The first generation M3 was essentially a racing car tamed for road use. Offered in the U.S. from 1988 through 1991, it was based on the then-current 3 Series generation (internal platform designation E30) and was a winged, spoilered 2-door sedan powered by a rip-snortin’ BMW M 4-cylinder engine of 2.3 liters and 192 hp. This was a full-on BMW M engine, with 4 valves per cylinder at a time when no regular-production BMW had more than 2; an individual throttle for each cylinder; and other racing-style engineering finery. That M3 certainly wasn’t for everyone, but it was a hearty and competent sporting machine; even today it has a devoted following.
The 2nd-generation M3 is better known. Based on the later E36 3 Series and making its debut for 1995, this M3 had a mission beyond BMW M’s usual dedication to great performance and handling: to bring BMW M and its great driving machines to a wider spectrum of U.S. buyers.
This was accomplished by powering the M3 not with a traditional, highly elaborate BMW M engine, but rather with a specially developed version of now-standard BMW practice: an inline 6-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts, 4 valves per cylinder and a single throttle. Taking this approach, BMW M created an engine of 3.0 liters and a solid 240 horsepower; in ’96 the engine grew to 3.2 liters and delivered more torque. Within the range of speeds American drivers experienced, this engine provided thrilling performance, yet cost thousands less to produce. The rest of the car was very much the same M3 that Europeans could buy.