For decades now the BMW M3 has been The People’s Sportscar. From a well-travelled daily driver for a few grand to a six-figure special edition you’ll never have the guts to drive, there is a car out there for you. Indeed, now is an especially good time to be on the hunt, as two of perhaps the finest M3 models are within the same price range – the E46 and the E92, the somewhat stale codenames for the far-from-stale third and fourth generations. Yet while both are held in high esteem, they are rarely compared directly. So what exactly does the M3 canon look like, how do these two fit into it and, of course: which should you buy?

The Forge

Since 1986, BMW’s “M-Division” (for “Motorsport”) has had its wicked way with five generations of BMW 3-series, working its dark arts to turn a series principally designed for middle management into serious sports cars. The 3-series remains BMW’s bread and butter, with over 15 million sold to date, and not one you’d have thought to associate with sporting prowess. Munich’s finest engineers had other ideas, however, and good news they did, too.

BMW M3 E30

The E30 M3

First out of the Bavarian forests crept the original M3, codenamed E30, produced from 1986 to 1992, followed by the E36 M3, produced between 1992 and 2000. Both were a product of the engineering fascination of the era: a focus on chassis design and setup, with powertrains that, whilst perfectly capable, would compare poorly to a modern hot hatch, let alone to later M3s.

BMW M3 E36

A rather fetching E36 M3

The E30 and E36 are far from being slouches, however, and are joyous to drive, ever eager to run up through the gears. Where later generations feel muscular and occasionally intimidating – an uncompromising katana, or a weighty broadsword – the E30 in particular feels more like a surgeon’s scalpel, light and precise, potent yet easy to underestimate. Both remain highly respected and increasingly scarce drivers’ cars, with the E36 now beginning to join the E30 on a rapid ascent up the price list.

The most recent addition to the family is the F80 M3, launched in 2014. With insane levels of power extracted from its twin-turbocharged, six-cylinder engine, bolted onto the stiffest chassis yet, this model is the fastest of the lot around a track or on the Autobahn. The F80 is a tremendously, worryingly, powerful car. And as the saying goes, with great power comes a great deal of electronic intervention, principally to avoid a sharp reduction of the customer base. There is barely a setting you can’t meticulously adjust and customise, perhaps to the detriment of the initial joy of discovery. Earlier generations of M3 may have had less poke, but the wizardry of the F80 can make the upper echelons of its performance feel somewhat abstract and impersonal. Add into the mix that it’s a modern car with a high price to begin with, depreciating rapidly but still nowhere near it’s predecessor, and it sits in a somewhat awkward branch on the M3 family tree.

BMW M3 F80

2014 onwards – the F80 M3…

It is the third and fourth generations of M3 that are most interesting – the E46 and the E92, spanning the entire noughties up to 2013. Where the focus of the E30 and E36 was more about handling than speed, it was the engines in the E46 and E92 (an inline-six and V8 respectively), and the unashamed focus on performance, that made these models a clear and distinct step forward. The marriage of these powertrains, very different and with their independent merit, to an M-Division chassis generates performance that is not only comfortably in excess of what you’d ever legally achieve on the open road, but revels in the challenge of a track day.

These cars also have fewer, and far simpler, electronic driving aids. Compared to the firmly technophobic E30 and E36, and an F80 more reminiscent of an algorithm than an automobile, these two sit perfectly between modernity and antiquity, straddling the digital and the analogue eras  – just electronic enough to be both safe and ambitious, but not at the expense of enjoyment or artistry. A bit like Kraftwerk. Or Boy George.

BMW M3

The range up to 2014 – E30, E36, E46, E92…

Examples of used E46s and E92s can also now (October 2018) be found in similar price ranges. For manual coupes with around 80,000 miles on the clock, and a solid service and ownership history, you’re looking at around £15,000. Whilst the cars are heading in different directions on the price list – the E92 still declining, the E46 steadily on the rise – the disparity is unlikely to become much larger before the E92 joins its older sibling on the ascent. Having about as much in common as Kraftwerk and Boy George, however, it can be a tad tricky to work out which of the two is for you. Have no fear however…

The E46 M3 – The Katana

When the E46 was released back in 2000, it caused a bit of a stir. This was a £40,000 car, with a six-cylinder engine pumping out almost 350bhp, propelling it to 60mph in an entirely absurd 4.8 seconds. To put that in context, the dashing, libidinous, relentlessly Italian Ferrari 360 Modena, released just the year before, did it in a screaming 4.6, for three times as much money and two fewer leathered seats. Those cars should have shared nothing more than their number of wheels, and so the motoring press and the general public were sent into a frenzy. Here was a car which was as good for collecting the groceries as it was for slicing apexes at the Nürburgring.

