The Ultimate BMW M3 Buyers Guide: Reliability & Performance Capabilities

This guide is going to dig into every BMW M3 model ever manufactured. If you're going to buy an M3, you probably already know which model you want to buy, but at least revel in the history. Regardless, we are going to cover the pro's and con's, reliability, and tuning potential for every M3 model ever manufactured.

The History of BMW M

BMW Motorsport GmbH was formally established in 1972, 56 years after BMW was founded. Initially created to establish BMW's racing program, the division came to prominence in the 70's and 80's after developing numerous world-class race cars. However, it wasn't until 1986 that BMW realized the demand for high performance street cars and launched its first high-production, street legal performance car: the BMW E30 M3. The first true M badged car was the 1978 M1, but only 453 were manufactured so it doesn't fall into my category of "high-production".

The division initially started with 35 employees, and its first project was the BMW 3.0 CSL. The group built 1,265 BMW 3.0 CSL models, which were specially built for the European Touring Car Championship. The 3.0 CSL won its first European Car Touring Championship in 1973, followed by winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

By 1988 the M division had 400 employees and was making its legendary mark on the performance street car market with the E30 M3.

Today, all M models are tested and tuned by BMW's private facility at the Nurburgring racing circuit in Germany. 

Fun BMW M Fact: the 6.1L V12 engine used in the McLaren F1, which famously won the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1995, was developed and built by BMW M.

BMW E30 M3 (1986-1991)

BMW E30 M3Pin

E30 M3 Engine: S14, 2.3L naturally aspirated 4-banger
Horsepower/Torque: 197hp / 177lb-ft
0-60mph: 6.5 seconds
Top Speed: 146mph
Curb Weight: Coupe = 2,568 lbs., Convertible = 2,998 lbs.
Production: 5,300 produced in the US, with 185 sold in Canada, and the remaining 5,115 sold in the US. Approx. 16,000 were produced including European models

The E30 M3 is the simplest and purest M3 ever made, and also the most track friendly. This car was built during BMW M's racing heyday and was built to destroy European racetracks, and that it did. At only 2,600 pounds and a 7,000rpm redline, the E30 M3 certainly won't fail to put a smile on your face. Unfortunately at 30 years old, you can't expect it to keep up with any modern-day car. A Camry will probably beat you to 60mph nowadays, but it certainly doesn't turn heads like this M3 will.

The E30 M3 has over 1,500 racing victories, including a World Touring Car Championship title, two European Touring Car Championship victories, four wins at the Italia Superturismo Championship, and five 24 hour Nurburgring victories. Wow.

E30 M3 Pro's:

  • Even with only 200hp this is probably the most fun M3 to drive
  • The wide fenders and front bumper give the car so much character and make it turn heads everywhere
  • Continually increasing in price and value
  • Racing machine and awesome 7,500rpm redline
  • Extremely stiff chassis with excellent weight balance makes it awesome on winding roads and in corners
  • Most successful touring car in racing history, winning more titles than the Porsche 911

E30 M3 Con's:

  • The cheapest E30 M3 goes for about $30k. Pristine condition one's can go for upwards of $70k...
  • Not for the speed enthusiast looking for something that makes a Mustang GT look like a Prius
  • Performance upgrades are expensive and hitting the 300hp+ mark will cost $10k+

BMW E30 M3 Reliability

The E30 M3 is very dependable and can be a great daily driver. These cars were built for the track, which means they were built to be run, and run hard. But given the age of these cars they need some significant maintenance and the cost of ownership is probably on the higher end compared to the newer M3 models. At the bare minimum, you will need to keep fresh and proper fluids in the car and perform periodic valve adjustments since the S14 doesn't have hydraulic lifters. Valve adjustments cost about $200-250 from an independent shop if you aren't able to DIY it, and needs to be done every 10,000-15,000 miles. Some BMW dealerships can do it, but will the cost will like run around $1,000.

Since most of the E30 M3's for sale nowadays have very high, 150,000+ mileage, a potential cost to consider is an engine rebuilt. Rebuilding the seals, gaskets, bolts, etc. will run you about $2k if you can DIY it, and about $5-6k to have a shop do it. If you also need to replace your cylinder head, you are looking at $10-15k.

All in all, the E30 M3 is an extremely reliable engine and is built to be run hard, but maintenance and upkeep gets expensive given the cars are 30+ years old. You can check out our maintenance guide below which outlines all the periodic maintenance that needs to be done on these cars to keep them running in tip top shape.

