BMW M3s: maximum attack

| 4 Aug 2022
Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Homologation specials aren’t cheap.

For BMW in the early 1980s – then still relatively small compared to its key rivals – motorsport was a painfully expensive, if essential, exercise.

The well-heeled enthusiast looking at a £16,685 BMW 325i Sport in 1987 might well have felt a similar sort of pain with the appearance of a £22,750 four-cylinder M3.

The arrival of the £34,500 M3 Sport Evo just two years later, still only available in left-hand drive, could have been a final, insulting blow.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The BMW Sport Evo sits 10mm lower than a standard M3, with an adjustable front lip and rear wing for greater downforce

Yet the E30 M3’s brilliantly successful circuit-racing career established not only a lasting motorsport legacy, but a commercial appeal so strong that it made the price worth paying.

The M3 was motoring magic for an audience bored with supercars, offering superlative performance in a package that, rather than being seen as a costly version of a run-of-the-mill saloon car, was a practical, giant-slaying slice of racing pedigree.

The first stirrings within BMW’s fledgling Motorsport department for a Class A racer based on the new E30 3 Series had been generated in 1981, but put on the backburner behind the M1 and Formula One engine projects.

Eventually, the small team found the time and, in 1985, the M3 was displayed at the Frankfurt motor show.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

A suede AC Schnitzer steering wheel adds to the purposeful aesthetic of the BMW M3 Sport Evo’s interior

It made its debut at the inaugural World Touring Car Championship in the Italian round at Monza in 1987, just as it went on sale in the UK (a year after it hit showrooms in its home nation).

Developed around Class A regulations, almost everything apart from the basic structure – the monocoque shell and suspension layout – was wrought into the shape of a racer.

Only the bonnet was left as a standard body panel, with flared wheelarches accommodating fat, track-spec wheels and a 40mm higher bootlid improving its aerodynamics. 

BMW’s little M10 four-cylinder was pumped up to an ambitious 2.3-litre capacity with a large 93.4mm bore, and paired with a twin-cam head derived from that of the M5.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The M3 Sport Evo’s winged bucket seats offer plenty of support

This new S14 engine was topped off with individual throttle bodies and the latest digital Bosch Motronic fuel-injection system, with a dogleg gearbox from Getrag sending its 189bhp rearwards to a limited-slip differential.

The Sport Evo represented the third and final round of changes permitted under the Class A homologation rules: with the requisite 5000 roadgoing M3s built, BMW could modify the car again with a smaller, 500-off run.

The first ‘Evo’ was introduced in 1988, with detail engine changes to more easily accommodate race set-ups, while the Evo II of 1988 added on-road benefits of 20bhp, plus suspension and brake tweaks, along with a weight saving of 10kg.

The victories came – even in rallying, where Bernard Béguin’s 1987 Tour de Corse triumph began a long history of E30 wins on French Tarmac – but circuit racing was particularly heated, with rivalries against Ford and Mercedes.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The BMW M3 Sport Evo sits on a set of BBS cross-spoke wheels

The Sport Evo was the Motorsport division’s ultimate response, intended to tackle both the turbocharged Sierra RS Cosworth and the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 in the highly publicised home-market DTM series.

The S14B25 gained its extra 165cc from a larger bore and stroke, adding revised airways, sodium-filled exhaust valves, new camshafts and extra oil nozzles to cool the hard-working pistons: the result was 238bhp at 7000rpm, and 177lb ft of torque at a lofty 4750rpm.

It seems natural to accuse this stretched ‘four’ of having lost the sweetness of the earlier 2.3-litre cars, but there’s little hint of it being anything other than one of BMW’s best as it spins cleanly into life.

Its muffled roar is far from coarse as the revs rise, and instead the focus is on guiding what is a surprisingly compliant car over bumpy roads – it rides 10mm lower than an Evo II – with steering that feels a little slow by modern standards.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The 2467cc four-cylinder engine found in the M3 Sport Evo is one of BMW’s best

The gearbox has a long throw to match the steering – the brakes and accelerator, too, are of a modulating character rather than being razor-sharp in response.

The Sport Evo’s provocatively winged bucket seats and this car’s suede AC Schnitzer steering wheel echo the purposeful aesthetic of its exterior, complete with an adjustable front lip spoiler and rear wing, and you soon find yourself testing the car’s visual and mechanical promise.

It delivers: a blipped downshift from third to second brings the engine to attention and the twin cams soar in tandem with the smooth acceleration.

Speed builds with a confidence that seems at odds with the compact, square shape of the E30, but it’s just so easy to be absorbed by the four-pot’s magic response between 5000 and 7000rpm, and by controls that become more intuitive as the numbers climb.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The BMW M3 GT (left) brought a raft of safety and refinement improvements over the M3 Sport Evo

Grip is as high as you might expect from 225mm-wide tyres managing just 1200kg of kerbweight, but it’s difficult to feel the full effects of that adjustable aero kit on the road.

