What is the greatest generation of BMW M3? It’s a question that a number of publications have tried to answer in recent years, with varying degrees of success. You might argue that the first M3, the E30, should take top honours given that it was a true homologation special. Or perhaps the fourth-generation M3, the E92, should take the top spot for its wonderfully sonorous V8?
However, in reality, trying to name a definitive winner is a rather futile task. Like trying to decide on the best James Bond, everyone has a favourite. So, while we can’t tell you which generation of M3 is the greatest, we can tell you which one is our most revered.
Where it all started
Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in touring cars, you might know how the M3 story goes, such is the E30’s legendary reputation.
In order to compete in the fiercely competitive world of touring cars, BMW CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim gave the talented engineers at the M division the go-ahead for a high-performance 3 Series that would form the basis of a race car. A whopping 5000 production models had to be built in the space of 12 consecutive months in order to homologate the E30 for racing.
In 1985, the finished product was revealed at the Frankfurt motor show. Virtually nothing on the standard E30 3 Series was left untouched. A wider track front and rear demanded wider arches, a higher top speed required a distinctive rear wing and a newly developed 200bhp 2.3-litre four-pot engine resulted in a 0-62mph time of 6.7sec (in 1985!).
Thankfully, it drove as well as it looked and the rest, as they say, is history. The M3 redefined what we expect from fast road cars and the race car made an indelible mark in touring cars that we can still see today.
However, aside from kick-starting the M3 lineage, the E30 also inadvertently scuppered the chances of its successor, the E36 M3. Suffering from an acute case of 'difficult second album' syndrome, the E36 M3 didn’t quite live up to expectations. It was heavier, softer and ultimately less focused than its predecessor, with BMW conceding that the E36 marked "the end of an era for uncompromising sports cars".
So it was a long wait for the E36’s replacement. But as we said back in 2001, “everything comes to he (or she) who waits”.
What Car? Coupé of the Year – four years running
The E46 M3’s brief was to blend the day-to-day usability of the E36 with the focused edge of the legendary E30 M3. From a visual perspective, it certainly delivered. With wide arches, gills from the iconic 1970s CSL, quad exhaust pipes and a distinctive power bulge rippling out of the aluminium bonnet, there was no mistaking the M3 for a lesser 3 Series Coupé.
However, as with the greatest of M-badged cars, aesthetics came a clear second to the E46’s awe-inspiring driving dynamics. The 3.2-litre straight-six engine from the E36 remained, but power increased to 343bhp, the 0-62mph time came dipped below five seconds and a new rear differential improved handling. Naturally, we couldn’t contain our excitement when it was named our 2001 Performance Car of the Year:
“Everything comes to he (or she) who waits. The M3 is back with a vengeance.
"If the heart of any performance car is its engine, the new M3 is bursting with health. Beneath the power bulge of the aluminium bonnet lies a 3.2-litre straight-six motor that develops 343bhp and 269ft lb of pull, more than two-thirds of which is available at tickover. Although the top speed is restricted to 155mph (and this car piles on speed so easily you’ll be grateful for that), the 0-60mph time comes down to under five seconds.
"But, impressive though those numbers are, they cannot hope to convey the thrills of piloting an M3. At full-throttle acceleration in third and forth gears, the scenery takes off in a fly-past of blurred colours as you frantically refocus your eyes on ever-more-distance points. Or, if you prefer, you can pull away from little more than walking pace in sixth gear. And, as the speed picks up, the rumbling beat at low revs gives way to a roaring wail that could form the soundtrack to some apocalyptic Hollywood epic.
"And, if things aren’t happening fast enough, simply press a button on the dash and the throttle response becomes more immediate, though you’ll need to drive with even more finesse to keep things smooth and tidy. The M3’s power is such that when the going gets damp you’d be able to prompt wheelspin at three-figure speeds but for modern electronics. The honed chassis of the M3 does an admirable job of harnessing all the power and torque, but pushing 343bhp through the rear wheels of a comparatively light car is a surefire way for sideways action without a little additional help.
"What you’re buying with the M3 is a 3 Series Coupé in battledress.”
Simply put, no performance coupé could come close to offering the same blend of talents as the E46 M3. And it didn’t end there, because the E46 won again in 2002, 2003 and 2004, despite new contenders being flung at it every year. No small feat.
What’s the BMW E46 M3 like today?
The car we’re driving here is not only the ultimate iteration of the E46 M3 but it’s also one of the finest limited-run M cars ever produced. The CSL (standing for “Coupé Sport Lightweight”, a moniker first given to the race-winning BMW 3.0 CSL) first arrived in 2003 and wowed the automotive world with its uncompromising track-focused specification.
Using a mixture of carbonfibre-reinforced plastic, sheet-moulding compound and thinner glass for its rear window, the CSL weighed just 1385kg – 110kg less than the standard M3. But M’s detail-obsessed engineers didn’t stop there.
The suspension received stiffer springs and shocks, track-focused Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres were designed specifically for BMW and the engine was comprehensively retuned (changes included modified camshafts, exhaust valves and a lightweight exhaust system), resulting in 355bhp at a heady 7,900rpm. It’s an approach to tuning that we’re rather used to today, but back in 2003 this kind of lightweight ‘special’ was the sole preserve of supercar manufacturers.
However, don’t go thinking that the CSL feels run of the mill in today’s track-focused world. Far from it. As you slip into the upright bucket seats, close the carbonfibre-lined door and place your hands on the Alcantara-covered steering wheel, the CSL feels every bit the thoroughbred race car – a feeling that becomes heightened once you turn the key.
Equipped exclusively with an automated manual SMG gearbox, the car chunters a bit off the line when cold; like a learner trying to find the biting point. A modern-day dual-clutch gearbox would put it to shame on road and track, but if you select manual mode and learn how to work your way around its shortcomings (lifting off the accelerator when you upshift, for example, makes the upshifts smoother), it’s possible to make decent progress.
Once the road opens up, however, the gearbox’s woes are easily forgiven. In a world of turbocharged performance cars, the M3’s naturally aspirated engine is a breath of fresh air. Throttle response is virtually instantaneous and, thanks to a vast carbonfibre air box beneath the bonnet, the engine sounds utterly glorious on its way to an 8200rpm redline.
And the best bit is that none of it is synthesised. No augmentation, no speakers playing fake exhaust notes – just a beautiful intake howl, accompanied by a serrated metallic rasp from the lightweight exhaust. Perhaps BMW’s current engineers need to have a listen to their back catalogue.
A lack of interference also pervades through to the CSL’s handling. The steering feels quick and delicate with the rim positively bristling with information, giving you the confidence to push on in the kind of low-grip conditions we’re experiencing this winter. And despite the CSL feeling more comfortable on smoother bitumen, the hardcore springs and dampers do a surprisingly good job of dealing with undulating B-roads.
In short, the CSL provides the kind of raw and engaging driving experience that is simply missing from today’s best M cars. And to think it only cost £58,000 in 2003. It makes the flawed £120,770 M4 GTS look a little silly, no?
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