The '15 M3 comes with 425 hp. Turbos are becoming more commonplace. So a naturally aspirated straight-six making 240 hp might be thought of as old hat. But not if it's under the hood of an E36 M3. This car is a supporting wall in the house that BMW built. A house that stands for rear-drive dynamics, autobahn-blasting, and unarguable automotive class. And anyway, unless you're a track-day fiend, isn't it more fun to get close to the limits of a car like this than have something way more powerful and never get the chance to really stretch its metaphorical legs?
The E36 is the second generation of M3 and came to the United States from 1995 to 1999. Most are coupes, although sedan versions were made from 1997 (when the auto transmission option disappeared from the coupe) to 1999, while convertible versions were made from 1998 (when all versions got side airbags as standard).
It arrived with a 3.0L engine, going up to 3.2 in 1996. Horsepower stayed the same but torque bumped up from 225 lb-ft to 236. Both versions are reliable. They should see 200,000 miles on the odometer with regular maintenance and using good-quality oils. A five-speed manual is the basic transmission, with a five-speed auto option. A limited-slip differential is standard equipment, along with 17-inch alloy wheels.
It's not really worth trying to mod more power out of the engine—that would involve a lot of expense for not many gains. Likewise with the suspension. It came out of the factory with a ride that won't agitate, but the perfectly poised and balanced chassis can also provide enough feedback and finesse to make canyon roads wildly addictive.
It's best to consider aftermarket upgrades when it's time to replace worn-out factory parts. The trouble is that with the E36's ever-advancing age, a lot of parts are being worn out and it will only become more difficult to find a clean example.
Gordon Arnold and Jay MacNamee of Bavarian Autosport (bavauto.com or (800) 535-2002) have a wealth of knowledge that they have been kind enough to share with us. Let's look at the '95 model year first.
These cars "do not employ OBDII engine management. This may be important if modifications are planned that could cause problems with OBDII compliance." They also "use standard E30/E36 geometry on the front control arms along with offset control arm bushings." Bavarian Autosport says it's possible to use Meyle heavy-duty standard E36 control arms that have no rubber in the outer ball joints as alternatives to the OE M3 parts.
The differential ratio of manual-trans '95 models is 3.15:1. It's 3.23:1 for all other years (for slightly better acceleration) and all automatic versions. Our Bavarian specialists also have some general observations: look for rust staining and/or bubbling in all areas, but especially around the trunk, rear quarter panels, rocker panels, jack points, and front antiroll bar mountings.
When sniffing around under the hood, pay attention to: VANOS rattle (the sound varies with engine speed and tends to go away at higher revs); a tapping sound at idle could be lifters in need of adjustment; the expansion tank overflow hose is only held in place by plastic clips that can break and let the hose come into contact with the fan. And it's never good when something hits the fan.
Interior-wise, Arnold warns us that de-lamination occurs with the front door panels and the headliner. Pixels in the instrument binnacle go AWOL because of faults in the ribbon cable between the circuit board and the display. The digital climate control units in '96 to '99 models have a tendency to fail. Check the smooth operation of the one-touch windows because there might be guide track friction or a weak motor. Water in the passenger footwell could signal clogged cowl cavity drains, which might even lead to water getting into the ECU.
Our research has also found that the front end can easily be afflicted by stone chips and restoring the paintwork could run to a few thousand bucks. This means really foggy headlamp lenses as well. European versions have glass lenses that are better. If you're replacing them, why not go for a xenon upgrade? Inspect the windshield, too. Scraped alloy wheels are another way to knock down the asking price—and make sure the spare is part of the set. Incidentally, the driveline shares a lot of components with the E36 325i.
Other things to look out for and consider replacing are the water pump (actually, the whole cooling system is worth putting under the microscope), rear shock mounts (adding reinforcement plates will be a good move), rear trailing arm bushings, driveline mounts, and power steering fluid leaks. Arnold and MacNamee recommend compiling a checklist prior to viewing any potential purchase so nothing gets overlooked.
A '97 coupe in good condition bought from a private party is blue-booked at $4,178. Expect to pay at least a couple grand more in getting something like that into proper shape—if you can find one. The cheapest example we unearthed on a major classifieds site was a '99 convertible with an asking price of $14,000.
The thing about an M3 is that it's the archetypal driver's car. Most examples will have been driven, probably quite hard from time to time. If a seller says "one careful lady owner," then you're going to need more salt than a pinch. So it's the luck of the draw regarding how mechanically sympathetic and diligent the previous owners have been. Use a mixture of common sense, instinct, and a specialist inspection, and the odds will be stacked in your favor.
Profound thanks to Gordon Arnold and Jay MacNamee at Bavarian Autosport (bavauto.com).