BMW M3 E46

Beastly.

To this day the E46 remains the rawest, most feral stock M3, demanding the driver’s undivided attention and respect. It marked a clear progression from the nimble and sprightly M3s before it; it was heavier, more powerful, more aggressively styled, happy to kick out the rear, but also the most precise of M3’s, driven correctly. It is to this generation of M3 that we owe the now-trademark side grilles, the flared wheel arches, and the iconic bonnet bulge. And to think BMW made a whopping 85,000 of them over its seven-year run.

BMW M3 E46No wonder, then, that if you’re looking for an E46, you’re quickly warned to ask sellers about any suspension modifications, exhaust replacements, or ill-fitting tire upgrades, to name but a few of the racy tweaks E46 owners have cooked up over the years. The tuner community has long loved the M3, the hype hitting its stride with the E36 and continuing on to the E46 and the appeal doesn’t seem to be abating. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but inexplicably there isa nigh-350bhp car in reach for as little as a few grand, even if those particular models might be bearing more than a few scars. Combine that with unmodified, low-mileage models steadily creeping up in price, and you’ve got an increasingly crowded market, with both choice and demand and both ends of the spectrum.

This increased crowding has seen prices for the E46 trough in the last few years, and gradually start rising. The price growth is kept manageable due to sheer volume of vehicles on the market, but as more cars inevitably bite the dust and dealers across the country continue to perfect their patient explanation to sellers why Kenwood stickers and a slammed suspension aren’t “what the market is looking for”, that rise is only likely to continue.

The E92 M3 – The Broadsword

Righto – now back to 2007. Once the public had made sense of the confusing nomenclature – the saloon (E90) and the convertible (E93) were released alongside the coupe (E92) (the latter was the most popular and serves as the focus here) – it rapidly became clear that the Bavarians had succeeded yet again not only in fulfilling the M3 brief of usability and sports car performance, but that the E92 was also very much its own car.

The styling was a clear move into the 21stcentury, doing away with the Teutonic angles that Munich had been so reluctant to throw off. And the change wasn’t just on the outside. The svelte and aggressively haunched exterior was now offset with a flowing dashboard, complete with the genre-defining iDrive computer control and infotainment system (later much maligned but at the time, shiny and impressive). The interior was upgraded and the luxury had never felt as pronounced in what remained, in spite of the focus on its sporting pedigree, an explicitly range-topping BMW model. Not even a whiff of paranoia about the cooler older sibling’s reputation, then…

BMW M3 E92

The E92 M3 GTS – the apex of the E92 M3’s development

The E92 was also the first M3 to feature a now standard driving aid component:  the famous “M” button on the steering wheel, which when pressed would activate your preferred suspension, steering, throttle and engine settings. But none of these changes, nor the reintroduction of the saloon model – dropped for the E46 generation – and a confusing nomenclature could distract from the biggest generational change: the small matter of two additional cylinders.

At this point I must apologise for briefly taking leave of journalistic objectivity. I’m going to plumb breathy fan-boy depths here, because I must. Of all the M3s BMW have made, none has had the engine a more central part of the experience, the power delivery so linear and unapologetic. Yet it’s not even the power itself – it’s the fanfare. All four fanfares, to be precise. The E92’s exhaust system, set in the narrow twin-pair configuration typical of M3’s which has, to me, always looked a touch silly, creates a noise that no production car has a right to make, let alone one in this price bracket. The sound it generates turns it from a single broadsword, blunt and powerful, to an entire army wielding their own and bellowing with anger as they charge into battle. What does that really mean? Drop it into second at 30, and you will never, ever, ever tire of flooring it. Yes, the F80 is the fastest M3 on paper, but on tarmac the congratulatory roar of the E92’s V8 will make you feel like you deserved every one of those three digits on your speedo.

BMW M3 E92

The furious V8 from the E92 M3

The Duel

But which one to choose? Let’s start with the easy stuff. The looks are a subjective affair, and both have their merits. The E46 might age better, the less fussy of the two; yet the E92 does have an undeniable elegance and is less burdened with the boy-racer image that follows the E46. In an exercise of statistically significant science, my mum found the E92 to be “rather elegant” and the E46 to be “a bit shouty” but then she drives a VW Touran, so what does she know?

Well, at least her Touran came with a dual-clutch transmission, something the E46 never managed. The first half of the E46 run came with the frankly awful sequential manual “SMG 1” box, mercifully replaced by the significantly improved SMG 2, which purists begrudgingly view as a solid early exponent of the paddle-shifts ubiquitous in the sportscars of today. By the time they got around to the E92, BMW had sussed it out, introducing the excellent Getrag-produced DKG automatic, otherwise catchily known as the Doppelkupplungsgetriebe– a Double Clutch Transmission.

