BMW M3 E36 vs E46 vs E92 vs F80 – Ultimate Comparison

M3 E36 vs E46 vs E92

We get it all of the time – What’s the best BMW M3 for for track? Should I get an E36 M3? Should I swap an S54 into an E36? Should I get an E46 M3 with the S54? Should I get an E92 M3 with the S65 V8 and available DCT? We feel each car has it’s pros and cons and we decided to lay it all out here to give you as much info as possible so you can make a decision based on what’s right for you. Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of these generation M3s!

We know there is an E90 M3, an E30 M3, an F82 M4 and convertible variations, but we decided to leave those out to keep the comparison as focused as possible. We picked the ones that are the most popular track cars to compare.

Comparison overview (Factory Specs)
Off the showroom floor

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Engine S52 I6 S54 I6 S65 V8 S55 I6 Twin Turbo
Horsepower 240 333 414 425
Torque 240 262 295 406
Weight 3,219 lbs 3,415 lbs 3,649 lbs (DCT) 3,516 lbs (DCT)
HP to Weight 13.41 lb/hp 10.26 lb/hp 8.81 lb/hp 8.27 lb/hp
TQ to Weight 13.41 lb/tq 13.03 lb/hp 12.37 lb/hp 8.66 lb/hp

Comparison overview (Standard Bolt on Modifications)
Here we take the factory cars above and add standard bolt on power mods. (Intake/Exhaust/Headers/Tune)

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Horsepower 270 375 465 550
Torque 260 285 330 550
Weight 3,219 lbs 3,415 lbs 3,649 lbs (DCT) 3,516 lbs (DCT)
HP to Weight 11.92 lb/hp 9.11 lb/hp 7.85 lb/hp 6.39 lb/hp
TQ to Weight 12.38 lb/tq 11.98 lb/hp 11.05 lb/hp 6.40 lb/hp

Comparison overview (Bolt ons and heavy weight reduction)
Lightweight exhaust, remove rear seats, speakers, interior pieces, etc

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Horsepower 270 375 465 550
Torque 260 285 330 550
Weight 2,600 lbs 2,850 lbs 3,150 lbs (DCT) 3,250 lbs (DCT)
HP to Weight 9.63 lb/tq 7.60 lb/hp 6.77 lb/hp 5.90 lb/hp
TQ to Weight 10.00 lb/tq 10.00 lb/hp 9.55 lb/hp 5.91 lb/hp

As you can see above, the F80 is a monster when it comes to power to weight ratio, both factory spec as well as with bolt ons and with weight reduction. In order to obtain the weights above, you have to go through some pretty serious weight reduction. The weights are estimated without a driver and are based on our experience with heavily stripped cars. You can get each car a little lighter and most are going to be above these weights, but this will give you a comparison of about where most of the generations currently sit in terms heavy weight reduction.

Comparison overview (Supercharged and Forced Induction)
A clean title, good condition example of each one, picked with the earliest year

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Horsepower 360 550 625 550
Torque 300 310 420 550
Weight 3,219 lbs 3,415 lbs 3,649 lbs (DCT) 3,516 lbs (DCT)
HP to Weight 8.94 lb/hp 6.20 lb/hp 5.83 lb/hp 6.39 lb/hp
TQ to Weight 10.79 lb/tq 11.02 lb/hp 8.69 lb/hp 6.39 lb/hp

Above is the most horsepower that is currently recommended for each car, with the factory motor, on the track. The F80 can make much more power, but we haven’t seen power levels over about 550 be reliable (yet) on the track. The E92 has a 650 horsepower kit as well, but it requires higher octane, and most customers run the 625 horsepower kits. Each platform is capable of more power, but this is a demonstration of track readiness. In this case, the E92 is the shining star for horsepower to weight. However, any one of the supercharged cars will require modification beyond a standard kit in order to run cool on the track.

