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BMW M3 E36: Buying guide and review (1992-1998)

BMW M3 E36: Buying guide and review (1992-1998) Classic and Performance Car
BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36
The second generation BMW M3 was the equivalent of a slightly difficult follow-up to a brilliant breakthrough album. With the E30 M3 having received praise from all quarters for its dynamic abilities as well as motorsport success, its larger more luxuriously positioned replacement was always going to have its work cut out to convince buyers that it too shared the same sporting genes.
 
Released in 1992 with a 282bhp straight six under its bonnet, the new M3 was a different beast. Safety regulations and the continuous drive to move upmarket meant that the new car was heavier and more luxurious than its predecessor. It was also considerably more powerful, and significant work on the suspension turned it into one of the best handling sports cars of its generation.
 
Straight line performance was now approaching junior supercar levels and continuous improvements to engines and chassis as well as the introduction of more body styles ensured that the E36 M3 remained popular throughout production. While not as coveted as some of the other M3s from the past, these cars are rising in popularity and there is little doubt that well looked after examples will follow in the footsteps of the highly collectable E30 M3.
 
Which one to buy?
 
The E36 M3 was initially available in coupe form, with convertible and saloon body styles following soon after. Early models had five-speed gearboxes and came with a 3.0-litre 282bhp engine. Facelift models introduced at the end of 1995 brought in a larger 3.2-litre 316bhp engine and the option of a six-speed manual or SMG sequential manual gearbox. Being a first generation unit, the SMG can be jerky for town use, and the manual versions are generally more preferable from a reliability and usability point of view.
 
US-spec cars were detuned versions of their European counterparts, with a 243bhp 3-litre engine and the option of an automatic gearbox.
 
The manual coupes, especially in face lifted 3.2-litre Evo form are the ones to have, and second hand values reflect this. The rare saloons do add an extra level of practicality, and the convertibles are great for sunny days. however the added complexity of the folding roof mechanism can add to the running costs. Be very wary of abused or overly modified cars as restoring them can be an expensive proposition.
 
Performance and specs
 
1994 M3 3.0 Coupe
Engine 2996cc, 24valve DOHC I6 
Power 282bhp @ 7000rpm 
Torque 236lb ft @ 3600rpm
Top speed 155mph (limited)
0-60mph 5.4 seconds 
Fuel consumption 21.7 mpg 
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Insurance group 20
 
Dimensions and weight 
 
1994 M3 3.0 Coupe
Wheelbase 2700mm
Length 4433mm
Width 1710mm
Height 1335mm
Weight 1460kg
 
Common problems
 
• There are a huge number of specialists that specialise in M3s, with parts and spares are readily available. Certain M specific trim items and smaller parts may require a bit of searching for, and can be very expensive.

• Engines can tick at idle and this is normal, however a grumbly, rough sound may indicate Vanos issues. This is sadly not uncommon, especially if frequent oil services have not been adhered to. Leaking solenoid seals are generally the culprit with Vanos units, and can be replaced cost effectively at a specialist.

• Rear shock 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 however the trailing arm bushes require specialised tools to fit.

• 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.

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

• Manual gearboxes can suffer from worn second gear synchros while 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.

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

• Rust tends not to be a major issue however water leaking past the boot seals can collect in the spare wheel well and this combined with leaking acid from the boot mounted battery can badly corrode this area.
 
Model history

1992: E36 M3 coupe introduced with 282bhp 3-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 coupe and sedan upgraded to 316bhp 3.2 litre engines. Facelift included twin airbags, digital climate control and clear indicator lenses. Six-speed manual and optional SMG gearboxes replaces five-speed manual. M3 Lightweight built in very limited numbers available only in white, with weight saving measures reducing weight by 90kg. 
1996: Convertible models receive face lifted changes
1997: Saloon ceases production with over 12,600 built
1998: Coupe 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.
 
Owners clubs, forums and websites
 
• forums.m3cutters.co.uk
• www.bmwcarclubgb.uk
• www.m3forum.com
 
Summary and prices
 
Pristine early coupes and GTs command the highest prices with some trading for up to £25,000. This is the exception rather than the rule and useable well maintained examples range between £5000 and £7000. 
A fully documented service history is essential though, as these cars tend to lead harder lives than most. One of the best handling cars of the ‘90s with the now legendary straight-six engines, the E36 M3 added luxury and practicality into the mix which was to become the way for M cars that followed. Prices are about as low as they will get for these underrated cars and if you get the right one you may even have an appreciating classic in the years to come.

Words: John Tallodi
BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36 BMW M3 E36
Last updated: 11th Dec 2015
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