I hate being late, I really do. That’s why I’m cursing myself as I sling my car into the nearest bay - running up the stairs to the control tower at Longcross proving grounds shortly after to find out the location of my CT cohorts. After all, I’ve arrived late on the day of the biggest shoot we’ve ever done at Car Throttle. It doesn’t help that I’ve been called upon for photographic duties either, with our usual snapper stranded 40 miles away with a broken serpentine belt.
However, once I find my colleagues, I’m actually quite glad I’m late. While I was busy thumping my steering wheel, raging at having so badly misjudged the morning traffic, all of the cars in our test had arrived, and they’d been beautifully arranged in order of age. This means that as I approach our small but skilled crew, I’m presented with quite a sight: every single generation of the BMW M3.
For a few minutes, I don’t say anything, instead taking in the scene in front of me. E30. E36. E46. E92. F80. Three different engine configurations. A total of 1713bhp. A near 30-year-old car, right the way up to something that left the showroom only weeks ago. All with the keys in the ignition and all ready for us to enjoy.
As far as days go, this is going to be a good one, even with gale force winds and bucket-loads of rain trying its best to put a downer on proceedings.
With all the static shots out the way, it’s time to get on with the driving. CT Editor-In-Chief Alex is on video duties, so it’s a case of taking whatever is available at the time to drive. This means I have to test the cars out of order, but mixing it up is fine by me, especially as this enables me to get the E46 out of the way first.
Why am I so keen to get it out of the way? Because it’s no ordinary E46 M3: it belongs to Adnan Ebrahim. That’s right: Adnan the Car Throttle CEO, Adnan the bloke who pays my wages. And he’s insisting on riding shotgun.
It’s essentially the opposite of when you’re driving a hire car and are happy to thrash the living daylights out of the poor thing, but the E46 is already warmed and from the get-go I’m encouraged to drive fast. Before I get the chance to start getting excited with my right shoe, the M3’s already giving me hints as to what it’s all about. The pedals are reassuringly weighted. The steering is promising too, and feels nice and natural, coming from before a time when frequently numb electric power steering systems took over.
The gear shift I’m less impressed with. The throw is long and the action all rubbery, and to cap it all off the knob doesn’t feel particularly pleasant in my left hand.
With the space necessary to go a little faster, it’s time to see what happens when you floor it. The throttle pedal travel feels particularly long, and as I press it deep into the carpet, it doesn’t really feel all that fast.
This is all down to a very linear power delivery from the 338bhp 3.2-litre straight-six, and it’s only in the last thousand RPM before you change up at 8000rpm that you get a small surge as the dual-Vanos system rears its head. Makes a good noise, though. I’ve never been a fan of how the E46 M3 sounds from the outside - it’s much too harsh and metallic - but sitting inside the cabin, its six-cylinder cacophony is something I’m happy to fill my lug holes with.
"When you do step over the mark, it breaks traction in the most predictable, manageable and tidy way"
With the speed building, I can’t help but feel like I’d like a slightly quicker steering rack, but when it’s blessed with so much feedback, I think I can live with that. That’s what this car is about: interaction with the road - from the steering and the chassis - giving you the confidence to drive up to and past the limit of grip. And when you do step over the mark, it breaks traction in the most predictable, manageable and tidy way. The only mark against it is the suspension, which - probably due to age - is much too soft.
Back at our unofficial ‘base camp’, it’s time for another car swap. With Alex having dispatched the E30 and having just arrived back in the E36, we swap keys and get to work. No two cars here are as alike as the E36 and the E46. Both have naturally-aspirated, 3.2-litre six-cylinder engines, both - unlike the E30 - have a similar sense of luxury about them, and even the power output is similar, with the E36 putting out 322bhp.
It doesn’t take long, however, to suss out the progress made between these two generations. The first corner I tackle with the E36 reveals slow and sloppy steering. ‘Mushy’ is how I’d describe it. The chassis is a hell of a lot softer than the E46’s too, with the car leaning heavily to one side with little provocation. How much of this is down to the need for fresher suspension on the example we have here - kindly lent to us by Alex Gassman - rather than just the limitations of mid-90s suspension tech, I’m not sure. A mix of both, I suspect.
The engine is a peach, though, and although you have that same very linear power delivery as the E46, it’s a joy to crank it to 7000rpm. It’s the better sounding car too, without the harsh metallic din you get in its successor. I’ve wanted an E36 M3 for years and this drive isn’t changing my mind, but ‘mine’ would swiftly receive modernised suspension.
I’ve found out everything I’d wanted to know with the E36, making it time to move onto the next car: the E92. Spec-wise, it’s absolutely perfect. It’s finished in gleaming Mineral White, it has the 19-inch 359M-style wheels, and being the E92 and not the E90, it’s the coupe version. It looks sensational, and I can understand why owner Mike Hughes has been valiantly trying to keep the car spotless today despite the all the grimy crap on the ground being flung up its flanks every few seconds.
