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Feeling Blue: What’s the best M3?

I take my G80 M3 and compare it to an F80 M3 and E90 M3 to discover one thing; what's the best M3? Oh, and only blue cars allowed.

Best BMW M3

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BMW M3 generations
They are all special. That’s what makes them so popular.

I’ve driven the G80 enough to tell you by now that it’s a real M3. It handles, it’s got a great engine, and it’s all-day comfortable. But is it an improvement on its predecessors? For this review, I borrow an F80 and an E90 M3 and pit it against my own G80, all to answer one simple question. What’s the best M3?

Who’s invited?

To be invited to this party, you had to have at least 400 horses, 4 doors and an iDrive screen. Older M3s have their charm, but they are different cars than ones made in the last 10 years. Oh, and no coupes. Been there, done that.

To get in past the bouncer, you also had to be feeling blue. Specifically, a metallic shade in the Interlagos, Le Mans, or Portimao family. M3s look best in blue.

BMW M3 generations
Blue hues only here.

Third place: The F80 M3

F80 M3

Get one: It’s the lightest car here, and the best looking. Most focused on performance.

Don’t get one: Lacking the refinement and all-around capability that is a hallmark of M.

F80 M3
A small thing that always irked me was the size of the badge on the F80 – much bigger than in the other cars.

There are no losers in this test, but one must finish last, and here sits the F80 M3.

Lowered, with black multi-spoke wheels and gold CCB calipers shining through, the F80 leaves an impression. It’s the sleekest M3 here, and in Le Mans Blue Metallic, commands the most attention.

Step inside, and you’ll find a nice cross between the older E90 and newer G80. The iDrive screen isn’t overwhelming, and their are still real dials sitting behind the steering wheel. Getting in the driver’s seat, you immediately feel comfortable and ready to tackle any road. Everything is where you expect it to be. But the fit and finish on the F cars in general took a step back from previous generations. Undulations in the road cause the occasional squeak, something my 335 was also known for.

F80 M3 gauges
Honest-to-goodness real gauges are so nice here. Combined with a small digital cluster, it’s the best dash layout.
F80 M3 shift paddle
The DCT comes with shift paddles, which here are color-matched to the body, a nice touch.
F80 M3 interior
It’s a nice, logical layout, but the fit and finish are eclipsed by the G80 and E90.

Start up this M3, and you get a nice cackle from the exhaust, but it’s a sound that pales in comparison to the E90, with a tinnier exhaust bellow that lacks the roar of the S65. Get moving though, and the F80 shows why it should be your choice if you have a desire to track your M3 on a consistent basis. The S55 revs smoothly, with plenty of torque on the low end of the tach, and it doesn’t run out of steam. The only car here with a DCT offers snappy shifts that are lightening fast, but the automatic in the G80 is so good, it’s hard to tell what the benefit of the DCT is when looking at it from today’s standards.

Carbon Ceramic Brakes
Carbon Ceramic Brakes come with gold calipers.

The F80 is quick to turn in, much more so than the E9X platform, and it takes a practiced hand to extract max performance out of the car. It feels as if the chassis is bolted directly to your spine, which is excellent for track time, but not so good when picking up your date. And despite the performance here, the steering provides zero feedback through the wheel. That makes it hard to tell just where the limits of the car are.

The M3 ethos has always been performance with comfort. Other cars here sacrifice less to achieve more.

F80 M3
Lowered a bit, this F80 has the perfect stance.
F80 M3
This is still a great-looking car.
F80 M3

Second place: The G80 M3

G80 M3

Get one: It’s really nice inside. The fastest M3 yet. Still has a stick.

Don’t get one: It’s not the prettiest. It’s heavy. These things are getting expensive.

G80 M3
You know the name by now.
G80 M3
Wheel designs have become more intricate and harder to care for.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “new”. The G80 boasts all the latest goodies, but what it has in capability and comfort, it lacks in soul.

