Except that time has gone by. It stands still for no man, and hockey players are no exception. The puck moves a little slower than everyone remembers it used to. The hits are lighter, or not at all, and nobody’s got that jump in their step anymore. What used to feel fast has now become slow.
Strangely it’s the same with old cars. One would’ve thought precision-made machines would be impervious to time. I found out the hard way they’re not.
Reading a road test from the ‘80s, you’d think 300 horsepower was enough to fire you and your vinyl clad machine straight into orbit. Zero to 100 in 7.0 seconds! Woof! Better have your brave moustache on if you’re gonna flog that monster!
Today that ‘80s rocket would feel about as fast as V6 Camry.
Reality came crashing down hard in Portugal, at the launch of BMW’s latest M3. I’d arranged for an exclusive drive in BMW’s entire back catalog of M3s. (The team! Back together!) They’d open up the Algarve circuit early one morning just for me, so I could go for a drive in the classics. It’s like Wendell Clark called and said they’d turn Maple Leafs Gardens back into a rink so we could play a bit of shinny.
The point was simple enough: try out these past greats and see if they can still play.
Before getting the keys, I’d been given strict rules for all these cars: Absolutely no screeching tires. No hard braking. NO SLIDING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! And of course, no high revs. Two laps. THAT’S IT! BMW is required by German law to keep one example of every car they make. These are those “example” cars. They are irreplaceable show ponies. “BREAK THEM AND DIE” was the un-subtle subtext.
For the uninitiated, the M3 is the hot version of BMW’s compact 3 Series. Where a regular 320i is a lease-friendly runner for the badge-obsessed, the M3 has always been a true sports car for enthusiasts and posers alike. What makes it special though is that, unlike a Porsche or Ferrari, the M3 is also practical. You could drive one every day. Making a car like this, it turns out, is no mean feat—there only a handful that fit the bill—which is why the M3 is so beloved.
1990 M3 Sport Evolution (E30)
Specs: 2.5-litre four-cylinder; 238 hp; 184 lb-ft torque; 1,275 kg (DIN)
The original M3 is, rightly or wrongly, the most revered of all. Prices of the mint 2.5-litre Sport Evolution versions have climbed up over $100,000 recently.
The cabin is tiny, and there’s more glass than a greenhouse. The seats are narrow, and the steering wheel’s too far away with no way to adjust it. But, it takes just two corners to see what the big deal is. The steering is so light but there’s a constant stream of information, like an old ticker tape machine. No modern car can match the delicious feel of an E30. That alone would make this car special, but there’s a lightness that’s not in the newer, faster, cars. You feel it everywhere, especially accelerating, where the modest 238 horsepower feels like more. The original M3 takes off with the eagerness of an arrow. The latest cars feel more like a cannon.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the engine is actually what lets the E30 down. It’s a work of engineering art; very potent for its tiny size, perfect for racing. But it just doesn’t make enough power or torque to push this brilliant chassis. It’s all grip and very little slip. But, that’s what a race car is supposed to do.
1998 M3 Evolution (E36)
Specs: 3.2-litre straight-six; 321 hp; 258 lb-ft torque; 1,440 kg (DIN)
For the M3’s second act, it was all change. The first one was built as a homologation special so BMW could go racing. The second one was built exclusively for the road. Out go the flared arches and big wing. In comes 200 extra kilos.
The E36 is the perfect size. Inside, you notice how much narrower it is than the later cars. The doors feel light and don’t slam closed with a bank-vault thud but rather a metallic sort of tink. It’s beginning to feel like a classic now. The dashboard has most modern conveniences and doesn’t get bogged down in gadgets like Bluetooth and touchscreens and sat nav. There’s more room for your knees under the steering wheel than in the E30. But the wheel itself is too far away and you drive with outstretched arms—a telescoping wheel doesn’t appear until the next generation.
Sadly, North America didn’t get the proper M Division engine offered in Europe. We got stuck with a mildly tuned mill that really didn’t belong in an M3. A handful of Euro-spec cars were officially imported to Canada but they sold for astronomical prices.