SMG shifter

Even a “bad” box can be driven well, however, so the E46 SMG box is usually maligned for two entirely different reasons; first, servicing – fluid leaks in automatic units can be ruinous to sort out – and second, a more fundamental objection to anything that you can’t firmly grasp and wiggle around. Aside from the double entendre which I’m leaving here in the hope my editor misses it ( v. cunning – Ed.), I happen to share this fundamental objection. Mercifully both the E46 and E92 are really very, very good fun with a manual transmission, which brings us to the driving experience itself.

The katana is a weapon that is only ever unsheathed with intent to kill – and an E46 is only ever driven with the intent to, well…drive. It is the car you’d pick to drive from A all the way back to A, as big a loop as your day will allow. When you turn the ignition you can’t help but smile, however familiar that mechanical growl may already be – a meatier sound that you’d expect, given all the fanfare its younger brother’s additional cylinders garner, with a clear intent: drive me. Hard.

BMW M3 E46

Urban E46 M3…

At times that’s exactly where the E46 falls down. I’m sure you could drive it like your gran drives her Ford Fusion, but you’d feel like you’re depriving a child its playground. The clutch whimpers in exasperated boredom, the stiff chassis never shy to remind you that you’re in a thoroughbred. Indeed, whilst the E46 is regularly touted as the first everyday performance car – I say so myself above – it does feel like the very first, with all the teething problems that entails, and with a strong emphasis on power and performance ahead of comfort. It’s no bone-shaker, but if you’re doing a long trip down to the south of France I’d suggest you borrow an E92.

BMW M3 E92

Rural E92 M3…

The broadsword of the E92 really cleaves to motorways and A-roads like a crusader, mowing down whatever is unwise enough to get in its way. Even though it is only marginally heavier than the E46, it feels so much more planted, an all-round more solid driving experience, not to mention with significantly reduced wind and road noise than the E46 – all whilst happily letting that hymnal V8 fill the cabin when prompted. Lower the windows, set your sights on the empty road ahead, and there are few feelings more exhilarating than propelling those one and a half tons to the next roundabout. It’s almost religious.

But rather like actually going to mass, when you arrive at that roundabout you actually have to concentrate, or else damnation awaits. Where the E46 requires your undivided attention for every second you’re driving it, the E92 coddles you into the belief that you are indeed a driving deity, and that the ease with which you’ve got to far side of your speedo is down to your divine abilities. Hit that roundabout, though, and the halo slips – along with your rear axle – and you’re rudely reminded that this is no toy. Add some aggressive “M button” settings into the mix and you’ll struggle to get it off the line – and before you know it, you’ll be over the next one, unable to remember how you got there…and how to stop.

The Victor

I could give some really boring and practical buyer’s advice about what you should be looking out for in these cars too – big-end bearing failures, or faulty electronics, for instance – but I won’t be doing that. Plenty of far more diligent and actually paid journalists (and editors – Ed.) have complied oodles of data on this front, not least the RAC which typically does a great job of detailing the sorts of things you should be looking out for. Just always remember that a well-looked-after 150k-miler can be in better shape than a poorly driven and maintained example with 20k on the clock.

From an investment perspective it’s both more intriguing and, of course, entirely speculative. However, I can’t resist a crack: given the criteria mentioned at the start, it seems fairly clear that the E46 values are moving up, whilst the E92 values are still declining. But let’s not kid ourselves – whilst bankruptcy-by-beemer isn’t exactly a glamorous way to go, it’s critical to remember you are buying an object of decadence, purchased for enjoyment well ahead of any practical benefit. So whilst it’s always worth looking into the future resale value, I’d implore the reader to be realistic. And if you plonk it in a garage for a decade, a thousand plagues be upon you.

So, which is it to be? E46 or E92? Six or eight cylinders? The katana or the broadsword?

BMW M3

Well hello there…

As much as it’ll never stop trying to bite your hand off, the versatility of the E46 is peerless. By no means does the E92 end a distant second – in some areas, notably the delivery of the power, it comes out on top – but it simply can’t keep up with the E46’s repertoire; the daily driver, the motorway muncher, and a serious track-car all rolled into one. Yet somehow none of the many faces of the E46 obscure one another; at no point does comfort get in the way of dynamism, never does it feel that the car’s undeniable practicality required compromise on the vision. High praise indeed that countless pub debates have yet to come up with a better all-rounder than the E46 M3.

But more important than all of these considerations is to be left with a smile every time you turn it on. And the E46, from the reassuringly mechanical rumble at the start, to the stolen moments on open A-roads you’ll never tire of, won’t ever get boring.

At least I hope so. I’ve just bought one.

P

BMW M3 E46