E30 M3 Regular Maintenace Schedule (check this link until we write our guide - https://www.turnermotorsport.com/BMW-E30-M3/c-151-bmw-routine-maintenance-packages)

BMW E30 M3 Tuning Potential

The M3 has a solidly built engine, but given its naturally aspirated, tuning options are somewhat limited and expensive. With bolt-on mods and upgrades, the S14 engine can get to 240-250hp at the crank. Anything above that will run you a lot of money. I'll lay out a few popular options that many people on forums have done:

Option 1: rebuilding the 2.3L engine and expanding it to 2.5L. There are a lot of rebuild kits out there for this but you will need a CNC machinist to expand the size of the engine, with the total cost of this running about $14k. This will get you approx. 300-320hp at the crank.

Option 2: swap the engine with an S50 or S52. The S50 is a popular swap, will land you around 320whp, and cost approx. $15k.

Option 3: go forced induction. The most popular route is doing the above 2.5L engine rebuild and then adding a single turbo setup to the S14. A solid turbo setup can get you to the 400whp mark and beyond, but the cost for a proper setup, with the 2.5L conversion is about $25k.

BMW E36 M3 (1992-1999)

BMW E36 M3Pin

E36 M3 Engine: S50 3.0L I6 (1995) / S52 3.2L I6 (1996+)
Horsepower/Torque: 240hp / 236lb-ft (S52)
0-60mph: 5.6 seconds
Top Speed: 155mph
Curb Weight: Coupe = 3,219 lbs., Convertible = 3,439 lbs.
Production: 71,242 across all countries and style's. 32,932 ended up being sold in the US

While the E36 M3 began selling in 1992, it didn't enter the US market until 1995. When it initially debuted, BMW had no plans of making a US model after E30 sales had only reached 5,000 cars in the US. However, BMW CCA relentlessly sent letters to BMW until they agreed to produce the cars for the US market. However, price was an issue and the S50 Euro-spec engines were simply too expensive for BMW to sell in America. So the E36 M3 got a dialed down S50 engine that was less expensive and ultimately had 76hp less than the Euro-spec models.

In late 1995, the E36 M3 received a facelift, which came with a new engine for the US models. Enter the S52, a 3.2L I6 generating 240hp, which again is about 80hp less than the Euro-spec models were generating.

In my opinion, the E36 M3 falls to the bottom of the M3 list. It's power was extremely toned back, it was built to be more luxurious and featured softer suspension. Overall, it's not going to turn any heads and it's not beating many cars off the line either.

E36 M3 Pro's:

  • You can find one of these in decent shape for $10-12k. Most affordable M3!
  • 5-speed manual transmission is extremely smooth with great steering
  • Easy to handle due to lighter weight and smaller size compared to later model M3's
  • Limited slip differential from the factory makes for great traction and good handling

E36 M3 Con's:

  • Made more for luxury and less for the track - softer suspension
  • Vanos, shock mounts, and water pump usually have problems over 100k miles

BMW E36 M3 Reliability

Like any BMW, these cars are great and relatively problem free IF they were taken care of by the previous owner. However, buying one nowadays means the car probably has well past 100k miles. There are plenty of S52's running strong past 200k+ miles, but lets cover some common things to look for on these high mileage cars:

Suspension items on old cars in general can wear down very easily. Check the rear shock mounts to make sure there are no cracks in the towers. Check the rear trail arm bushings and listen for clunking noises while driving around.

The most important thing to check is the cooling system. They commonly fail every 80k miles or so. Make sure there are no cracks in the overflow tank or radiator necks. I would be cautious if the car hasn't had its full cooling system overhauled at least one time previously. This includes a new radiator, expansion tank, hoses, thermostat, thermostat housing, water pump, etc. The early model years had plastic housings and composite impellers on the water pump, both of which you want to make sure have been upgraded to metal.

The S52 has VANOS (which you can read about here) which is a common issue causer in cars with >100k miles. You'll want something that has already had a Vanos rebuild.

BMW E36 M3 Tuning Potential

BMW short-shafted the US models giving them only 240hp vs. 320hp on the Euro models.

These cars aren't going to set you back in your seat. But the handling and suspension still make it a fun car to drive. Just not as fun as it would be with 320hp. Given the car is naturally aspirated, common bolt-on modifications such as an intake, exhaust, etc. won't add any significant power to the car. Forced induction is really the only way to make serious power with the S52, but be ready to open up your wallet. If you aren't interested in FI, then the best E36 M3 mods are a lightweight flywheel, upgraded clutch kit, coilovers, and a chassis x-brace.

If you want the extra 50whp on this car without breaking the bank on a turbo setup, you can get a Turner Stage 4 Package for a little less than $4k. This will get you 55whp and 22lb-fts of torque.

