There are so many problems with this topic. For one, the M3 and 335i aren't even in the same ballpark when it comes to price. The M3 has also been around for decades while the 335i is limited to 2007-2015. For that reason, we'll narrow this down to the E90 and F80 M3. Another problem - better is subjective. In our opinion, the M3 is the better car when it comes to the 335i vs M3. However, they're both great cars in their own ways. Therefore, we will do our best to limit to use of 'better' and simply lay out the facts.
335i vs M3: Price
Normally, we would save this section for later but it's an important topic. Including the F80 M3 (&F82 M4) in this post may be out of line since those are still mostly $40,000+ cars. The E90 and E92 M3 come in around $20,000-35,000 depending on year and mileage. Early 2007-2010 E90 335i models are often under $12,000 and you can even find some for $5,000 or less. Even the later 2013-2015 F30 335i models are only $15,000-25,000.
Sure, later year F30 335i and E90 335is models may come in at a similar price point to an early 2008-2010 E9x M3. However, if you're looking at equivalent years, mileage, and condition the prices are far off. So, why are we even comparing these cars? Well, the prices up-front don't exactly paint the full picture.
The M3 Is Better From the Factory
We said we would try to limit using the word better since it's subjective. However, if you're looking for a fun, sporty car then the M3 is a much better car straight from the factory. The difference between an M3 and a 335i is a lot more than just the engine. An E9x or F80 M3 offers the full package. Better transmissions, suspension, oil delivery, brakes, and wheels are a few that come to mind. The M3 also comes standard with a limited slip differential. None of that is to say the 335i is a horrible performance car from the factory. It's simply not as good as the M3. That said, if you're looking for a stock BMW and can afford an M3 then that's the clear choice if you want top tier performance.
However, the comparison becomes more interesting if you're willing and able to mod a 335i. It won't be cheap. If you can't afford an M3 chances are you won't be able to afford building an equivalent 335i. Sure, you can make a 335i faster in a straight line for more money. But again, the M3 is the full package. If you want a 335i as well-rounded as an M3 it means addressing the differential, suspension, engine, brakes, etc.
335i vs M3: Engines
The 335i and M3 use the following engines:
- 2007-2010 335i - N54 3.0L twin turbo inline 6
- 2011-2013 335is - N54 3.0L twin turbo inline 6
- 2011-2015 335i - N55 3.0L single turbo inline 6
- E9x M3 - S65 4.0L V8
- F8x M3/M4 - S55 3.0L twin turbo inline 6
S65 E9x M3 Engine
Which engine is right for each person may be different. V8 fans will likely find the most joy in the E90 M3's high-revving 4.0L S65 engine. However, as the only naturally aspirated engine on the list it's the most limited in aftermarket potential. You could add forced induction to the V8 M3, but that would add north of $10,000 in costs.
S55 F8x M3 & M4 Engine
The S55 in the F80 M3 and F82 M4 is without question the most potent factory engine on the list. Its 425 horsepower may not seem like a massive boost over the 414 horsepower E90 M3. However, there is a lot more torque on tap along with a high ceiling with mods. A few basic bolt-ons can push the F8x M3 and M4 well past 600 horsepower. It's also a strong engine internally, topped off with a 7-speed DCT that can handle 650-700 torque.
N54 & N55 335i Engines
Early 335i or 335is models with the N54 engine are quite potent. $1,500 in bolt-ons can push the N54 into the 450-500 horsepower range. The internals are also quite strong on the N54. With proper supporting mods and maintenance the N54 is well-known to push into the 500-700whp on stock internals. Of course, the mods to get there can quickly add up to $10,000+. When it comes to engine strength and performance it's tough to beat the N54's value. Many of these early N54's can be found for under $10,000.
BMW's N55 engine is also fairly strong, but doesn't quite match the N54 mod for mod. The N55 is good for about 400-425 horsepower with basic bolt-ons. Pushing much further will add a lot of expenses for an upgraded turbo, fueling, etc. To break into the 500+ horsepower range you'll likely end up spending $10,000+.
M3 vs 335i: Reliability
When it comes to 335i vs M3 reliability, we'll give the overall win to the M3. While the N54 335i offers impressive performance for the money it takes a hit in the reliability department. You may be able to find a clean example with most of the preventative maintenance done. However - in most cases - we advise leaving at least $3,000 on the side for repairs in the first year. Injectors, turbos, water pumps, expansion tanks, and oil leaks are a small handful of potential problems. Unfortunately, a lot of N54 335i models spend most of their lives modded and poorly maintained.
