The iconic E90 M3. Let's start with what you already know. It's a big, fat, heavy barge of a car compared to the E46. It's a torqueless, wasteful, barbarian troglodyte compared to the F8X M3. It was overpriced when new and it's a money pit out of warranty. Some say it even has single-piston front brakes.
It's also one of the best cars in the world at handling daily life and weekend track duty, it has an engine that screams the purest joy of motorsports past eight grand and it's the car Jeremy Clarkson called "pretty much perfect."
So, what's it like to own one, live with it as your daily and track it every chance you get? I'm glad you asked.
(Full disclosure: These disclosures are pretty pointless. I bought an M3 because, like many of you, I grew up drooling over them. I'm probably a little biased. BMW hasn't paid me to say any of this, but probably would consider paying me NOT to say some of it.)
The M3 is a car for enthusiasts. Its engine is the S65B40, a high-revving (8,400 rpm) 4.0L V8 that produces peak numbers of 414hp and 295lb-ft of torque. It has eight individual throttle bodies. Under load, the engine noise is all you can hear. Yes, the induction sound is godlike. While the exhaust note is relatively sedate with the stock mufflers, any aftermarket system (including the Dinan rear section on my car) will turn some heads, even at residential speeds. This car was sold with either the 18'' style 219M wheel made by BBS or the forged 19'' polished number known as style 220M produced by Fuchs. I happen to have both sets, and I use the style 220Ms as my summer set with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, 245 section in the front and 265 in the rear.
The gearbox in my car is the excellent-but-not-Porsche-level-excellent 6 speed manual, with a final drive ratio of 3.85. The car does come with a limited slip differential (which BMW calls "Variable M Differential Lock").
Although the drag coefficient of .30 for the sedan is slightly lower than that of the coupe or the convertible, the fuel economy ratings of 14mpg city and 20mpg highway are the same as the other body styles. In real world numbers, I've seen between 10 and 14 city, depending on the weight of my foot at any given time. I've also seen an average of 25mpg highway over the duration of a four-hour drive, but that only happened once. Normally it's more like 21-22 highway.
The suspension is the electronic damping control ("EDC") version that you get with the Tech Package, which has mode settings of comfort, normal and sport. You can choose which mode you'd like to use as the start-up default, and which you'd like to use when you press the M Drive button for those Mr. Hyde moments.
I could go on and on about the technology, engineering and motorsports heritage. You know what all that adds up to driving this on the street where I live? A hill of beans. I won't say the car doesn't get noticed, but it doesn't get commented about. It doesn't get Instagram'd at redlights. Children don't tug on daddy's sleeve and say "look at that car!" In the crowded sea of German luxobarges that is Philadelphia's Main Line, the M3 sedan is as much a sleeper as it is a highway stormer and a track weapon.
Are there downsides? Yeah, a few. At about 3,700lbs, it's a heavy car and a pretty solidly sprung one at that. In the comfort suspension mode the car is tolerable as a daily driver on the east coast but honestly you do bounce around some on these deteriorating roads. And god forbid you hit a pothole. Just don't. Trust me.
While the car isn't low enough to scrape during normal (careful) driving, it's low enough to plow snow on poorly cleared roads (and the Pirelli Sottozero snow tires seem to be made to handle only Italian winters, but that isn't the M's fault). Also in the winter you become painfully aware of how thirsty the car is and how frequent fill-ups become thanks in part to winter mix gas and in part to the thimble-sized 16.6 gallon fuel tank. My commute to work is only 4 miles each way, and I still feel like I'm constantly standing outside at my nearby BP, usually on a dark, 19-degree morning, battling wind burn and not-yet-caffeinated SUV drivers.
