With the recent launch of the BMW M2, journalists and pundits alike are exclaiming it to be a BMW M car that feels like M cars of old. Oh how we miss the old days, when BMWs had steering so telepathic it felt as if the steering rack was connected directly to one’s cerebral cortex and when their suspensions were a perfect blend of comfort and sportiness. And since it’s been a long time since most of us have driven those cars, let’s take a look at how they were viewed back when they were new.
This is a Car and Driver test from 1999, where they test the E36 BMW M3 up against its rivals of the time, the Audi S4, Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG and the Saab 9-3 Viggen. While the E46 BMW 3 Series had debuted in 1999, the M3 was still in the E36 generation, so it’s the oldest car in the test. But it’s quite interesting to see how it stacked up and what C&D had to say about it 17 years ago.
Coming in fourth place in the test was the Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG. Today, we know AMG Mercs to be luxury-lined missiles with engines that seemingly dwarf everything else and have cabins that rival private jets. While AMGs typically don’t have the handling chops of BMW M cars, they certainly make up for it with grunt and luxury. Then, it was much the same, but its flaws were more exaggerated. While modern Mercs handle relatively well, the C43 AMG was not very good in the handling department. Its steering was twitchy, vague and overly light while its suspension was overly stiff and crashy without any handling benefit. Its engine was a monster, a 4.3 liter V8 (don’t you miss car names that mirrors engine size?) with 302 hp and a five-speed auto, but the rest of the car wasn’t good enough to keep up with the competition.
In third place came the Saab 9-3 Viggen. Most of you probably forgot about the 9-3 Viggen, and Saab in general, but it was very much one of the better European sport sedans of its day. While it was the slowest car in the bunch, as its 2.3 liter 225 hp turbocharged four-cylinder got it from 0-60 mph on 6.5 seconds, it had a ton of character. Sure, it was front-wheel drive and was basically built off of a crappy Opel chassis, but it came with a manual, had a big turbocharger and drove with that typical Saab quirkiness. While the 9-3 Viggen was strange and not very good, it was interesting and fun.
Second place is where our E36 BMW M3 fell. Apparently, the M3 had never lost a comparison test for Car and Driver until this one. Much of that has to do with the M3’s age, as the E36 generation M3 debuted in 1992, but it also had to do with Audi finally catching up. The E36 M3 was also a bit nerfed in America, getting the less powerful engine. Its 3.2 liter I6 made 240 hp and was mated to a five-speed manual. While that’s a healthy enough spec sheet to allow for some fun, the European model of the time had 321 hp and a six-speed manual. But the E36 M3 was still lauded for its telepathic steering, superb handling dynamics and power deliver, all which were considered the best in the group by far. But its interior plastics were starting to look dated even then and its age was starting to show.
As the M3 got older and lost some of its luster, the Audi S4 crept just ahead of the Bavarian stalwart. With its 2.7 liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine, which developed 250 hp, mated to the only six-speed manual in the test, the Audi S4 was the faster car in the test getting to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. While its steering wasn’t quite as sharp as the M3’s and its handling wasn’t quite as dynamic, it was clearly second best in all of those categories. Where it leaps ahead of the BMW is everywhere else. Its ride was more comfortable, while still feeling sporty, and its interior was far better. It was also better equipped, more modern and clearly faster. It had a larger breadth of abilities and all of them were excellent, so C&D deemed it the better car, if just but a bit.
We clamor on about how great the sports cars were back in the day but we often forget just how good. A simple re-read of a comparison test from only 17 years ago helps illustrate just how good BMW M cars were back then. Read this test and check out how they wax lyrical about the M3’s steering and handling. Maybe 17 years from now, people will be reading what we’re writing about the BMW M2, wishing for things to be like the good ole days again.