Since its inception, the BMW M3 has effectively defined the modern sport sedan. Based on the conventional 3 Series, but with performance upgrades and modifications performed at the factory by BMW M, the M3 has long punched above its weight in terms of challenging more expensive and less practical competitors from manufacturers the world over. As of 2020, with the introduction of the G80 M3, the nameplate is now available in its sixth generation, and each has its pros and cons.
But what if you had to rank them? The E30 M3 was the first, and set the tone for what was to follow, but it was also an initial commercial failure, and proved difficult for dealers to sell when new. Nevertheless, a good, clean example will cost you something in the neighborhood of six figures these days, even though the the S14 engine, for all its glory, only produces around 200 horsepower. The E36 was a revolution, leaping into the modern era and bringing exceptional steering, handling, and balance with it. They were also designed using what was then cutting-edge computer software, but the underlying model also came about during BMW’s first big push for sustainability, and they contain more than 350 pounds of plastic because the cars had to be 80% recyclable—today, they’re the cheapest of the bunch.
The E46 perfected the formula first laid out by the E36, and occupies a sweet spot in terms of having a classic, analog driving experience in a small, balanced package while still being a relatively modern car. We could also write an entire series of articles dedicated to the S54 engine, the final naturally-aspirated inline six from BMW M, but the E46 isn’t without its own set of mechanical problems, either. The E92 (and E90 and E93, if you want to get pedantic) was also exceptional, with an atmospheric V8 that revs to 8,450 rpm, crowd-pleasing looks, and great driving dynamics, but they need to be revved in order to move, and once again, keeping the engine happy over the long term can be a temperamental experience. Much like the E36, the F80 represents a transition to a new era, with fresh design language and the first turbocharged engine of any architecture in an M3. The F80 M3’s performance speaks for itself, but like nearly every nameplate that has survived more than a few generations, they’re also significantly larger and heavier than the M3s of yesteryear.
What about the G80? For many of us, it’s simply too soon to tell, with long term reliability still unknown and some of the most controversial and polarizing design language ever applied to a BMW. Ask someone who has driven one, however, and they’ll confirm just how sharp and capable the model is, even though it gained additional weight and volume over the F80. The court of public opinion is also still out for deliberation in terms of valuation, but the G80 M3 has the potential to be a very special model in the pantheon of BMW.
In a recent video, automotive YouTuber and online car auction proprietor Doug DeMuro ranks every generation of the M3 from worst to best, and the final order may surprise you. In addition to having driven and reviewed every generation of M3, DeMuro has also owned an E36 M3 sedan, and provides unique perspective on what makes each model—and the entire lineage—compelling within the automotive landscape.
We won’t spoil DeMuro’s final M3 ranking order, but we’re very curious to know if you agree with his impressions of the various generations, and how you rank the six generations of M3.—Alex Tock
[Photo courtesy BMW AG. Video courtesy Doug DeMuro on YouTube.]