Finally, everything is expensive. You know that going in. No one buys an M3 without understanding that you're not going to be able to get that $34.99 oil change at the local corporate chain garage. My complaint is that a lot of things seem unnecessarily expensive. We're talking about a world of $8,000 aftermarket exhaust systems here. A world where Castrol 10W-60 TWS Synthetic oil is $14.50 per liter over the internet, plus shipping, and an oil change requires nine of them, plus a tenth for top-offs. Don't even ask about the differential fluid, which I imagine is made entirely from unicorn tears.
But the M3 sedan is so good that you don't care about any of that. It's worth a little bouncing around, getting to know your gas station attendant and trimming the Christmas budget a bit. It's just finicky enough that the typical BMW brand whore won't (or can't) buy one, and just reliable and cost-efficient enough that the reasonably handy enthusiast won't be intimidated by the regular maintenance schedule. On the highway it's a delight. On the track, bliss. If you're the kind of person who has found his or her way to this website, it's almost certain that you'd love driving this car. It's a special car and it makes its driver feel special, at least if "feeling special" to you means feeling like you're Joey Hand and the road to the grocery store is Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Will it help you pick up chicks? No. No it won't. Try a shirt with sleeves if ya got one, Romeo.
Exterior - 9/10
This car is beautiful. It's powerful. It has a damn bulge in hood where the plastic plenum covering the individual throttle bodies sticks up above the line of the hood and fenders. The rising crease from the fender "gills" through the quarter panels makes it look like it's moving fast even when parked. Unlike the other 3 series sedans, it has a pronounced forward rake to it. The wheels are big, brakes are cross-drilled and the center-oriented quad exhaust makes even the rear bumper look aggressive to some degree. The wheel arches are flared out, as they should be on an M car (I'm looking at you, E36).
Many people don't realize that the opening in the front bumper on the driver's side is actually the intake. It connects to a flow-through airbox design, which uses the driver's side "nostril" on the hood as the outflow vent. If you get some water in there it comes flying out at about 45mph, splashing onto the windshield right in front of your face. Way to think that one through, BMW.
The tail lights on the 2008 model were replaced with the Life Cycle Impulse "facelift" version for model years 2009 and up. They're LED and, to me, look much fresher than the prior tails – not that there was ever anything wrong with them.
The one thing that bothers me slightly about the sedan is that it was never offered with a carbon roof option, which was available on all years of the coupe. That would've added to the look in addition to lowering the center of gravity. My car has a sunroof, which I wish it did not because I never use it. You could order the E90 as a slicktop with no sunroof but no one did other than a handful of track rats.
Interior - 9/10
Butterlike fox red Novillo leather. Carbon leather trim. Aluminum pedals.
Dashboard styling and instrumentation is shared with the other E9X cars and is functional and well-integrated, unlike the horrendous design failure now prevalent at BMW and elsewhere that includes sticking half of an iPad into the dash and calling it a day.
Seats are supportive and extremely comfortable for road use. Heated but not ventilated, which I don't mind because this car doesn't need to be any heavier. Nothing short of a real race bucket is going to make me happy on the track, so I won't talk about that other than to say they're adequate but not great.
Steering wheel is thick and wrapped in the same awesome leather as the seats. Notably missing from this car is a leather dash and suede headliner, but I guess it's not a 911 and isn't trying to be.
The shift lever is a bit taller than you'd expect but it works well and I'm used to it now. Some people change it out for a shorter one – an idea I considered and then abandoned. That's the thing about this car: you can LOOK for things to modify if you want to but it doesn't really NEED anything.
Long story short is that the 3 series has a nice interior and this one is even nicer, particularly the leather. It's hard to find any real faults, other than the soft leather doesn't wear as well as you might hope after a handful of years. Man is it soft though.
Acceleration - 9/10
The acceleration is absolutely thrilling. Could not be any more awesome. The engine under load is simply the best sound in the world and it is SO revvy at the top end that you just can't believe how quickly it spins from 5,000rpm up to redline. It's a real animal up there. The S65B40 is what makes this car really special. If you like engines that really make you wring them out, this is the car for you.