That’s probably for the best, because the M3 instead retains an approachable limit without any of the fearsome on/off character of some downforce-equipped road cars.

Indeed, most of the sacrifices the Sport Evo makes are trivial for the serious driver: no reading lamp or grabhandle, plus rubber mounts for the headlamps, bonnet and grille.

A 62-litre fuel tank replacing lowlier M3s’ 70-litre item may be the only frustration.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The luxurious cabin in the BMW M3 GT includes carbonfibre trim

No such compromises for owners of our next M3.

With the greatest step forward in 3 Series history, the E36 brought so much improvement in refinement, safety and space that the hottest version has long been accused of being more marketing exercise than road racer.

No longer was this a compact featherweight with a Touring Car bulging out through the wheelarches.

However, while it appears a little narrow and almost shy with ’90s conservatism against the more shouty M3s in its vicinity, up close there’s undeniable motorsport breeding to the M3 GT.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The BMW M3 GT appears understated in British Racing Green

Though less obvious – better integrated, its designers would say – the adjustable front spoiler and double rear wing bookend a car that, particularly on GT-spec 7½in-wide front and 8½in-wide rear 17in alloys, hugs the ground just as determinedly as any other here.

Those mixed messages continue as the lightweight aluminium door closes with a quality ‘thunk’ and you settle into the richly upholstered, variously adjustable seats.

The Mexico Green leather inserts and carbonfibre accents are a nod to the commercial side as much as the eye-catching British Racing Green paint, then a seemingly distant starter whirr wakes the engine to a hushed idle, inspiring further doubts over this car’s exotic credentials.

It ought to be special. The same dream specification as the original blessed the S50 engine, only updated and expanded into a 3-litre, six-cylinder format.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The seats in the BMW M3 GT are finished in Mexico Green and feature the tri-colour M insignia

Individual throttle bodies met the latest Bosch Motronic 3.3 engine management, while variable inlet valve timing – VANOS, for the first time on a BMW – built a 236lb ft torque peak at 3600rpm.

For the GT, hotter camshafts liberate an additional 3lb ft.

A convincing shove follows any prod of the throttle at low revs, but with only a soft intake murmur to suggest that the ‘six’ is inspired by the action.

Stay committed, the speeds quickly rise and, despite a fairly hefty flywheel, in the higher reaches the GT reveals a measured sharpness that forces you to instinctively tighten your grip on the leather wheel and focus your eyes on the rapidly approaching horizon.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Standard E36-style wheels are fitted to the M3 GT

Really push and the sophistication of the E36’s chassis with its clever rear ‘Z-axle’, plus the GT’s firmer front suspension and structural reinforcements, absolutely start to shine through.

It’s brilliantly accurate but, despite a 30kg saving over the standard M3, it’s still nothing like as lithe and chuckable as an E30.

The variable-rate steering is a particularly weak link, feeling slow off-centre and still a little numb with lock applied.

It’s a thing of subtlety: from the minute, finely damped adjustments possible with the climate controls to the straight-six that whirrs with quiet richness all the way to its redline just above the 7100rpm power peak, this is a serious tool of Teutonic performance.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Hotter cams help to boost the BMW M3 GT’s straight-six engine to 295bhp

Engine noise, wind noise, road noise – all are hardly noticeable as the needle climbs smoothly around the speedometer.

And sales eclipsed those of the E30 just as easily: by 1995, some 10,000 E36 M3s were rolling out of Munich each year.

Following the E30’s Touring Car success, the 1990s proved more tricky.

The emergence of a new 2-litre era closed down the hopes of the admittedly clever decision to fit 2.5-litre S14 engines in E36 shells, and then, in 1996, DTM was discontinued.

It was in FIA-GT Class II and IMSA GTs that the E36 found its competition home, and for which the GT was homologated.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

A distinctive air-intake ‘nostril’ replaces the front foglights on the BMW M3 CSL

Only 356 road cars were made, plus a further 50 right-hand-drive ‘Individual’ GTs featuring the cosmetic upgrades without the mechanical ones.

As a result of its large 86mm bore, which necessitated an iron block while mainstream M50 engines went to aluminium construction, many expected the 3.2-litre E36 M3 Evo to be the final iteration of the S50.

However, and to some surprise, BMW pushed it that last little bit for the E46 M3.

Engineers added a further 44cc to make a 3245cc unit that, mated to everything that late-’90s BMW could throw at it, is now considered one of the marque’s finest.