Superchargers: Stage 1 and stage 2 kits are available. Stage 1 will get you to 350-370hp and stage 2 is 400-420hp. The cost varies from $3.5k-$7k depending on stage and kit.

Turbochargers: A turbo kit is the easiest route to 400whp+ on an S52 engine. There are tons of kits out there, with the starting price around $6k and running up past $10k for the highest horsepower setups.

This thread is awesome, read it for info on every possible E36 M3 mod: http://www.m3forum.net/m3forum/showthread.php?t=308718

BMW E46 M3 (2000-2006)

BMW E46 M3Pin

E46 M3 Engine: S54 3.2L I6
Horsepower/Torque: 333hp / 262lb-ft
0-60mph: 4.8 seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.0 seconds at 104mph
Top Speed: 170mph (limited to 155mph)
Curb Weight: Coupe = 3,399 lbs., Convertible = 3,797 lbs.
Production: 56,133 coupes and 29,633 convertibles, globally

Due to the introduction in 1999 (production year 2000) of the E39 M5, the E46 M3 was only produced in coupe and convertible models. The engine remained the same size as the E36, at 3.2L and kept the I6, which has been dubbed the pinnacle of BMW performance. The car came in either a 6-speed manual or SMG II transmission, which is an abbreviation for a fancy name that we today know as paddle shifters. The S54 engine was built off of the M54, but is more so an evolution of the S50 engine used in the Euro-spec E36 M3's.

In 2004, BMW released the M3 CS, known is the US as the ZCP package. The ZCP package, in the US, uses the same S54 as the base models, so there were no power benefits. The package was primarily a cosmetic package that included 19-inch BBS wheels, larger brake rotors and calipers, stiffer suspension, and various interior trims. The ZCP package in Europe was known as the M3 CSL and had a revised intake, camshafts, and a lightweight exhaust manifold, resulting in increased power to the tune of 355hp and 273tq.

Pro's:

  • Perfect 50/50 weight distribution
  • Tons of forum information for DIY's and performance upgrades
  • Inexpensive nowadays, looks great, and provides ample performance for a 15-year-old car
  • Great daily driver if you are looking for decent reliability and a fun amount of power

Con's:

  • SMG transmission had issues and was less reliable than manual versions
  • Valve adjustments are ocassionally necessary, similar to the E30

S54 Engine Reliability

Compared to the E36, the S54 was a significantly stronger built engine, but it certainly had more issues. The engine has more moving parts which means more things to go wrong. Earlier models had a rod bearing recall, so make sure this was fixed if you are looking at an early model E46. Subframes are known to crack, so make sure this is inspected prior to purchase and reinforced if there are any cracks. SMG is known to cause problems and a common failure is the SMG pump which costs approx. $3k to fix. A lot of SMG owners have opted to do a manual conversion to improve reliability and save on potential repair costs from SMG failure. Additionally, the VANOS system is known to fail over time. There was also a recall on this so check to see if the VANOS seals were rebuilt or have been replaced.

Outside of those issues, the S54 is a great engine and relatively problem free. Ignition coils are known to go bad pretty quickly, but this is a common maintenance item and shouldn't drive you away from ownership.

Overall, if you are buying an E46 opt for the manual transmission and for the coupe, not convertible. The convertible is uglier, in my opinion, and it's heavier.

S54 Tuning Potential

Like all of the other M3's (with the exception of the F80) tuning is somewhat limited without adding a supercharger or turbocharger since the car is naturally aspirated from the factory.

With full bolt-ons (FBO), you can expect approx. 330whp and 260wtq. FBO will run you a few thousand dollars.

With a supercharger, there are packages out there that produce anywhere from 475hp-575hp at the crank. These kits plus install range from $10k-$15k. 600hp+ can be obtained with an aggressive supercharger setup and a tune.

Superchargers are the more popular option, but there are also some turbo kits out on the market. I've seen dyno's with turbo kits ranging from 450whp up past 700whp. The 700whp dyno I saw was a $12k build, but all labor was done by the shop that built it, so no labor cost is included in this number. Probably closer to the $20k mark if you include labor.

BMW E90/E92/E93 M3 (2007-2013)

BMW E90 E92 M3Pin

E90/E92/E93 M3 Engine: S65 4.0L V8
Horsepower/Torque: 414hp / 295lb-ft
0-60mph: 3.9 seconds (DCT E92)
1/4 Mile: 12.4 seconds at 114mph (E92 DCT)
Top Speed: 178mph (limited to 155mph)
Curb Weight: Coupe = 3,648 lbs., Convertible = 3,538 lbs.
Production: 65,917 globally

The E90 and E92 versions of the M3 became the standard for the performance car industry. When Mustang would release a new GT, the question became, "well how does it compare to the M3?". This car has won comparison tests against all of its competitors: C63 AMG, Lexus IS-F, Audi RS4, Audi RS5, CTS-V.

