The latest crop of M-branded BMWs may be fast, but many reviewers are finding they don’t always live up to the badge. Especially in the case of the BMW M3. No matter how powerful the latest model is, enthusiasts constantly compare it to its ancestor, the BMW E30 M3. But is the E30 M3 really worthy of such a high pedestal?
BMW E30 M3 specs and features
In the early 80s, Mercedes was preparing to race in the European DTM series’ Group A using a special version of its 190E sedan. And BMW wanted to compete, too, using a modified version of the E30 3-Series, Robb Report explains. Specifically, one modified by BMW’s motorsports division, M, Hagerty reports.
At the time, Group A regulations required automakers to produce at least 5000 road-going examples of their race cars. Which meant, BMW had to offer its M-prepped 3-Series to the general public. The result was a true homologation special: the 1987 BMW E30 M3.
The E30 M3 wasn’t just a sharper 3-Series, Motor Trend explains. In fact, the only things it shared with the standard 3-Series were the doors, the hood, and the roof. Even the C-pillar and rear windows are different, to better funnel air into the rear splitter, Motoring Research reports.
Compared to other E30s, the M3 has reworked suspension, larger brakes and tires, and BBS wheels, Hagerty reports. And in addition to the spoiler, it also has fender flares and a functional front splitter.
But perhaps the biggest changes came with the powertrain. The original BMW E30 M3 came with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder, rated at 192 hp and 170 lb-ft, Automobile reports. This was linked to a 5-speed manual, sending power to the rear wheels via a standard limited-slip differential. And in European models, the E30 M3 came with a racing-style dogleg transmission, meaning 1st gear is left-and-down, not left-and-up.
192 hp doesn’t sound like much nowadays; even the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ makes more power. However, the E30 M3 only weighed about 2830 pounds—less than the contemporary Porsche 911. And the later, even-racier Evolution models had larger, more powerful engines.
What’s the BMW E30 M3 like to drive?
Being a homologated race car, the BMW E30 M3 isn’t exactly loaded with luxury features. Though it does have Recaro sport seats, ABS, power windows and locks, and a sunroof. It also has a roof-mounted check panel, an oil-life gauge and an early digital display. There’s also a tool kit in the trunk.
But what matters most about the BMW E30 M3 is how it drives. Does it live up to its reputation? It depends.
If you’re used to modern M cars and their straight-line acceleration, you might walk away disappointed. Even with relatively little weight to move, with only 192 hp, the E30 M3 doesn’t accelerate that quickly, Hagerty reports; 0-60 comes in roughly 6 seconds. And the gearbox throws are somewhat long, Car reports.
But there’s a reason why the E30 is BMW’s most successful racer, Automobile reports. It not only won DTM championships, but it also won the European and World Touring Car championships, at multiple 24 Hours of Spa and Nürburgring races.
True, as a classic car, its chassis isn’t as stiff as the latest M3’s is, Automobile reports. However, that’s only in-comparison. Because if you’re looking for driving enjoyment, that’s where the BMW E30 M3 truly shines.
The steering is light (for an older car) but very communicative and precise. The ride is never overly harsh, but the suspension still delivers excellent handling. You could genuinely drive it to work during the week, then slay corners on the weekend. The E30 M3 never tries to bite you—instead, it urges you to push harder. It’s raw and mechanical, and you feel deeply connected to it. It’s the antithesis of modern M cars, but at the same time, it’s arguably the most quintessential M car.
Getting your own
For a time, BMW E30 M3s were relatively cheap. Unfortunately, precisely because of its qualities, that’s no longer the case. Even a good-condition example, Hagerty reports, generally costs $50,000-$60,000. It’s possible to find a lightly-modified one on Bring a Trailer for about $40k, but few go for cheaper than that. Pristine Evolution models can go for $100k or more.
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Fortunately, E30 M3s can be remarkably durable, Hagerty reports. Their engines don’t suffer as many oil leaks as other E30’s motors. However, regular valve adjustments and timing belt changes are essential for longevity. Luckily, BMW offers brand-new parts for their classic cars, including the E30 M3.
For about the same price as the E30 M3, you can get a brand-new M2 Competition. With a 405-hp 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder, it goes 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, Car and Driver reports. And that’s with the 6-speed manual. Plus, it has a modern infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth, along with multiple airbags and modern ADAS features.
But even though it made Car and Driver’s 10Best list for 2019, reviewers noted its steering wasn’t quite as good as in BMWs past. Plus, the car’s traction and stability control systems use the brakes to control the car, Automobile reports. Meaning, the brakes go soft fairly quickly.
It’s by no means a bad car. In fact, it’s arguably the closest thing to a modern E30 M3 you can currently get from BMW. But, as Top Gear puts it, the E30 is “crackly vinyl compared to the M2’s seamless streaming service.” It’s an older format that still deserves a listen today.
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