The BMW E36 M3 has become the "go-to" fun, fast, and surprisingly affordable sports car with enthusiasts clamoring to pick up clean examples before they're all gone. BMW purists will try to keep them as stock as possible while BMW tuners will modify and change the vehicle to the extent of the owners' imagination or, more realistically, pocket depth. These are our picks for the top 5 BMW E36 M3 mods.
The S50 (1995) and S52 (1996-1999) inline 6-cylinder engines are very strong motors given proper maintenance has been performed, making them the perfect base for modifications. You've probably driven your E36 around town and had some fun on the back roads, content with how the car performs in its current state. However, there are people who are left wondering how they can make the ride even more enjoyable and make the car even better than what BMW provided. Here are just a few of the many things that can be changed on the E36 M3 and why you would (and wouldn't) upgrade them.
If you have yet to buy a BMW E36 M3, or any BMW E36 for that matter, our BMW E36 Buyer's Guide covers what to look out for when shopping for one, as well as what to address after you make your purchase.
However, everyone who drives a manual transmission knows the struggle that comes with rowing through the gears to get up to speed. The track driver wants to be able to get through gears quickly to optimize their lap times while the daily driver wants a reliable, easy ride they can occasionally “push”. Upgrading the stock flywheel on a 5-speed BMW E36 M3 to a lightweight variant can achieve both of these ideals.
The flywheel is a critical component between the engine and the transmission. It’s mass provides the rotational inertia that helps keep the engine in motion, it provides a power transfer connection between the transmission and the engine, and it’s engineered to provide balance for the crankshaft. The flywheel in most manual transmissions is usually a heavy, dual-mass piece that is expensive to replace and bogs down shifts. The average dual-mass flywheel can weigh 20-25 pounds and cannot be resurfaced, meaning when the flywheel is worn out, the whole unit must be replaced.
FCP Euro offers an alternative to the stock flywheel with the Fidanza BMW Lightweight Flywheel Kit. This part is unique in design as the main body is made from 6061 T6 aluminum while the friction service is replaceable and made from 1045 steel, meaning that when the friction surface is worn out, the whole flywheel does not need to be replaced. Additionally, this particular model weighs only 13 pounds, a huge improvement over the stock flywheel. Often, people misinterpret the main benefit of a lightweight flywheel to be the reduction in overall vehicle weight. In reality, it’s that a lighter flywheel allows the engine to rev-up quickly which translates into quicker shifts; varying engine RPM is the main achievement of the lightweight flywheel.
With any performance upgrade, there are bound to be downsides. When you change from a stock flywheel to lightweight, you’re sacrificing the buffer of torque that is stored when you proceed to put the car in gear. A lightweight flywheel is unforgiving and you will stall the car if you don’t balance the clutch and throttle perfectly. You can simply apply more throttle while slowly releasing the clutch, but this can lead to premature clutch wear.
There's no better way to upgrade your BMW E36 M3 than to upgrade its brakes. Most of these mods require a significant of of time or cost involved, but not the brakes. The stock brakes on the E36 M3 are more than large enough to handle everything but the most extreme duty, even E36 M3 race cars run stock calipers. The biggest difference comes from running a more aggressive brake pad and upgrading or replacing the old brake fluid.
When it comes to more aggressive brake pads for the BMW E36 M3, we have a few different options. Both Hawk and Ferodo have models for everything from enthusiastic street driving to dedicated track use. You can't go wrong with either, but be sure to choose a compound that fits your application. Running a track pad on the street will not offer adequate stopping performance as you won't be able to get enough heat into your brakes. We recommend no more than the Hawk HPS or HP+ for street use.
Brake rotors for your E36 M3 are pretty simple. We almost always recommend blank rotors as they offer the best value and durability. Zimmerman makes a great set of blank rotors to run with any pad, from street to track.
And if you're looking to simply restore your brakes back to stock without any real performance upgrades, we have a selection of BMW E36 M3 brake kits.
Upgrading the BMW E36 M3's suspension will result in immediately noticeable improvements in handling and ride quality. The E36 M3 came from the factory with sport-tuned suspension that allows for decent handling and comfort for everyday driving. Over time, suspension components like shocks/struts, control arms, ball joints, bushings, etc. wear out from everyday driving and poorly maintained roads, resulting in decreased ride quality. When these components go, upgrading them is a good way to ensure that the replaced components will last and perform in a way that meets your needs.
The most common suspension upgrade involves changing out the stock struts and shocks for coilovers. Adjustable coilovers allow the driver to set their desired ride height on a moment’s notice, which is especially useful if they plan on daily driving the M3 and occasionally tracking it. While the track may be free of potholes, manhole covers, and other obstacles, the streets aren’t. It’s important that the vehicle suspension is able to compensate for travel when the wheel hits a pothole; otherwise, the suspension will bottom out. Coilovers triumph over lowering springs in this regard.
We recommend BC Racing coilovers for your BMW E36 M3 as they offer some of the price/performance of any make out there.
Replacing the bushings that connect your suspension to the chassis is equally important to any other vehicle maintenance. Over time, rubber bushings can go bad and affect handling and ride quality. Many people choose to switch out the rubber control arm bushings for upgraded polyurethane bushings that provide a stiffer ride and improved longevity over stock. The downside is that same stiffness as some people find the harsher ride unpleasant when driving around town. Again, regular roads aren’t as smooth as the track, so any imperfections in the road will be translated to the cabin if the suspension components are particularly stiff.
While we don't sell them, tires for your BMW E36 M3 are one of the best investments you can make. It’s been said that you should never go cheap on the things that separate you from the ground; your shoes, your mattress, and your tires. When people are in the market for new tires, they often wonder how "plain rubber" can be so expensive; some can cost hundreds of dollars per tire. In fact, a lot of engineering and design goes into the production of vehicle tires. Things like tread, rubber compound, and dimensions go through rigorous R&D. No two tires are completely equal, so it’s important to consider what kind of driving you’ll be doing when deciding on what brand and model tire to buy.
If you plan on primarily or exclusively tracking the car, you’ll need a tire of a certain compound with a tread that can hold up to the heat and abuse that comes along with track days. If you plan on driving the car around town throughout the year, consider an all-season variant from a reputable brand like Bridgestone, Hankook, or Michelin. Summer tires are an excellent choice for people with the luxury of keeping their M3 in the garage during bad weather, but otherwise are very niche.
Personal recommendations for a good all-around summer tire is the Hankook Ventus V12 Evo 2. It is a great tire for commuting as well as the occasional auto-x or spirited mountain drive. It's quiet while offering great dry grip and amazing control on wet roads. If you're looking for something more aggressive for auto-x or track duty, or if you live somewhere like California where it doesn't rain often, one of our new recommendations is the Falken RT660. Recently released, this tire offers some of the highest performance for a budget price.
As with any car, the BMW E36 M3 is only as strong and reliable as the maintenance and care put in by the owner. It's always good practice to ensure that your car is running well without issues before putting money into performance and aftermarket upgrades. We always recommend that you use high-quality parts for peace of mind.
What kind of modifications have you done to your E36 M3? Have they added to the driving experience? Let us know in the comments!