The BMW M3 at 30: A Look Back

1987 BMW M3
1987 BMW M3 | Source: BMW

Three decades ago, BMW truly became BMW. Yes, that was long after the M1, 3.0 CSL, 2002, 507, and original 328. But in 1986, the company picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Mercedes and its 190E Cosworth 2.3-16 and launched the E30 M3, largely considered to be the greatest driver’s car ever built by the brand. It was the culmination of every great car it had built to that point, and set the benchmark for every car it would build afterward.

There hasn’t been a bad M3 since. Sure, there have been ups and downs, and in hindsight some have been far better than others. But for 30 years, if you went and looked at the best cars in the world, an M3 likely would’ve been at the top.

In recent years, the model has fractured; it’s gone from a sedan, coupe, and convertible (the standard since the ’90s) to a sedan only. The coupe has been spun off into its own entity, the M4. And while we’re partial to the M- coupes, today’s M3 is still one of the best all-around performance cars money can buy. This year as BMW celebrates the 30th anniversary of its iconic model, we’re taking a quick look back at the history of the M3.

1. 1986-1991 E30 M3

BMW E30 M3
Source: BMW

The one that started it all. With its 300-horsepower S14 inline-four mated to a fantastic five-speed Getrag manual, the ur-M3 had boxed fender flares (only the roof, hood, and door panels were shared with the base 3 Series), a dialed-in performance suspension, and bigger brakes, transforming the sporty E30 into a veritable force of nature. With just over 16,000 built, it’s become one of the most coveted cars of the 1980s. And that’s not even counting the race-focused Evolution cars…

2. 1992-1999 E36 M3

BMWs lined up in a row
Source: BMW

BMW’s follow-up to the E30 turned out to be one of the most controversial M3s of all-time. The E36 was categorically better than the E30 was, and sensing a business opportunity (it is out to make a profit, after all), BMW expanded the M3 line, adding a sedan to the existing coupe and convertible lineup, and offering a five-speed automatic transmission as well. But to purists, the most damning strike against the E36 was the fact that American cars had a radically modified inline-six engine that made nearly 80 horsepower less than the European cars. That said, it was still one of the best performance cars money could buy stateside.

3. 2000-2006 E46 M3

Source: BMW

BMW atoned for the E36’s sins with the E46 M3. The sedan version was history, and the neutered 3.2-liter six was replaced with the new free-revving S54 engine, which has gone on to become one of the most beloved engines BMW has ever built. An automatic remained in the lineup, but this time it was a six-speed SMG Drivelogic unit, one of the few flappy-paddle gearboxes of the era that actually felt engaging. Along with its flared fenders and beautifully minimal design, the E46 seemed like a glorious return to M3 basics…

4. 2007-2013 E90/92/93 M3

Source: BMW

… Until the E30 appeared in 2007 to enrage the purists again. Along with a controversial new design, the sedan returned, and the smooth straight six was ditched in favor of a 4.0-liter V8. While the six-speed manual remained standard, the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic made for slightly faster acceleration times. It may not have been the prettiest M3 ever built, but its combination of raw power (over 400 horsepower) and technology kept the car at the top of the global performance car pack.

5. 2014-present F80 M3

Source: BMW

The current F80 M3 has been divorced from the coupe and convertible (those have become the M4), and remains the benchmark by which all sport sedans are judged. It’s both pretty and muscular, and a return to a straight six — albeit turbocharged — was happily welcomed by purists. BMW is celebrating the occasion with a 30th anniversary edition, available in Macao Blue, a color not offered since the iconic E30.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.