That said, the acceleration category gets a 9 out of 10 because I do not consider it to be a fast car. Yes, Car and Driver got a coupe with the Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) to do 0-60 in 3.9 seconds and 12.4 second quarter mile, but these days there are tons of cars out there with launch control and big engines with turbos that would take the M3's lunch money. It's no match against the bruiser AMGs or the new big horsepower Corvettes. It's fast in a way that's fun and plenty adequate for track use, but you're not going to win a ton of races between stop lights. That's just not the point of this car. When I sold my tuned 335i I realized I was buying a "slower" car. Haven't regretted it for a single second.
Braking - 6/10
Ok guys this is a tough category and I thought long and hard about giving it a 6 out of 10. At first I felt like giving it a 4 but didn't because, for street use, these brakes are adequate for the way most people are going to use them.
But here's my rant: I don't know what BMW was thinking. This is a car that is supposed to be able to handle track duty, and they gave it single piston ATE calipers the entire way around with cross drilled rotors. The calipers are dated. Even the 135i that was being produced at the same time got better front calipers. And we see what BMW did with the new F8X M3 front brakes (ignoring the pointless carbon ceramic option).
On the street the braking with stock pads is all initial bite. If you really lay on the brakes you're going to get ABS intervention sooner than you'd think, and as you get through the pedal you realize that the actual braking capacity doesn't match what the initial bite made you think was going to be there. I know OEM street pad compound is designed that way and that most people don't use much of the pedal except in emergency situations. It still sucks.
Do not take this car to the track with stock brakes. You will be killed. Actually, you'll just smear the OEM pad material all over the rotors and your day will be over in about 20 minutes and you'll have to buy new front brakes.
For track use I have changed to Goodridge stainless braided brake lines, Motul 600 racing brake fluid and Pagid RS-19 endurance compound pads. Now the brakes are solid and reliable, but they don't deal with heat as well as they could and the cross drilled rotors are still not ideal. It's like a cheese grater on your $315 race pads, which last about 8-10 track days depending on how hard the particular track is on brakes. Heat stress causes the drilled rotors to crack and when the cracks either connect between two drill holes or reach the edge of the rotor they're garbage. A new pair of front rotors is $650 from Turner Motorsports if you want the OEM parts. Ouch.
Given all this baloney, many people who track M3s with the frequency that I do end up installing a front big brake kit, which I haven't wanted to do just yet for a number of reasons. So for now I just swap pads a lot, which requires taking off the entire floating caliper. As I said, not ideal.
Ride - 7/10
I pretty much covered the suspension and ride quality above. Definitely comfortable enough to be a daily driver, but it's not going to ride like a seven series. Scored 7 out of 10 because of the EDC adjustability. Full stiff mode on the track works well enough that I don't feel like I need to hurry up and by aftermarket multi-adjustable coilovers, which is good because that crap is expensive.
Handling - 9/10
The steering is hydraulic, and it's excellent. You can fiddle with the settings to change the weight, with the "Sport" setting giving you the heavier wheel. Feedback is great, although not E30 levels of great. Some journalists complained about the steering when this car came out and I don't know what they're talking about. I've driven a Lotus Elise S and I still don't find the steering in the M3 to be lacking feel or feedback.
Cornering is solid although you will find understeer at the limit as with all modern BMWs. On the track I actually tried to dial that out a little by running the same width tires at each corner and increasing negative camber (-2.5 front, -2.0 rear so I can still use it on the street). It's definitely somewhat better that way but there's still going to be understeer. Nothing you can't even out with the throttle though – this is a 414hp car!
For a 3700lb sedan this thing handles better than it has any right to. If I didn't track this car I'd be giving it at 10 out of 10 in this category, but I've spent enough time with this car at speed to know it does have some shortcomings. The complaints are so minor (things like: the LSD doesn't lock quiiiite as quickly as some aftermarket units) that overall it still scores a 9. Hard to imagine any company could do a better job with a 400hp sedan. Want to see it in action? Check out my video from a recent HPDE at Summit Point.