Boasting the latest twin VANOS and an in-house, industry-leading engine management system that even controlled the individual throttle bodies, this was a 343bhp, 269lb ft masterpiece.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Suede adorns the M3 CSL’s steering wheel, seats and handbrake lever

Likewise the chassis, and enthusiasts felt their calls had been answered.

Except that there was one last brushstroke to come: the CSL.

It was a bold move to revive the name of one of its most famous cars, the 1973 3.0 CSL, for a model that hadn’t any specific competition purpose, but building on the commercial success of the M3, BMW directed the final efforts of the Motorsport department to achieve the E46 M3’s nth degree.

It paid off almost immediately.

Off the back of the superb standard car, the M3 CSL rushed to the top of enthusiasts’ collective consciousness and into marque history books with the sort of assurance sadly alien to any E36.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Bulging arches signify the BMW M3 CSL’s wider track

BMW promised to make 1000, at £58,445 each – nearly £20k more than a standard M3 – and ended up fulfilling orders for 1383 cars.

Hunkered down and bulging with track-ready muscle, the CSL brings the Sport Evo’s visual presence to the E46.

Its wider tracks, bigger 19in wheels and bespoke aero kit don’t quite mimic the E30 – the arches bulge from the wings rather than blending into the body, and the splitters, spoilers and intakes more accurately direct the airflow – but the overall effect is evocative.

Inside, it feels just as purposeful with suede seats, steering wheel and handbrake, plus glossy carbonfibre detail on the doors and centre console.

The rest is black and grey, and the CSL feels more austere and less richly finished than the E36 GT.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The carbonfibre intake manifold dominates the BMW M3 CSL’s engine bay

You forget about the interior quite quickly, however.

The ‘six’ fires into life with a bark and the SMG automated manual clunks into gear with race-car attitude.

There’s a slight coarseness to the exhaust note as the car warms, and the ride is just the wrong side of forgiving over a rough B-road.

But as the oil temperature climbs and the rev-counter warning lights fade away, a flex of the throttle ignites the CSL’s spectacular character.

Piling on the revs elicits a growl from ahead and a shove from the seatback as the 265mm-wide Michelin Pilot Sports grab the road surface.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The more focused M3 GTS (left) sits lower than the CSL, but it’s a more challenging car to drive fast

You feel their tenacious hold through beautifully weighted steering, giving complete confidence to remain committed as the engine’s tone shifts to an epic, full-bore howl above 6000rpm that carries, probably for miles, to a heady 8000rpm limit.

The snappy gearshifts benefit from a brief lift, and prodigious braking successfully brings you back to earth, but just like the E30, it’s a car that feels natural to drive fast.

Why don’t other E46 M3s feel like this? It turns out that nth degree took some finding.

No less than 95kg was shaved off the kerbweight: 7kg thanks to the famous carbonfibre roof, with other savings in the carbonfibre doors, an aluminium honeycomb boot floor, a composite rear bulkhead, thinner rear glass, and the loss of the radio, air-conditioning and electric seats (although all were available as options).

The suspension was thoroughly reworked, including more aggressive geometry and bespoke aluminium rear control arms, while a sharper 14.5:1 ratio steering rack replaced the existing 15.4:1 item.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

Both of the later cars feature distinctive aero tweaks, the CSL (right) with a ‘ducktail’ spoiler and the GTS with a rear wing

Power was edged up by 17bhp and torque by 4lb ft thanks to hotter cams and lots of work on the intake and exhaust systems, including a carbonfibre intake manifold.

There had been plans for a V8-powered E46 M3, and even a short-lived, non-homologated GTR that took advantage, then became a victim, of the American Le Mans Series regulations of 2001 and 2002 respectively.

But it was the subsequent E92 3 Series that finally brought an eight-cylinder M3 to market in 2007.

The S65 engine was itself a derivative of the V10 seen in the M5 three years earlier, and was 15kg lighter than its predecessor’s ‘six’ thanks to finally adopting all-aluminium construction.

It would eventually form the basis of a variety of racers, notably BMW’s 2010 Z4 GT3.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The M3 GTS has deep bucket seats in the sparsely trimmed cabin

Wide and powerful styling came as standard on the GTS, so too did a carbonfibre roof – proving how seminal the E46 CSL had been in a market with an eye for racy detailing.

The Motorsport division was by then fully established as a brand, with commercial importance and a well-defined identity outside of competition.

So it was no surprise that the extreme GTS was marketed as the ultimate track-day M3 rather than a nod to the World Touring Car Championship cars from which it sourced its aerodynamic bodykit and wing.

That made sense: those racers had been based on 320is specification since the E36, while buyers of the GTS could look forward to much more.

The already mighty S65 V8 was pumped up by 36bhp and 30lb ft, to 450 and 325 respectively, and bellowed through a new exhaust system with titanium silencers.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The BMW M3 GTS makes for a rare sight on the road, with just 135 built

The suspension was lower, the rear subframe rigidly mounted, and the bigger brakes had six-piston calipers up front.

