Drop cap initial letterIT was idling in the paddock when I noticed the contrast. A 1987 FIA Group A BMW M3 race car doesn't so much idle as grumble to itself, a weird disparity given the visual bloodthirst of the car's bodywork. If a first-gen M3 were a person, you'd take it to bars just to start fights.
The sticker on the driver's door read "Lieber Nürburgring als Ehering!"—"rather the Nürburgring than a wedding ring." You can't look at that car without seeing it bodychecking a Mercedes in Breidscheid, but when the M3 launched in 1986, an angry-looking street car built to legalize a race version, the name meant bubkes. Now, gospel touts that machine as the winningest touring car in history, and Internet hordes will tell you that the rapidly appreciating street model is the only BMW worth having. Never mind that the current M3 is a carbon-roofed, 425-hp titan. Much as Jaguar has spent 50 years in the shadow of its E-type, every new Emm Drei is released to the arched eyebrows of those who love the original.
So our staff of arched eyebrows put a 2015 M3 and a balls-to-the-wall Group A car on a track in the same day, in the hands of a former pro driver and yours truly. If this were a boxing match, an announcer would thunder it open: The legend and the upstart! The brute force of tomorrow versus the poise of yesterday! You'll pay for the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge!
And yes, one car was faster. When the Internet finds out which, it will lose its collective mind.
BMW Motorsport GmbH was formed in May of 1972, but it took 11 years before the division turned to the project that would make its reputation. In February of 1983, M began development on a version of the BMW 3 Series aimed at Group A competition. Because FIA rules dictated that Group A cars be heavily based on a street car of which at least 5000 examples had been built in the previous 12 months, the first M3 was distilled from racing needs.
If that sounds run-of-the-mill, it's only because sports cars with Ring cred are currently in vogue. In the mid-Eighties, few production machines were this single-minded. Based on the E30-chassis 3 Series coupe (1984–1991), the M3 got a purpose-built engine, recalibrated steering and suspension, steel fender flares for wider wheels, a lift-reducing wing, a new C-pillar and reangled rear glass to help the wing work, and hundreds of mechanical tweaks. The only exterior panel untouched was the hood.
||THAT SIX IS MADNESS. IT'S AN UNSTOPPABLE FIREBALL OF GRUNT AND WILL FIND YOUR ENEMIES, LAY WASTE TO THEIR HOMES AND BURN THEIR BASEBALL-CARD COLLECTIONS.||
The engine was a highlight. Although there was an internal push to use one of BMW's signature inline-sixes, M technical director Paul Rosche, the mad genius behind BMW's 1400-hp, four-cylinder Formula 1 engines, wanted the balance and high-rpm stability of a twin-cam four. To make the first prototype, he literally sawed two cylinders from the head of an M88—the 24-valve six from the M1 supercar—and paired it with a version of the iron block used in the 2002tii. (Fun facts: The F1 project started with that same block, and Rosche was later responsible for the McLaren F1's V-12.) Test engines vibrated themselves to pieces but produced around 200 hp and more than 7000 rpm.
The competition M3 debuted at Monza on March 22, 1987. Over the next five years, it dominated the touring-car scene, snagging more than 30 international road-racing championships, multiple rally and hill-climb titles, a Corsica rally win, and a one-two finish at the 24 hours of the Nürburgring. The 146-mph street car locked in the legend, but the trade-off was limited appeal. The loud, buzzy four didn't wake until 5000 rpm. At low speed, the M3 was barely quicker than a 325i but cost 20 percent more. Offered here from 1988 to 1991, and only in base, 192-hp form, the car made many think BMW had gone mad. The six- and eight-cylinder M3s that followed sold exponentially better, but they lacked the E30's knife-in-the-teeth feel and never matched its cult following.
Which brings us to the 2015 M3 sedan and M4 coupe. These mechanical siblings, dubbed F80 and F82 respectively, are the E30 M3's latest successors. Both represent a kind of retargeting. Gone is the previous M3's 8400-rpm V8 and old-school personality. In its place is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six that spins to 7600 rpm and produces peak power between 5500 and 7300.
This is the first time an M3's engine has been turbocharged or smaller than the one it replaces. BMW says fuel economy has improved nearly 25 percent over the V8, but with 11 more ponies, for 425. Torque increases from 295 lb-ft at 3900 rpm to 406 from 1850 to 5500. Which is like saying the Northridge earthquake was an increase from that time your aunt knocked her rumpus into the china cabinet.
