1997 BMW M3 vs. Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG: Sports Sedan Showdown

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BMW M3 Full Overview

This comparison test between the BMW M3 sedan and Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG was originally published on April 1, 1997.

This comparison is between—inarguably—the two most desirable compact sedans ever built. The limited-production BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG are each so fantastic, so fundamentally tremendous, that this test could degenerate into a love-fest of praise. They’re quick, handle brilliantly, brake instantly, and are built with the structural integrity of a beryllium molecule. We could almost put the critical blinders on, engage WordPerfect’s excellent built-in thesaurus, and let the superlatives fly. Still, though this test will draw out the subtleties and distinctions, it will lapse into a few gooey gushes. Forgive us, we’re human.

Neither the M3 nor the C 36 looks particularly intimidating. Sure, they have deep front spoilers, oversize wheels, and they hunker seductively to the ground, but these are familiar shapes. If one isn’t conscious of the performance details, then you’d be forgiven for thinking of these two cars as some of the “lesser” 3s and Cs that line the associate parking stalls at any Minneapolis law firm. However, their low-key decoration belies the substance of the changes within. Both the M3 and C 36 emerge from a German tuning tradition that demands elegantly engineered components to complement extra power with handling and braking. That tradition has little to do with ornamentation.

BMW M3 vs. Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG: Mo’ Motorsport

The M3 sedan comes from BMW’s own Motorsport division, which has developed special high-performance road and race machines such as the exotic M1 mid-engine sports car of the early 1980s to the luscious M5, M6, and 850CSi models of more recent memory. Until the sedan’s late arrival in the United States, the M3 extension of BMW’s 3 Series had been available here only as a coupe. Except for the extra set of doors, the M3 sedan is mechanically identical to the M3 coupe, right down to its suspension calibration. And that’s a good thing.

That means under the same sheet metal that skins the 138-hp BMW 318i sedan lies a 240-hp inline-six engine. Boring the iron-block 328i’s six cylinders an additional 2.4 millimeters and lengthening the crankshaft’s stroke 5.6 millimeters results in a 359-cubic-centimeter bump in engine displacement to 3.2 liters. Combined with a slight compression increase from 10.2:1 to 10.5:1 and the appropriate fuel injection, intake, exhaust, and engine management systems, the net result is a car with 50 more ponies than its 328i kin.

That power rating is deceptive, though, because the engine’s greatest advantage actually lies in torque production. The M3’s peak power rating occurs at a relatively high 6,000 rpm—700 rpm higher than the 328i’s peak. But its 236 lb-ft of torque is available at only 3,800 rpm. That’s 150 rpm lower than when the 328i’s 206 lb-ft of twist peak. Basically, whatever gear the M3 is in, or wherever in the rev band the engine is turning, there’s always a glut of grunt available.

Behind that torrent of twist, BMW mounts either of two ZF five-speed transmissions: a sublime-shifting manual or a superb automatic. Our test car had the manual, giving it a somewhat unfair edge in acceleration over the automatic-only C 36.

The M3’s suspension geometry is familiar to anyone who’s peeked under any BMW 3 Series coupe or sedan, but it’s optimized by the M Division with specific springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars. Also, unlike other 3 Series, the M car gets a variable-rate power assist on its rack-and-pinion steering system, which has a slower ratio at parking-lot speeds and a much quicker ratio when the car is romping. Braking is the responsibility of giant 12.4-inch front and 12.3-inch rear vented discs.

Sharing a shoe size, the M3 and C 36 both wear 225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear tires on 17 x 7.5-inch front and 17 x 8.5-inch rear wheels. The M3’s tires are Michelin Pilot SXs, while the C 36 sports Bridgestone Expedias.

BMW M3 vs. Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG: More Like OMG

To create the C 36, Mercedes conspired with famed tuner AMG, a firm that recently evolved into Benz’s practical equivalent to BMW’s M. Based on the C-Class sedan introduced in 1995, the C 36 represents the first time Mercedes has sold a vehicle explicitly modified by an outside firm as its own. It won’t be the last, however; soon an E50 version of the E-Class sedan is slated to appear on these shores. If you want a C 36, hurry; only 200 will be imported this year, and the company swears there will be no 1998 version.

