Hall of Fame: The evolution of an automotive legend over three decades.
The new BMW M3 Sedan and new BMW M4 Coupe represent the fifth generation of a pure-bred sports car offering excellent everyday usability – one which has raised the bar in the ultra-high-performance mid-size sedan/coupe segment at every turn over the last three decades. “The BMW M3 has been our iconic model in the high-performance sports car
segment since 1985, when the company unveiled the first generation of the BMW M3 at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt,” recalls Dr Friedrich Nitschke, President BMW M GmbH. “Today, 28 years later, the new BMW M3 Sedan and new BMW M4 Coupe are set to extend this tradition into a fifth generation and take the car’s unique combination of outstanding dynamics and unrestricted everyday usability to yet another new level.”
The first generation: forming the basis for the world’s most successful touring car.
In spring 1985, the BMW Motorsport department began development of a racing machine to line up in touring car competition. The roadgoing version required for homologation – 5,000 examples of which had to be built for sale per year to satisfy the sporting regulations for this category of racing – was conceived from the outset as a race-ready Group A machine. The inaugural BMW M3 celebrated its premiere in September 1985 at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA), with the market launch following in summer 1986. Its naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine developed 143 kW/195 hp (version without catalytic converter: 147 kW/200 hp) from a 2.3-litre displacement, accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h / 62 mph in 6.8 s (6.7 s) and had a top speed of 230 km/h / 143 mph (235 km/h / 146 mph).
In this trim, the first-generation BMW M3 exceeded all sales expectations. Including the Convertible variant, the various evolution stages of the car and the special-edition models, BMW had sold a total of 17,970 units worldwide by the time production was wrapped up in 1991.
The second generation: three variants of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The successor to the original M3 was not designed as the basis for a racing car. However, it was developed from the outset in three body variants. The
two-door Coupe, which made its debut in 1992, was followed onto the market in 1994 by a Convertible and – for the first time – a four-door Sedan. All three models were powered by a six-cylinder 3.0-litre engine developing
210 kW/286 hp, which powered the car to 100 km/h / 62 mph from a standstill in under six seconds. Top speed was electronically limited to 250 km/h / 155 mph. A small-series M3 GT variant was added to the range in 1994, its 217 kW/295 hp sending it straight to the top of the M3 performance scale at the time. In 1995 the car’s displacement was increased to 3.2 litres and output rose to 236 kW/321 hp.
In 1997 the BMW M3 became the world’s first volume-produced car to be made available as an option with the Sequential M Gearbox (SMG). This transmission variant was based on the conventional gearbox for the M3, but with a clutch that was activated electrohydraulically to change gears.
M3 drivers no longer needed to press a clutch pedal; all they had to do to change gear instantly on one level was pull or push the gearshift lever. Initial scepticism was defied by impressive success, and by the time production came to an end almost one in every two examples of this generation of the M3 generation was fitted with an SMG gearbox. The M3 had grown from a niche sports car to a resounding sales success: 71,242 units of the Coupe, Convertible and Sedan combined were produced at Regensburg.
Several design features of the second-generation BMW M3 also cemented their places in the driver’s consciousness. They included special light-alloy wheels in double-spoke design and the specially formed, aerodynamically optimised exterior mirror casings with their two wing-shaped struts. These highlights have been revisited time and again in subsequent generations of the M3 in the form of some fascinating design cues.
The third generation: enhanced dynamics in a sharper design.
The third generation of the BMW M3 – launched in 2000 and available in coupe or convertible form only – added another, now traditional, signature feature to the model: a power dome on the bonnet. The new model also raised the bar another not inconsiderable notch in terms of performance and dynamics. Its six-cylinder in-line engine still had 3.2-litre displacement, but now developed 252 kW/343 hp. And that meant the M3 could accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h / 62 mph in 5.2 seconds (Convertible: 5.5 s), should the occasion demand. Almost more impressive still, though, was the sprint from 80 to 120 km/h / 50 to 75 mph, which could be dispatched in a mere5.4 seconds. Evidence of the six-cylinder engine’s exceptional pulling power could not have been provided any more emphatically.
For the first time, the BMW M3 now also came with a variable differential lock at the rear axle allowing anywhere between 0 and 100 per cent lock. The results were noticeable benefits in terms of traction and grip when pulling away and cornering at pace. Added to which, the second generation of the Sequential M Gearbox (SMG II) now also allowed the driver to change gear using paddles on the steering wheel.
The sporting flagship of this M3 generation was the BMW M3 CSL introduced in 2003. The three-letter suffix stood for “Coupe Sport Lightweight”, a billing justified by elements such as a carbon-fibre roof, centre console and door panels, a lighter rear window and the omission of numerous comfort-oriented features. With a kerb weight of just 1,385 kilograms, it tipped the scales some 110 kilograms below the standard M3. All 1,383 units of the 265 kW/360 hp “cornering king” were sold within just a few months.
The fourth generation: V8 engine and intelligent lightweight design.
2007 signalled a break with tradition as the BMW M3 took to the stage for the first time in 15 years without the straight-six unit so frequently crowned
Engine of the Year. Instead, the fourth-generation car – which appeared in coupe, sedan and convertible form (the latter joined the range in 2008) – was powered by an eight-cylinder unit. The new 3,999cc engine developed 309 kW/420 hp and some 85 per cent of its maximum 400 Newton metres (542 lb-ft) of torque was available across a huge 6,500 rpm rev range. The engineers continued along the path of lightweight design with the Coupe in particular. On the back of positive experience with other M models, the roof was once again made from carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. The bonnet with its striking power dome was made from aluminium, as were large sections of the newly developed lightweight chassis.
Among the highlights of the fourth-generation car’s production run were the exclusive small-series variants of the BMW M3 which shone an even brighter spotlight on its racing-inspired characteristics. Here, the BMW M3 GTS – road-registered but developed for clubsport racing – stood out in particular. The displacement of the standard M3’s V8 engine was expanded to 4.4 litres to produce peak output of 331 kW/450 hp. Specially developed chassis components and aerodynamic measures, plus a two-seat cockpit conceived for track use, equipped this exclusive special-edition model (only available in show-stealing Fire Orange paintwork) for competitive action on the track and generated a particularly intense M feeling on the road. 135 examples of the BMW M3 GTS were delivered to customers.
The BMW M3 CRT (Carbon Racing Technology) presented in 2011 was limited to just 67 units. Exclusively manufactured lightweight components and modified chassis technology imbued this 331 kW/450 hp model, which was based on the BMW M3 Sedan and built at the BMW M GmbH factory, with exceptionally precise handling balance. The bonnet of the BMW M3 CRT was made from two CFRP mouldings encasing an aramid honeycomb structure,
its bucket seats featured two CFRP layers wrapped around a recycled-paper honeycomb, and a carbon layer made using conventional production technology was added to visible areas. A rear spoiler and an air-channelling element integrated into the front apron (both made from CFRP) rounded off the exclusive lightweight elements found on the BMW M3 CRT.