BMW's M3 turns 30 years old

For 30 years, an evocative 'M' badge with tri-colour ribbon has distinguished BMW's performance hero from the refined but more low-key 3-Series family.

Developed to race, the M3 became the most successful touring car ever, a reputation that spurred five successive generations.

BMW Australia spokesman Adam Davis says the M3 – as a road car – provides "a halo effect" over the broader 3-Series range.

"It enabled the M engineers to showcase what's possible with a compact, powerful, rear-drive sports car," he says.

An honorary Aussie

The car was particularly loved in Australia, where performance cars sell at higher rates per capita than almost anywhere else in the world.

In fact, the smallest ever run of road-going M3s was the Australia-only M3-R (1994), shipped as standard from Germany and tuned down under.

"Australia has long been a nation of petrol heads," Davis says. "M3's standing was set early on with success in the Australian Touring Car Championship, especially with Jim Richards winning the 1987 ATCC in a black and gold E30."

The M formula is much emulated, with Mercedes (AMG), Audi (RS), Jaguar (R) and Lexus (F) introducing 'hot' consonants to spice up volume sellers. Even Holden and Ford cropped up with HSV and Tickford (later FPV) respectively soon after the first M3.


Celebratory model

BMW has marked the 30-year milestone with the M3 30 Jahre edition. Based on the Competition Package, it gets engineering tweaks good for a 14kW boost and a 4.0-second 100km/h sprint.

There are cosmetic upgrades inside and out, including an individually numbered carbon fibre dash panel. Only 500 will be produced.

It's yet to be confirmed for local, although Davis says BMW Australia has put its hand up.

While the M3's high revving, high performance, rear wheel drive character – and a potent exhaust note - have remained constants over 30 years, its evolution has been great.

Here's a run-down of the key models, with global sales figures:

E30 (1986)

Coupe: 18,843; Convertible: 776

Developed to give BMW a competitor for touring car racing, the original's pumped guards and boy racer wing added serious menace to the standard 3-Series body. The 2.3-litre four delivered 147kW for a 6.7-second sprint to 100km/h. Not fast by today's standards, but with plastic bumpers, sills, bootlid and spoiler keeping kerb weight to 1200kg, the original M3 was wild – a weapon good for 235km/h. Says BMW factory driver and former F1 star Timo Glock: "I myself [have driven] the M3 of that time around the racetrack. Compared to our racing cars of today, it was really hard work behind the wheel."

BMW upped the ante with the 1988 Evo (164kW; 243km/h) and a small run of hand-assembled topless versions. Two years later came the ultimate E30, the Sport Evolution with a 177kW, 2.5-litre engine. BMW needed to sell 5000 for touring car qualification. The M3 was a hit.

E36 (1992)

Coupe: 25,764 (3.0), 20,755 (3.2); Convertible: 1,975 (3.0), 10,130 (3.2); Sedan: 1,303 (3.0), 11,300 (3.2)

Australians could finally buy a road-going M3. The E36 wasn't developed solely for the track, resulting in a new-found sophistication. The four cylinder engines and in-your-face looks were gone, replaced by a 3.0-litre straight-six (210kW; 320Nm) and subtle exterior tweaks over its 3-Series sibling—the aerodynamic 'double bridged' wing mirrors are now an M3 signature. BMW's VANOS camshaft control propelled E36 to 100km/h in 6.0 seconds with top speed limited to 250km/h: the power-per-litre and torque-per-litre figures set records for a naturally aspirated engine. The first sedan followed (1994), matching the coupe's performance. Lifting engine capacity to 3.2 litres (236kW) lopped half a second off the sprint and, in 1996, BMW's F1-inspired SMG (sequential manual gearbox) was a first for a volume production car, snapped up by nearly half of M3 buyers.

E46 (2000)

Coupe: 56,133; Convertible: 29,633

With the redeveloped straight six, power and torque for E46 were up (252kW; 365Nm; 5.2 seconds to 100km/h) but the sedan was out. This M3 had more visual muscle than its predecessor but it was a restrained toughness, with a power dome aluminium bonnet, flared arches, spoiler lip and quad tailpipes. Even the looks of the limited edition 2003 CSL (BMW-speak for Coupe Sport and Lightweight) barely hinted at the stonking 265kW performance within. The 'S' was taken care of with camshaft timing alterations and exhaust revisions. The 'L' (1385kg) was achieved by stripping superfluous things like cruise control, aircon, stereo, centre rear seat and shrewd weight-saving with the judicious use of carbon-fibre, carbon reinforced plastic (CRP) and thin glass. That's 4.9 seconds to 100km/h, thank you very much.

E90/E92/E93 (2007)

Coupe: 40,092; Convertible: 16,219; Sedan: 9,674

MkIV brought the biggest shift to the M3 formula since E30 became E36. Gone was the revered straight six. In its place: a naturally aspirated 4.0-litre V8 churning out 309kW. The sedan was back in favour and, for the first time, each body style had a unique model code. One tenth of a second separated the E92 two-door (4.8 seconds) and the E90 sedan (4.9 seconds) in the 0-100km/h. The E93 convertible folding hardtop added weight, leaving it as the choice for those willing to sacrifice a few tenths for, essentially, two M3s in one. Lessons in lightweight from the CSL were applied to the new generation, including standard CRP roof on the coupe. In a testament to BMW engineering, the bigger engine weighed 15kg less than the unit it replaced.

F80 (2014)

If some purists were aghast at the introduction of the V8, BMW had more in store. Today's M3 is a sedan-only proposition; coupe and convertible wear M4 badges in line with BMW's new naming convention (odd numbers for four doors, even for two … don't mention the Gran Coupe). More shockingly, what was considered one of M3's fundamental qualities – eeking optimal performance from a naturally aspirated engine – was turned on its head. Under the bonnet: a 317kW straight six … with twin turbos. While seemingly anathema to the formula, F80 showed that BMW was prepared to move with the times. Weight (down 80kg), and consumption and emissions (both down 25 per cent) were all improved. The turbo kick boosted torque by almost 40 per cent. With a 4.1 second sprint to 100km/h, the M3/M4 pairing retains the blistering performance the nameplate made legendary.

What's your favourite M3? Check out the gallery above and let us know in the Comments section.