The E36 and ‘46 are hardly spartan inside, but the cabin of the E92 takes the luxury up a notch, with the addition of a because racecar Alcantara steering wheel and a smattering of M badges to remind you that this is no ordinary 3-series coupe. It’s what’s in front of the cabin that interests me most, however. Being a car that arrived just before the whole downsizing trend kicked in, this particular M3 has a 4.0-litre V8.
Oh yes: four litres of joyous naturally-aspirated V8, with a searing 8400rpm red line. Only, as I hit the starter button, nothing terribly dramatic happens. The idle is steady and surprisingly quiet. Once I get moving and start pressing some buttons, such as the one that enables M Dynamic Mode, the excitement is turned up a notch.
"Compared to its predecessor, it’s certainly ‘advantage E92’ so far"
A healthy prod of the the throttle sees the V8 go from a hearty rumble to a high-RPM yelp. A quick pinch of the right-most paddle and the seven-speed dual clutch gearbox fires home another cog with a quick and satisfying whumpf. The needle darts back up to 8400rpm, accompanied by a delicious howl. Whumpf. Another brutally efficient gear change, and time for yet more fire and V8 brimstone. Suddenly, I think I might have to rearrange my top five list of favourite engines.
The V8 in the E92 simply dominates the experience. Its smooth, creamy and sonorous delivery is linear like the E36 and 46, but this is the first car I’ve driven today that feels properly quick - but then 414bhp and a punchy top end will do that.
It’s still hammering it down, but all that power isn’t troubling the rear much at all. It’s remarkably tidy, this, not to mention stable. The E92 has electronically-adjustable dampers, and it makes the world of difference - it’s incredibly comfortable (and still composed) when you’re not in maximum-attack-angry-bastard mode, yet stiff enough to keep the car’s mass impeccably stable when you are.
Compared to its predecessor, it’s certainly ‘advantage E92’ so far - but that’s not the story with everything on this car. It feels a lot heavier because, well, it is; a kerb weight of 1655kg makes it 100kg bulkier than the E46. You just don’t feel quite so much either, through the chassis or the steering. That said, the steering’s a much better weight here, and it’s ruthlessly quick.
We’re now going in the right order for the next car swap, with the current ‘F80’ M3 on the menu. The controversial one. Controversial because - shock horror - it gained a couple of turbochargers, making it the first M3 to go down the forced induction route. And those two turbos are there because this ‘S55’ engine is a whole litre smaller than the S65 V8, and has two fewer cylinders.
I try to put all of this out of my mind, along with my experiences from when I first drove an F80 around a year ago. I found the car to be over complicated, too boisterous and needlessly savage when changing cogs on the DCT gearbox.
But today, with a particularly stunning Marina Blue example sitting in front of me - nicely beading in the pouring rain - I want to give the M3 a second-chance to win me over.
Brake depressed and a quick prod of the start button later, and I’m immediately reminded of one aspect of the new M3 I’m not keen on. It sounds like the devil devouring a bag of rusty chainsaws on idle. Dramatic, sure, but not exactly a nice noise. This wiping the slate clean thing isn’t going so well.
The opening salvo of the F80’s defence is a strong one, however. I decide the best approach is to hoof it straight from the off, and my God, I’ve forgotten just how ballistic this thing is. With 424bhp to its name this isn’t a great deal more powerful than the old V8, but its 404lb ft of torque eclipses the E92’s 295lb ft. More important is where peak torque comes in: just 1800rpm.
It’s a hefty sucker punch of a delivery that’s both addictive and unnerving. It’s also one of the F80’s weaker points: that fat lump of torque coming in so low in the rev range has a habit of unsettling the rear. If you’re driving fast - particularly in conditions like these - you need to be really on it, and even then, it’s easy to be caught out.
This particular M3 has the same seven-speed dual clutch gearbox as the E92, only here, it’s far more aggressive. Excessively aggressive, if anything, with each cog swap feeling like a punch in the back. I vividly remember the first time I drove this generation of M3: it was wet, the gearbox was in the ‘medium’ ferocity mode, and every time the DCT brought home a new gear, the back end kicked out. This is not a car for the faint hearted.
Having just hooked up a set of corners though, I’m appreciating the F80’s sharp turn-in, ultra-flat cornering ability and beastly torque to sling shot me out of each bend. There are still annoyances - in Sport mode the steering feels cumbersome and almost gooey, and I don’t appreciate the excessive complexity of having 243 different driving mode combinations to choose from - but I feel like I’m getting on with the F80 much better this time. It’s a car you’d need to live with for a while to get to grips with. A day - even a week - just isn’t enough to attune yourself to this curious brute.
Having reached the zenith of the M3 story, it’s now time to go right back to the beginning. I’ve just parked the F80 right next to the car that started it all: the E30. It looks tiny compared the F80, and its boxy flanks make it easily the most attractive car here.