The S65 won the International Engine of the Year 5 years in a row! And that's 5 years out of only 6 years of it being produced.

Motor Trend Magazine said the E90/E92 M3 is an unquestionable contender as the world's single greatest car.

Car and Driver called the M3 the world's all-around best car for the money, the finest car on the market, period.

Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear said "The M3 is the best car, and always will be, and there's no point in ever thinking otherwise."

Do we need to say anything else??

E9X M3 Pro's:

  • V8 with one of the best sounding factory exhausts, ever
  • 8,400rpm redline
  • Dual clutch transmission is extremely smooth and fast shifting
  • 400whp is easy with a few simple bolt-ons
  • Reasonably affordable
  • Extremely practical - drives like a luxury car at normal speeds but really opens up under throttle. Great for the Dad with kid's. Your wife will just think its a good-looking sedan that's safe for the kids
  • More reliable than all of its predecessors

E9X M3 Con's:

  • Low torque for its engine size
  • Potential rod bearing and throttle actuators issues
  • iDrive isn't great
  • The N54 came out at the same time and can make way more power than the S65 for a lot less $$$

E90/E92 M3 Reliability

The S55 engine in the F80, in early 2019, is still too new to truly know how reliable it is. So for the time being, I am going to crown the S65 as the most reliable M3 engine that has been made to date. There are really only two potential issues to worry about with these engines: rod bearing failure and throttle actuators failure.

The factory rod bearings are extremely tight which doesn't allow for enough lubrication and ultimately results in the bearings breaking. What will this cost you? $10k+ for a new engine. Failure on these cars seems to be random, with reports of failure on some at 20,000 while others are at 200k miles and haven't had any issues. The safe solution here is spending $2.5k upfront to replace the bearings and prevent this from happening.

The S65 has two throttle actuators on it, which are responsible for opening the individual throttle bodies. A common sign of failure is the car entering into limp mode. They are difficult to get to, and the parts are expensive at approx. $850 per actuators, so total repair cost is about $2.5k. Unfortunately, there is no maintenance that will prevent this, failure is random.

BMW S65 Tuning Potential

The S65 comes packed with a good amount of power from the factory, so this might be enough for some people. For others that it isn't, making additional power in these cars is pretty easy and inexpensive. A catless exhaust system will add near 40hp and 32lb-ft of torque. An intake will give an additional 8-12hp. A tuner running a more aggressive tune will bring in an additional 25hp and 20lb-ft of torque.

FBO Horsepower: a full-bolt on S65 will push 400whp and 300wtq

S65 Turbo/Supercharger Horsepower: turbo or supercharged S65's can get up and over 650whp, but the downside is that the kits are very expensive and the total cost will likely run you around $20k.

Unfortunately, at the same time BMW was manufacturing the S65 and putting it in the M3, they also built the N54 which is probably the most tuneable engine ever (along with the 2JZ). While the S65 would cap out at 400whp with bolt-ons, the N54 was going on to break 450whp on bolt-ons and about $2,000 worth of parts. Since the N54 came stock with twin turbos, upgrade kits are reasonably cheap and the cost of building a 650whp S65 is probably 5x more than building a 650whp N54.

BMW F80 M3 (2014-2018)

BMW F80 M3Pin

F80 M3 Engine: S55 3.0L Twin-Turbocharged I6
Horsepower/Torque: 425hp / 406lb-ft
0-60mph: 3.8 seconds DCT, 4.1 seconds manual
1/4 Mile: 11.66 seconds at 119.24mph
Top Speed: 174mph (limited to 155mph), but probably faster (no conclusive data)
Curb Weight: 3,590 lbs.
Production: 34,677 globally, 16,057 US

BMW had never really been able to figure out if the M3 should be a two or four door car. The E30 was coupe only. The M5 had a few year production gap, so BMW decided to make the E36 in coupe and sedan. The E46 was coupe only. And then the E9X version had both coupe and sedan. In 2014, BMW launched the M2 and M4, which are only two door coupes. So, the M3 will now forever be a 4-door sedan. We're glad they figured it out.

For being a V8, the S65 had a massive lack of torque. While horsepower didn't increase much with the S55, torque took a big step forward from 295 to 406.

