Drives: F80 M3
Join Date: Mar 2005
C&D Tests 25 Years of BMW M3 On The Track
REST OF ARTICLE (including E30 and E36 M3 sections):
REST OF ARTICLE (including E30 and E36 M3 sections):
25 Years of the BMW M3: Four Generations on the Track - Feature
Family Jewels: To celebrate 25 years of the M3, BMW invites us to pummel all four generations at once, including the new GTS.
BY AARON ROBINSON, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK BRAMLEY AND THE MANUFACTURER
Even as it churns out those . . . things called the X6 and the 5-series Grand Turismo, BMW’s credentials remain intact. Thank the M3, which, after 25 years, remains BMW’s most bewitching product and a shibboleth against anybody who questions whether the Bavarian fun *factory has finally lost it.
To mark a quarter-century of M3s and to let journalists drive the new, not-for-U.S.-sale M3 GTS, BMW gathered a trove of coupes and convertibles representing all four generations—including the original moxie-stuffed E30, the six-cylinder E36 and E46, and the current E90-series—at the private, 3.4-mile Ascari Race Resort in Spain.
You could spend a lifetime combing the classifieds and never assemble a dream collection like this. Culled from various departments within the company, including its own BMW Classic collection, every car is a cream puff with fewer than 10,000 miles (although all were wearing modern rubber).
They have soft, wrinkle-free leather, dashboards absent of cracks and fading, engines making something like the advertised horsepower, and suspensions that digest a track without shudders or arthritic clunks. It was as though time had wrinkled and we were attending the press introduction of all four M3 generations at once.
Rare, brash, expensive when new, and often showing scars of high mileage and a hard life when you glimpse a survivor on the street today, the seminal E30 M3 came into being because of a mid-1980s racing technicality. In order to enter a hotter, more competitive 3-series in Group A Touring Car events, BMW was required to build 5000 road-legal copies for sale to the public.
“It was an act to get the company to build 5000 cars without knowing if anybody would buy them,” recalls Thomas Ammerschläger, the former director of engineering and production for BMW’s M GmbH subsidiary.
The Motorsports unit was entering unknown territory. It had opened in 1972 as a separately incorporated subsidiary to manage BMW’s racing exploits. Up to that point, it was most famous for producing 1200-plus-hp Formula 1 engines and the mid-engine M1 (from 1978 to 1981), a haphazard project that involved a misfired development deal with Lamborghini.
But in 1985, then BMW CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim, who lorded over the company’s ascension to its modern form from 1970 to 1993, wanted to expand M’s public persona, so he reorganized the group and staffed it with 400 engineers. Ammerschläger remembers it as a time of singular vision and blitzkrieg strokes.
For example, to turn out the first M3’s 192-hp, 2.3-liter inline-four, with its Bosch Motronic fuel injection and individually throttled intake runners, BMW married the block from a production four-cylinder to a sawed-off cylinder head from the twin-cam, four-valve inline-six of the 635CSi and mid-engine M1. The basic design work was done in just two weeks.
Back then, says the graying, rotund Ammerschläger—who, as a young man, ran defunct German automaker NSU’s racing team and himself raced a rotary-powered Ro80—it was easier to push through new ideas. All you had to do was convince von Kuenheim. Nowadays, “there are more people involved. I’m not sure you could do it.”
As BMW further stretches itself in new directions—there are Chinese-made BMWs, and soon there will be electric mini-BMWs—it is reassuring to know that the company keeps its touchstones visible in the rearview mirror. The older models are quaintly outdated, but these various M3s represent the essence of what we hope BMW never stops trying to be.
The M3 got its special, steroidal fenders back with the E46, but their higher tooling cost spelled the demise (temporary, it would later prove) for the slow-selling M3 sedan.
Compared with its predecessors, the E46 feels thoroughly modern, the march of progress leaving its tracks in the form of a much higher button count. There’s a stability-control button, a sport button for a livelier throttle response, automatic *climate control, and optional navigation. An electronic redline indicator cleverly increases along with the engine’s oil *temperature.
Despite the increasing luxury, this M3 never lets the froth *isolate the driver from the machinery. With 333 horsepower from the 3.2-liter six, the E46 finally offered the same output as the Euro version. Stand on it, and its uniquely kazoo-like engine rip instantly knocks you back a decade as the gray-faced gauges dance.
Wheels were growing and tire sidewalls were shrinking. The 46’s ride is a jaw jangler on busted surfaces, but it has a more neutral, less oversteer-prone feel around Ascari than the E36 and barrels through a slew of corners with friction-free steering and cool composure. Fishtails happen—oh, yes—but they come on more gradually than in the E36 and are easier to ride out.
For many, the E46 is the ultimate M3. It’s bawdier and less refined (and less expensive) than the current V-8 cruiser—and has a proper inline-six, the engine type BMW spent half a century perfecting.
You can buy three new M3 coupes for what the special-edition GTS costs once its German price—136,800 euros—is converted to dollars ($182,122 at this writing). Should we shed tears because U.S. government regs—the bumpers are too low, the carbon-fiber seats don’t have airbags, the standard roll cage violates rules, and so on—are keeping out the 150 units BMW plans to build?
Maybe. The GTS is the ultimate track toy for M3 fanboys. New in 2008, the E90-series introduced unprecedented comfort and sophistication. The GTS chucks some of that for more speed. Displacement is stroked from 4.0 liters to 4.4, horsepower climbs from 414 to 444, and curb weight drops by 154 pounds. The quarter-windows and backlight are rendered in featherweight polycarbonate instead of glass, the back seats are gone, and the air conditioning and the radio say auf Wiedersehen (you can put both back in as options). The seven-speed, M-DCT twin-clutch automated manual is the only transmission offered.
Though the power-to-pounds ratio changes only modestly compared with the base E92’s, the GTS has wondrous abilities. It feels much lighter than it is, charging like the Budweiser Clydesdales after breaking free of the wagon. The Brembo brakes are as strong as gravitational force. The fully adjustable suspension—front camber can be altered significantly, too—keeps the body utterly flat during race maneuvers.
BMW is adamant that the GTS isn’t a race car. But from the driver’s seat, all it seems to lack is a racing number on the door. Kind of like the original E30.