THE M3 nameplate is one of the most famous in performance car circles and BMW has just pulled the wraps off its new M3 – its boldest and most powerful model to wear this nameplate yet.

But while the new car might be grabbing the headlines, it's important to appreciate just how important of a car the M3 is for performance car fans and for BMW itself.

Let's take a look back through the archives at arguably the most important 'M' car ever...

The original: The E30

The BMW 3 Series has been around since 1975 as the firm's mid-size executive saloon, but buyers had to wait until 1985 for the German manufacturer to create a hot version - the M3. Originally penned so that BMW could compete in the touring car championship, only 5,000 had to be produced to meet regulations, but in the end nearly 18,000 rolled out of the factory.

While quite slow by modern standards, the E30 M3's 200bhp 2.3-litre petrol engine allows it to reach 60mph in 6.5 seconds. Power would be increased to 238bhp on the Sport Evo versions during its lifetime, and today examples are easily worth £50,000, if not more, despite all coming left-hand-drive from the factory.

The boxy one: The E36

Often the forgotten piece of the M3 jigsaw, the E36 M3 came along in 1992 as a more upmarket, luxurious but heavier version of BMW's already well-applauded sporting model. Buyers could get a right-hand-drive version for the first time, as well as a new saloon body type, to sit alongside the pre-existing coupe and convertible.

Power was increased to 282bhp due to a larger 3.0-litre petrol engine, while a revised 1996 model pushed the power to 316bhp, thanks to its larger 3.2-litre unit. An automatic gearbox would also be introduced for the first time as well.

A return to form: The E46

BMW returned to the coupe and convertible bodystyles on the E46 M3, which was introduced in 2000. It was again a further step upmarket thanks to its plush interior. As is customary of every M3, power increased again to 332bhp from a 3.2-litre unit. Undoubtedly the most famous of all the E46 M3s though is the CSL (standing for Coupe Sport Lightweight) - a model that harked back to the original 3.0 CSL model from the 1970s.

To date, it's the only time BMW has ever used the full 'CSL' nameplate, and it was worthy of it too as BMW shaved 10% from the weight thanks to a host of carbon-fibre parts, a stripped-out interior and an engine uprated to 355bhp. The only downside was that all CSL models came with an automatic gearbox, though given a good CSL today can be easily worth £60,000 (triple the price of the standard M3), it certainly hasn't held it back.

The V8 one: The E92

Up until now, it had always been four- or six-cylinder engines used in an M3, but on the E92 model that arrived in 2007, BMW upped the cylinder count to eight - utilising a 424bhp 4.0-litre V8. This dropped the 0-60mph time to 4.6 seconds, which made it the quickest M3 to date.

The saloon body style returned, which continued to be sold alongside coupe and convertible models, while there was a host of special editions that largely celebrate the firm's achievements in motorsport. These include the DTM Champion Edition and the CRT, but the most memorable E93 M3 is the GTS - a bright orange and lighter M3 that used a larger 444bhp 4.4-litre V8 engine that was essentially a track car for the road.

The confusing one: The M3-becomes-M4 F80/F82

Prior to now, BMW creating the 4 Series to replace the 3 Series Coupe, this generation M3 was quite a change to form. So while you still have the M3, this nameplate is just reserved for the four-door model, with the M4 now being sold in coupe and convertible form. The complexities don't end there either, with BMW reverting back to six cylinders for these new cars, as well turbocharging an M3 for the first time - the latter proving controversial.

Power stayed quite level to the predecessor - producing 426bhp, or 444bhp in the case of the later 'Competition' models, which would prove to be the most popular. This outgoing generation of M3 and M4 has also had its fair chase of special editions, including the CS, DTM Champion Edition '30 Jahre' models celebrating 30 years of the M3.

The hottest of the lot, though, was the M4 GTS - a track-focused special edition available with a roll cage and increasing power to almost 500bhp.

The new one: The G80 M3/G82 M4

Unveiled today, the new BMW M3 and M4 are undoubtedly the boldest yet, with the large front grille likely to split opinion like a knife cuts through butter. Six-cylinder engines remain though, and purists will be delighted that there's no whiff of electrification either. Two variants are offered - the standard models and the Competition, with the latter producing 503bhp to make it the most powerful M3 ever.

Crucially on this new M3 though, is the fact you'll be able to have it as an estate car for the first time in its history. It's something BMW has teased on several occasions (even getting as far as concept cars), but it'll finally be a reality by 2022, meaning you'll be able to get a properly practical M3 for the first time.

Ted Welford