“The new M5 does not need go-faster cosmetics,” said BMW Motorsport Chief Engineer Thomas Ammerschlager. “This car convinces through performance, and we did not want to spoil the act by dressing up our best thoroughbred in fancy clothes.”
That was in the October 1988 edition of Car magazine, back when M cars didn’t have dozens of branded aero bits to appeal to the middle managers of the world. Times have changed though, and the motorsport badge has promulgated to nearly every body style. Even crossovers.
While purists may raise their tri-colored pitchforks about the dilution of the M pedigree, and debate whether the S55 engine in the M3 is too derivative of the regular N55, what’s undeniable is that the current crop of even standard Bimmers can stand up to classic Ms and their bespoke engines. With the refreshed 3 Series and a new 340i model, we now have a regular 3 Series that has more power than the Porsche-beating M5 of the ‘90s.
And it inevitably raised the question: is a regular 3 Series better than an older M car with similar power and weight? There are fewer differences than you think—they’re nearly the same size, with the 340i being a couple inches wider and taller, but four inches shorter.
Granted, it’s not the fairest comparison—even though I fix the M5 as needed there’s 197,000 miles on the odometer, and it’s hard to be objective since this car’s my own. Nonetheless I decided to break the comparison down to four parts: engine, transmission, handling, and value.
The 340i is an all-new turbo inline six making 320 horsepower, replacing the 300-hosepower motor in the now-defunct 335i. BMW must be sandbagging, because the B58 has got punch across entire powerband; it goes from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds while the M5 gets there a full second and a half later. They’re polar opposites in character, and depending on how you like your motors the S38 is either too raw or the B58 too refined. Individual throttle bodies and a single-mass flywheel make the M5 revs snappy, and the raspy grunt at full throttle is reminiscent of an old Merlin engine from a Spitfire. It lacks the civility of newer motors though, and at stoplights you’ll hear gearbox chatter and a lumpy idle.
The 340i may lack the soundtrack of the E34 but it’s one of the best inline sixes in recent years from BMW. It quietly hums in traffic, and changes to a coquettish roar when romping on the throttle, thanks to a well-insulated cabin that necessitates fake engine noises piped through the speakers. The M5 may sound better—it’s got one of the best engine notes of the classic Big Sixes—but the 340i sings all the way to its 7400 rpm redline without a hint of turbo lag, and is superior by all objective counts. Advantage: 340i.
While rose-tinged nostalgia may apply for the inlines of the past, it’s a mismatch to compare old and modern transmissions. The five-speed Getrag 280 in the M5 heaves into each gear with a mushy takeup and long throws, and the gearbox isn’t is stout as other offerings, like the Getrag 265 in the E30 M3. Early models have a shorter final drive and are sportier, but cruise at higher rpm (the six-speed was never offered in North America). The six-speed only offered in the Euro ’95 M5s provided an extra gear for cruising, but still had similar characteristics, with play that quickly develops in the shifter mechanism.
On the other hand, you can’t go wrong with either the six-speed manual or the eight-speed ZF in the 340i. The manual effortlessly shifts with a lighter clutch than the 1991 E34 M5, and standard transmissions can’t touch the shift speeds of the automatic. Advantage: 340i.
The switch to electronic power steering in the 3 Series made sense on a business level—it’s lighter, more fuel efficient, and most buyers aren’t going to need the steering feedback when driving to work with a pumpkin spice latte in hand. But media and enthusiasts have raised a stink about it enough for BMW to retune the steering for 2016, and it’s slightly better in Sport mode. Maybe. It still feels artificially boosted especially in Comfort mode, and is less sport, more Camry. The steering box in the M5 was praised in its day, but its main drawback is the giant steering wheel and slower lock-to-lock turn. It’s also imprecise on center, but there’s plenty of road (and bump) feedback, making the drive a much more tactile experience. Advantage: M5.
Car mags gushed on the M5 back in the nineties, with Road & Track saying it was “remarkably well balanced, with agile handling and rewarding steering feel.” What’s remarkable two decades later is how much more lithe even a regular 3 Series has become. The M5 is shod in wider 235/45/17 tires compared to the 340i’s 225/45/18 rubber, but there’s more grip, more bite in the brakes and significantly less rolling in the modern BMW. On big bumps the 340i does seem to float more, but overall it inspires more confidence, even if it keeps the road at a detached distance. The chassis turns in more eagerly, and it responds to steering inputs with an immediacy lacking in the prior 335i.
The M5 moves like a heavier E30 3 Series from the late eighties, and feels more comfortable and poised in high-speed sweepers rather than tight curves. Don’t let those Ronin scenes or street racing videos fool you—in stock form there’s lots of grip accompanying understeer, and a stiffer rear suspension would have been nice to offset its inclination to push. Advantage: 340i.
The price as tested are also similar—at least, when not counting inflation. My M5 came with the standard options and cost $55,000 back in 1991, whereas the 340i starts at $45,800 but was tested at $58,820. It’s an uncomfortable spot though looking at the competitive segment—it falls short to the C-Class in luxury, and the Jaguar XE is still more sporting. The Dakota leather feels coarse, and the fit in certain areas feels cheap, like the noticeable seam in the door grip trim.
The classic M5 interiors didn’t impress until the E39 M5, or unless you custom ordered a full leather interior. But depreciation has hit the E34 hard, and the price has been sitting at bottom for years, making them affordable alongside other performance Bimmers like the 8 Series and the slowly appreciated E24 M6. Sure deferred maintenance can add up, but there are far worse German investments, like a B5 Audi S4. Since we won’t know when or if the E34 M5 will ever appreciate, call this one a wash.
The 340i is a phenomenal car, and my favorite 3 Series this generation. Yet I loved the rawness of the E34 and its relative engineering simplicity. Which would you chose? Perhaps most telling was the drive back to the office from the video shoot. The team jammed into the 340i, and I drove back in the M5. Alone—but have a blast.
While the 3 Series still hasn’t addressed all its foibles, it’s still in a league above the M5, which is slower, guzzles 50 percent more gas, and less agile, even if it feels more alive at speed. Not only is the new engine better than the 335i, for the vast majority it’s a more practical choice than a new M3, let alone a classic, quirky M5. Progress may have its subjective casualties, but sometimes it’s worth the price.