The M3 lineage didn't expire with the conclusion of the E46 body style in 2006, that's an undeniable fact. The E30 and then the E46 together make up the first and final books of the trilogy that best exemplify what an M3 should be is far more subjective.
But true, nonetheless.
Like so many celebrated cars before it, the 1986 e30 M3 was built to satisfy touring-car racing homologation requirements. With its S14 four-cylinder engine that could spin past 7,000 rpm right from the factory and its impeccable handling prowess, it was a motorsports tool in its purest form and, as it happened, one that you could actually own. More than a decade later, the E46 had taken all the lessons from the first two generations and combined them with a burgeoning horsepower race, culminating into a more modernized, more monsterous and, arguably, more capable M3.
If there's an underlying difference between the two, it's that BMW's initial M3 had to be built so that the company could go racing. The E46 M3, however, was built to sell cars; racing them was an afterthought, albeit one that's since come naturally for the third-generation model. The bridge between the e30 and e46 is the currently underappreciated e36, built from 1992 until 1999. A great M-car in its own right, but the focus of another story.
Tony Jackson scoured the states for the right E46 M3 derivative. He wanted something clean and unmolested by tuners, ironic really. Crack open the coupe's doors, you notice both have been partially gutted and lightweight plastic panels he's fashioned himself, replace the stock door cards. Then, consider the carpeting that isn't there, the Autopower roll bar, and the rear devoid of its seats, and understanding why he trekked cross-country for the most impeccable M3 he could find doesn't make a whole lot of sense. However, if you know the amount of time Jackson's spent racing a string of Japanese sub-compacts prior to the M3, as well as the E46's innate disposition to do the same, it's easy to understand how any, even such a well-preserved example of BMW's archetype coupe could end up in the unabashedly flogged condition that it has.
The E30 M3 doesn't make such racing-induced temptations any easier to control. Often praised as the most racetrack-suited M3 ever, the first-generation M3 is just as much race car as it is street car, which, along with its marginally exorbitant price tag for its time, contributed to its poor sales performance when new. Luis Costa's, however—an early North American production model that was among the first 200 ever made for this market—leans more toward the former. Its race car tendencies can be blamed on Costa's longtime friend and the car's quasi caretaker, Fabryce Kutyba, whose extensive background racing BMWs and his position as Momo USA's sales director have both, in part, led to the car's current state.
Jackson's E46 was pristine when he bought it and that Costa's E30 is one of fewer than 19,000 ever made; those thoughts slip away once coddled in either cars' MOMO racing bucket. There collectible status is of little concern to these owners as nowadays, both cars spend more time on the racetrack than they do anyplace else. On unrestricted ribbons of asphalt is exactly where you've got to be to appreciate things like the E46's prototype Eibach suspension of which Jackson's position as brand manager for the suspension manufacturer's played a pivotal role for the car. The E30's equally impressive underneath; here, Kutyba revised the M3's suspension geometry to mimic and pay homage to the very Group A race cars that the E30 M3 was mass-produced to appease.
BMW's success in Formula One and its ultimate return to touring car racing in the mid-'80s didn't just lead to the E30 M3 but to a discernible pedigree that would last for at least two more generations, most notably of which can be found underneath the hood. It's there where the company strayed from its turbocharged successes and crafted the E30's four-cylinder S14 engine. It's fed by individual throttle plates sprouting from a shortened version of the legendary M1's head which is sitting atop the short block derived from the engine used in Brabham-BMW's earlier Formula One efforts. Costa's is largely untouched, but Kutyba has seen to it that the engine's main and rod bearings as well as its oil pump have been replaced in order to ward off potential trouble, of which he says is likely as these engines age.
A decade, and a heavier M3, led to the E46's inline-six-cylinder engine that's gone on to become synonymous with the M3 badge. Like the 197hp S14 engine, the E46 M3's naturally aspirated, 333hp S54 engine requires little to render it track-ready. Which is why Jackson limited modifications to an AFE Power intake system and header, BimmerWorld exhaust system, and a re-mapped ECU by way of TTFS.
According to Jackson, the E46's must-do list is a short one and starts with correcting the car's tendency to understeer, of which a square setup of equal-sized wheels and tires are placed front and rear alleviate much of this. The bevy of Eibach and Ground Control alignment components and anti-sway bars make it that much better, and the 400 or so pounds he's ditched from the chassis help level the playing field when pitting it against the lighter-weight E30.
Comparing BMW's inaugural M3 with the widely lauded E46 rendition isn't exactly fair. For daily driving, the E46 version wins. It's got the relative comfort, the amenities, the airbags, and the nanny controls that the 21st century requires. Determining which one is better suited for the racetrack isn't as easy, either, and is where both cars prove to be scores apart from one another. Less-experienced drivers will appreciate the E46's anti-lock brakes, stability control, and ability to forgive the occasional rookie move. The E30 exists because of BMW's racing efforts and that rawness is evident once behind the wheel. Tame it, and it will reward you.
The E46 isn't the final word on M3s. It is, however, the last in a long line of M3s and naturally aspirated inline engines that the company spent nearly 25 years perfecting. It's also, perhaps, just as similar to the iconic E30 M3 as it is different.