In coupe form, the new car weighs 3585 pounds, 119 less than its predecessor. There are a lot of base-M3 firsts: a carbon-fiber driveshaft, available carbon-ceramic brakes, electric power steering. Nonsunroof cars get a carbon roof panel, and coupes get a part-carbon trunklid. The sedan has fatter fender flares because it shares the two-door's track, but the coupe's basic shell is wider; subsequently, while the coupe appears workaday mean, the sedan looks ready to punch your mother. In a shift from long-standing BMW practice, the rear subframe is bolted rigidly to the car, with no bushings for comfort.
These guys have not gone this mental in a while.
WE chose the 2.2-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for this story for two reasons. First, it's relatively large and complex but favors neither power nor grip. And second, the choice let us horn in on a BMW of North America corporate test day. Which means that our appointed pro driver, the Mid-Ohio School's Brian Till, strapped in one spring morning with a McLaren F1 GTR barking through its warm-up in the background. It lent our task an undue air of importance, as if we were prepping for some sort of Le Mans of the Middle West. (Motto: "Fly over this, suckers.")
||THE FIRST M3'S ENGINE WAS BUILT BY THE MAN BEHIND BMW'S 1400-HP FORMULA 1 FOUR-CYLINDER AND THE MCLAREN F1'S V-12. BUT EVEN IN THAT LIGHT, THE NEW CAR IS MENTAL.||
Our E30 came courtesy of Cincinnati collector Lance White. Although BMW Motorsport supplied Group A E30s in a crated kit, White's car wasn't one of those. It was built in 1987 by Germany's Hartge team, running a few races before retiring from active competition. With its low hours and unmolested bodywork, it's believed to be one of the more original Group A M3s left.
Till drove both cars on a quiet track, E30 first. When he came in, he was smiling and bubbly. "It's analog, like you're wearing the car. I love it. It rewards momentum and will run a long apex, but once you hit 6000 rpm, it just goes. It's sensitive, but not overly so. Everything happens progressively, which makes it fun."
After a few more laps, Till ran a 1:38.97, for an average speed of 79.9 mph. Standing in the pits, I could see the E30 flit into the track's fourth-gear Turn 1. The car popped down to the apex in an airy dart, a breezy mass of angles and snorting exhaust.
Our white F80 was a preproduction M3 wearing carbon brakes, 19-inch wheels, and the optional seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. (A six-speed manual will be standard, complete with automatic rev-matching for people who are incapable of learning a simple and rewarding skill and who should probably stay on the couch.) Like all new M3s and M4s, it comes with an electronically controlled locking differential, essentially a smarter version of the previous car's mechanically controlled piece.
Fifteen minutes later, Till hopped into the F80, felt it out for a few laps, and nonchalantly popped a 1:38.70. When the time was announced, our crew grew quiet.
Faster. At a real track, on street tires, with a warranty. Even the BMW PR guys on hand were a little shocked.
I climbed in and got a decent shock myself. That six is madness. It's an unstoppable fireball of grunt that will find your enemies, lay waste to their homes, and burn their baseball-card collections. There's barely noticeable turbo lag in the bottom half of the tach and supercar surge regardless of rpm. The carbon brakes (six-piston front, two rear) offer short pedal travel with remarkable speed scrub and fade resistance. If you're tame on the throttle, there's mild understeer. If you're not, there's the wonderful sensation that you're tooling around in a blizzard on bald rear tires.
I did a handful of laps, then came into the pits to take notes. Contributing Editor Jack Baruth, at the track for support, leaned in the window and asked how it was. It took a moment to get the words out.
"I like it," I wound up saying, "but it's odd for an M3, because you're constantly keeping the car on a leash." With stability control off, the car is just goofy—sideways whenever you want, but it can be snappish if you slack and is work to look after.
That's not a complaint, but it is a quality usually ascribed to cars like Corvettes. M3s have traditionally been chassis-first machines, and this one shifts the balance a little, requiring a more careful hand. The adjustment is a bit of a mind-warp if you know BMWs, but it doesn't make for a bad car. Immediately observable flaws are few, limited to the electric steering (better than a 335i's but still relatively lifeless) and the engine's uninspiring sound. The traditional straight-six yawp is there, just muddy and slightly buried.
At lunch, I strolled around White's car. Air-jack pistons were tucked into the engine bay. New, 17-inch Yokohama slicks hid under the fenders in that Do You Really Need That Much Camber? fashion common to Eighties touring cars. A dry-break fuel fitting sat between the taillights, and the electrically heated windshield—a period piece that saves the weight of an ordinary defroster—was embedded with hundreds of tiny wires. The street M3's aluminum airbox was gone, replaced by a carbon piece with an intake the size of a sewer pipe. The car felt both modern and dated, like an episode of Seinfeld performed by the cast of Community.
