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9 Oct 2017

BMW M3 E36

BMW M3 E36 Saloon


Text and Photos: Reinis Babrovskis

If there ever was a game changer in the car industry, it would most certainly have to be the BMW M3. It is one of the most iconic vehicles ever made and let’s be honest any true petrol head desires to own one at some stage in their life. Whilst it wasn’t anything unusual for a manufacturer to add a sportier model in their line-up, none of them ever attempted to release an affordable road legal race car, and yet that is exactly what the German manufacturer did.

Deliberate, or by mistake this is exactly what happened in 1985 when they launched the very first M3. It turned out to be so successful that 5 generations later the M3 is still branded as one of top dogs in the car industry that any other performance vehicle is striving to contest.

What started off as a small sub-branch of BMW with barely 50 workers under their wing, transformed the company’s future forever. The BMW M (motorsport) branch turned out to be hugely successful at any motorsport event they entered (DTM, rally, endurance etc.), so unsurprisingly their success transferred onto their productions models. Any  you know what - any vehicle branded with the M badge truly deserves it, as it will be an engineering masterpiece.

The success of the M division really hides in its proficiency to turn a standard BMW 3 series production model into a full blown road legal race car. Whilst looking generally unaltered in exterior and interior, the engine and suspension are fully overhauled making them the true “sleeper” cars. 

The first generation BMW M3, code name E30, was launched in 1985 and was based around the standard street model. The M division fully transformed the car giving it a super responsive steering, throttle and the ideal weight distribution making it in essence a race car. The E30 M3 offered the driver a true, raw driving experience that left the rest of the cars a lot to desire. And whilst the first generation of the M3 model was probably more or less a lucky accident, by the time the second generation M3 arrived the Motorsport division of the BMW already knew the direction they would take with the 3 series performance model.

Second time round BMW already knew what was required of the successive model – an ordinary looking car with comfortable interior, relaxed but sporty handling and performance that would blow one’s socks off. And boy they delivered.

BMW E36 series was the third generation of BMW 3 series, yet only the second one to be privileged to receive the M badge. The BMW M3 E36 was launched in 1992 and produced until 1999; it was offered in three body versions: coupe, convertible and in the later years as a saloon. When the M5 production was stopped the M3 took over seeing as there was a gap in the market for a 4 door performance saloon. John opted for this version and as many true BMW enthusiasts will confirm it actually handled better than the coupe.


As with the predecessor the E36 M3 was heavily based on the street version. The car was upgraded to better spec wheels and tires, given a spoiler and M3 badges all around. One of the most significant visual alterations was the motorsport inspired side mirrors that retained its design more or less all the way to the current generation of M3.

And whilst the current generation of M series cars can be spotted from miles away due to the beefy body, massive wheels and crazy exhausts, the E36 M3 retained a very subtle OEM look that appealed to the masses. In essence it really was a “sleeper” from factory. John’s E36 is also rocking one the finest paint coats that M3 offered – the BMW aqua blue.


When BMW released the second generation of the M3 they really focused on offering a car that provided performance but didn’t strip them of any luxuries they were accustomed to in the production models. The E36 M3 came with comfortable seats, large steering wheel, manual gearbox and great audio system. It was the perfect autobahn and backroad car. Maybe this is the reason it really never appealed to me, it tried too hard to be normal. I do want uncomfortable bucket seats, steering wheel without an airbag, lack of carpets, and noises from chassis when I enter a sports car. But there is no denying – BMW has been making great, comfortable interiors for every vehicle they ever released.

Engine and Transmission

Let’s be honest the original E30 M3 was an amazing handling car, but…it lacked power. The 4 cylinder engine (no matter how awesome it was) didn’t leave anybody speechless; however, the BMW learnt from their mistakes and the second generation didn’t repeat the slip-up. The early models of the E36 M3 were powered by a 3.0 litre naturally aspirated straight six engine producing astonishing 286 hp. A few years later BMW revised the engine and increased its capacity to 3.2 litres, increasing the power to very impressive 321 hp. That is unless you were unlucky ones in USA or South Africa where you got a bit less power, why  nobody knows. The E36 M3 offered acceleration to 60mph under six seconds and made 150mph possible on the Autobahns.

The deep, metallic noise of the straight six sings lovely even through the standard exhaust system; however, John has upgraded his exhaust system and it performs even better. It is really a beautiful engine noise, that I think the furthest models lost out on a bit. To me this one was of the nicest engine noises in the M3 series.

John's M3 is paired up with a six speed manual gearbox that just feels right; the gearing is beautiful and the VANOS technology begs the driver to rev the engine through to the limit in every gear.

Wheels and Tires

John's BMW is running a beautiful set of BBS wheels that are dressed in Michelin Pilot Sports.


The M3 E36 was a substitute to one of the best handling cars out there in the 90ies and it seems it managed to outperform it's older brother (at least on paper). Whilst the E30 remained more raw, more responsive and overall a better sports car in terms of feeling for the road, the E36 outperformed it on speed, acceleration and nearly every aspect, also drivers were able to handle it easier. It seemed to be a choice of weapon for tracks by many petrolheads. On paper it really was so much more than the E30. Yet, I am still not so sure, as to me it feels heavier, it feels like it wants to be a hooligan, go sideways and make smoke - I somehow cannot imagine this as a graceful race car. And yes, I do know it is, and it is an amazing engineering masterpiece and it is a truly amazing driver's car and a great jump into the M3 world, but for me the unreachable underdog E30 will remain the favourite.

Bonus Images