Every Dog Has Its Day
The Most Hated BMW M3 Is Your Best Bet at Affordable German Performance
It’s widely known that of all the BMW M3 generations the first — the E30 — is the most beloved. The E46 (third generation) isn’t far behind; it’s followed by the fourth, then probably the fifth. What is incredibly clear, if you couldn’t tell from the glaring omission, is the second generation M3 (E36) is the black sheep of the family. Despite being faster and more powerful than the E30, the follow-up generation seemed tame by comparison. There were no flared wheel arches, the interior and its materials looked and felt downmarket. The E36 was seen as a way to make the M3 more affordable and more viable for BMW.
Whether that was BMW’s real motive and intention is arguable. What is accepted as fact is that the E36 carried one of the best handling chassis of the decade. The interior might draw out some critics, but if you’re driving this car like it was meant to be driven, you won’t be focusing on the interior. This 1997 BMW M3 certainly has some faults all its own; regardless, this might be your best bet at affordable German performance.
What We Like: Right out of the gate, conceding this particular M3 was in an accident is important. The airbags were deployed, but the damaged front bumper, fenders, headlamps, grille, radiator and air conditioning condenser were all replaced. And it should also be noted even though there are only 63,000 miles on this example, the previous owner tracked the car regularly. “The seller recommends replacement of both rear tires due to wear,” in the description should say it all. Now, with those caveats out of the way, as considerable as they may be, if you don’t treat this car like it’s destined for a blue ribbon at a car show (because it isn’t), you’ll thoroughly enjoy your time in it.
Being the M3 known for looking and feeling a little less upscale than all the other M3s, the E36 should be driven and driven often. In the same way an old off-roader with dents, scratches and other beauty marks is always going to be the more fun car because you don’t care as much, this E36 is the sports car equivalent. Yes, it has faults, but don’t we all?
From the Seller: “This 1997 BMW M3 is finished in Estoril Blue with a Modena leather interior and powered by an S52 inline-six displacing 3.2 liters and mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. Modifications include adjustable Koni shocks and struts, Hawk brake pads, polyurethane bushings and more. Service in the last three years included accident repair and replacement of suspension, cooling and steering components as well as a new battery, fluids, and alignment.”
Watch Out For: The main annoyance with an M3 of this vintage isn’t really any single repair cost getting too expensive (although replacement catalytic converters can list for over $5,000), but a lot of little things adding up. Power steering hoses are a popular candidate for failure and tend to leak on E36 M3s, but those are relatively simple and cheap to replace.
Original Review: “From as low as 2500 rpm, our vivid Dakar-yellow M3 pulled like a turbo car all the way to its engine limiter at 6800 rpm or 6500 rpm, depending on which gear it was in. The engine-management system gives you 6800 in the first two gears, then 6500 in the next two, with a 137 mph cutoff in top. Exactly why our car curtails its rush toward what is surely a 145-to-150-mph top speed is beyond our understanding, although the safety watchdogs are probably scandalized by the 137-mph figure anyway.” — Car and Driver
Alternatives: There should be no surprise here. The rivalry BMW has with Mercedes and Audi is almost as old as time (in car-years, at least). In 1997 Mercedes touted its 302-horsepower, V8-powered C43 AMG against the BMW, but also the Audi RS4 with its 240-horsepower V6 mated to Quattro AWD.