It has been described as one of the greatest enthusiast vehicles ever made. It roundly tops lists not only of the best BMWs ever made, but of best driver's cars in general. It remains the winningest vehicle in all of sports car racing. Its nickname is the not even remotely subtle "God's Chariot."
I am, of course, talking about the E30 BMW M3. More than 25 years after its inception, it continues to command near-universal respect among speed fans of all stripes.
And in recent years, the original M3 has achieved an oddly mythic status among car guys and gals. So much hype surrounds the car that you would almost think it can smoke a Bugatti Veyron in a straight line, cure cancer, eliminate the national debt and give us all rock hard Chris Hemsworth-like asses with its magical rainbow-spewing exhaust.
Can the E30 M3 do all that? Of course not. No car can. (I don't think so, anyway.) But after spending time in a very cherry one this weekend, I learned that it is an extraordinarily special machine that deserves every ounce of hype it gets. It is a high-revving, superbly handling beast with a decidedly old school character but plenty of modern amenities.
It's great. Like, really really great.
(Full disclosure: The E30 M3 was sold in the U.S. from 1987 to 1991. It is one of my favorite cars, but I had never driven one until a very generous Jalopnik reader offered me the chance to take his for a spin. I bought him lunch to say thanks.)
The particular M3 I sampled is owned by Dr. Ross Shelburne, who you might know as commenter Battery Tender Unnecessary. Ross has unassailable taste in cars; his stable also includes an E39 M5, a 2012 Range Rover Sport, and the pièce de résistance, a Mercedes SLS AMG he has written about in his So You Want A Supercar? series. He also practices dentistry in Pennington Gap, Virginia, so if you're in the area and you want your teeth worked on by a real gearhead, look him up.
Ross bought his 1988 M3 on eBay back in 2010, just before they really started to go up in price and popularity. He is the car's third owner, and his has about 189,000 miles on it. Following a nearly two-year restoration process that took place at a shop in North Carolina, the car looks and drives like it is practically brand new, making it a great candidate for us to evaluate.
Ross has owned a whole litany of excessively powerful M and AMG cars, so I asked him what made him go for the classic M3. He gave me the same reason a lot of people cite for why they lust after these cars.
"I always loved the M3's race heritage," he told me. "And basically, I just wanted one."
Fair enough. The M3's racing credentials are impressive. This car harks back to the days when "M" stood for "Motorsport" and not just "Most Expensive" or "Marketing." The original M3 was specifically built as a homologation special so BMW could race it in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft and other Group A touring car series; their rules stipulated 5,000 production examples had to be made for a car to qualify for competition.
Its 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, known as the S14 in Bimmer parlance, combines the block used in the Brabham-BMW BT52 Formula One car with the head from the M1's inline six with two cylinders lopped off. The M1, as you know, had a racing series of its own, and its six-cylinder motor also saw duty in the original M5 and M6.
So like the M-cars of its day, and unlike most of the M-cars that followed it, the E30 M3 was basically a street legal race car. It certainly acts like one, although our journey up Rawley Pike along the Virginia/West Virginia border proved that the car is much more accessible to drive than you might think.
The only downside to our trip is that it was cut short by what Ross and I believe to be a fuel pump issue, which sadly put the M3 out of commission and left us stranded with no cell phone service until the world's oldest tow truck came to save us. Hey, these things happen! No one ever said owning an older car is easy. (UPDATE: The crankcase vacuum tube came loose from the intake manifold. The car has since been fixed, and easily.)
Despite this unfortunate turn of events, I had enough seat time in the M3 to tell you that yes, it is as good as you have heard and very much worth dreaming about. Modern cars may be able to outgun it, but few can match its character, its motorsport spirit, and the way it plasters a huge grin on your face at any speed.
I love E30s (have you figured that out yet?) and a big reason for that is their design. I think they are some of the best-looking cars ever to come out of the 1980s. Sure, they look dated when parked next to newer BMWs, but thanks to their compact, stylish, aggressive design they remains quite attractive. The E30 is a shining example of how to not over-design a car. I like to think of it as the ultimate, modernized evolution of a design that began decades earlier with the New Class cars like the iconic 2002. (In fact, this car reminds me of the BMW 1602 I drove a few months ago in many ways; they're very similar in size and character, but the E30 has more creature comforts.)
The M3 shares very few body panels with its more buttoned-down 3-Series siblings. Standouts here include the famous boxed-out fender flares, the unique front bumper, and the cap over the C-pillar, which helps feed air onto the rear wing. The whole package makes it look like a DTM car because, well, it kind of is.
As good as the outside is, things get even better on the inside. The inside of an E30 gives a driver everything he or she really needs with just the right amount of modern toys thrown in for good measure.
