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The first generation BMW M3 was based on the 1986 BMW 3-Series E30, and although looking very similar shared very little body panels - only the hood and roof. It was powered by a specially developed 2.3 liter inline 4-cylinder engine producing 195 hp fitted with a 5-speed manual gearbox. This remarkable peace of engineering allowed the BMW M3 E30 to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in just 7.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 146 mph.
E30: First of the Breed
1988 - 1991 Model Years
Market Value:Auction data are not available, and market observation indicates that most cars change hands privately. Low-mileage garage queens regularly bring $20,000, but $13,000 to $17,000 should snag a healthy driver with good cosmetics.
Why You Want an E30:The first-generation M3 was famously created to satisfy a homologation requirement for European touring-car racing. It was a motorsport weapon first and a sales exercise second. In reality, though, the E30 M3 isn't so much a sports car as a livable sedan with a trunk and back seat-one that happened to know its way around the Nurburgring long before it was de rigueur. The car's strengths lie in its astounding balance, impossibly forgiving suspension, and rock-solid reliability. The Baron von Asskicken styling and the peaky 7200-rpm four are just icing on the cake.
Choosing Which One:Although European buyers could opt for a host of special-edition and evolution M3s (they had more power), as well as a convertible, M3s sold in America came only as coupes, and only with a standard-pattern, wide-ratio manual transmission. (A close-ratio, dogleg five-speed gearbox was standard in the rest of the world.) Model-year updates and options in this country were all but nonexistent, which means your choices effectively come down to exterior color (red, white, silver, dark gray) and whether or not you want a driver-side airbag (1989-91). Good-condition E30 M3s are relatively easy to locate in the U.S. Most marque specialists believe a healthy M3 is easier to source than a period 325i in similar condition. Just over 19,000 E30 M3s were built, and 5300 of those came to our shores starting in 1987 as 1988 models. Enthusiast forums and the BMW Car Club of America's classifieds are usually the best places to look.
Watch Out For:The E30 is widely considered to be the most durable and long-lived 3-series, and the M3 is no exception. The 2.3-liter four is often derided as a finicky, temperamental powerplant, this reputation is undeserved. Engine life depends on how the car has been driven, and well-treated ones should see 150,000 to 200,000 miles with no problem. Check to see that regular valve adjustments have been performed (the factory specs a 30,000-mile interval), that engine and gearbox mounts are healthy (high cornering loads and a tall, buzzy engine increase wear), and that timing-chain noise isn't excessive. Cars that have been heavily tracked or otherwise abused suffer from connecting-rod-bearing wear, front subframe cracks, and body cracks or dimples. Having a mechanic inspect a prospective purchase before you buy is cheap insurance. Track-focused modifications are common, so do your homework, and if in doubt, err on the side of stock. Aftermarket engine-management chips often make a noticeable difference in output and offer few drawbacks. Rust can show up anywhere on Snowbelt cars, but common locations include the base of the windshield, above the license-plate lights, and near the rocker panels.
E36: More Go, Less Show
1995 - 1999 Model Years
Market Value:High-mileage runner: $3900. Daily driver: $8000. Garage queen: $14,000 plus.
Why You Want an E36:The second-gen M3 was born of BMW's desire to grow the model and the M division as a whole, and as such, it was aimed at the ordinary speed junkie, not the E30's die-hard enthusiast. A smooth and torquey inline-six replaced the E30's screaming four, and the new engine's easy grunt and laid-back vibe matched the E36's quieter exterior and more comfortable cockpit. The brakes and the suspension components were uprated compared with those of the ordinary 3-series, but the E36 was still a few hundred pounds heavier than the 2800-pound E30.
Choosing Which One:The E36 M3 launched in the U.S. in 1995 with a 240-hp, 3.0-liter inline-six, developed specially for the American market (in fact, BMW wasn't planning on selling the M3 here at all but was ultimately persuaded by an enthusiasts' petition). This engine was replaced in 1996 with a 3.2-liter version, offering identical hp but 11 more lb-ft of torque at lower rpm. A host of models was introduced, including the track-oriented 1995-only Lightweight-which cut some 225 pounds from the standard car-a convertible, and a four-door sedan. The E36 marked the debut of an automatic transmission in the M3, a five-speed unit from ZF. All told, over 36,000 U.S.-spec examples were sold. With the exception of the rattly convertible and anticlimactic automatic models, there isn't a bad one in the bunch. A relatively fat production run means that countless colors and options packages are available and that many examples remain in good condition, so don't be afraid to be picky or hound used-car lots.
