This street-smart inline-six is a joy to drive. We take a look back at the BMW E36 M3...

Packaging

South Africa did not receive the first (E30) M3 because of its left-hand-drive-only configuration. This subsequent E36 M3 model was thus the first official model available locally.

One of the benefits of this sought-after M3 is its level of understatement: no flashy bling, wings or skirts. What’s important is all under the paintwork. Strong suspension (firm but not harsh), ventilated disc brakes that are up to the task (we measured a best emergency stop from 100 km/h of 2,7 seconds and a 2,9-second average) and classy but functional controls. CAR’s overseas correspondent first drove the M3 in March 1993. From our dusty archives, we found an informative cutaway picture of the 24-valve, d-o-h-c engine, code-named S50B30.

Initial models had cloth seating, which was not as posh as the leather of the M5 of the day but practicality was enhanced by the rear bench being able to fold forward.

Powertrain

Few performance engines have enjoyed so much success as BMW’s straight-six. From 2,0 and 2,5 to 3,0 litres and more, they are smooth, sound great and are still revered. The 1994 M3’s 3,0-litre preferred 97-octane fuel at the coast. To allow for 93 octane to be used, the capacity was increased to 3,2 litres, double Vanos variable cam timing (in place of the inlet only) was introduced and the compression ratio softened, but the power output still managed to increase from 210 to 228 kW. Bosch Motronic 3.3 organised the fuelling and a limited-slip differential tamed the traction through a five-speed Getrag gearbox that was upgraded to six speeds at the time of the engine upgrade.

Which one to get

The two-door body looks a lot sleeker and sportier than the four-door but at the expense of family versatility. Original wheels (alloy, five double-spoke) add value but some owners have fitted larger aftermarket items. The engines are robust and reliable.

What to watch out for

BMW manual gearboxes require a firm hand (and foot for the clutch). This can be tiring in heavy traffic and often gets worse with age. The usual gearbox lubrication recommendation is ATF (auto transmission fluid) but some owners experiment with different oils to try to reduce the heavy action. Seek expert opinion before switching.

If your car lacks low-down torque, have the Vanos system inspected. Solenoids and seals can fail under high temperatures and extreme oil pressure, requiring seal replacement.

Availability and prices

These M3s may have been driven hard when new but are more recently well cared for in accordance with their classic status. Some dealers are asking vastly higher prices than the ones we spotted on Gumtree, so be shrewd when shopping. This could mean the market is being tested and that pricing will head northwards, as has happened with early M5s.  

Interesting facts

CAR’s M3 performance tests were done at a time when we still undertook top speed testing and most German cars were limited to 250 km/h. The M3 was no exception but the testers recorded a top speed of 250 km/h in one direction and 256 km/h back, giving our recorded average of 253 km/h (true speed). The acceleration to 100 km/h stopped the clock at a rather impressive 6,35 seconds. Today, the same stable’s i3s with no cylinders or valves and just one electric motor is not far off that figure. As Bob said, the times they are a-changin’.

Steering-wheel controls that we are now so used to made their appearance in BMWs of 1995 vintage but only with the 7 Series models. It took a few more years to trickle down to the 3 Series. Incidentally, the first production car to incorporate these user-friendly features was supposedly a Pontiac 6000 from the mid-1980s.

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