BMW E36 M3 review

Few cars are as iconic as BMW’s M3. They’ve perfected a formula with this car that not only wins comparison tests, it also wins enthusiasts hearts. When BMW was set to bring out the 2nd generation M3, they wanted to preserve the raciness of the original while also elevating the luxurious feel that BMW was known for.

Starting with the E36 3 series, the M division made the usual improvements: stronger engine, revised gearbox, sported up suspension, subtle body redo, better brakes, etc. The US received a different motor, though, than its European counterpart. European versions had a nice, exotic engine with individual throttle bodies. But this was deemed too expensive for the American market, and we had to settle for an engine with the single setup. It didn’t matter much though, because the NA engine was a remarkable piece nonetheless. It exemplified smoothness and tractability; with a broad, flat powerband that doesn't quit until redline.

Sitting in the cockpit, you can tell that this car is purpose-built for those who really enjoy DRIVING. There are few distractions beyond the basics of what you need in a car. The front seats are supportive and comfortable. The pedals and shifter fall readily to hand. Interior materials look chintzy by today’s standards (and frankly also by the standards of when it was first released in this market in 1995) but that’s not the main point of this sled.

Now for the stuff you really want to know: Fire up the powerplant and it settles into a smooth idle. Put the shifter in first (or honestly even second or third – the engine is that flexible), ease the smooth, progressive clutch out and your’re on your way.

As stated, the M3’s engine is a hallmark of smooth engineering. It is smooth from idle all the way to redline. No explosions of power, no waiting for the engine to come on cam – just plant your right foot and decide when enough is enough. Grab the next gear and the M3 just surges forward with ever-increasing speed. Stomp the brakes and the M3 will stop straight and true, again with no drama. Handling is vice less as well. It feels hardwired to the road, reacting instantly to your inputs.

Reading the above paragraph, however true it might be and however boring it makes the M3 sound, doesn’t even BEGIN to describe the feeling that you get piloting this car.

Whatever black arts BMW used to create this machine worked, and worked wondrously. There are a lot of competent cars on the road that would fit the above description. Even going by just the spec sheet, the numbers (especially by today’s standards) don’t seem particularly exciting. What the M3 has that sets it apart is the feeling of confidence that it gives its driver. You really begin to feel like you can do no wrong. This point cannot be emphasized enough – you REALLY begin to feel like you can do no wrong.

In fact this car gives you so much confidence in the feedback and the controls that you do ridiculous things without realizing how ridiculous you’re being. 65MPH in a curve designed for 30? The M3 sighs, hunkers down on its suspension, and delivers you safely through. Need to make some room for traffic coming the other way in that same curve while you’re behaving like an idiot? Lift slightly, take away some steering, and it drifts to the outside. Need to jerk the steering at speed because the road went were you didn’t anticipate? Or more to the point, forgot? The M3 simply goes the direction of the wheel. No fuss, no drama. It makes you look far better than you probably are. Want to behave like an adolescent? Dump the clutch and have at it – it’ll leave its calling card on the pavement behind you. Coax the front or back end out of line and a dash of opposite lock steering is all it takes to restore order. Every car has its limits, but you’d be a fool to try to exceed those in this car. They’re just too high. Even when you feel you’re reaching your limits, the M3 doesn’t call it quits. It obediently does whatever things – retarded or otherwise - you’re up for trying. It telegraphs back to you exactly what is going on, and feels like it is hardwired directly to the road. Honestly, it’s a refreshing change from so many other ‘performance’ cars of today, where so much is hidden behind intervening computer systems and modified software. Even BMW’s current M line has nothing on the driving feel of the 2nd gen M3.

All the while though, it maintains its composure in everyday driving. The ride it a touch firm, but that’s simply the price you pay for the feedback it provides. Besides, it’s not objectionable – surprising when you’ve logged some serious time behind the wheel and really seen what this machine can do. The shifter slips quickly from gear to gear with just a slight hint of vagueness. The clutch is progressive and smooth and will cover for your ineptness. Bottom line – it’s a racecar without the usual racecar penalties.

There are downsides, as always. Interior cheapness was mentioned. If you like luxury toys to go with your luxury nameplate, you probably won’t find them here. This is a laser focused machine with only one purpose. Resale value is high – you will pay a premium even a dozen years later for the privilege of owning this car. Despite its humble beginnings as a 3 Series, you will pay a premium to repair and maintain it with that M badge affixed to the back.

Back to the positives though – enthusiast value for this generation remains high. Online communities of M3 devotees stand willing and able to help you select and maintain your prize. There were aftermarket parts available, most notably from Dinan, if you think BMW’s M Division engineers didn’t go quite far enough.

