From the November 2022 issue of Car and Driver.
Unlike the E30 M3 that came before it, BMW’s E36 M3 (1995–99) lacks the homologation pedigree that comes from racing. The decision to water down the U.S. version with a cheaper engine seemed only to add insult to injury. But talk with anyone who has spent time in one of the almost 33,000 sold here and, provided you’re not talking about the automatic model, you’ll probably hear a story that supports the car landing “very near the top of our wish list” when we first tested it in 1994.
With a coupe, a sedan, and a convertible available, there are many ways to enjoy the exceptional steering and neutral handling that earned the E36 M3 our “Best-Handling Car for More Than $30,000” in 1997, as well as a spot on our 10Best list every year it competed. Purists may lean toward the coupe, in part for its high-bolster “Vader” seats, but the sedan weighs essentially the same and is every bit as good. The convertible isn’t very rigid, yet it has the most headroom of the bunch.
The first and loudest knock against the U.S.-spec E36 is that it didn’t receive the European model’s higher-revving individual- throttle-bodied 3.0-liter inline-six, which generated 286 horsepower to the U.S. version’s 240. But the less complicated U.S. engine kept the price low enough to make the M3 a sales hit. In 1996, displacement was increased to 3.2 liters, bumping torque by 11 pound-feet, from 225 to 236.
Like nearly all collector cars, the M3 has risen in price in the past few years. But with numbers generally still in the range of low teens to mid-$20,000s, the right E36 M3 is still a value. That said, E36s are being rediscovered now, with rare Lightweight models sometimes fetching more than $80,000.
The temptation may be to find the lowest-mile car possible, but E36 M3s with under 100,000 miles might be more likely to need a lot of expensive catch-up maintenance. An E36 with around 125,000 miles could be up to date on needed fixes, and the cost savings can go into resolving problems that might come up.
While the U.S.-spec engine is otherwise very reliable, BMW’s VANOS valve-timing system might be a big-ticket replacement or rebuild. Water pumps and radiators can be considered every-60,000-miles consumables; there are better-built aftermarket options that replace plastic bits with metal. Undercarriage items such as ball joints, outer tie rods, and rear trailing-arm bushings are likely to be worn and pricey to replace.
The E36 interior is notoriously lackluster in build quality and seems to degrade in the presence of air. Check for missing or broken pieces, failing door handles and locks, and sagging or separated headliners, gloveboxes, and door panels.
1997 BMW M3 coupe
240-hp 3.2-liter I-6, 3248 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.5 sec
¼-Mile: 14.0 sec @ 99 mph
100-mph: 14.2 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 140 mph
Braking, 70-0: 152 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.87 g
1998 BMW M3 sedan