Stuck Between Two Legendary M3
The E36 BMW M3 is a great car but will always suffer in comparison to its predecessor E30 M3 and its successor E46 M3.
Images you were considered the greatest handling car of your generation. Purchased by thousands and continued the legacy of a legendary name but will always be considered the weakest link in history? Then meet the BMW E36 M3.
The BMW E36 M3 had big shoes to fill back in the middle 1990’s in the USA. BMW just released at that time, the vastly under-appreciated E30 M3. While USA enthusiasts loved the car, BMW didn’t think of bringing the next generation M3 to the USA. Only thru a hand-writing campaign brought by BMW USA, did BMW did bring over the new E36 M3. Unfortunately they brought over a neutered version of the car. While the Europeans got the original 300 hp plus car, the Americans had to do with an modified 3.0 inline-6 engine known as the S50 engine that came with only 240 hp and 225-lb feet of torque. This was a vast power reduction from the regular M3 worldwide. This was in 1995 when the E36 M3 first hit the USA shores. A year later BMW increased the displacement to 3.2 but still had the same amount of hp (at 240) but bumped up the torque to an equal 240-lb feet of torque. With a weight of over 3,000 lbs it was still a little rocket ship. So the USA did get the E36 M3, but it was considered not the real deal.
Fortunately what BWM did do was bring in many different models of the M3, so soon after the coupe was launched BMW also introduced the M3 convertible and then for the first time a 4-door sedan version. This multi-model lineup is still part of the modern M3 offerings today.
Exterior Verdict: Not a Real M
Besides the disappointment with the engine offering for the USA market, BMW did a complete turnaround from the previous E30 M3. While the E30 M3 had flared fenders, a wing, very aggressive front dam and side skirts, the E36 M3 was not much different from the standard 3-series lineup. Part of the reasoning was for cost and production. BMW didn’t want to create vastly different body styles, and add more cost to the development of the E36 M3. So BMW added a new front dam, some side skirts, a different exhaust, and added a bunch of M stickers to the exterior and called it a day. While we think the BMW E36 M3 still has a presence, its nothing compared to the E30 M3 and then the next generation BMW E46 M3 which brought back the M3’s powerful exterior cues to the bodywork.
Interior Remains the Same
As for the interior, the BMW M3 E36 had the same interior as other standard BMW 3-series. The main specialty that BMW offered was the coupe-only ‘Vadar’ Seats. Called the Vadar due to the sinister and menacing design of the seats (like a Darth Sith Lord we know), they were an instant hit. These seats were an option, and today carries extra value if you see them over the regular BMW M seats. Also note that they were not sold in the sedan or an convertible, so if you ever see Vadar seats inside one, they were brought second-hand.
The E36 M3 came with a 5-speed manual or a choice of an automatic. Quick to the point, the automatic is useless and should be avoided. The real deal is the 5-speed only. With a short shifter, the 5-speed by Getrag is wonderful and smooth to use during spirited driving.
Issues and What to Avoid
Overall the E36 M3 is a great car to own. The 1995 was OBD II while the later 1996-1999 cars were OBD II. These were the days of simplicity for BMWs. Electronics where simple, all the parts are easy to find and replace, and they make a great beginner’s car into the world of BMW sports cars. If something broke, you can pretty much fix it yourself without any special tools except for an OBD reader.
But like all BMWs, there are some weak points.
Cooling system. The cooling system in all the e36 3-series were bad, and the M3 is included. These systems will break suddenly around 60,000 miles, so if the one in your car wasn’t replaced during that time, its better to do a preventive service before you are left stranded.
Vanos. The Vanos are two pulleys in the front of the engine. Due to a bad design, the tabs at the ends of the pulleys can break and fall right into the engine – which is not good. There are many different fixes to correct the Vanos and again should be preventive.
Leaks. If you ever see an E36 M3, odds are you will see some liquid spill underneath it. The tubing in the engine bay is known to seep or spill out – this be the oil, washer fluid or brake fluid. Fear not, cause all the clamps and tubes can be replaced for minimal costs. So don’t be surprised if you look under the engine and you see something leaking on the floor. It happens to all E36 M3s.
Things to Love about the E36 M3
The BMW E36 M3, with all its inferiority compared to the European version, its still a great car. It was voted by Car & Driver in the 90’s as the best handling sports car, beating out Ferrari’s and Porsche’s of its time. With its low weight and hearty engine (240 hp/240 lb), its still an handful for most beginning drivers. The handling is what made BMWs legendary in the past. 1 setting but it would be great on the regular road, and then excellent to drive on the track. BMW knew how to set up a car in terms of handling dynamics and suspension – and the E36 M3 was proof of their prowess.
The greatest traits of the E36 M3 is its footprint. Basically BMW does not make small, light, powerful cars like the E36 M3 anymore. While the E46 M3 is considered one of the best M3s ever made, its still bigger then the E36 M3. The combination of its size, weight, handling and power makes the E36 M3 a beloved M3 by fans.
Plus BMW offered many different options for this range, so you could go with a sedan, or an convertible, with an automatic even. This BMW M3 was the first to offer an range of options to the buyer.
Because there was over 18,000 cars made, there will be a huge abundance of E36 M3s on the market. Most will have high miles, and due to the low cost of ownership – be owned by young enthusiasts who may not have taken proper car of the car, or added on numerous obnoxious exterior mods. So the good news is that its easy to find these cars, but the bad news is that it will be hard to find a complete OEM, unmolested model. And if you find one, they will tend to be the more expensive models for sale.
Prices for the E36 M3 is on the low side. The hard part is to find an unmolested, low mileage version. Those will be hard to find, and will cost a premium if for sale.
But with its combination of size, handling, and power, the E36 M3 remains one of the best M3s on the market. But due to the its spot between the E30 M3, and the E46 M3, it loses alot of points as a great M3. While not as great as the E46, its still going to be a classic in the future and the next best thing to owning a E30 M3 – whose prices have skyrocketed of late. We consider the E36 M3 a great car to buy for a 2nd car or as a track car. There are tons of parts available, both OEM and aftermarket and tons of forums to provide information on up-keep, maintenance and general questions.
Click here to see the BMW M3 E36 Video
Looking to Buy a BMW E46 M3?
Let Us Help
Sign Up and Get our Free BMW E46 M3 Buying Guide!
Thank you for subscribing.