According to BMW, an '88 Group A E30 weighed around 2100 pounds, made up to 320 hp from 2.3 liters, and revved to 8200 rpm. A few years later, in the 2.5-liter days of the German DTM championship, teams were seeing 10,000 rpm and 340 hp. White said his 320-hp, 8500-rpm four is relatively durable, though research suggests each rebuild costs more than a new Honda.
Strapping in, the cockpit felt about as large as the F80's trunk. The production-look dash held small VDO gauges and a 9500-rpm Stack tach. A stubby shift lever sat on the tunnel. An L-shaped kill switch was right behind it; I gently clicked it on and hit the starter, and the engine whumpfed into a buzzy churn.
I'll come clean: For a number of reasons, your author was climbing into the one car he'd wanted to meet since childhood. So I took two easy laps, felt out the tires, and slung the M3 into Mid-O's Turn 1 like a guy who'd been waiting for it for most of his life.
||WE HOPED THIS TEST WOULD BE CLOSE, BUT NO ONE THOUGHT IT WOULD COME DOWN TO TENTHS. IT'S THE PHILOSOPHIES THAT DIFFER— OLD M3 AS SCALPEL, NEW ONE AS CLEAVER.||
The first quick lap was a series of happy realizations. Even when loaded, the manual steering was shockingly light—one lap in, I found myself experimentally hanging a finger on the wheel and easily guiding the car with a knuckle. Where the F80 had to be talked around the limits of its tires with a whip and a chair, the E30's nose seemed almost weightless, its rear suspension vapor.
Above 6000 rpm, the engine churned out a hard-edged, miniature-Hoover Dam honk and ripped to redline in a lively pounce. There was slightly more grip than power, brakes that seemed barely necessary, killer suspension travel. If you tried to surprise the car on the curbs, it just shrugged it off, put motion on the back tires, and gave you all the time in the world to catch it. It was like indoor karting—I could've written a book between each slide and correction.
On the back straight, I notched the shift lever into the dog-ring 'box's fifth gear. The data said the M3 hit 134 mph into braking, still pulling but the tach needle slowing down. (The F80 touched 142 in the same place, accelerating like mad.)
Call me crazy, but blitzing around Mid-Ohio, the E30 was so relaxed, it flirted with dull. I began to wonder if there was something wrong. Then I glanced in the mirror and had a vision of 40 cars in a buzz-saw pack, Sierra Cosworths and Mercedes 2.3-16s and M3s, all out for blood. And it hit me: Professional-grade race cars often feel like tools, but I'd never met one so fatigue-free and eager to get out of the way. What I was seeing was the difference between an ordinary pro car and one for the ages: so purposely docile at the limit, anything short of an epic, fender-banging throwdown just felt like phoning it in.
The M3 dove into the track's Madness section, an off-camber, up-and-over right-hander with three stories of elevation change. I trailed brake in with my left foot, massaged the power on, and felt the car pop itself over the crest and whip-crack down the hill in this impossible little half-sideways dance. And I may have had only one hand on the wheel, because I was slapping my left knee over and over and laughing quietly in starstruck, grown-man awe of how easy everything was.
I pulled in a lap later, shut off the engine, and looked at Baruth, sitting on the wall.
"And?" he said.
I could have told him, but it would have sounded cliché. Everything I wanted to say had already been written about some other, lesser car.
Jack grinned like an ax murderer.
"No," I said. "It's better than that."
So the legend lives up to its reputation, and the upstart matches almost every punch. We hoped this test would be close, but no one thought it would come down to tenths.
What isn't close are the philosophies—E30 as scalpel, F80 as cleaver. For a certain kind of enthusiast, the former has come to represent a platonic ideal—evocative street car, race car even pros get misty over. (Italian ace Roberto Ravaglia, who took the E30 to more wins than anyone else, called it "the best race car I ever drove.") That mix is rare in any era, but the E30 is a snapshot from a special moment, a time when major manufacturers took gutsy chances.
Just 5115 E30 M3s were sold in America, now the model's largest market. BMW undoubtedly drew lessons. The engineers found they could craft a gloriously compromised street car that would dominate on the track. The executives discovered that such projects only make financial sense in the long run, building a brand, because purists don't run the world, and uncompromised cars sell like cold toast. Which is how we arrived at the current M3, a machine that accomplishes the same task as its mercenary forebear, in a way everyone understands.
Could BMW make a car like the E30 again? Of course. Is it likely to? The world is too different. But while the E30's moment didn't last, the takeaway did: The new M3 is raw, angry, and genuinely special. And for that, we should be grateful.
Mid-Ohio Chief Instructor and former IndyCar shoe Brian Till lapped our 1987 M3 Gorup A race car and the 2015 M3 to see if modern tech beats old-school trendsetter. The two cars took different paths to remarkably similar results.