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I hate the E36 M3

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Maybe you’ve clicked on this story and thought “Okay, Mike, what’s the catch, I’m ready.” Well, there is none. The headline is true. I hate the E36 M3. And I’m going to give you several valid reasons why.

Well, just look at it, with its stupid square face staring back at me. It’s anemic M engine. The way it looks like any other E36. Worst M car ever.

Yup. I hate it, because damn it, it’s so good.

E36 M3
1995 BMW E36 M3 Coupe Quick Take
Get one:

The best ever to balance refinement with race. Sounds wonderful. More fun than cars that cost twice as much.

Don’t get one:

Not fast. A bit plastic-fantastic inside. The smug look I always imagine it’s giving.

Soul Score: 9

Fine. FINE. It’s probably the best car to come out of the 90’s.

The BMW E36 M3 overview

E36 M3

I use Crest toothpaste, Bounty paper towel, and All detergent. I use these things because my parents used them while I was growing up, and uh, since it ain’t broke, might as well keep it going.

And they drove Japanese cars. Maximas. Altimas. Sentras. That meant I had a natural affection for anything from the land of the Rising Sun. So I turned 17, and what did I end up in? Right – 3000GT. 350Z. What did I worship? Supra. NSX.

And what car beat them all? What stupid little boxy sedan beat my gorgeous 3000GT in comparison tests, always won Car & Driver’s 10Best award, and was given the title of best-handling car in America? You guessed it.

But really, it was that advertisement. “The best-handling car in America, and seven others that look like they should be.” Please…

e36-poster

Problem is, the ad was right.

Performance Score: 8. M3-gic

E36 M3
Damn it, this car is fun.

By no means is this a fast car like we might be accustomed to. It’s going to give you body roll. 240 horses is half of what the S58 pumps out. The transmission is typical rubbery BMW.

But when you push it, the E36 M3 comes alive. Everything is harmonious. I drove this back-to-back with a 911 T, and though the Porsche is faster, this car felt faster.

Engine

E36 M3
An Active Autowerke’s Exhaust helps bring the S50 to life.

We weren’t even supposed to get this car. BMW saw the sales numbers of the E30 and thought, nah. But we wanted it so BMW obliged, though there would be a catch. “You cannot have ze big engine from our land! Minus 40 horsepowers for you!” Too expensive, they said. So we lost 40 of them.

In its place was a 3.0-liter inline-six taken from a 325i. Massaged heavily by BMW M, its 240 horses comes on so smooth, like sticking your spoon in a peanut butter jar. Never manic like the S54 that would replace it, the S50 still surprises you with a pull to its 6,500 RPM redline. While the US-spec S has but a single throttle body, it feels precise and responsive, same as the individual throttle bodied engines that would come later.

E36 M3
It’s fast enough to be fun.

In hindsight, BMW might have done the right thing for the wrong reason. The broader torque curve of this motor better matches what US drivers expect. And since it’s not fast, you get to wring it out through gear after gear. The 3.2 liter that would later sit inside the bay offered a bit more torque, but is inconsequential.

This M3 had an Active Autowerke Exhaust and intake installed, which I’d call a necessity to really let the engine sing. Why BMW M makes their cars so quiet from the factory, I’ll never know.

Transmission

E36 M3
Same problems as always.

Enough digital ink has been spilled here in regards to BMW’s manual transmission. Whether it’s in an M3 made today or 30 years ago, it’s rubbery and somewhat vague. I find it amazing that if you blindfolded me and sat me in a random M3, I couldn’t tell you which one I was in from the shifter alone. They all feel the same.

However, it never gets in the way. The clutch engages firmly and throws are short, making quick work of moving up and down the rev range.

Hey, you could always go for the automatic…

Steering and chassis

E36 M3
Sublime, as you’d expect.

If you’re looking for what defines an M3 – that dual nature of race and refinement, it really started here with the E36. The car is so comfortable, yet so clean and precise in its responses, I can’t imagine a car better suited to be a daily driver.

Long before Kylo Ren took over M headquarters and yelled “More!” at the model lineup, there was a voice of reason that understood the nuances of how a car handles. Throwing on gigantic grippy tires and suspensions firm enough to hold up the Verrazano Bridge doesn’t always make a car better.

E36 M3
This car is so well balanced, Michelin used it as a test vehicle.

To that point, Euro versions had a slightly firmer ride, but again, I didn’t miss it. One special M3 trait that has carried through the generations is the car’s ability to generate a rhythm for you. The way the car leans, the perfect steering feedback – it allows you to know exactly what the chassis is doing. I promise you that 30 years later, not many car makers can do that right on a new car, let alone back then.

If you’re looking for more proof, Michelin used an E36 lightweight as its testing car for many years because of a combination of perfect balance, steering, and weight. The tires on your super duper sports car? Thank this guy right here.

Brakes

E36 M3
Classic Motorsport wheels hide average brakes.

It’s a credit to the owner of this restored M3, Jayson, that the car felt so comfortable and capable on back roads. About the only complaint I can level at the M3 is a squishy brake pedal. You press into a pile of what feels like mud, but if you dig deep enough, the stopping power is there. I gave it some fizz and no fade was present, so don’t let it “stop” you from enjoying the car.

Dad joke. Sorry.