The C 36’s engine has only 1.1 millimeters of extra bore diameter relative to the 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine of the C 280 that it’s based on, but the crank’s stroke is a daunting 18.9 millimeters longer. Along with that increase, AMG bumps the compression up half a point to 10.5:1, calibrates the electronics to work with more-aggressive camshafts, and throws on a freer-flowing exhaust. This results in 3.6 liters of displacement, a full 454 cubic-centimeters more displacement than the M3’s engine offers. That advantage works out to 276 hp at 5,750 rpm—82 more than a C 280 and 36 more than the M3. It’s also eight more ponies than was claimed for the C 36 upon its introduction two years ago.

The only transmission offered with the C 36 is a five-speed automatic, which, using the traditional Mercedes gated shifter, is very effective when shifted manually.

Fortification of the C-Class chassis was accomplished with careful raiding of the AMG and Mercedes parts bins. For example, the AMG “Monoblock” wheel design is also used on the SL 500 (albeit in an 18-inch diameter), and the mammoth 12.6-inch front and 10.9-inch rear vented disc brakes were scavenged from the 905-pound-heavier SL 600 V-12 roadster. The basic C-Class suspension design remains unaltered, though equipped with much stiffer springs and shocks and specific-diameter anti-roll bars. The C 36’s recirculating-ball steering’s 13.3:1 ratio is much quicker than the C 280 Sport’s 15.4:1 gearing.

BMW M3 vs. Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG: Super Sedans

Slide into the M3, and the car seems to wrap around you. The dash and cowl feel high, while the aggressively contoured bolsters of the M-spec seats almost embrace you. Climb into the C 36, and you feel as if you’re in a much larger car. Although the C 36 is just 0.8 inch wider, 2.9 inches longer overall, and rides on a wheelbase that’s actually 0.4 inch shorter than the M3’s, the Mercedes feels as though it’s closer in size to a BMW 5 Series. The C 36’s dash sits lower, the glass area seems greater, and the driver sits atop, rather than in, the splendidly comfortable seat. It’s a question of mood. The M3 feels aggressive and ready to pounce, the C 36 confident and in command for a long bout. It’s the difference between being outfitted for guerrilla warfare or an open-field tank battle.

Attractive as both interiors are (with their supple leather, upholstery detail, and subtle logos), all is not perfect. In the M3, there’s no adjustment available for the steering wheel, and the shallow center-console cupholder looks like an afterthought more appropriate for a conversion van. On the C 36, the door armrests and center console are formed from a rigid plastic lacking the tactile sophistication that should be taken for granted on any car this expensive.

The C 36 may feel bigger, but the interior dimensions provided by each manufacturer indicate that the difference in accommodations is minimal. BMW claims 41.1 inches of front and 34.0 inches of rear legroom in the M3, while Mercedes asserts there are 41.5 and 32.8 available in the C 36. When it comes to packing people in—and that’s the essence of a four-door’s talents—the contest is a draw.

To get the maximum performance from either car, it’s first necessary to turn off the traction control. Fortunately, that’s possible. Unfortunately, there’s no way to program either system not to reengage every time the car is started. When on, both systems are unobtrusive and reassuring during day-to-day motoring, yet prove to be absolute fun-robbers in aggressive driving.

Each car displays a big orange triangle warning light on the dash when the traction control system is turned off, subsequently indicating that, while the manufacturer appreciates you’re an adult responsible enough to afford an M3 or C 36, you must be nuts to do what you have in mind. If the C 36’s warning light was any more obnoxious, it would auto-dial the suicide prevention hot-line on the cell phone. What makes this all so bizarre is how perfectly mannered both cars are without traction control—among the least likely vehicles to betray a driver.