With the E90, you’re getting a unique car that is an M3, much different from a 335 of the times. The F80 too, gives you a much more performance-oriented ride compared to a pedestrian F30.

While the G80 has a stick and ups the performance compared to an M340i, here it’s starting to feel as if this is no more than just “the best 3 Series”.

Don’t let that fool you. This car is lightening quick, and will decimate all, especially in Competition trim. The front-end is much more direct and planted than the F80, and it’s much easier to tell where the G80’s limit is. But sheer speed doesn’t always equal fun.

It sacrifices no comfort though, especially inside. The G80 is big, more mini-M5 than the other M3s here, and it’s the heaviest. That’s partly due to its size, and its new features. But it never feels floaty in the way the E90 does, despite that being the dimensionally smallest car here.

G80 M3
The G80 features the best interior of the 3, with really nice touches throughout.

The S58 is an improvement over its predecessor, with more power and a smoother rush to redline. It feels as if the flywheel is half the size of the other cars. It just needs to sing louder from those quad pipes. And there’s something to be said for getting decent gas mileage.

The G80 is always serious, as if it knows the cool kids are always going to glance at you and judge. You’re about that Motorsport life, right?

I imagine this was a difficult car for BMW to design, needing to bring up the level of refinement from the F80 while giving you a bigger rush. It succeeds at the former, while not missing too much from the latter.

G80 M3
It’s not a bad looking car from any angle, but the other generations feature a less bloated look.
G80 M3

First place: The E90 M3

E90 M3

Get one: That engine. Still looks great. Not slow.

Don’t get one: Getting harder to find good examples. Loves gas. And engine parts. Not nearly as fast.

E90 M3

BMW entered into an arms race with the E9X. But while Mercedes and Audi provided big V-8s with forced induction, BMW took the naturally aspirated V-10 from the M5 and lopped off two cylinders. The result is a car unlike any other made during that time, or since.

We must begin with that motor; the S65 is special. It sounds special, and the driving experience it provides is nothing like the other cars here. You must D R I V E this car to extract the most performance from it. It’s a precision tool. Therein lies the joy. Try that in the other Ms here, and you’ll soon have a view obstructed by bars.

E90 M3 apex wheels
These Apex wheels are the perfect look to give the car a more modern feel.
E90 M3 apex wheels
Lowering these car makes it even more aggressive.
E90 M3
E90 M3
This generation really did benefit from the LCI, with LED brake lights replacing these bulb markers shown here.

There’s a lot to like aside from the engine. It’s comfortable, with the most talkative steering here. Though you sit high in the car, the seats are supportive, with an uncluttered cockpit compared to newer Ms. iDrive might be outdated, but plug in your phone and get a new head unit, and you’ll be just fine.

Once you get going, it’s s refined ride, perhaps too much so. The E90 isn’t nearly as direct as the F80, and you find yourself correcting more in mid-corner. But it’s a forgiving car to drive on track, always telling you that your close to the edge, without going over it. You’ll quickly learn to keep the revs high and get maximum use out of those 295 lb-ft.

E90 M3 interior
The E90 still looks great inside, but you sit higher here than in the other cars.
E90 M3 interior
If you know, you know…
E90 M3 interior
Replacing the shifter with one from an F10 M5 is a common modification.
E90 M3

With the newest examples approaching 10 years old, getting one of these now requires a somewhat serious commitment. Check the bearings. Understand fuel consumption will require you to plan ahead on longer trips. Know it’s not the fastest M3 anymore, just the most theatrical.

…Why the E90?

Which brings me to the point of this test. If your M3 spends even 50% of it’s life on the track, consider the F80 as your go-to. But for many of us, an M3 is a car that’s driven to work, and then the occasional track day. At civilian speeds, the E90 represents the most fun M here. Rev the car out to 8,400 RPM, and you’ll soon realize for yourself just what current M cars are missing; a sense of humor.

The noses are certainly different.


Thanks to Dante and Dave for providing two beautiful examples of M3s.

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