Inside, the deep, lightweight bucket seats and rollcage were hard to miss, but the large strip of carbonfibre trim and bare centre console looked at odds with a dashboard clearly intended for the generous switchgear of a late-2000s BMW.

The GTS is a huge wallop of M3, perhaps too much for regular road use.

It fidgets and squirms on its firm suspension, while the throttle and steering feel hyperactive.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The rollcage rear braces were an optional extra for the BMW M3 GTS

Find a road that makes the most of the GTS set-up, however, and the engine explodes into action, the chassis offers astonishing grip, and the dual-clutch gearbox delivers its changes in satisfying snaps.

The V8 is quieter than you expect, but its resonating roar at the top end is addictive.

In full attack mode the GTS is special, but it belongs on a track.

That all 135 sold almost immediately upon release in 2010, adding to a total of 200,000 M3s since 1986, says something about the model’s impact.

Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

The 4361cc V8 engine in the M3 GTS produces 450bhp

Today, the E30 M3 offers a particularly authentic taste of the Motorsport division, and the Sport Evo delivers everything you’d expect from the peak of its breed.

It feels special in a way the others here can’t quite match… except perhaps the E46.

While the GT and GTS clearly speak to their times, the CSL manages to channel its inner racer and amplifies it for the thrill of its roadgoing owners.

That, and surely one of the greatest engines ever made, is why it’s the one I’d like one more drive in.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to: the owners, and BMW Car Club GB


Classic & Sports Car - BMW M3s: maximum attack

BMW M3 Sport Evo (E30)

  • Sold/number built 1989-’90/600
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2467cc ‘four’, with Bosch Motronic fuel injection
  • Max power 238bhp @ 7000rpm
  • Max torque 177lb ft @ 4750rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coils, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes 11in (279mm) vented front, solid rear discs, with servo and anti-lock
  • Length 14ft 3in (4345mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1680mm)
  • Height 4ft 6in (1370mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
  • Weight 2646Ib (1200kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.1 secs
  • Top speed 154mph
  • Mpg 25
  • Price new £34,500 (1989)
  • Price now £80-180,000*


BMW M3 GT (E36)

  • Sold/number built 1994-’95/356
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2990cc ‘six’, with Bosch Motronic 3.3 electronic fuel injection
  • Max power 295bhp @ 7100rpm
  • Max torque 238lb ft @ 3900rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link transverse and trailing ‘Z’ arms, coils, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering variable-ratio power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes 12½in (315mm) vented front and 12¼in (312mm) solid rear discs, with servo and anti-lock
  • Length 14ft 6½in (4433mm)
  • Width 5ft 5¼in (1710mm)
  • Height 4ft 5¾in (1366mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 10¼in (2700mm)
  • Weight 3153Ib (1430kg)
  • 0-60mph 5.9 secs
  • Top speed 171mph
  • Mpg 24
  • Price new 91,000DM (£36,400 before import charges, 1994)
  • Price now £30-80,000*


BMW M3 CSL (E46)

  • Sold/number built 2003-’04/1383
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3245cc ‘six’, with BMW MSSS54 engine management and electronic fuel injection
  • Max power 360bhp @ 7900rpm
  • Max torque 272lb ft @ 4900rpm
  • Transmission six-speed sequential automated manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link transverse and trailing ‘Z’ arms, coils, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes 13½in (340mm) front, 12¾in (325mm) rear vented discs, with 
    servo and anti-lock
  • Length 14ft 8¾in (4492mm)
  • Width 5ft 10in (1780mm)
  • Height 4ft 5¾in (1365mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 11½in (2729mm)
  • Weight 3142Ib (1425kg)
  • 0-60mph 4.8 secs 
  • Top speed 161mph
  • Mpg 24
  • Price new £58,455 (2003)
  • Price now £60-100,000*


BMW M3 GTS (E92)

  • Sold/number built 2010/135
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4361cc V8, with Siemens MSS60 engine management and electronic fuel injection
  • Max power 450bhp @ 8300rpm
  • Max torque 325lb ft @ 3750rpm
  • Transmission seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link transverse and trailing arms, coils, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes 14⅞in (378mm) front, 15in (381mm) rear vented discs, with servo and anti-lock
  • Length 15ft 2¾in (4645mm)
  • Width 5ft 11in (1804mm)
  • Height 4ft 6½in (1387mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft ¾in (2760mm)
  • Weight 3373Ib (1530kg)
  • 0-60mph 4.4 secs
  • Top speed 190mph
  • Mpg 22
  • Price new £115,215 (2010)
  • Price now £120-180,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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