We mentioned earlier that BMW probably made an accidental mistake with the N54 engine. While the engine was only putting down 300hp at the crank, the twin turbo setup combined with forged internals, allowed for aggressive tuning. The end result: an N54 with $2,000 of mods making 50-80whp more than the S65 E9X M3. I wouldn't have been too happy as the M3 owner.

While even BMW's low-end engines are going to turbocharger setups for efficiency purposes, we don't think its a surprise that the S55 has turned out to be as much of a monster as it is. We'll save the rest for the tuning section below...

S55 Pro's:

  • Twin turbo setup make it tuner friendly
  • Cheapest horsepower out of all other models, 500whp for about $1,000
  • Perfect balance of 4-door practicality and performance
  • Torque is right where it should be after a soft output on the S65 M3's

S55 Con's:

  • It can get pricey with all of the packages and add-ons
  • Exhaust sound is fabricated and not quite the same as a naturally aspirated 400hp car

BMW S55 Reliability

The S55 is built off of the N54 platform, which certainly had its fair share of common problems. Fortunately, so far after 4 years of production, the S55 doesn't seem to have any glaring common issues. However, there is one potential failure that trips up most potential buyers: the crank hub issue.

The crank hub issue occurs when the nut that holds the crank hub to the crankshaft loses its tension which results in the crankshaft and camshaft timing getting thrown out of whack. This causes the pistons to smash into the valves and leaves you with a few thousand dollar repair bill. While this does occur once in a blue moon on highly modded cars, the issue is a bunch of BS, mostly drummed up by a company called TPG Tuning who made an "upgraded" crank hub that is actually worse than the OEM one.

The S55 crank hub is the same one used by the N54 and N55. TPG claims both these engines have common issues with the crank hub... we own 3 N54's, two of which are highly tuned, and we've been BMW bloggers and active forum members for years, and have never heard about a crank hub issue on an N54 or N55. Don't buy their product and don't get concerned about this issue.

Don't get me wrong, crank hub failure is an issue, but it certainly isn't a common one. Most of the failures came from 2014 and 2015 models who were running 550whp or more. BMW adjusted the bed plate in 2016 which fixed this issue and made it less prevalent, so opt for a 2016+ if this does concern you.

If you do experience crank hub failure, the total cost with parts and labor to fix it is only about $2k. The magnitude of this issue has been blown out of proportion.

BMW S55 Tuning Potential

With the S55 built off the N54 platform, you can expect a high degree of tuning potential. BMW hit the nail on the head with this engine and finally built an M3 that is easy and cheap to tune and make big power from. The previous M3 models required forced induction, to the tune of about $10-20k to get any serious power gains over the stock engine. Add twin turbos and now the M3 can make an additional 100whp by simply adding a flash tuner.

The S55 with a flash tune (bootmod3) and catless downpipes will dyno approx. 500whp and 550wtq.

FBO S55's with stock turbos, stock fueling, and E85 has been dyno'd at 552whp and 575wtq.

FBO + Stage 2 turbos + meth injection + race gas will get you approx. 750whp and 675wtq.

The S55 M3 is hands down the most tuner friendly M3, and the best option for anyone looking to put down serious amounts of power without spending serious amounts of money. The cars themselves are expensive enough, right?

All in all, 700whp+ on the S55 is extremely attainable. 500whp will only cost you about $1,000 and you can get to 550whp for less than $2,500. Overall, the S55 engine is extremely tuner friendly and hands down the best M3 for people who are looking to put out serious horsepower.

The current S55 horsepower record is 1,163whp and 983wtq. At 41psi, this is of course on a fully built motor. Super impressive and keeps us looking forward to future developments on the S55. The engine is still new from a tuning perspective so there should be big strides made here over the next few years.

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4 thoughts shared

  1. Comment author image

    Buy Elite Proxies

    says:

    There are some fascinating closing dates on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There is some validity but I’ll take hold opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as well

  2. Comparing a E90 M3 with a N54 M3 while talking about horsepower only is a sin.
    Driving those 2 cars is a completely different experience. Dct for starters, but you can offset that with the manual. However all the work done on the chassis makes it a different car. 80% of parts are different from the normal E90 to the M3 E90.
    Damn. Do your research, and maybe drive the cars before you write about them.

    1. Hi Joao,

      Of course they are very different cars. This isn’t an M3 vs 335i article, and the info you reference is under the ‘Tuning Potential’ section. We’ve said a million times across this website that the M3 is the full package; the 335i is not. When it comes to tuning potential the N54 is the better and cheaper engine to mod, though.

      If this were an M3 vs 335i article we would have covered the fact that there’s a lot more to it than just engines and power. As a matter of fact, we did exactly that in an article about the M3 vs 335i. Damn. Maybe do a little research before commenting.

      Regards,