BMW M3 vs. Mercedes-Benz C 36 AMG: On the Right Track

It takes a bit of delicacy to obtain the fastest dragstrip launch from either car (a bit more with the manual transmission in the M3), but both are massively rapid. The 3,175-pound M3 takes just 5.5 seconds to reach 60 mph, while the 3,550-pound C 36 does the trick in 5.9 ticks. BMW claims the automatic-equipped M3 sedan takes 0.8 second longer to hit 60 mph than its manual brother, which would leave it slightly behind the C 36. Pull up to a Chevrolet Camaro Z28 in either car, and it’ll be the drivers’ relative skill that determines the winner of a stoplight drag. The BMW shows its power best when coming off a corner, as its heady torque rockets the car from any apex. By contrast, the C 36 shines brightest when the driver pounds the accelerator while cruising at about 70 mph; once the transmission kicks down, the car’s acceleration to 120 mph is breathtaking. Top speed won’t separate the two, as both are electronically limited to 155 mph.

In ultimate handling, the M3 has a clear advantage. The BMW’s 69.4-mph eruption through our 600-foot slalom has been surpassed only by the Ferrari F355, Porsche 911 Turbo, and Dodge Viper GTS among all current production cars. Impressive company. What’s more amazing is that the M3’s steering response may be the best of the bunch. Matching that dynamic performance are awesome brakes (60-0 mph in 113 feet). Around a tight road course, the M3 could well be the quickest production four-door ever.

Still, the C 36 is no handling slouch, and its 66.5-mph slalom speed betters some naturally aspirated Porsche 911s we’ve tested, and its suspension isn’t quite as harsh in normal driving. While the BMW beats the Benz’s 114-foot 60-0-mph stopping distance by a single foot, the C 36’s 28-foot 30-0-mph anchorage is a foot better than that of the M3. As good as the C 36’s steering is, however, it can’t match the M3 for precision feel.

The C 36’s more compliant suspension combines with more efficacious gearing to make the car a superior cruiser. At about 70 mph, the M3’s 1.00:1 fifth-gear and 3.23:1 final-drive ratio have the engine turning at well over 3,000 rpm, and the drone is noticeable. The C 36’s 0.83:1 fifth-gear and 3.07:1 rear-end result in a more relaxed 2,550 rpm at the same 60 mph.

The M3’s barely compromised prowess has its allure, and so do the C 36’s longer, more compliant legs. But ultimately the victory here must go to the M3 for one simple reason: price. Every C 36 comes loaded with power seats, a moonroof, cruise control, a Bose stereo that could be used to shout propaganda into North Korea, and a $51,925 base price. By the time options such as an integrated cell phone, CD changer, adjustable steering column, and destination charges were added, this test car wore a $57,260 sticker. That’s up there with the larger, incredibly attractive Mercedes-Benz E 420 Sport and BMW 540i.

In contrast, the M3 sedan starts at a much lower $39,280, although it comes without a sunroof, power seats, cruise, and a lot of other things. But even equipped with enough options to match the C 36, the M3 is still a full Honda Civic DX cheaper. And in the realm of performance cars, that makes it one of the great bargains out there. No matter how many doors it has.

Looks good! More details?

GENERAL
BMW Mercedes-Benz
M3 Sedan C 36 AMG
Importer BMW of North Mercedes-Benz of
America, Inc, North America, Inc.,
Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Montvale, N.J.
Body style 4-door, 5-passenger 4-door, 5-passenger
Location of final assembly Munich, Germany Afalterbach, Germany
EPA size class Subcompact Compact
Drivetrain layout FE, RD FE, RD
Airbag Dual Dual
Base price $39,280 $51,925
Price as tested $39,280 $57,260
Options included None Traction control,
heated seats, $,1875;
CD changer,
mobile phone, $1,495
Ancillary charges Destination, $570 Destination, $595

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in./mm 106.3/2700 105.9/2690
Track, f/r, in./mm 56.0/56.6/1422/1438 58.9/58.2/1497/1478
Length, in./mm 174.5/4432 177.4/4506
Width, in./mm 66.9/1699 67.7/1720
Height, in./mm 53.7/1364 56.1/1425
Ground clearance, in./mm 3.5/89 5.0/127
Mfr’s curb weight, lb 3,175 3,550
Weight distribution, f/r, % 50/50 55/45
Cargo capacity, cu ft 10.3 11.6
Fuel capacity, gal. 16.4 16.4
Weight/power ratio, lb/hp 13.2 12.9

