What Is The Ultimate ‘Ring Tool: BMW M3 or Porsche 911?
Photography by Alex Sobran
Driving on the Nürburgring during the open track touristenfahrten can be quite emasculating if you aren’t used to moving your $200k toy out of the way for a three-wheeling homemade hatchback that can likely complete two laps before you’ve done just one. I think for some people it may be a reality check to realize that being able to buy speed on the highway doesn’t translate to lap times once you’re dealing with over 100 turns per lap and traffic that isn’t afraid to pass you on the curbing.
It’s understandable to not try to push on the boundaries of a car like a 488 or a 675 or any other high-digit high-horsepower machines whose limits not many can reach even with practice, let alone on the most challenging racetrack in the world. Quite a few do though, and they aren’t lapping it in cars that appear more often in music videos than pit paddocks. Those who are fast on this track stick to less flash and more simplicity, in other words, vehicles closer to true race cars and not pretenders.
I visited this megalithic mecca of motorsport not long ago, and though there mid-week on a Tuesday and Wednesday, I never had doubts about a staging area stuffed with a crowd of semi-professionals, diehard track day hobbyists, the various ‘Ring rental services’ latest group, and complete amateurs too. The people had come from all over the world and brought along all kinds of talent (and that includes an utter lack-of), but the cars were a bit more homogenous. Outliers exist anywhere—and here it was a quite fast Nissan Stagea and a 2nd-gen Subaru Legacy station wagon painted up like a cow, “Mooo-ve Over”—but the majority of the quick stuff that swarms around the track and surrounding towns (with the roads between them rivaling the Nordschleife itself) were of the German gentry that is 911 and M3. Maybe the lack of AMGs with a manual gearbox and nosediving all-wheel drive Audi S and RSes aren’t the most fun to subject to 14 miles of brake-cooking and tire torture? Plausible.
So if you want to get something Teutonic and analog and rear-wheel drive what’s the best bet for the ultimate “‘Ring Tool,” the Porsche or the BMW? Well, as I’ve driven neither on that track, this should be fun. Spectating and going on ride-alongs can take you most of the way there though, so let’s establish some criteria and get on with the speculating: 1) price, 2) practicality, 3) aesthetics, and 4) performance.
Yes, obviously a 911 is more costly than an M3, and if you’ve found one that isn’t you shouldn’t buy it. The price to purchase the starting car is not the only thing of concern though, because no respectable track car is left stock, and when it comes to performance-increasing parts, you probably won’t be messing with the motors (read: the point where the two cost curves really diverge) until everything else is taken care of, so the costs to fiddle with the suspension and aero and braking of a Porsche and BMW are largely similar, with the Porsche pieces being more expensive by largely negligible amounts. So here the BMW is slightly more affordable, and certainly cheaper to start with if you don’t have a car to beat on yet. The E46 M3 is especially affordable right now, with prices (at least in the US) dipping sometimes below $10k for these extremely competent-out-of-the-box cars. Of course you likely don’t want to buy from the bottom of the barrel, but I think these are the last years of bargains on this generation at any price and condition range.
The other side of this is resale though, and for that the Porsche probably wins, but then again, the consumer looking for a used M3 probably has no fantasies about the car having never been treated a bit rough, while Pleated-Khaki Man looking for a 997 probably won’t be too happy to learn about its on-track history. I think overall though that all else equal a 911 will hold its value a bit better, but not by huge margins. So adding up all the imaginary numbers here I would say the M3 is the better car when it comes to wallets.
This is a pretty easy one: M3 all the way. You can use up your daily ‘Ring Card pass and thrash the hell out of it earning bragging rights amongst your friends and their lap times, and then afterwards it’s more than happy to drive sedately to a Lidl to pick up a few cases of Warsteiner for the evening. And even later on somebody can be the designated driver and haul around four drunken friends. The 911 can fit a few bottles of wine and one other person and perhaps two midgets or kids, but who wants toddlers with them during a weekend at the Nürburgring? If you think a comparable year 911 is a more livable car than the M3 then you really are deluding yourself. There’s no doubt that a Porsche can be a daily driver, and a perfectly comfortable one at that, but its a purebred sports car and the M3 began as a fun afterthought built on an upright coupe platform.
