-Scott Villeneuve & Christopher Little
It’s always hard to say goodbye to an old friend. Now though is the time for those goodbyes if you’re a fan of the BMW 3 series. After the 2012 model year the E90, E92, and E93 body-style will forever be a mark in history. The F30 is already out and on the lots, albeit sedan only, and solely rear wheel drive. We recently drove the new 3er, and came out of it thoroughly impressed. We, however, decided that we should mark the passing of a generation with a tribute, and that is exactly what we did.
The E90 was introduced as a 2006 model replacing the hugely successful E46 generation 3 Series. Unlike previous generations, the body styles were differentiated by generation number, rather than model numbers. E90 represented sedans, E91 tourings, E92 coupes, and E93 convertibles. At first it was offered with 2 naturally aspirated variants of BMW’s inline 6, the 325i and 330i. They were available mix-and-match selection of engines and drive-trains, including both manual and automatic transmissions and BMW’s xDrive. In 2007, the 328i and 335i replaced the previous engines, the latter heralding BMW’s commitment to turbocharging as its solution to increase fuel efficiency while boosting power output. In 2009, the US saw its first diesel 3 Series, the 335d. After a strong run, the E90 generation went through BMW’s typical life-cycle impulse (LCI) phase. The E90 sedan received updates in 2009, the coupe & convertibles getting them in 2011. Also in 2011, the US received the 335is, a rear-wheel-drive-only variant with more power and a slightly more aggressive look than the 335 with the M-Sport package.
The two particular cars we have on this occasion, our own rides actually, are a 2010 E90 M3 and 2011 E92 335i xDrive with the M-Sport package. Yes, this might make us a bit biased, but we’re thoroughly qualified to remark about living with these 2 vehicles. With exceptional weather for mid-April, we decided that a drive through the scenic town of Saratoga was in order, so we cleaned up the cars and set out.
The 335i is powered by BMW’s highly acclaimed TwinPower Turbo I6 producing 300hp and 300 lb ft torque. The xDrive platform gives this car every-day drive-ability in the Northeast, something that the M3 doesn’t afford. In addition, the optional M-Sport package adds sport seats, a sport steering wheel, unique wheels, and a special body kit. The total package is a car that is visually distinct from the every-day 3 Series with an engine to back it up. Overall, it is an absolutely brilliant piece of engineering. Everything is designed with the driver in mind, from the console controls to the robotic arm that extends and hands the front occupants their seatbelts. For everyday road use, its as fast as any car really need be. In the 335i, you never lose sight of what it is like to be driving an everyday sportscar. Getting more than 23 miles per gallon, and comfort that can suit even the longest road trip, you just need to experience why the BMW 3 series is as good as everyone says it is. Living with the 335i everyday is just like any other car that gets you from point A to B. However, the take away that the 335i has over many other everyday commuters is that it can be fun if you want it to be fun. The 335i is always ready for a backroad blast or a long highway journey. It will get you there, regardless of how you chose to drive it.
In contrast to the 335i, the M3 stuffs an award winning 4.0 liter naturally aspirated V8 under its rather conspicuous hood bulge, producing 414 hp, 295 lb ft torque and revving to 8400 RPM. This is no ordinary 3 Series. Oh, and the awards? It was chosen as the International Engine of the Year (3.0L-4.0L) in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The sedan doesn’t get the coupe’s carbon fiber roof, but it does share its front end, unlike its non-M counterparts. It also gets the other M3 trappings; flared wheel arches, quad exhaust, flying buttress style wing mirrors, and a deck-lid spoiler . This M3 also has a proper manual gearbox and the optional EDC adjustable suspension, making it a true enthusiasts dream.
Sitting in an M3 feels remarkably similar to a regular 3 Series, with the exception of a few hints. The seats are more heavily bolstered, the hood bulge is visible from the cabin, and the DSC, EDC, and “Power” buttons on the console. Yes, the car literally has a “Power” button. However, rather than having to pay attention to these buttons, the “M” button on the steering wheel can be programmed through the iDrive system. The driver can set his traction, suspension, throttle, and steering sensitivity up ahead of time and activate it with the push of a button. This lends itself perfectly to this car’s most amazing aspect.
Despite all the constant reminders that you’re not driving just the average 3 Series, the duality of the M3′s driving dynamic is astonishing. With the settings relaxed, you can easily drive around town, ferrying three lucky guests in perfect comfort. In fact, Scott and I endured a 14 hour road trip in remarkable comfort for a car of this performance level. With that said, a push of the M button puts the car in full attack mode, poised to barrel down freeway on-ramps or wring the most out of a country road. Inside this sedan is a track animal, wailing to get out as you hold a gear and let the engine rev all the way up though its range. Acceleration, turn in, road feel, and breaking are all crisp, precise, and confidence building. The car will take any road you throw at it and bring the driver though with pinpoint accuracy and a huge grin. This car set the benchmark for all other sport sedans, truly making it the Ultimate Driving Machine. What we’ll miss most about this car is its engine. The E9X M3 marks the last naturally aspirated engine to find its way into an M car for the foreseeable future.
So at the end of our ride, the goofy smiles and quietly ticking cars mask a bit of sadness, seeing such great cars come to the end of their production. Luckily for us, we know that they’ll be waiting in our garages for the next sunny day. Luckily for some of you, well-treated and well-optioned E9X generation 3 Series will continue to emerge onto used car lots in the foreseeable future. Will they find their own cult following like the E46 did? Only time will tell how the E9X generation is remembered. Beyond all that, though, we feel better knowing that BMW already has a great replacement for them.