E36 M3

Anyway, I love this car because the performance is approachable, even for beginners. It’s no wonder you see so many E36s in a track setting, so perfect is the car right out of the box. Hopping back in a G80, it’s hard to envision anything feeling the same aside from the badge.

Hell, even the colors have changed on that.

Utility: 7. Boxy box

E36 M3
The back seat is useful, but perhaps the sedan makes more sense.

This was the first generation M3 that was available as both a coupe and sedan, and that wouldn’t happen again until the E90.

But I must confess that the coupe here probably makes less sense – both versions look identical, so you don’t get extra sexy styling with the subtraction of two doors.

In any case, the E36 is a wonderful package that is comfortable for four people. I fit better inside here than I did the RS 4, and that was a much larger car. If it’s boxy, it is usefully so.

Fuel Economy: 6: Turbo thirst

E36 M3
You want to rev it. You need to rev it.

How do you think the government gets their fuel economy numbers? I mean, I know how they get them, but do you think the testers get excited when they see certain cars? Or are they all just mindless workers, with nary a care for the car they have in front of them?

“What’s this? A BMW N-3 you say?”

I ask this rhetorical question because this car scores reasonably well on the EPA cycle, about the same as a modern M3 – 19 MPG around town, 27 on the highway. But that’s on a rolling dyno simulating road conditions, not how the car will actually be driven. I suppose it’s not terrible because it is a bit high strung compared to a normal BMW of the time.

And why would you drive this thing like an angel? N3 indeed.

Features and comfort: 5: Old cool

E36 M3

The best way I can describe an older car like this is Hollywood.

Maybe you had a crush on an actor or actress when you were younger, and time passes before you see them in anything again. But when you do, they still look good, grey hair and all.

Sitting inside an E36 is like that – you still look good *wink*.

Switches, dials, smiles

E36 M3
Vader seats feature a subtle M stripe.

Open the door to the fresh aroma of reupholstered leather on famous Vader seats (yes, named for the Dark Lord himself). Wow, are they comfy. While they lack a little bolstering on the sides, they are an overall very comfortable perch to command the force from.

E36 M3
Center console window controls.
E36 M3
These are much easier to control than the buttonless things of today.

Look around, and it is evident what decade this car was built in. It’s all very textured, grainy rubber on the dash, not unlike something you’d find in a 3000GT. A little weirdness is here too – like all old BMWs, the window switches are located in the center console. No radio – perhaps to be reinstalled later. The computer itself is a fun little thing, like the E34 M5, it’s a throwback that brings a sense of nostalgia.

You’re not really roughing it here – there’s heated seats, a sunroof, and manual A/C that works as well as those fancy automatic systems. Duel controls though – have to keep the passenger princesses happy.

E36 M3
There’s something familiar about any BMW inside.

How will they know?

E36 M3
It’s not a bad-looking car, just very understated.

Aside from wonderful Avus Blue Metallic paint and a nice little wing, the E36 is the very definition of understated.

Nothing wrong with that, the styling is clean, but a 325i with a sport package looks awfully close. If you don’t like how the current batch of BMWs looks, place blame here, where people complained of it looking too pedestrian. How will anyone know you’ve opted for the most expensive version?

E36 M3
All the wheel styles on the E36 were cool, but these Motorsport versions add an extra bit of special.

I prefer the E34’s looks from this generation – the box headlights never really sat well with me, but I’d be more concerned with 90’s lighting tech. Perhaps an upgrade to Xenon bulbs is in order.

E36 M3
A mini-hoop style wing brings only the smallest of flair.

I hate how good the E36 M3 really is

E36 M3

Before this review, I had never driven one. I’d been around them. Inside them. A few other owners fell through. Then suddenly, there I was, smiling, barreling down the back straight.

As I mentioned, I drove this car back-to-back with a 911 T. I had more fun in this one. I’d pick this one to take home. “Whaddya mean?! It’s a Porsche!” I said what I said.

New cars like that 911 have to manufacture fun. They de-content, add more power, and put in lightning-fast automatic transmissions, and for what? You can’t explore the limit in that 911 like you can here.

But let’s keep it in the family – how about the M4 GTS. That car had no arm rest, manual climate controls, certainly no seat heat – it’s still heavier than this E36 M3. If you’re the Stig you can wring out the GTS on a track, but no one can do it safely on the street. Not the case with this beauty.

E36 M3

You can explore the limit at 20, or 120. It’s so clean, unfiltered, and pure that you gain confidence in it after 5 minutes behind the wheel.

So while those Japanese super stars will always hold a special place in my heart, I think that if I were to go back in time and save but one car from the 90s era, it might be this one.

That was hard to type. Damn it, stop looking at me like that E36.

Thanks to Jayson for donating his beautifully restored E36 M3!

E36 M3
E36 M3

1995 BMW M3 Coupe Specifications

Vehicle Type: Front-engine, rear-whee drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

PRICE

Base: $41,095 ($82,000 in 2023)

POWERTRAIN

3.0-liter DOHC inline-six
240 hp @ 6,000 rpm
225 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm
Six-speed manual

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length: 174.9 in
Width: 67.3 in
Height: 52.6 in
Curb Weight: 3,180 lbs

EPA FUEL ECONOMY

Combined/city/highway: 22/19/27 MPG

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