I recently had the chance to get behind the wheel of one of the most iconic, legendary, exciting automobiles of our time. I also drove my Nissan Skyline GT-R.
I’m talking about the E30 BMW M3, which is essentially a standard E30 BMW 3 Series that looks extra athletic and brawny, like Rocky after he ran up those stairs a few times. It has muscular front fenders. It has muscular rear fenders. It has a high-performance racing engine under the hood. And it has a little wing on the back, in case you find yourself flying through the air.
You’d know that I compared the E30 BMW M3 to my Skyline if you followed me on Twitter, because I posted a picture of the two cars sitting on some grass. But you wouldn’t know the key details: the sights. The sounds. The smells. So today, I’ve decided to deliver all of that information to you in two ways: in this column, and in a video, wherein I wear a microphone that could be used to stop an armed robbery.
Before I get started, I’d like to address what I can only assume is your main concern: that these cars have absolutely nothing in common.
Normally, two items in a comparison test must offer fairly similar traits, like when you compare the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, or the Ford Fusion and the Hyundai Sonata, or the Chrysler PT Cruiser and a crushing blow to the cranium.
After all, the E30 M3 is a 195-horsepower, naturally-aspirated German four-cylinder with rear-wheel drive, while the Skyline GT-R is a 320-horsepower turbocharged Japanese inline-six with all-wheel drive. Comparing these cars is like comparing a ball-point pen to a highlighter.
Or is it?
In my opinion, the E30 M3 and the R32 GT-R are a lot more similar than they might seem on paper.
To explain why, I have to take you back to the 1980s, when every car was boring. And I don’t mean some cars were boring. I mean every car was boring. This was the time of 100-horsepower Honda Accords and a “Cross-Fire V8” that made 165 horsepower in the Chevy Camaro Z28. This was a time when the Nissan 300ZX offered two versions: a regular model with 160 horsepower and a “high-performance” Turbo model with 205 horsepower. This was a time when the most powerful 1980s Corvette made only 245 horses. Things were bleak. It’s amazing that people didn’t invent the self-driving car in the 1980s out of sheer boredom.
And then, two companies had an idea: take a normal, everyday, regular production vehicle. Flare the fenders. Add a wing. Drop in a more potent motor. Improve handling. And, voila: you have a new breed of performance car.
Today, we take this idea for granted, because everyone does it. There’s the Audi S4, the S6, the S8. There’s the Volvo S60R, the Lexus IS-F, the Subaru WRX, and the Honda Civic Si. These days, it has become relatively common to drop a larger engine into a regular car, beef up the handling and brakes, and add a few additional styling touches to distinguish it from a standard model.
But when the R32 GT-R and E30 M3 came out, very few other cars were doing that. Essentially, you can look at these cars as the forefathers of everything that came later, sort of like Samuel Morse when he invented Morse code, or Henry Phillips when he invented the Phillips screwdriver, or Roger Air-Conditioning when he invented the ceiling fan.
So how do they drive? As you’ve always heard, the E30 BMW M3 is all about finesse. Speed isn’t everything to this car, but driving dynamics are — and it offers the tightest steering, and the nimblest handling, and the most amazingly solid, planted road feel that could teach virtually every modern production car a thing or two about what it’s like to go around a corner.
No, the E30 M3 isn’t fast — but it isn’t exactly slow, either. In fact, I think it’s right at that enjoyable driving cusp where you have to really use the entire engine to exploit all of the car’s available driving pleasure. Compare that to the current M3, where a quick push of your right foot sends you hurtling to 60 miles per hour in around 4 seconds. There’s nothing like that in the E30: advanced computers and dual-clutch transmissions won’t work on your behalf to make sure you have fun. You have to do that for yourself.
In short: few popular vehicles live up to the hype created about them. This one does.
On the other hand, the Skyline feels a lot faster than the BMW. More turbos and more cylinders will do that. While handling is still impressive, it doesn’t quite feel as connected to the road as the M3 — possibly a function of its all-wheel drive, possibly a function of its larger size, and possibly a function of the fact that Nissan just couldn’t build ‘em like BMW back then. In fact, while I’ve generally found the Skyline offers tight, lively steering and handling, driving it back-to-back with the M3 yields no comparison: the BMW is king.
Instead, much like today’s model, the R32 Skyline’s main attraction is its straight-line speed: back in 1989, when the R32 GT-R came out, its 320 horses made it more powerful than the Ferrari 348. As a result, power and torque appear quickly, and you never find yourself wanting for more. While you have to use the M3’s entire engine to optimize your behind-the-wheel fun, you could have a great time in the Skyline without ever going above 4,000 RPM.
Of course, there are other differences, too: the M3 had a smaller production run, and it’s a lot more expensive to buy than the Skyline. The BMW’s S14 engine hasn’t proven to be as reliable as the Skyline’s RB26 – assuming you don’t try to get 900 horsepower out of the Nissan. And then there’s the whole right-hand-drive thing, which gets old after approximately the fourth traffic light where someone rolls down their window to inform you that you’re sitting on the wrong side of the car.
But a simple comparison doesn’t tell the whole story: these cars are icons, seminal vehicles that helped create an entire automotive segment, and it’s exciting just to see them parked together in one place.
I just wish I could spend a little more time in the BMW.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.