BMW introduced the “E30” series M3 — a street-legal variant of a race car — in 1986 as a way to satisfy racing’s Group A Touring homologation rules. The requirements said that an automaker had to build 5,000 units to certify a vehicle’s “production” status, so BMW transformed one of its popular 3 Series models by fitting it with a powerful four-cylinder engine, modifying some of the bodywork, and upgrading its performance components.
The resulting two-door coupe was a hit with dedicated driving enthusiasts who enjoyed the M3’s nimble handling, racy styling, and free-revving engine. BMW realized the sales potential for high-performance niche models and continued to introduce M3 models for every subsequent 3 Series generation. (I should add that the popularity of the original M3 spawned M2, M4, M5, M6, and M8 models — and crossover variants!)
Nearly 35 years later, I’m driving the new 2021 BMW M3. This “G80” series vehicle is a sixth-generation direct descendant of the original, yet it wasn’t crafted to meet specific race homologation rules. Instead, it was engineered to be the high-performance flagship of today’s 3 Series lineup.
One third of a century is a long time in the automotive world, so it’s no surprise that today’s M3 is a vastly different machine than its ancestor. The diminutive coupe has grown in physical size, the engine is larger, horsepower has more than doubled, and the performance bar has been raised significantly. And, most obvious to most, is that the two-door M3 has added two more doors — in 2014, BMW decided to break tradition and name the two-door model the M4 — the M3 is now a sedan.
There’s no denying that the old E30 M3 was charming and engaging, but a few minutes behind the wheel of the 2021 model will make even the most discerning car enthusiast forget all about its predecessor.
Let’s start with the objective numbers. The M3, like all vehicles, has grown over time. The length has increased by 1.5 feet, the width by 8.2 inches, and the height by 2.5 inches — it’s a bigger vehicle. Yet those dimensional increases allow more passenger space (it grows from 82 to 98 cubic feet), a larger engine, wider tires, and better aerodynamics. And, the safety cage is much more robust.
The cabin of the M3 has evolved from stark — an oversized steering wheel, analog gauges, and a few controls — to sophisticated and lavish. Today’s M3 boasts configurable digital gauges, multi-way adjustable seats, and all of the latests infotainment innovation. Genuine leather hides and beautifully crafted upholsteries and trims contrast nicely. Today’s M3 is arguably as luxurious as it is sporty.
Evolution of the powertrain has been monumental. Whereas the original M3 was fitted with a naturally aspirated 2.3-liter four-cylinder, which cranked out 192 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque (impressive numbers at the time), those figures simply pale in comparison to today’s model. The 2021 M3 boasts a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter, inline-6 that delivers a whopping 473 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque (those figures bump up to 503 hp/479 lb-ft in the M3 Competition model).
BMW is one of the few automakers still offering a manual gearbox with some of its sports cars — the M3 is no exception. But the old 5-speed manual has been replaced by a 6-speed manual gearbox that is quicker and more efficient. But those who want the fastest M3 will want to choose the 8-speed automatic. The torque-converter-based gearbox is silky smooth, brilliantly tuned, and lightning-quick.
While curb weight has grown from 2,900 pounds to 3,900 pounds — blame modern safety equipment and the segment’s requisite luxury items — benchmark acceleration figures have greatly improved. The old M3 accomplished the 0 to 60 mph sprint in about 6.9 seconds. The 2021 M3 takes just 3.5 seconds to accomplish the same!
Drive both back to back on the road and it feels as if 100 years — not fewer than 40 — separates the 1986 M3 from the 2021 M3.
The old M3 feels slow, sluggish, and a bit lethargic. Flog it hard, and keep the momentum up, and it comes to life… but its nothing like its 2021 descendant. Today’s M3 offers near-instantaneous throttle response and on-demand wheelspin (an all-wheel drive variant will be offered later this year for those seeking more all-weather capability), quick steering, and explosive power under full acceleration. The old M3 feels physically flimsy and unsubstantial, while today’s car feels solid and safe.
And the cabin of the old M3 is spartan. Most surfaces, with the exception of the leather-wrapped seating, steering wheel, and shift lever, are plastic. There are a few analog gauges, plastic buttons, and sliding HVAC levers — and one small digital display on the calculator-like computer.
Today’s M3 is luxuriously appointed with premium materials, configurable digital displays, and innovotavie technology. A full suite of passive and active safety equipment complements the stronger chassis (the original M3 didn’t have a single airbag).
The two are as dissimilar as a propeller-driven Sopwith Camel and a F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
While the original mid-80s M3 was noted for being a departure from mainstream sports cars — it was too hardcore for most consumers — the 2021 BMW M3 is perfectly suited for today’s real-world challenges. Adaptable suspension tames the ride and adjustable driving modes change the vehicle’s temperament from wild to mild at the push of a button. It’s safe to say that it is equally as competent as a daily driver as it is a podium winning weekend racer at the track.
And, I’m pleased to say, there’s still a enough of that Group A Touring homologation DNA in the new car to keep even the most discerning enthusiast smiling.
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