendary M1 was supposed to be a Lamborghini.

In the 1970s, Lambo and BMW decided that they would jointly build a race car. BMW was tasked with the suspension and engine while Lambo was in charge of the slate. But Lambo pulled in the last minute for financial reasons. That’s when BMW picked up its clothes, worked the nooks and crannies, and created this beast.