Gearbox - 9/10
BMW is not new to the 6 speed gearbox. This one is notchy and the whole driveline is a little lashy at parking lot speeds. Sometimes in first or second gear the car will want to start bucking at 5mph, especially if the engine is still cold and the idle hasn't dropped. M cars are like that. They make noises and rattles and clangs and there's resonance. If you didn't know to expect it you'd think "who on earth built this steaming pile?!" At speed, however, it's a different story. Shifting is smooth and flawless. Driveline is tight as can be and matches the motor's eagerness. Pedals are spaced properly so that heel-toe downshifts are a breeze.
The optional DCT gearbox is also fantastic if you can stand having only two pedals. Yes, the Germans insist it's better, faster, etc. and they're right. But I like the driving engagement of the manual and as a street car it's a fine choice. Some complain about the relative lack of torque and view the DCT box as a better match for the engine, which makes its peak hp at 8,300rpm. With all that shifting to stay in the power, they say, you need the dual clutch box.
Whatever. I love my 6MT and wouldn't have bought the car any other way. Maybe someday I'll grow up and get over the third pedal – or maybe I never will.
Toys - 10/10
What do I even say about this? The car has navigation, Bluetooth, BMW Assist, iPod integration, a hard drive, power rear sunshade, adjustable suspension, customizable variable steering, throttle sensitivity settings, rain-sensing wipers, "hill assist" for starting off on an incline so you don't have to use the parking brake and like eight million other neat little features that most BMWs have. I mean you can put down the windows by holding the unlock button. The door handles all have LEDs built into the bottoms so the ground lights up at night when you unlock the car. It has comfort access keyless entry so you don't have to take the key out of your pocket. It has garage door openers. It has electrochromic self-dimming mirrors. It has rear park distance control radar. It has cupholders. Kinda.
Sure, new cars have even more of this gimmicky crap but this car has absolutely every tech toy I need and a host of ones I don't. I don't want blind spot detection because, unlike most of America, I pay attention when I drive. Ten points.
Audio - 10/10
It has Enhanced Premium Sound, which is fantastic. I think it was a $2,000 option. I almost never use it. The engine and exhaust are just too good. As I mentioned before, iPod integration, HD radio, surround settings, etc. Audio isn't really my thing but I can't imagine you'd ever need to make this system any better.
Value - 10/10
These cars were $70,000 new, sometimes more depending on options. You can now get very nice examples like this one for about $40,000, give or take. As a used car, this represents tremendous value.
There must be a catch, right? Maybe you've heard about the scary rod bearing issue? Forget about it. If you send your oil in for analysis you should know way ahead of time if you've got a problem with the bearings, and when they're close to failing they make a very distinct noise. Yes, if you blow your engine it costs $20,000 to replace, but the risk is greatly exaggerated. Pay attention to your car, keep up on maintenance (not the BMW "maintenance" but real maintenance where you change your oil at 3,500mi intervals and replace things before they break) and you'll be fine. Knock on wood - this car hasn't cost a cent in unscheduled repairs since I've owned it. I've put over 12,000mi on it (now has 44k on it total), which includes ten track days. Ten. Not one thing has broken. Oil analysis shows the engine is happy. I couldn't be more impressed with the reliability, which is something I never thought I'd say after the experience I had with my 2007 335i.
I just don't know how you could buy MORE car for this amount of money. This car does everything. It goes in the snow, it's safe in the rain, it has reliable electronics, it has toys, it's a track beast and a reasonably comfortable road trip cruiser. And that V8. Good gravy.
Engine: 4.0L naturally aspirated V8
Power: 414 HP at 8300 RPM/ 295 LB-FT at 3900 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-60 Time: low-to-mid 4 seconds, depending on the driver
Top Speed: 155 electronically limited, 180 or so if not limited
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,700ish LBS, depending on options
Seating: 5 – yes, I said it. FIVE.
MSRP: $68,400 as tested