Watch Out For:Because the E36 shares a great deal of its components with lesser 3-series models-more than any M3 before or since-it's often the friendliest to maintain. The U.S.-spec drivetrain is similar to that of the E36 325i, which means parts are often cheap and easy to come by. Problem areas are few. Early cars suffered from weak front strut towers, so check that the factory reinforcement plates have been fitted. An Achilles' heel cooling system means that water pumps and radiators should be considered 60,000-mile consumables. A failure of either can leave you stranded by the side of the road at best and destroy an engine at worst. Head gaskets generally fail between 100,000 and 150,000 miles. High-mileage cars can suffer from failed differentials above 100,000 miles; the U.S.-spec diff is smaller than the European one and can run hot, popping bearings and breaking flanges. Rust is commonly found on fender bottoms, in the bottoms of the doors, and on the edges of the trunklid. As with the E30 M3, be extra careful when looking at cars that have been tinkered with. When the E36 M3s began to enter the used-car market, many enthusiasts added super- and turbochargers-sometimes not carefully. Because the E36 was a mainstream car, owners range from apex-snarfing track hounds to soccer moms who simply wanted the hottest 3 on offer, and maintenance might not have been up to factory specs.
E46: Return of the Fat Fenders
2001 - 2006 Model Years
Market Value:High-mileage runner: $13,000. Daily driver: $18,000. Garage queen: $25,000.
Why You Want an E46:
Choosing Which One:
Watch Out For:
E90: A Muscle Car!
2008 - 2014 Model Years
Market Value:High-mileage runner: wait a few years. Daily driver: $38,000. Garage queen: $46,000. Convertibles command a premium.
Why You Want an E90:This version of the M3, introduced in 2008, is arguably the best of the bunch. The ingredients are simple: a thundering 414-hp, 4.0-liter V-8; a stiff chassis; massive wheels and tires; a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual; and all the wheelspin you can stand. It's an excellent package, the kind of involving, talkative car that we stay up nights thinking about.
Choosing Which One:A folding-hardtop convertible and a four-door sedan are offered alongside the standard coupe, and as with the E36, it's hard to go wrong when choosing a body style. At this point, a dealer is almost your only option, and if you're the cautious type, it's the best. Still, you can snag a lightly used E90 for significantly less than MSRP. Check out BMW's certified pre-owned program that offers the time-honored Bavarian new-car smell but punches a slightly smaller hole in your pocketbook.
Watch Out For:Not a lot. The typical used-car warnings will serve you well here: Buy the newest and lowest-mile example you can afford, make sure it's still covered under warranty, and if you have any doubts, have your local dealer perform a prepurchase inspection.
Check the records:Regular oil changes (read "anything at least as often as BMW's recommended interval") are a must, and any maintenance beyond regular services-and performed anywhere but the dealer's-should be eyed warily. If you're industrious, you can learn a great deal from the little things. Given that most E90 M3s are probably still on their first set of tires, a careful look at the tread should tell you how the car has been driven. (If the tires show blistering and zero tread depth, run away.) Leaking fluids are also a warning sign and potentially indicate that part of the drivetrain has gotten very hot-a possible giveaway to track use or drag racing.
No Matter Which You Choose, You Can't Lose
It all depends on what you want. One school of thought holds that newer is better. The E90 is certainly the fastest and most luxurious of the bunch, but it's also the heaviest. The E46 is probably a little rough to live with every day, unless you don't mind things like a firm ride and an engine that needs to be wound out. The E36 is now a fairly common vehicle, but it's also the easiest to live with. The E30 makes a great daily driver, but if you live where it snows a lot, you have to be okay with having it rust away underneath you.
A definition - a small, usually two seat, two door car designed for spirited performance and nimble handling. Sports carz may be spartan or luxurious but high maneuverability and minimum weight are a prerequisite.
A definition - an expensive high end sports car, specifically a very expensive, fast or powerful car. Generally it must be very fast, with sporting handling to match, it should be sleek and eye-catching and its price should be one in a rarefied atmosphere of its own.
A definition - a design concept car developed with ultra-light construction, aerodynamic styling using advanced composite materials, low-drag design, and can incorporate hybrid drives. Hypercarz can also include limited production specials from elite automakers, that have massive power and performance, as well as concept models that appeal to a variety of auto enthusiasts