ENGINE
Type I-6, liquid-cooled, I-6, liquid-cooled,
cast-iron block, cast-iron block,
cast-aluminum head cast-aluminum head
Bore x stroke, in./mm 3.40×3.53/ 3.58×3.64/
86.4×89.6 91.0×92.4
Displacement, ci/cc 192/3,152 220/3,606
Compression ratio 10.5:1 10.5:1
Valve gear DOHC, DOHC,
4 valves/cylinder 4 valves/cylinder
Fuel/induction system Multiport injection Multiport injection
Horsepower, hp @ rpm, SAE net 240 @ 6,000 276 @ 5,750
Torque, lb @ rpm, SAE net 236 @ 3,800 284 @ 4,000
Horsepower/liter 76.1 76.5
Redline, rpm 6,800 6,600
Recommended fuel Premium unleaded Premium unleaded

DRIVELINE
Transmission type 5-speed manual 5-speed automatic
Gear ratios
(1st) 4.20:1 3.59:1
(2nd) 2.49:1 2.19:1
(3rd) 1.66:1 1.41:1
(4th) 1.24:1 1.00:1
(5th) 1.00:1 0.83:1
Axle ratio 3.23:1 3.07:1
Final-drive ratio 3.23:1 2.55:1
Engine rpm, 60 mph in top gear 2,800 2,250

CHASSIS
BMW Mercedes-Benz
M3 Sedan C 36 AMG
Suspension
Front MacPherson struts, lower Upper and lower
arms, coil springs, arms, coil springs,
anti-roll bar anti-roll bar
Rear Multilink, coil springs, 5-links, coil springs,
anti-roll bar anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion, Recirculating ball,
Type power assist power assist
Ratio 15.6:1 13.3:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.0 3.0
Turning circle, ft 38.1 37.2
Brakes
Front, type/dia., in. Vented disc/12.4 Vented disc/12.6
Rear, type/dia., in. Vented disc/12.3 Vented disc/10.9
Anti-lock Standard Standard
Wheels and tires
Wheel size, f/r, in. 17×7.5/17×8.5 17×7.5/17×8.5
Wheel type/material Forged alloy Forged aluminum
Tire size, f/r 225/45ZR17/ 225/45ZR17/
245/40ZR17 245/40ZR17
Tire mfr. and model Michelin Pilot SX Bridgestone Expedia

INSTRUMENTATION
Instruments 160-mph speedo, 160-mph speedo,
8,000-rpm tach, 7,000-rpm tach,
fuel level, water temp, fuel level,
digital clock coolant temp
Warning lamps Battery, low fuel, Low fuel, engine oil,
check engine, seatbelt, traction
brake, brake fluid, control, front brake-
airbag, seatbelts, pad wear, coolant,
brake pressure, ABS washer fluid, ABS,
engine electronics

PERFORMANCE AND TEST DATA
Acceleration, sec
0-30 mph 2.0 2.2
0-40 mph 2.9 3.2
0-50 mph 4.1 4.5
0-60 mph 5.5 5.9
0-70 mph 7.2 7.7
0-80 mph 9.0 9.9
0-90 mph 11.5 12.3
0-100 mph 14.3 15.2
standing quarter mile,
sec @ mph 14.0 @ 99.2 14.4 @ 97.7
Braking, ft
30-0 29 28
60-0 113 114
Handling
Lateral acceleration, g 0.91 0.87
Speed through 600-ft
slalom, mph 69.4 66.5
Speedometer error 30/29 30/28
Indicated/actual 40/39 40/38
50/49 50/48
60/59 60/58
Interior noise, dB
Idling in neutral 48 45
Steady 60 mph in top gear 71 70

FUEL ECONOMY
EPA, city/hwy., mpg 20/28 18/24
Est. range, city/hwy., miles 328/459 295/394



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