This is the most subjective, and for that please remember this is my opinion before you mistake it as fact. The 911 is a better looking car in every traditional sense, but when parked at the entrance to the Nordschleife, I think the M3 looks more at home. That’s probably because a Porsche looks like it belongs anywhere—from scraping its nose alongside NYC taxis in Manhattan to the front entrance of the Monte Carlo casino to a lonely track in the middle of nowhere—and the M3 doesn’t really have that going for it. It’s in its element in Nurburg more than just about anywhere else, and the fact that BMWs are the most common marque at the track on any given day certainly cements this thought.
In regards to the M3 and particularly the E36 generation, maybe I just had a lucky few days at the track recently, but I noticed a distinct absence of “‘Ring Rats” compared to years past. The typical ‘Ring Rat isn’t a rodent in the sewers of Adenau, but it is just as unpleasant to look at. These cars are epitomized by spray-painted bodies (unevenly-applied matte black with dirt and bugs painted right over, and splotchy attempts at olive drab camouflage are common choices); some kind of fluro- or neon-colored accoutrements like mirrors, grilles, and spoilers; a set of four replica wheels which in addition to never looking quite right, are also not all that safe to entrust your life too. These cars can be fast, but they never looked good, even if they were sort of part of the whole experience of being in Nürburg. This time though, I don’t think I saw more than one of these things. Sort of sad, but it’s undeniably more pleasant to look at complete cars that you can tell are cared for.
Regardless of however many M3s cleaned up their act recently though, when you’re behind the fence (or trying to climb up it when people with official vests aren’t around), the 911 just looks absolutely perfect hopping through the Karussell. It has a bombshell body and the straightaways are its runways, the curves matching its own. I have to say, if you’re looking to look like you belong at the ‘Ring, nothing tops a Porsche 911 GT3, even the runny-eyed 996.
The part that matters most: how fast are they? From the factory, and with the driver variable fixed, the 911 will turn quicker times on just about any track, to say nothing of the echelons of GT3, and, if you’re really crazy and lucky, GT2. But surely there is more to it than comparing the spec sheets when it comes to setting something up for this track. This ties back to the pricing category: if you have $60k to spend, you can probably pick either side and come away with something ridiculously quick after you’ve spent the leftovers on modifications. So then until you really start getting serious (in which case you probably won’t be participating in the open track times at the ‘Ring anyway), it’s sort of down to your preferences. The 911 requires less to be fast, but I think it’s safe to say the M3 is a very good platform to create a competitor. Empirically, it looks like the ubiquitous squadron of BMW’s most successful sports car are pushing it harder each lap, and that may mean they’re faster, but it can also simply mean they make more of a fuss when they’re being exercised—after all, compare the commotion of an LMP1 car with an LMP2. Fast is now quiet.
I really do believe there is a largely equal matching between the 911 and M3 with the same amount to spend on them, but this relationship doesn’t hold forever, as past a point the BMW plateaus and the 911 can just keep getting faster if you’re willing to throw more cash at it. And then again, you can buy a brand new 991 GT3 RS and if you can actually peek at its potential there’s no way an M3 will be anywhere but behind you unless you’re lapping it.
How presumptuous do you think I am?! There’s no verdict. I’m no professional driver and to pretend to have written anything but my thoughts would be arrogance. The thing is, they are both the best you can get if you want to live the ‘Ring lifestyle and spend the time on the track to back it up. But, as I mentioned at the very start, there are also the hatchbacks to worry about if you aren’t keen on being passed. Some of these things are seriously, seriously capable, and the sleeper status makes it all the more fun. I took a lap in the passenger seat of Steve Count’s barely-Peugeot Peugeot 306 when I visited, and looking out of the Plexi window as he slid the little orange nugget past just about everyone else out there makes a great case for the thing that really matters: it’s not the car, it’s the attitude.