It may be the car that began the M3 saga, but in many ways, it’s the odd one out. It’s the only one that’s essentially the road-going version of a racing car. It’s the only one with a four-cylinder engine, and it’s easily the most spartan inside. It’s more the E36 that set the mould for M3s to come, but no matter, it’s the E30 that kicked things off and cemented the M3 name as one of the most well-known and legendary in the business.
Given that it’s mostly modern cars I drive these days, it takes a few minutes to become accustomed to this 1989 E30’s interior. It feels like you’re sitting in a glass house, its thin pillars a world away from what we’re used to with the cars of today. Pretty soon memories of my old E30 318iS come flooding back.
Of course, there are a few signs in the cabin that this is a bit different to my old E30 - namely the M-stripe-design bucket seats, a little plaque telling me this is one of 505 Roberto Ravaglia editions, the M badge between the dials and a gear knob with a funny shift pattern marked on the top. Yep, it’s one of those dog-leg gearboxes with first gear down and to the left, and reverse directly up from it to put second through to fifth in a nice H pattern.
Many people get freaked out by dog-leg ‘boxes, but this is another reminder of an old car I used to own - a Mercedes 190E 2.3-16, the M3’s arch nemesis, both on track and off. I twist the simple key in the barrel to fire up the 2.3-litre, 215bhp engine - with the four-pot idle naturally not being anywhere near as smooth as the later six-pot M3s - and get myself comfortable.
Slotting the gear stick into that unnatural position for first gear (it’s another rubbery shift to contend with) and setting off, I feel a slight tinge of disappointment. While the Mercedes was always supposed to be the inferior car dynamically, I at least remember mine having a nice gnarly induction bark to it. The BMW, however, just sounds like an ordinary old four-pot. There’s something of a zing in the last 1000rpm before you change up at 7000rpm, but that’s your lot.
There’s no particular punch to any part of the rev range, so despite having only 1200kg to move around and having respectable performance figures such as 0-62mph in 6.7 seconds and a top speed of 143mph, the simple fact is it doesn’t feel all that fast. And if you’re expecting go-kart-like handling in the corners, you can think again: the steering rack is a slow old thing, and the car tips into corners heavily.
There’s another opportunity for a car swap, but I stick with the E30. A few more miles - and an attempt to keep Adnan in his E46 at bay on Longcross’ twisty ‘snake’ section - and I’m getting into a rhythm with the car and starting to enjoy myself. I can’t help but feel underwhelmed, a sentiment shared by everyone that has driven the car so far today.
This isn’t really the M3’s fault; it first came out 31 years ago, after all. But in the company it’s keeping on this test track, it just doesn’t feel that exciting, and it makes me wonder why many seem to put it on a pedestal as though it’s still an exciting, engaging driver’s weapon. Well, I know why - nostalgia, and it needs to be done away with, especially when it gives people unrealistic expectations about a car. With the E30, we should stick to celebrating its contemporary achievements on and off track - off which there are many.
"The E30 is a thing of beauty, but it's something I admire and respect rather than something which excites me to drive"
The sun’s setting and we round off the day exactly how we started: gawping at all five generations of this dynasty. Only this time, while CT video man Ethan is busy setting up a pretty sunset timelapse, I’m desperately trying to pick out my favourite.
The E30 is a thing of beauty, but it’s something I admire and respect rather than something which excites me to drive. The E36 is a real step-up in the engine department but didn’t quite have the handling nous I was hoping for, although modern coilover suspension would help its case massively. I feel like I’m warming to the F80, but it too isn’t the one I’d like to take home the most. This leaves just two cars: the E46 and the E92, and I’m seriously struggling to decide which I like the most.
Pretty much everything with the E46 feels just right. The feedback you get from the steering and chassis, the balance, the spicy six-cylinder engine, those perfectly proportioned coupe looks. Like the E36, limitations of the suspension technology of the time - not to mention the age and many thousands of miles this example has soaked up - mean that it rolls quite a bit and it could really do with a modern set of coilovers to sharpen it up, but there’s little else you’d need to do.
There’s a big problem, though: it doesn’t have that V8. The E92 came at that glorious time when fast naturally-aspirated cars weren’t a dying breed thanks to downsizing; at the peak of the no replacement for displacement era that also gave us a BMW M5 with a thumping great 5.0-litre V10.
Despite it missing the level of feedback found in the E46 it has the nicest, sharpest steering of the lot, and - perhaps leaving aside the boxy glory of the E30 - it’s arguably the best-looking car here. Do I wish it was a bit lighter? Sure, but there’s now no doubt in my mind that it’s my favourite M3 of the lot. How do I know this? As soon as I get home, I open up my laptop, head to the classifieds, and try to work out just how I can own one in the near future. This is a car I need in my life full time.