Comparison overview (Problem Areas)
General Problem Areas – Most common problems

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Problem Area Subframe
Shock Towers
Cooling System
Trailing Arm Bushings
Transmission Mounts
Rod Bearings
SMG Pump
Throttle Actuators
Crank Pin
Mileage 180,000 140,000 80,000 5,000

Comparison overview (Cost of engine and transmission replacement)
Forum and eBay prices as of the date of this post

E36 M3 (96-99) E46 M3 (01-05) E92 M3 (08-13) F80 M3 (15+)
Engine $2,750 $4,000 $9,000 $16,000
Transmission $400 $800 $1,800 (DCT)
$2,500 (6MT)
$3,350 (DC)

The E36, being the oldest car here, is going to have the most little problems. Generally, the S52 is pretty stout and once refreshed can be used very reliably as a track car. Commonly, the cooling system is not up to par and there are some oil starvation issues, but both can be fixed relatively easily. We recommend replacing all bushings and as many “easy to access” gaskets as possible to have the most reliable motor. Most customers replace their valve cover gaskets and do a head gasket job as preventative maintenance when they are going to be tracking the car. The manual transmissions are solid. The E36 suffers from the same subframe problems as the E46, but since the E46 is a heavier car it’s more prevalent in the E46.

The E46 arguably has the most small issues of the bunch, but is also a big jump up in moving pieces over the E36. While the S54 is generally a strong motor, the vanos, valve cover gasket, head gasket and other issues pop up frequently. Earlier cars had a rod bearing recall. Subframes are known to crack. We highly recommend having the subframe checked and if uncracked, reinforced before tracking. We also recommend getting full maintenance done on the motor as generally most S54’s have gone over 100,000 miles and probably weren’t babied. SMG has been known to have issues, and the SMG pump is very expensive (over $3,000). Most do a SMG to manual conversion to save on cost and improve reliability.

The E92 has been one of the most reliable M cars yet. There are cases of rod bearing failure and premature rod bearing wear, but for the most part the S65 is very strong. Many people have reported over 140,000 miles, 50+ track days, and not a single problem. Many people also have supercharged high mileage cars and also generally report no problems. While no car is perfect, the S65 has proven to be very reliable.

The F80 is very new still, but aside from some issues with the crank pins, the motor has taken a lot of boost, upgraded turbos, and many other mods and hasn’t broken a sweat. There are a few rare cases of blown motors, but for the most part, which a solid tune, the motors have proven to be very reliable. We will see over time if this holds out.

On the track – The real world

The various generation M3s all share what BMW calls “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. This means BMW builds these cars to not only perform on the track, but also be a comfortable daily driver. They are supposed to do everything well. However, each one does share something unique over the others, especially in modified form that really makes them completely different cars on the track.

The E36 M3 is the lightest of the bunch, has the least amount of computer intervention and is arguably the most “raw” of this bunch. The S50 (found in the 1995) and the S52 (used above, found in the 1996 to 1999), is not the most powerful motor at 240 horsepower. However, for those who want a starter track car, it doesn’t get much better than the E36 M3. Easier to manage on the track with it’s power level, light and nimble, lower cost of consumables and lower entry cost.

Next up is the E46 M3 which makes almost 100 horsepower more than the E36 but doesn’t weigh that much more, making it that much more of a handful on the track but also that much more potent. The S54 is a masterpiece and loves to rev. The E46 suspension offers lots more grip and feedback and the car is arguable the perfect size. The car can be made pretty light and the S54 takes well to modifications, which makes this an awesome track weapon.

The E9X series, E90 and E92 specifically, have a glorious 4.0L V8 S65 engine that screams to a 8600 RPM (tuned) redline, has linear power delivery and weighs less than the S54 in the E46. The E92 is heavier, but also has a more advanced suspension setup and as seen in this video is the only BMW M3 to go under 7 seconds on the Nurburgring with a stock motor at this time. This is Porsche 918 Nurburgring territory! While the heaviest M3, it is also one of the most capable.

The F8X series introduces the first turbocharged M3. This changes the dynamic of the M3 line up due to the turbo engine power delivery. No longer is there the all motor linear power build which many claim helps to propel the older generations with more confidence and grip around corners. The F80 and F82 make significant amounts of horsepower and torque over the other models, and with proper cooling have no problem putting the power down lap after lap. However, the suspension continues to improve, and users are looking to add wider and wider tires to gain more traction. While the E9X still holds lap records that the F8X has yet to beat, we feel confident that as tuners and racers dive deeper into this new platform, the F8X chassis will be the track champ.

