Ben Barry from British automotive magazine Car had a chance to do some back to back laps in every generation of M3 ever made at the Ascari test drive at a recent press event. As you’d expect (if you’ve ever read Car or Mr. Barry) his conclusions are nuanced and quite interesting. Here are a few excerpts:
I started with the E30 Sport Evo, a black one with just 7000km. Yes, it feels slow these days, the four-cylinder engine is a bit coarse, and that dog-leg gearbox takes some getting used to, but the steering is superb and – the best bit – the front end just goes where you point it. No understeer, no sense of weight pulling you wide of the apex. It just points and points and points until you ask to much of it and, eventually – through momentum rather than power – it oversteers.
Lovely car, the Sport Evo, and you can understand why us hacks slated its bigger, softer successor – the E36 – when it appeared in the early ’90s. But I’m fond of these cars – I’ve had two, the 3.0-litre coupe that I still own, and a 3.2-litre saloon – and it was a treat to drive a virtually factory fresh Daytona Violet 3.0-litre coupe and compare it with my leggy 3.0-litre that I’ve long ago converted into a trackday toy.
Mr Barry continues on about the E36 M3…
The E36 feels incredibly plush after the E30, but it also feels very nose heavy, its steering is ponderously uncommunicative and the body wallows alarmingly through transitions – the sensations feel muddied after the clarity of the E30. Yet the engine was the smoothest of all the M3s I drove at Ascari, its gear change the sweetest and, as I’ve discovered, a set of coilovers, some decent brakes and the removal of all that mollycoddling interior makes it a decent track car that’d leave the E30 trailing.
The description (that comes later in the article) of the E36 M3 as the blueprint for all M3s to follow seems spot on. The E36 M3 was clearly a softer car that was meant for a larger market. It did everything better except perhaps the most important thing, give the driver the ultimate feel for the road and machine.
Next up was a favorite of mine (perhaps by favorite of them all in fact), the E46…
I drove the E46 next… it feels on its toes and alive after the E36, the steering far more direct, the nose still not as pointy as the E30 but far keener to dive at the apex and let the tail swing wide. Unlike the E36, it stays comparatively flat through transitions, so you can swing it around from lock-to-lock without setting some horrifically flabby pendulum swinging. Great engine too, but I was surprised how lethargic it felt in the upper reaches of the rev range – the new V8 has spoiled us with the way it zips around the dial so much more freely.
All in, though, the E46 feels like an E30/E36 greatest hits package. Amazing that you can snaffle them for £8k these days.
Finally he concludes with the new E90 Competition Package M3…
The E90 manual saloon and E92 Competition Package brings us up to date. Yes, you could actually feel that the saloon sits a little higher and rolls a little more through turns than even the standard coupe, but it was still an incredibly engaging car, especially when you factor in all that practicality. But this time it’s the auto gearbox that makes the manual feel slow – seriously, the new DCT is awesome, offering everything from buttery smooth changes, to entirely manual control, and slack-free changes when you’re absolutely nailing it.
All in all a great piece that is well worth a read.