The BMW M3 E36 buying guide – The last affordable M car

BMW M3 E36

The BMW M3 E36 is finally getting the recognition it always deserved.

Constantly being compared to a legend is something the E36 M3 and Rubens Barrichello both have in common. Aside from being extremely frustrating, it can often obscure the inherent talents of the hapless runner-up.

In the case of the E36 M models, the lukewarm reception stemmed from the more luxurious positioning of the new car. Whereas the E30 M3 was an uncompromising sports car for the road, the bigger and heavier six-cylinder replacement was seen as a move by BMW to broaden the financially lucrative M-car appeal by watering down its sporting DNA.

Released in 1992 in coupé form with a 3.0-litre 282bhp straight-six under its bonnet, the new M3 was a rather different sort of car to its boxy four-cylinder predecessor. Safety regulations and the continuous drive to move upmarket necessitated a heavier and more luxurious vehicle. Even so, the key aspects of what made an M car great were still the focal points of the E36 M3.

Straight line performance was now approaching junior supercar levels and continuous improvements to engines and chassis, ensured the E36 M3 remained popular throughout production.

Convertible and sedan body styles were introduced soon after the coupé launched. Updates included a 316bhp 3.2-litre engine and a six-speed manual transmission in 1995. An SMG sequential manual gearbox was also offered.

US spec cars differed in a number of areas to their European counterparts. Most notably, the US spec received the less powerful 3.0-litre S50B30US engine which produced 243bhp. An S52 3.2-litre version arrived in 1995 with the same power figure and a bit more torque. An automatic gearbox was optional on US cars. Not many have been imported into the UK but it is worth being aware of the differences.

BMW M3 Engine and gearbox

Engines can tick at idle and this is normal. However, a grumbly, rough sound may indicate Vanos issues which is not uncommon, especially if oil service intervals have not been adhered to. Leaking solenoid seals are generally the culprit and can be replaced cost effectively at a specialist.

The cooling system is a known problem area and water pumps tend to require replacement every 60,000 miles. Coolant expansion tanks can rupture so it is best to get the system pressure tested.

Manual gearboxes can suffer from worn second gear synchros and SMG boxes will pop out of gear if the hydraulic fluid levels are too low. Hydraulic clutch pipes tend to expand leading to delayed clutch action, replacement pipes are easy to source.

BMW M3 e36 Suspension and brakes

If the steering has a lot of play and noises can be heard when turning at low speeds, the lower control arm bushes may require replacing.

Rear shock absorber mounts and trailing arm bushes wear out and can be diagnosed by a wallowy or unstable rear end through mid to high speed corners. Mounts are easy to replace but the trailing arm bushes require specialised tools to fit.

Original exhaust systems are very expensive OEM items and most cars will have had aftermarket versions fitted.

BMW M3 E36 Bodywork and interior

Rust tends not to be a major issue but water leakage past the boot seals can collect in the spare wheel well. This combined with leaking battery acid from the boot mounted battery, can badly corrode this area.

Glovebox lids can start to sag and the leather trim on the door cards may peel away with age, but the interior is generally hard-wearing.

Parts and spares are readily available from specialists as well as main dealers. Certain M-specific trim items and smaller parts may require a bit of searching for, but most switches and buttons are shared with the rest of the E36 range.

Convertible tops can shrink, while the plastic rear window will discolour over time; there are a number of aftermarket specialists out there to help. The top mechanism tends to be reliable but a flat battery may require a reset.

Model History of the BMW M3 E36

1992:   E36 M3 coupé introduced with 282bhp 3.0-litre straight-six engine

1994:   M3 GT introduced as a homologated racing special. 356 units built all in British racing green for the UK market

Convertible and saloon body styles introduced

1995:   M3 coupé and sedan upgraded to 316bhp 3.2-litre engines

Face lift included twin airbags, digital climate control and clear indicator lenses

six-speed manual and optional SMG gearboxes replace five-speed manual

M3 Lightweight built in very limited numbers available only in white. Weight saving measures reduce weight by 90kgs

1996:   Convertible models receive face lifted changes

1997:   Saloon ceases production with over 12,600 built

1998:   Coupé ceases production with over 46,500 built

1999:   Last E36 M3 convertible rolls off the production line with a total of over 71,000 of all body styles manufactured

A number of country specific special edition models as well as a US only detuned M3 were built with most of these models not being made available in the UK

Which BMW M3 E36 to buy

While the E36 M3 may have been considered a bit too soft and luxurious when new, it was subtly honed into a far sharper driving tool during production. Even early models have an energy and immersiveness to them that is absent in most modern cars.

Pristine early coupés and GTs command the highest prices, but useable well-maintained examples are still in what most would consider the ‘affordable’ category. The manual coupés (especially in facelifted 3.2-litre Evo form), are the ones to have and second hand values reflect this. In fact, some models are now commanding prices that used to be the preserve of clean E46 M3s.

The sedan adds an extra level of practicality and some feel their handling balance is better than the coupé. Convertibles are great for sunny days, but the added weight of the folding roof and loss of chassis rigidity dampens the dynamics a bit. Be very wary of abused or overly modified cars as well as frequently tracked examples.

It may never live up to the legend of the very first M3, but there is a lot to like about the second-generation M car. The E36 is still quick and it offers a level of useability that makes it a viable daily driver too. Prices are slowly rising for these underrated M cars and if you get the right one you may even have an appreciating classic in the years to come.


3.0-litre inline-six

Power:                        282bhp

Top speed:                 155mph (limited)

0-60mph:                    5.4sec

Economy:                   21.7mpg


3.2-litre inline-six

Power:                        316bhp

Top speed:                 155mph (limited)

0-60mph:                    5.3sec

Economy:                   20mpg

Text John Tallodi  Photos BMW/Newspress

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