If you want an M3, the E9x generation is increasingly looking like the one to go for. E30 values have gone mad, E36s are becoming quite needy, finding a tidy E46 for sensible money is getting more difficult, and although F80/F82s have depreciated quite nicely, you’ll still pay a lot for the more polished Competition.
The E90/92/93, on the other hand, is in a real sweet spot. Old enough to be affordable, but new enough to be fast and dynamically accomplished. And although a decent one is fairly attainable, they haven’t gotten so cheap that many are in the hands of less than fastidious owners. Finally, supplies are good, meaning there are plenty out there and lots of choice.
Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge:
The E9x M3’s ‘S65’ 4.0-litre V8 is derived from the M5’s S85 V10, but thankfully, it’s not anywhere near as capable of emptying your bank account. There are a few things to be aware of, however, including the notorious rod bearing failure.
This can land owners with huge bills to have the bottom ends rebuilt. It’s all down to the tight fit between the crank and the bearings, which won’t be properly lubricated until the oil is warm and thin, meaning wear increases dramatically if the engine is revved hard when still cold.
Just because you’ve watched your M3’s oil temperature gauge like a hawk before giving the S65 what for, that doesn’t mean all of the car’s previous owners have. As such, it may be worth having the bearings changed as a preventative measure. It’ll cost around £1500, which - for peace of mind and the potential to avoid an £8000 bottom end repair job - isn’t such a bad deal.
Throttle actuators are weak, but it's not the end of the world
More common than rod bearing failure - but thankfully less catastrophic - are issues with the throttle actuators. The S65 has a pair of them, one for each cylinder bank, and if there’s an issue with either, you may find the car going into limp mode.
It’s now possible to have your existing actuators refurbished rather than replaced outright, making for a job that’ll cost around £600 instead of thousands.
DCTs are reliable
Although the ‘save the manual’ brigade will be preparing their pitchforks as we say this, we can absolutely see why you might want a dual-clutch automatic. BMW manuals aren’t all that, so although the six-speed stick shift would be our preference, the transmission you’re missing out on by going DCT is far from a masterpiece.
What’s more, the seven-speed auto is known to be robust, so you can enjoy the fast, seamless shifts without worrying about financial disaster lying just beyond the next corner.
The gearbox’s plastic sump pan can start to leak in time, however. While getting that sorted it’s also worth having the ‘box oil plus the filters changed. You’ll need to budget £600 - £800 to have this done professionally, with the oil itself representing a big chunk of the cost; it takes eight litres, and the right stuff is £40 a litre.
Saloons are significantly rarer
If you want the practicality and more subtle looks of the saloon, be prepared to spend longer looking for your M3, because the four-door E90 is a whole lot rarer than the two-door E92 and E93 cabriolet. At the time of writing, only a tenth of the E9x M3s we’ve found in the classifieds are saloons.
The four-door is marginally heavier (25kg), and you lose the fancy carbon fibre roof. They drive much the same, however, and look unlike any other E90 saloon, thanks to the fitting of the coupe’s fascia.
It holds up well against its older and younger siblings
It’s hard not to look back at the E92 fondly as the last naturally-aspirated M3, and the only one to have ever had a V8. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight; at the time of its launch, not everyone was thrilled with the direction the M3 had taken. Just as the F80 with its hammer-blow turbo power delivery was unfavourably compared to the E92, some moaned about the E92 being bigger, heavier and even having the ‘wrong’ sort of engine for an M3.
In the context of all five generations, however, the E92 is dreamy, as we discovered in our M3 mega test a few years ago. Yes, the steering seems a little numb after the E46’s crisp setup, and you do notice the extra bulk, but it’s still wickedly sharp to drive and has a soundtrack to die for.
What’s more, that linear power delivery makes it a far friendlier car to drive than the F80, whose boosty mid-range makes for a more wayward rear axle. And finally, it’s noticeably more refined and luxurious than the E46. This is a car you can do some serious miles in, so long as you can stomach our next point…
Fuel economy is pretty poor
While some naturally-aspirated V8s can return surprisingly good economy figures when driven conservatively, the E9x M3 is a thirsty scoundrel however gently you treat the throttle. Getting over 25mpg on a careful motorway cruise is a real struggle, and in mixed driving, you’ll be lucky to achieve much more than 15. Thrash it, and you’ll be in single figures. Expect to be on first-name terms with everyone who works at your local petrol station within a few weeks of taking the keys.
It's not the most tuneable car, but there are worthwhile upgrades
Unlike the turbocharged F80 M3, with which you can bump the power up significantly via a mere software tweak, gains for the N/A E92 are inevitably more hard-fought. There are supercharger kits around that can provide upwards of 600bhp, but the associated costs are eye-watering.
It is still worth making powertrain changes, however. Many companies offer a Stage 2 remap paired with a removal of the primary catalysts, which decreases restrictions in the exhaust system while allowing you to keep the stock backbox and tailpipe arrangement. Doing so should give a healthy increase of around 35bhp and in some cases a slight increase on the stock 8400rpm redline.
Automatic M3 owners might as well have the DCT software upgraded to GTS spec while the Stage 2 remap is being done. It’s a cheap modification that makes for punchier downshifts while also giving a smoother transition from neutral to reverse. On post-LCI cars (Life Cycle Impulse, BMW’s fancy term for facelift), this also deactivates the stop/start system.
The standard airbox is seen as a very effective design, so you’re unlikely to see significant performance gains with any changes there. The only restrictive part of the intake system is thought to be the ‘elbow’ pipe into the airbox; several companies offer replacements with claimed increases of up to 10bhp.
Prices start at £10,000, but you'll want to spend more
We’ve seen early cars drop as low as £10,000, but the chances of finding a keeper at that price point are slim. A budget of £15,000, on the other hand, should give you a decent crop of pre-LCI cars to choose from. Bring £20,000 to the table and post-LCI M3s - which include updated I-Drive infotainment systems, revised rear light clusters and other tweaks - come into the equation, as do cars fitted with the Competition Package.
The latter - post- or pre-LCI - would be our pick of the bunch. M3 Comps - available in coupe form only - came with a 10mm lower ride height, recalibrated EDC adaptive dampers, rejigged traction control and some lovely ‘359’ design 19-inch alloy wheels shared with the 1M.
Expect to pay a premium for a Competition, although a good Comp should at least be cheaper than a limited-edition M3 like the LE500 (pictured). And don’t bother entertaining the thought of an M3 GTS, not unless you have supercar money lying around, anyway. Even if you can find one - only 150 were made with just nine coming to the UK - you’ll pay a six-figure sum for the lightened, track-focused E92.