It may have just looked like a hotted-up version of an E30 BMW
3 Series, but the original BMW M3 was nothing less than a track car in road-legal form. It existed only to homologate its racing version into Group A competition and came not only with a bespoke racing motor but its own body, completely different suspension, brakes and a Getrag gearbox with its trademark dog-leg five-speed layout.
The four-cylinder engine displaced 2.3 litres and generated 197bhp, giving a specific output better than that of any production Ferrari on sale at the time of its launch in 1986.
Spool forward 30 years and even a diesel-powered two-litre 3 Series has a better specific output and, despite enormous weight gain, is capable of staying within sight of the old M3 off the line: for that, thank an even more gigantic increase in torque. Flat out, there is not a single mile per hour between them. So, in bald terms, BMW’s everyday meat and two veg, top-selling motorway muncher is now nearly as quick as one of its finest, race-bred, bespoke and coveted performance cars of three decades ago.
Actually, although the figures do not reflect it, a modern 3 Series 320d actually feels quicker than an old M3 and, yes, part of me is sad to say it. It’s that torque again, not just the amount but the fact it’s all there at 1750rpm, at which point the M3 has just opened its eyes, swung its legs out of bed and is looking for its slippers. It really wants to be at 4500rpm before it’s up and running, at which engine speed the 320d is already wondering why you’ve not changed up. In the M3, it’s not a question that needs an answer: in deference to the car’s age, I’m not about to go prodding about north of 7000rpm, but I remember well that these brilliant little BMW Motorsport engines go on sounding happier and happier until, just as you think it’s really getting into its stride, it hits the rev limiter.
But even over a lap of a quick track, I wouldn't back the old M3 over the new 320d. Maybe if you put the M3 on modern rubber, it’s geometrically optimised suspension would combine with its relative lack of heft to allow it to keep up with the younger car, but I doubt it: the 320d not only has the mid-range punch but also the brakes and, on a high-speed track, aerodynamic efficiency that I expect would let it retain the upper hand.
Except for this: drive the 320d around a quick track and you will emerge impressed at how fast, secure and able a car is in an environment for which it was not remotely designed. But doing the same in the M3 is an experience of an entirely different calibre, which is where technically the quicker of the two fast becomes an irrelevance. It’s
like bumping into your best friend for the first time since emigrating
30 years ago, going to the pub and realising you still both want the same things, laugh at the same jokes and remain itching for adventure. You pick up where you last left off. There’s no need to remember to pull back instead of push forward to get first gear: your hand just instinctively does it. And then, when you’re out there, slithering around together, feeling that perfectly weighed and geared steering wheel writhing gently in your hands, you remember exactly why this M3 will always be a performance car icon, and the 320d always an effective, efficient device for doing a rather boring job.