335i models featuring the later N55 engine saw a slight reliability improvement and traded-off some performance. However, even the N55 335i has its fair share of problems. Turbo and injector issues aren't too common on these 335i's. However, the N55 still shares many of the same reliability concerns as the previous N54. If you intend to mod an N55 put a couple thousand on the side for potential repairs and preventative maintenance.
BMW M3 Reliability
The E90 M3 and F80 M3 have their fair share of problems. However, they're certainly a bit better than the N54 and N55 in the 335i, on average. The E90 and E92 M3 are known to have rod bearing issues that can be pricey. If the issue is left alone for too long it may also cause additional engine damage. Throttle bodies are another fairly common failure that can cost $1,000+. The S65 powered M3 isn't a cheap car to own, but it's generally better than the N54 and N55.
Lastly, the F80 M3 may actually be the most reliable car in this discussion. Spun crank hubs are a known problem, but it primarily affects S55 engines pushing 600+ horsepower. Problems can still happen on stock cars, though. We're speculating oil leaks may be commonplace as the S55 ages. However, for now the F80 and F82 M3/M4 appear to be reliable. Again, we'll give the overall win to the M3 as the more reliable car in the 335i vs M3 discussion.
335i vs M3: Handling
The M3 of course receives the clear victory from the factory. The F80's are the best handling cars on this list. However, and this is a big however. BMW moved to electric power steering for the F30 335i and F80 M3. Yes, on paper the handling is better than the previous BMW E90 335i and M3, respectively. We'll take the traditional power steering on the E90 generation, though. The F chassis cars simply lack the feedback and response that made the 3-series so fun to drive. That's not to say the electronic steering is all bad. We're just not huge fans.
Moving on, as we touched on earlier the M3 is much better from a handling perspective. When we reference suspension we're talking about more than just shocks and struts. The M3's use better subframe bushings, control arms, etc. The E90 M3 suspension parts actually bolt right up to the E90 335i. Our 2007 335i is running TC Kline coilovers, M3 bushings and control arms, and the entire rest of the suspension was refreshed with OE parts. The handling is excellent and likely just about in-line with an E90 M3. However, it took about $5,000 in parts to get it there.
Even then, our 335i still lacks the M3's upgraded brakes, limited slip differential, and better oiling. The 335i is a fun daily driver, but if we wanted to turn it into a track car we're still probably $5,000 off. The M3 doesn't need any of that to be a solid track car. Sure, upgrades won't hurt but it's pretty capable from the factory.
I Wouldn't Trade My 335i For An M3
To me, the E90 335i is a better car than the E90 M3. I am biased towards turbos and find tuner cars more exciting than naturally aspirated engines. However, I also accept the fact my 335i is not an M3 and never will be. For that reason I almost pulled the trigger on an F80 M3 about 18 months back. It wouldn't have been my smartest financial decision at the time. After test driving a few M3's I came across a great deal on a 2015 model with a manual transmission. I almost bought the car (despite not being totally enthused by the electric steering), but it sold quickly before I got final approval for the loan.
As such, I temporarily gave up the F80 M3 dream and re-focused on my '07 335i. There were a few built up maintenance items I needed to knock out, so I just decided to do everything. I replaced nearly the entire cooling system, valve cover, oil pan, oil filter housing, belt & pulleys, O2 sensors, etc. At the same time I did the suspension refresh and upgrades as mentioned above. I've also had all the basic bolt-ons and I am currently waiting for a set of RB Twos Plus turbos.
Once all is said and done, I'll have about $20,000 in preventative maintenance and mods into my 335i. Including the cost of the car when I bought it in 2014 it's more expensive than an M3. Even then, I'm still missing the upgraded brakes, differential, etc. The M3 still looks better, too. My 335i is not an M3 and it never will be. However, I would do it again 100x over.
335i vs M3 Summary
Plain and simple - the M3 is a better performance car straight out of the factory. Mod for mod the M3 will also likely remain the better car. However, the comparison becomes interesting if you say, "I have $30,000 to spend. Should I buy an M3 or a 335i and put $15,000 in mods into it?" There's a lot to consider. Financially the M3 is likely the smarter decision as it will hold its value fairly well. You'll never get your money back from mods you dump into a car.
Otherwise, there isn't a perfect answer as to which is better. It all comes down to personal preference. The M3 and M4 are awesome cars straight from the factory. The 335i is also an excellent car that responds well to mods. As I said, now that my 335i is where it is I would never trade it for an M3. However, that doesn't mean I don't still want an M3, too. They're both excellent cars. Pick the one you get the most enjoyment from and have fun.
Which is your favorite? The 335i or the M3?
Leave a comment and let us know!