The first-gen M3 proves to be an even more delightful drive than its modern-day successor.

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The first-gen M3 proves to be an even more delightful drive than its modern-day successor. 
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ASK a petrolhead to name his favourite sports cars and you can be sure that a BMW M3 is on his list. 

To understand what makes the M3 so compelling is to understand what makes enthusiasts tick. 

When BMW first introduced the M3 in 1986, the car immediately took the automotive world by storm. 

With its responsive motor and precise handling, the coupe is a blast to drive. It is equally at home on both the racetrack and regular roads, making it suitable for everyday use. 

Indeed, the M division even produced four prototype M3 variants (see box story Four Of A Kind) that would’ve enthralled enthusiasts seeking both performance and practicality – had they gone into production. 

The current M3, which only comes in saloon form, is the most powerful one to date. Packing a turbocharged 3-litre inline-6 with 431bhp and 550Nm, and a century sprint time of around 4 seconds, the M3 is devastatingly quick. 

It’s also amazingly adaptable. You can adjust the dampers’ stiff ness levels, the powertrain’s responsiveness and even the weight of the steering to match whether you’re feeling frisky or lazy. 

Driven in “blitzkrieg” mode, the M3 will carve a line through corners with laser-like precision and leave lesser cars in its dust while blasting a sonorous, hair- raising soundtrack through its tailpipes.

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What I don’t enjoy about the latest M3, however, is how easy it is to drive fast. With its rapid-shifting 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox, you don’t even have to think to access its performance. 

It’s a totally diff erent story when in a first-gen M3. 

As I settled into the driver’s seat, the first thing that struck me is how spartan the cockpit is compared to the current model. 

There are fewer buttons in the old M3, and there’s no iDrive system to learn. The hi-fi system is a single-DIN unit equipped with a cassette player. 

The dashboard is angled more towards the driver, and the steering wheel’s diameter is larger than the new M3’s as well. 

I love the old M3’s slim A- and C-pillars. Perhaps they make the car less safe in a crash, but they do wonders for all-round visibility. 

Shifting into neutral, I twist the key, and the moment the motor roared to life, I knew that I’m in for a treat. 


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The clutch pedal is surprisingly light and its travel length is reasonable. Even the car’s 5-speed dog-leg gearbox is acceptable – my only gripe is the tremendous eff ort it takes to engage first gear. 

As I start to pick up speed, I become aware of just how linear the old M3’s performance is. The coupe’s naturally aspirated 2.3-litre 4-cylinder thrives on revs – keep it boiling close to the 5000rpm mark and you’ll make good progress.

With 195bhp and 230Nm, the first-gen M3 isn’t as big on power as its modern- day successor. Flat out, it takes around 7 seconds to go from zero to 100km/h. 

However, it is a very involving sports car to drive. 

You’ve got to plan your braking, gearchanges and turn-in, especially when you’re tackling twisty mountain roads. 

Getting all of these things right in a first-gen M3 is so much more rewarding because of how much feel there is. For instance, the coupe doesn’t have a drive-by-wire throttle. When I stepped on the accelerator pedal, I could actually feel a cable and spring working.

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The harder I pushed, the more tactile feedback I received. The M3 hummed, roared and vibrated, simultaneously filling and titillating my senses. 

The old M3 is amazingly pliant, too. There’s a moderate amount of lean and body roll, but there’s also plenty of grip from the tyres and lots of feedback from the helm. 

After I had established a rhythm with the car (the dog-leg gearbox took some getting used to), I kept wishing that the winding roads around the German countryside would never end. 

If you’re a petrolhead who yearns for an M3, the current model will more than satisfy your need for speed. It is quick, easy to drive and filled with bells and whistles. 

But if your main concerns are characteristics such as driver involvement, feel and feedback, then you’re an old-school enthusiast. And you’ll want the magic of a first-gen M3. 


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