The best of the breed that defined the sports sedan.
The BMW M3 is arguably one of the most iconic sports sedans ever made, the one that inspired the C63 AMG, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, and the Audi RS4. It’s an icon, and it’s been comprehensively dominant for decades; which is why it’s the benchmark, the vehicle against which all others are measured. With a history spanning more than 3 decades and 5 generations – soon to be 6 – there are literally dozens of special edition M3s – we counted – which made the task of picking ten of the best even more difficult. Still, we’ve tried, though we purposefully excluded special edition M4’s since that’s now a standalone model.
The USA traditionally hasn’t received many of the special edition M3s that came out – so we start this list with a US-only special model. Not to be confused with the 30 Jahre special edition, this one celebrates 30 years of the M3 in the United States. It’s a one-of-one special edition, based on the F80 M3 Competition Package and painted in a Frozen Red II livery with black accents – which harks back to the Henna Red color on the E30 M3. The interior sports a full red, white, and blue theme, with a 6-speed manual shifter between the front seats. Even the suspension is colored accordingly, with red coil springs from the M Performance catalog. An M-Performance exhaust system, carbon fiber wing, and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires complete the package that was priced at $128,635.
Of the E9X generation M3s, the garish orange GTS stood taller than the rest as an icon for the generation. Based on the E92 M3 coupe, the 4.0-liter V8 was enlarged to 4.4-liters, with power resting at 450 horsepower. 19-inch light alloy wheels were overshadowed by the luminous shade of orange that adorned the exterior of all 135 units built.
Not only was it powerful, loud, and orange, but it was lightweight too, with a carbon fiber roof, titanium exhaust silencers, lightweight interior panels, and no rear seats, air conditioning, or sound system. Consider the M3 GTS as one of the angriest M3s ever made.
While the GTS was based on the coupe, the M3 CRT – which stood for Carbon Racing Technology – took the weight-reduction battle to the E90 sedan. 67 Units of the M3 CRT were built, making use of the same 450-hp 4.4-liter V8 as the GTS, and making extensive use of carbon fiber to reduce weight by more than 150 pounds compared to the regular E90 M3. Unlike the GTS, the rear seats and other amenities remained, making it one hardcore family sedan. It was never sold in the US, but it is legal for ‘show and display use’ in 49 states, provided you don’t exceed 2,500 miles per year.
The international M3 Jahre Edition celebrates 30 years since the first M3. Just 500 units were built, based off the F80 generation M3, standard with the competition package upgrades, 20-inch alloys from the M4 GTS, adaptive M suspension, and a bump in power to 450 hp. Available with either a manual or the DCT transmission, Macao Blue and Frozen Silver were the special paint derivatives available for the special edition model.
The Jahre Edition came littered with “30 years M3” badging inside and out, and commanded a price premium of $11,000 over the standard model when it launched in 2016.
Fans of the original Need For Speed: Most Wanted will instantly recognize this one. It’s not widely known, but this was the first road-going BMW M3 to feature a V8 engine under the hood. But it wasn’t just an ordinary road-going M-car – it was a homologation special for American Le Mans Series racing, which stipulated that 100 cars needed to be sold across two continents, with 1,000 engines being built to qualify without penalties.
In road-going form, the M3 GTR’s 4.0-liter V8 developed 382 horsepower, and it featured a 6-speed manual transmission and variable locking M differential. After the 2001 race season, BMW put 10 GTRs on sale at a price of €250,000 ($310,000), though only six were produced. Three were recycled as development vehicles, with the remainder retained by BMW.
You didn’t think we’d forget the iconic E46 BMW M3 CSL? While not as rare as many on this list (1,383 CSLs were produced), it’s widely lauded as one of the greatest ever to wear the M3 badge. CSL stood for Coupe, Sport, and Lightweight, something achieved with the use of carbon fiber, lightweight body panels, no air con and stereo, and an uprated 3.2-liter inline 6 developing 360 hp. The M3 CSL lapped the Nurburgring in 7 minutes 50 seconds, despite the automated manual gearbox that polarizes opinions on whether or not the M3 CSL was actually the greatest of its generation.
BMW’s successes in DTM are widespread, but it’s the 2012 tribute M3 we highlight here. After Canadian driver, Bruno Spengler, took the DTM championship title BMW celebrated by releasing the E92 M3 DTM Champion Edition. It was a matte black coupe featuring carbon fiber aero bits, dark chrome trim, M-colored racing stripes down the roof, special decals, and matte black wheels. It featured the M Driver’s Package and Competition Package upgrades, and just 54 were ever built. Buyers were treated to driving tutelage overseen by Spengler himself, at the Nurburgring, no less.
1988 saw the E30 M3’s engine get improved power from its 2.3-liter inline 6 engine with the M3 Evolution, but in 1990, the engine got enlarged to 2.5-liters with power bumped to 238 hp. This M3 Sport Evolution edition was pretty much a touring car for road use and featured a suspension drop of 10 mm, a smaller fuel tank for weight saving, an adjustable front splitter, and a rear spoiler. Just 600 of them were made, and just about every single one is hallowed metal – true gearhead wet dream material.
This wasn’t strictly a limited edition M3, as it was never actually produced other than as a single prototype for evaluation purposes, but it’s a freaking E46 M3 wagon! If the M5 Touring was highly sought after, this is a dream for many of us, especially those with a fetish for wagons. It was simple, really, making use of an E46 3 Series Touring body with the same modifications as an E46 M3, though the rear doors had to be reworked to accommodate the bulging rear wheel arches. Power from the 3.2-liter straight six was the same 338 hp as the regular European model M3. Sadly, BMW felt this didn’t warrant a full production run.
Under pressure from BMW racers looking for a homologation M3 to rival the Porsche 911 in motor racing, BMW caved in 1995 and released the E36 M3 Lightweight. Based on the E36 M3 Coupe, the cars came without a radio, air conditioning, leather upholstery, toolkit, or sunroof. The doors were aluminum skinned, there was no under-hood insulation, and the trunk only had a carpet on the floor.
Overall, 200 lbs was shaved compared to the standard M3, and thanks to hand selection of the most powerful engines from the production line, with their ECU speed limiter removed, the M3 Lightweights were impressive performers. Alpine White was the signature color, with the BMW Motorsports flag decal on the left front and rear right corners of the car. BMW promised to build 100 units, though final build figures were never actually disclosed. It is believed 125 were made, with 116 sold to the public.