When this car was released, enthusiasm and sales passed BMW’s most optimistic projections. As a result, they’re not terribly hard to find. Unfortunately you’ll also run across more ratty examples than you’ll care to consider. Creampuffs are fewer and farther between, and you’ll pay to get one. As with any performance car, be sure you can check maintenance records to verify history. There are a wide variety of online and print resources to help you note areas that need particular attention when considering a second gen M3. An M car is not one you want to make a mistake with or discover the engine or trans is about to let loose. The only thing more expensive than a well maintained M3 is a cheap one. You’ve been warned.

One very unique aspect of this generation is that it came in three different forms: coupe, sedan, and convertible to suit your preferences. Some have a luxury package that added items like power seats, wood trim, and upscale rims. The rarest are the CSL lightweight racing versions.

No, this car won’t necessarily win drag races, doesn’t lap the Nurburgring in under 8 minutes, or even look like some people’s version of a high performance car: rolling on dubs with wings and stickers everywhere. What it does offer is a driving feel unlike any other. It is the ideal car for those that value qualities like precision, balance, and excitement. Still, there’s more than enough performance potential on tap to quickly lose your license, if not flat out land you in jail.

There are few cars that can match the confident and light feel of this car on any road or track. Which is why to this day, it remains one of my top 5 favorite driving cars of all time, right up there in the company of cars like the F355 Ferrari. Roll your eyes if you want to, but don’t do it without having sampled one extensively firsthand. I’m not one to hand out praise just because a car wears the Roundel or M badge. Check my other reviews as proof. But this car is special. It really is THAT good, and should be the hallmark study for any company that wants to build a drivers machine.


Boz said...

I was anxious to read Chris' review of the E36 as I have some strong feelings as well about this car. I've driven it thoroughly 5, maybe 6 times, which I think holds the record for my most-driven car that I've never owned. And that's saying a lot. I haven't just conicidentally been at the right place at the right time to find one. When someone says "wanna drive an M3?" (and by M3 they mean the E36), I jump at the chance. As long as this car was produced I considered BMW to be the ultimate driving machine. Many lessons that I learned driving the 8-series could readily be experienced in this car. Of course it is smaller and lighter then the 8, but the key is what Chris said in his review:

"It telegraphs back to you exactly what is going on, and feels like it is hardwired directly to the road. Honestly, it’s a refreshing change from so many other ‘performance’ cars of today, where so much is hidden behind intervening computer systems and modified software. Even BMW’s current M line has nothing on the driving feel of the 2nd gen M3."

I've done my share of adolescent things in the M3 (one time resulting in a mud spiral up the C-pillar). I wondered at one time whether the clutch was a little soft and the car was subsequently flogged through three gears (the clutch was fine as it turns out). Chris says it will take a 30mph turn at 65, but he probably ran out of curve before he could have hit 75 - 80 (don't try this at home, kids... and don't do drugs). Oddly enough, the hardest thing in the M3 for me to perfect was the 2-3 shift. Go a little slower up the "H" than you do down or you could out-pace the synchros. That was probably more of a personal problem than a fault of the car.

Yes the M3 will make stupid drivers look good. But it will make great drivers look extraordinary. And great drivers will have the time of their lives. They will come back again and again to test and refine their skills - the E36 is one of the best driving tutors you can find.

In fact I like the E36 so much that I'm scared to try a later model. I've come close on many occassions to get into the latest generations, but frankly, I'm not going to work hard to do it. And especially after my disappointing drive in the current M5 (check out my review) I am not interested in driving a new M3. Right now I consider BMW as having dropped the ball - on design, on engineering, on what some of my friends call "car soul." When you think of the M3, please think of the E36. In this case, it is justifiable, even encouraged to live in the past.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this review, as I am considering buying an e36 m3 or a mercedes c32 amg. I have gone back and forth between the two considering the look and comfort of the amg, while my gut brings me back to the performance and prestige of the m3. It also has been difficult to find an e36 with low mileage and a reasonable price. Out of curiosity could either of you give me some input to aid my decision? Thanks again for the great review.

Chris said...

It's hard to argue against the E36 M3. Nice choice!! It seems that, properly taken care of, they have a very long life. And since they're so much fun to drive, many have racked up serious miles.

My suggestion is educate yourself thoroughly at as regards what to look for in a used M3. I'd also suggest looking at the classifieds of the BMW CCA org website. Those cars are generally owned by meticulous enthusiasts. Maintenance history trumps mileage on these. The more you know about its past, generally the fewer surprises down the road.

Enjoy the drive!

BMW E36 said...

Your review about BMW E36 is informative. It is really great work. We have got many useful information from you . Thanks for sharing your experience with us. We like BMW E36 . Recently We have bought BMW E36 . It has high quality driving, good mileage, interior and exterior looks good. We really enjoyed driving this car .

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