This month my M3 turns nine. It was built in April 1999, one of the last E36 M3s (BMW speak for the 3 series body style from 1992-1999) ever built. The design of the M3 version goes back to 1994, yet it’s still more fun to drive than 99% of the cars out there today. Only 39K miles, and I’ve done some tasteful modifications that make her even better today than day one.
Today it’s all about horsepower — heck even the new Honda Civic (!!) can be had with 268 HP. The E36 M3 is much more about the entire package — handling, acceleration, feeling connected to the road. It came with 240 HP standard, so it wasn’t all about power. I’ve done a few things to goose that number a bit — software download, cold air intake and Dinan exhaust — but those add maybe 20 HP max.
Unless you’re buying only for the brand, part of the fun of owning a BMW is getting hip to some seriously arcane info. For example — in the 1990’s BMW made two versions of M3’s, one for the United States and one for the rest of the world. The non-U.S. version had a different motor that produced more HP, as well as a few other variations like clear white lenses, elliptical headlights and floating brake rotors. (Those differences can be easily addressed after-market.)
But the Euro version produced many of those additional horses very high in the RPM range, because it was designed for the autobahn. The US version has much better low end torque and acceleration, reflecting how Americans drive.
Still, this gives some people reason to criticize the U.S. version, even — I’m ashamed to say — some who own them. This I’ve never understood — if you don’t love the car, if you’d rather drive something different, sell it to someone else!
Am I biased as hell on this issue — you bet! But I’ll close with two respected third parties. Edmunds.com called the 1999 (of course!) M3 the best sports coupe under $55,000. I especially like this line — “If you’ve got a pulse and even an ounce of automotive enthusiasm, you’ll know what we’re talking about:”
And here’s Bimmer Magazine’s take from the June 2005 issue — text not available online:
“Some enthusiasts will always criticize the North American E36 M3 for lacking the more exotic and powerful Euro-spec engine, but that is simply nonsense. While there is certainly a noticeable difference in power once you rev both engines past their power peaks (particularly the 321 HP model), the 240 HP M3 is torquier at the bottom end, smoother at the top end and requires less regular maintenance. This makes it a sublime daily driver that gives up little in comfort or civility to a 325i or 328i, yet provides many more thrills on a twisty canyon road or racetrack.”
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