Sometimes a talented driver, a stellar chassis, and a stout motor are enough to hang with supercars, which ought to stride off into the distance. Instead of becoming little specks on the horizon, the Porsche 996 GT3 and Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera here are made to look almost silly when chased by a well-sorted and skillfully driven E36 M3. Especially at the 12.9-mile Nürburgring, where this humble BMW demonstrates how 500 horsepower doesn’t mean everything when the track is technical and demanding.
The Silky Straight-Six S52
Off the bat, the BMW’s powerplant isn’t exactly underpowered. The European version of the 3.2-liter S52 motor is far punchier than the U.S. with a much better valvetrain, double Vanos, and roughly another horsepower over the American hamstrung version. This particular example, benefiting from a Supersprint exhaust, makes a healthy 312 horsepower and 260 lb-ft — nothing to be sniffed at.
That’s about half the horsepower the Lamborghini’s V10 makes, but the S52’s 312 horsepower is delivered in a silky, linear, manageable wave of torque with plenty of top-end power. While this straight-six motor doesn’t have so much to spin the wheels regularly, it’s enough when complemented by a friendly balance, incisive nose, and stunning outright grip.
The Best Balanced M
It’s not like the E36 M3 hasn’t proved its mettle at the Nordschleife before. A more dedicated track-spec M3 has rounded the ‘Ring in a scarcely believable 7:25. This car is much-less focused but is still capable of staggering times. Much of this has to do with Max, the Swiss ace sitting in the driver’s seat, while some of it has to do with an incredible chassis.
The lightweight E36 carries great speed, rarely breaks away, and is so planted that it inspires confidence in the Nürburgring’s trickiest sections. It can easily match a well-driven Miata through faster corners like Aremberg (2:24), and it also has the punch to out-drag the Mazda.
While the S52 isn’t powerful enough to treat rolling chicanes like an afterthought, there is enough boogie to move around a slower car if there’s a decent straight around. Indeed, the S52-powered M3 straddles the fence between a momentum car and a muscle car.
To stay in contention with much quicker cars, Max relies on tidier lines, late braking, and his ability to roll impressive entry speeds. He’s hilariously quick through the more technical sections. Watch how he actually begins to outrun the GT3 at the famously treacherous exit of Ex-Mühle (4:14).
We’ve seen before how the off-camber exit occasionally forces Porsches into a troublesome situation, and we can even see how the GT3 shimmies over the crown of the road in this clip. Max’s mid-corner speed is so much higher that it seems he’s on the verge of outrunning the GT3 at the exit. It takes a few seconds, but eventually, the Porsche’s 435 horsepower overpowers the M3’s momentum. Life just isn’t fair.
Staying in the Fight
The horsepower disparity makes itself evident in the straighter sections like Kesselchen (5:20). Even though the two exotics streak out of sight, Max never gives up, brakes late, and crashes the party again once they arrive at the Karussel. Though he couldn’t see them 15-seconds earlier, he’s now nipping at their heels!
From there on, wherever the corners are heavily cambered, Max can close the gap by one or two car lengths at a time (6:51). This proves a nicely balanced car with good grip and usable torque can hang with well-driven supercars. Considering M3s of this vintage are going for $10,000-15,000 these days, maybe it’s time to put the V8 dreams on the back burner and sort out an E36.