BMW M Evolution, Part 4: The Next M3 Was a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

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With an inline six engine, the second generation M3 increased its strength but in the U.S. it was sold with a weaker engine.

In 1990, BMW launched a new 3 Series based on the E36 platform. Two years later the series was complemented with the M3. This version wasn't as charismatic as its predecessor, however. Its appearance was more user friendly, with rounded edges rather than sharp ones; its engine now in the classic BMW inline six configuration. Gone were the idiosyncratic elements that bequeathed the 1st generation its character and with it the high revving power unit.

BMW also began its unstoppable march towards acceptance by the masses as a luxury car brand. The first E36 M3 was introduced as a coupe version only. The convertible and four-door sedan were added to the lineup in 1994, the latest one as a stopgap in the absence of the M5 for a few years during the mid-90s. However, despite the effort to create a more friendly and civilized car, the emphasis on the engine remained as before, as BMW engineers tried to squeeze out every ounce of horsepower. The first E36 M3 series was propelled by a 3.0-liter engine generating 286hp and 236 lb-ft at 3600 rpm.

The engine was also equipped with an advanced VANOS system (for variable valve timing). This allowed the opening point of the inlet valves to be adjusted to the engine speed and load, and so torque, power and consumption could be optimized simultaneously. That engine had the highest specific output, 97hp per liter of any natural aspirated engine and the 80lb-ft per liter was an impressive figure as well. The coupe's sprint to 62 mph lasted just 6.0 seconds; top speed was electronically limited to 155 mph. The increase in engine performance also demanded parallel enhancements to the chassis and its ancillary systems.

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Low profile 17-inch wheels combined with a wide tread surface required an innovative approach to develop a suspension system that would soften the harsh ride expected from such tires. A key element in achieving that was a single-joint spring strut front axle with reinforced spring plates and axle knuckles. The centrally guided rear axle reduced body movements when driving off and braking. The dampers and anti-roll bars also had to be tuned more tautly. The changes lowered the bodywork by 31 millimeters compared to the 3 Series Coupe. The adhesion limit was reached at a lateral acceleration of 0.8g.

A powerful braking system was equipped with a generously dimensioned inner-vented swing-caliper front and rear disc brakes specifically tailor made to the M3 and combined with a modern ABS system. At a speed of 62 mph, the car only needed 2.8 seconds or 35 meters to make a complete stop. Braking from 124 mph was possible in less than 6.0 seconds. A unique mirror housing was attached by two wing-shaped struts to keep drag to a minimum. A 325hp, 2866 lbs. M3-based racing car made its debut in April 1993. It was driven by Johnny Cecotto and Kris Nissen, the former ultimately to win at the end of the series.

However, the E36 M3's racing career was short-lived because of regulation changes. The American market M3 also changed, and for the worse, because of an engine regulatory requirement. The car's engine was taken from a BMW 525i, bored out to 3.0-liters and generated modest a 244hp and a top speed of 137 mph. The launch of the four-door sedan variant was another stroke of genius, at least at a commercial level, since it made sense to thousands more customers to purchase an M3. In spring 1995, BMW M GmbH introduced M3 GT Coupe for homologation.

This car was also intended to compete on the race track in the IMSA GT Series in the U.S. Engine output was raised to 295hp and acceleration to 62 mph was shortened to 5.9 seconds. The aerodynamic design boasted striking spoilers at front and rear and the front spoiler's angle could also be adjusted from the cockpit. That version was available only in British Racing Green color. A larger 3.2-liter engine was introduced in 1995, though it retained the original 6-cylinder inline configuration. Thanks to new computing and electronic capabilities, torque rose to 258 lb-ft. at 3250 rpm and output increased to 321hp at 7,400 rpm.

Courtesy of BMWs

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