The late-model euro-spec car I drove didn’t feel fast in the modern sense, probably because of all the added weight over its predecessor. But also because its headline power figures comes way, way up the rev range and you’ve got to be charging very hard (which I wasn’t allowed to do) to make use of it.
2004 M3 (E46)
Specs: 3.2-litre straight six; 343 hp; 269 lb-ft torque; 1,570 kg (DIN)
Today the E46 looks a bit tired, a bit unfashionable and bland. That’ll change with time. Every future classic goes through a phase like this.
The E46 is, I heard from a reliable photographer, the classic M3 that BMW racers Pedro Lamy and Martin Tomczyk are currently lusting after. It’s the first M3 that feels fast by modern standards. Despite having only a slightly better power to weight ratio than the European E36, I’d guess the E46 has much more area under the power/torque curves. I wasn’t expecting to feel such a difference, especially consider the 3.2-litre straight six is just an evolution of the previous one. But where the engine on the E36 seems like it’s shaking the whole car as it rattles to the redline, the E46 motor—and the whole car—feels much more solid, more substantial.
The SMG automatic transmission is miserable though. Shifting with the paddles is an exercise in patience, like using a four-year old iPhone there’s an infuriating delay after every input. Not only that, but when the gearbox does finally decide to swap cogs, it does so with a ker-chunk that nods your head back and forth. The six-speed manual was obviously the way to go here.
The cabin feels a bit cramped, despite being wider than before. The seats are mounted a touch high for me, but at least there’s a telescope option on the steering wheel now so it’s finally possible to get a good driving position.
2012 M3 (E92)
Specs: 4.0-litre V8; 420 hp; 295 lb-ft torque; 1,580 kg (DIN)
In coupe form the E92 looks awkward for some reason. The sedan was definitely the better shape. The coupe looks like a teenager that’s just gone through a growth spurt.
With this fourth iteration the M3 reached peak cylinder. An aluminium V8 replaced the steel straight-six. In contrast to the original, there’s plenty of power to break the rear tires loose. There’s so much oversteer to be had. All the time.
The downside is that this is a very heavy car: 1,580 kg. And it shows. Behind the wheel it feels like you’re controlling a big mass of machine. It’s more WHOA than weeeee. It turns sharper than any of its predecessors, but the lightness that was so magical in the E30 is gone. The ride is harder too but overall the E90 is much more refined than the others. It’s more luxurious, more comfortable. And it’d be the easiest to live with every day.
Just two easy laps in these cars doesn’t even begin to grant you access to the depth of talent that seems to be lurking in these machines You get a whiff of the fine engines, and glimpse of the beautifully balanced chassis, but it’s such a tease.
Steering on both the E36 and E46 is surprisingly light. But both get very heavy as you turn. I’d imagine this would make judging grip at the front easy, but I never drove hard enough to really find out. Initially you’re disappointed by the lack of feedback compared to the E30. But drive on and there’s information there but you’re just getting the big picture and not all the fine details. The E92’s helm is surprisingly wonderful. When launched, journalists complained about its lack of feedback. Frankly, I don’t see why. There’s a meaty weight to it that feels honest. Some of the finer details from the E30 seem to come back. Albert Biermann, M’s engineering boss, agrees: For the new car, they used the E92 as the benchmark for steering feel. Although, he adds, they also tried to take lessons from the E30.
Every M3 has a finely balanced chassis with very little—if any—understeer. And they all have motors that need to be revved. They hunger for the redline. Each one is willing to be led by the throttle pedal—steered from the rear. And each has enough feel to easily qualify as a driver’s car. These characteristics define the M3. They are what makes it an all-time great. I got back and forth on which one is best. E30 for feel. E36 for all-around ability. E46 for driving hard. E90 for speed and hooliganism.
Time has aged these old machines. But it also provides perspective. So while they may not feel as fast as they used to, they do feel just as special.
To find out if the all-new new 2015 M3 (and M4) can live up to these classics, read our review here.