This week, Doug DeMuro reviewed a 1996 E36 BMW M3 that, coincidentally, was also being sold on his website. To most, that’s just another old car, not even the most interesting thing to come out of the 1990s. However, he argues that the European-spec E36 M3 is way better than the American model, and that’s a whole new can of worms.
In his words, “The U.S. model had significantly less power than European versions of this car. In the States, we only got 240 horsepower in our E36 M3. But in Europe, originally, they had a 3.0-liter six-cylinder with 285 horsepower and later that was boosted to a 3.2-liter six-cylinder with 320 horsepower.”
That’s what’s in this particular E36 M3, a 3.2-liter with about 80 horsepower more. But that’s less than half the story, which is surprising, considering this review video is on the long side at 24 minutes.
On paper, sure, more power is better. But Doug says the 3.2-liter is the engine to have. However, it’s also really expensive to repair and way more complicated than its U.S.-spec counterpart. So you’re about to spend $40,000 on a ticking time bomb, which is only smart if you want to flip the car, not drive it.
Without sales in America, many cars wouldn’t have survived out of the 1990s. And the M3 is thriving today precisely because it used the “wrong engine.” Specifically, a 1995 M3 used the M50 engine from 325i, bored to 3 liters and fitted with sports cams, whereas the European models had literal race car tech: an independent-throttle-body cylinder head taken from the McLaren F1.
E36 M3: Spot the difference
This simpler engine made the M3 cheaper, at about $3000 more than the 325i, and it was a huge sales success. BMW sold three times as many coupes as it expected, and the North American division even managed to convince Germany to make a 4-door M3 sedan. That’s right, without the “wrong engine”, the M3 would be just another rare homologation special and not the hero of the sports sedan segment.
The modifications on the 325i engine were done at BMW M, and because of the torque, the M3 was miles faster than a standard 3 Series, even with just 240 horsepower. And because the chassis was the same one they sold in Germany, this became one of the best-handling sports cars you could buy.
Even though he whines about the headlights and the 6-speed manual of the Euro-spec car, Doug does admit that the E36 BMW M3 was successful in America simply because it was cheap. And after that, this became an important market for BMW M cars.
But I have to admit, that the 1996 BMW M3 is beautiful enough to make me regret all my life choices. The front bumper has a simplistic elegance to it, and seeing one with all the right factory trim is such a special occasion.
Unlike a modern BMW car, this doesn’t come with a lot of M badges, and the simple exhaust muffler is intimately set to one side of the car. The seats are pretty funny too: manual adjustment and a trippy seat fabric pattern that reminds me of public transportation. Remember that this wasn’t a luxury car back in the day.