The BMW M3: tracing a family tradition

What better way to welcome the BMW M3 GTS than to find its roots? Neil Vorano drives every generation of the iconic coupe.

Driving an old, classic car is quite an experience. As the saying goes, they don't make 'em like they used to, but behind the wheel you see why - the lack of refinement, the softer braking, perhaps the steering isn't quite what you're used to in a modern car. But therein lies the delight; it's almost an archeological experience. You get an acute insight into the level of technology and engineering of the car industry of that particular era.

A 1930s Bugatti, a 1950s Maserati or a 1960s Ferrari may have been the tops of their respective eras, but they would be outclassed by many regular saloons on the road today. Which goes to show how far car makers have progressed, through each generation, to build what we expect a performance car to be today. But if driving one old car can illustrate that point, driving an entire generation of the same vehicle, from its inception to the latest iteration, is something altogether eye opening. And extremely rare.

Which is why this introduction of BMW's latest M3 variant, the 2011 GTS, is a special occasion. Because not only will I get to drive this lightened, track-inspired version of the German car maker's hot coupe around the Ascari race track in Spain, but it has also trotted out versions of every M3 it has ever built, right from 1986, all fully restored to the point that they look like they just rolled out of a showroom. It's all to recognise the M3's 25th anniversary, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

The Ascari track, a private course set in the arid mountain region of southern Spain, is a beautiful and fitting venue for this test. Its banked corners, off-camber hairpin, long, sweeping curves and many elevation changes make for a challenging run in any car; and while driving each generation of M3 displays their different characteristics, it also highlights their similarities at being exemplary track runners. The GTS is the culmination of the knowledge and engineering BMW has developed with the series; built for the track but still road worthy, it's faster, lighter, and just does everything better than the base M3. Everything that is, except luxury. BMW stripped 70kg for the GTS by ditching the rear seats (where a half roll cage resides instead), using polycarbonate windows, stripping the interior (where's the radio?) and using lighter materials all around. The front power seats are replaced by snug, manually adjustable race seats and there's a large, carbon fibre wing hanging off the rear end. Power is increased to 444hp over the base M3's 420hp - that's done by increasing the engine size to 4.3L from the stock 4.0L. And from the first turn of the key, you know the GTS is a more serious drive than even the already hot M3. With the drop of the green flag in the pit lane, the engine roars through the cockpit, and with the revs rising fast I am pushed back in my seat. Acceleration is more than just brisk - zero-to-100kph comes in 4.4 seconds - and the first braking point comes quickly. A hard dab on the carbon ceramic brakes reveals them to be more than capable at scrubbing off the already ridiculous speed I've reached in the fourth of seven gears from the sequential gearbox. Turn in is noticeably sharper than the base M3, and as I go through more of the track, the increased power, coupled with the lighter weight, rockets the car forward with the increased roar of the GTS's exhaust. I'm thankful for the strong brakes, which are easy to modulate, because corners need to be taken with care; the off-camber hairpin is a constant area of understeer for me as I struggle to turn the car in. But two turns later, the banked corner lets me rip open the throttle and fire out the other side. It's a thrilling ride and, as I finish my hot laps and come in, it's easy to see that this is definitely a more dedicated performer than the stock M3. But knowing where you are means knowing where you came from. The line of classic M3s sits invitingly in the pit lane, and I rush to drive all of them, eager for a history lesson. The M3 first debuted in 1986, designated by the factory as the E30, with a four-cylinder engine that started at 195hp; hardly scintillating by today's standards, but back then it was built for homologated racing and went on to be a success on European tracks. Here at Ascari today, the little car shows why: while power may not as proliferous as its successors, its handling is superb. It turns anywhere you point it without a whiff of understeer, even allowing controlled drifts out of the turns. It seems a perfectly balanced car with little roll in curves; a barrel of fun without being overbearing. Even its somewhat clunky five-speed manual gearbox is a delight, rowing through the gears and double clutching in a proper, old-school motoring fashion. And all of this with no traction control or driver aids to speak of. The next generation, the E36, came in 1990. It was larger and more luxurious than the previous version, which you can easily feel jumping behind the wheel. Starting it up reveals another difference: the engine had been bumped up to a 3.0L inline six cylinder, giving it a beautiful sound from the tail pipes. On track, the power is noticeably greater, but it definitely feels like a heavier car, and more care has to be taken in braking and turning. It had the company's first SMG gearbox, though without paddle shifters - you change gear by bumping the gear stick back and forth. The delays in shifting are glacial compared with today's sequential gearboxes. The third generation, the E46, was a big jump from the previous M3. On track, the steering feels more direct, the suspension more taught and, though still not as good as the E30, its turning more able than the previous generation. Its inline six pumps out 343hp, another noticeable change; it feels much more competitive by today's standards than the previous two generations and demands much more respect. This one has paddle shifters and a gearbox that shifts with much less delay. Finally, the latest M3, the E92. Wow. Everything about this car is much improved over the last generation, and it's apparent as I hit the first turn at Ascari. The steering and handling are much, much tighter and more direct; braking is better and, hitting the apex, I feel the car holds the corner more. With 420hp from a V8, it also demands more concentration, as the speed climbs more rapidly. The heavier nose means a driver must venture easy in a turn lest he finds the limit of understeer, and the huge increase in power demands a patient foot on the throttle coming out. But it holds the tarmac beyond what you would expect, and it's a thrilling ride through the Spanish countryside. After the high-adrenaline runs around the track, after the smoking tyres and screaming engines and the smell of the hot brakes, I had a chance to relax and take a few of the classics out on the tight mountain roads that surround the track; convertibles, no less, perfect on a sunny, 30°C day. And it's here that I found my new love: the first-generation E30, with just around 200hp, was a perfect drive on these roads. Yes, the power isn't up to even a Toyota these days, but on these country roads, there's no need for 400hp - especially with the lack of kerbside barriers and long drop-offs at the side of the road. And with its light weight and balanced handling, it just feels like an extension of my own body. Admittedly, for pure, competitive track thrills, it's hard to question the M3 GTS, especially with its track-tuned suspension, quicker-shifting sequential box (the only gearbox available) and adjustable dampers. The only problem is, it will be a hard question for most people to answer: only 150 will be produced, and all have been sold already. This test has left me with an appreciation of how far BMW has progressed in such a relatively short time. But more so, it leaves me anticipating what will come next.

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