Opinions and thoughts from owners

E36Racer From my experience with the E36 chassis, replacing the headgasket is a must. I see it is listed as a recommendation; however, for some reason if you take a S50/52 that has only been driven on the street and then use it as a track only car the headgasket will fail. But, if you change it before ‘track only’ duty, it will last forever. I’ve always done ARP studs at the same time. So far, 5 years and approx. 20k track miles and no issues. Motor had 42k miles when put into the car and can do a 15 hour endurance race and not even burn a drop of oil. Also, one key trick to an S52 is to install an S54 oil pump and pan and you can forget about any oil starvation issues. Plus it all bolts right on…

ec_E92 For the E36 issues to address, I’d add the oil pump nut (weld, safety wire, or go with Achilles Motorsports oil pump)

admranger The big change in suspension bits, especially in the rear, of the E9xM3’s on makes a substantial difference in my opinion. I raced an E36M3, have driven a ton of track miles in an E46M3 (including multiple days on the ‘ring), and now have enough experience in the E90M3 to know the E90M3 is more fun and easier to drive fast even though it’s heavier. Haven’t driven an F80 on track but have sat in the right seat while TC Kline took me around Laguna. F80 is stupid fast. Ridiculous really.

Mike B The e36 is probably the best driving experience of the bunch. I have driven all pretty extensively and next to the e36 the f80 is the only one better in my opinion. A euro s50 motor swap on a e36 really ups the game pushing it up to 322 out of the box in a very light car. The us spec cars should of had the euro s50. There are quite a few running around. Euro s50 motors are relatively affordable as well. S52’s respond awesome to cam swaps too and really wake the s52 up.

I love the the s54 in the e46. The platform works too. I’ve always disliked the feel of the the drive train. I don’t know if it is the m diff in it or the way the clutch engages or what. But the car feels fragile for some reason. I know it’s not but it doesn’t instill the same confidence the e36 does. I don’t maybe it’s just me.

The e90 is fun and sounds awesome. But it is also my least favorite if the bunch. I don’t really have a great reason why other then feel. To me it doesn’t feel like a M3. Once again it’s a personal preference thing. The f80 in my opinion has rectified that. The f80 is a absolute hoot. I think most of that is all the extra turbo torque.

At the end of the day they are awesome choices and you basically can’t go wrong with any of them!

David M I’ve driven Lots of sports cars and I still think the E36 was the most balanced and fun to drive with it can crush even newer cars that are supposed to easily!
Obviously not blindingly fast but more than fast enough for most!

cherry-M3 Summed it up perfectly. The e9x has a superior suspension to the e46 and 36, allowing it to feel like it carries its weight better. The confidence it gives you going into a turn is incredible. On the ring I’m sure the the e9x really shines, compared to slower more technical tracks where you definitely feel the weight. Nonetheless its the most capable out of all the generations (save for the f80 as I have no track experience in one just yet).

How about a video?

CarThrottle did a nice comparison of these generation M3s. Check out this video:

What did we miss?

There are so many differences between the various generations of M3 that it would be near impossible to capture them all in an easy to read post. However, we realize we didn’t capture everything important here, so we’re looking for your help to make this as complete as possible. We look forward to your feedback in the comments!

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  1. I believe your power to weight ratios are expressed in the wrong direction. As I understand the ratio you take the HP and divide by the vehicles Curb Weight and this is expressed as HP per 10lbs. Please correct me if I am wrong. The ideal numbers in power to weight ratios are over 1 hp per 10lbs. So if your car has numbers less than that you need to increase HP or reduce vehicle weight to reach that ideal figure. If we use the power to weight formula, we have the following power to weight ratio results: E36 = .746; E46 = .975; E92 = 1.13; F80 = 1.21 (all numbers have been rounded). Perhaps I misunderstood what you were stating, but to me it didn’t make sense the numbers published.

  2. In the United States, Rahal Letterman Racing entered two factory-backed E92 M in the 2009 American Le Mans Series season, competing in the GT2 category. In 2011, the BMW achieved a 1-2 finish in the 12 Hours of Sebring. In the 2011 American Le Mans Series GT class, BMW Team RLL swept all categories, winning the GT manufacturer, team and driver championships. In 2012, the M3 won the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #79 M3 GT2 that competed at Le Mans became the h BMW Art Car after it was decorated by Jeff Koons .

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