There's no iDrive, no touch screen navigation system, no fake engine noise piped in through the speakers, no "OK" button on the steering wheel you have to hit to acknowledge the risks involved with driving a car. Instead, it has a very good (unadjustable) M-Sport steering wheel, gauges, pedals remarkably close together for your heel-and-toeing pleasure, and a gear shift. Amen.
The Recaro leather seats are excellent, providing the perfect amount of side and hip bolstering without being overly aggressive and huggy like some modern ones are. The tach, speedo and other gauges are effective and easy to read. The steering wheel, while a bit on the large side, is a pleasure to work with.
Of course, this was a luxury car in its day, so it has goodies like power windows, power locks, a trip computer, a diagnostic check control panel above the rearview mirror, a sunroof, and an adjustable stereo with a cassette deck so you can rock out to Wilson Phillips or whatever when you're hooning your E30 M3.
Also, in a neat example of 80s German overengineering, the doors and roof have panels you can pull off with cranks inside so you can manually raise or lower the windows and sunroof if the battery dies. They think of everything!
If you haven't joined the E30 M3's wackadoo cult of personality, you may have wondered why a four-cylinder car with just 195 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque is such a big deal. After all, those numbers aren't too far from some of today's economy cars, not to mention the Subaru BRZ. But here's the deal: this ain't the engine in your momma's Nissan Altima.
The S14 is a wonderfully potent engine that feels far more robust than most four-bangers thanks to its six-cylinder heritage and racing pedigree. Zero to 60 mph supposedly comes at 6.9 seconds, but the car feels a great deal quicker than that; when you're rowing through gears and listening to its fantastic engine and exhaust note, you'll be shocked at how suddenly you've hit highway speeds. Around town, it has a surprisingly decent amount of low-end torque, allowing you to spin the tires on hard launches with ease.
But it's way up in the RPM range where this engine really comes on. It wants to rev. And rev. And revandrevandrev. And then rev some more.
Redline comes at a lofty 7,250 RPM, and so it really thrives above 4,000 RPM or so. Fight your natural inclination to shift low and you can extract copious power in hard backroad driving. It feels confident when it's revved high, too — as you power into a corner at 6,000 RPM, you always get a sense that the engine is telling you, "I got this! This is what I do!"
Plenty of cars are designed to achieve high revs, but what makes the M3 special is that it is built to live there.
The M3 boasts bigger calipers, rotors and master cylinder than the standard E30. These enhancements are sufficient, but in the end I just found them to be okay rather than outstanding. It's not that the car lacked stopping power, it just had less than I expected. Fortunately it's a featherweight by modern standards at 2,850 pounds, so it doesn't take much force to stop.
In spite of all its racing technology, the M3 still manages to have a ride quality more or less in line with most 3-Series. In other words, it's sporty but comfortable for the most part. I never felt like it was going to jar my tooth fillings loose, but I never felt like I could take a nap in the backseat, either. (Not that you would want to.)
It's an M3! Of course it handles well. What did you expect? In fact, its handling is remarkably good. It's also not the intimidating, oversteering race-track monster I feared it would be. The car is actually very neutral and very forgiving.
At the same time, it definitely requires a higher degree of concentration and precision to drive than most modern performance cars. The low-ratio steering has a very heavy, almost unassisted feel, but it also gives you miles of feedback. This is a car that brings out the best in its driver. That rawness, that purity, made it a thrill to drive.
During our trip up the twisty mountain road I consistently worried (mainly because I didn't want to trash someone else's car) that the rear end would completely get away from me; thankfully, it never happened. Ross kept pushing me to go harder and faster, and the car just responded in kind. The M3's limits are extremely high. You have to trust it and be willing to learn from it.
Unlike its European counterpart, the U.S.-spec M3 did not have the famous dogleg five-speed manual. Don't let that fact fool you into the thinking the American car's Getrag five-speed isn't awesome, because it is.
Shifts are tight, short and heavy, requiring deliberate and forceful effort on the part of the driver. Clutch uptake is a bit on the high side, but you can adapt to that pretty quickly. All in all, it's a great transmission and one that is a lot of fun to employ here.
The 3-Series and its 2002 ancestor pioneered the modern sport sedan as we know it. The whole idea is to have your cake and eat it too, to have fun in winding back roads on Sunday while being able to take both your kids to school and then drive yourself to your reasonably respectable job on Monday.
The first M3 is no different. You get comfortable front seats, a reasonably roomy interior, a reasonably spacious trunk, and two back seats, although legroom there is probably tight by today's standards. It was, and is, a practical fun car.
If I were to list all the reasons the E30 M3 is special, you and I would be here all day. There's the fact that it has a racing engine, the fact that it's the ultimate edition of what may be the best Ultimate Driving Machine the Bavarians have ever put out, its unmatched number of victories in road racing, and the fact that it is far more rare than its successors. Only about 16,000 total were ever made, with just over 5,000 sold in the U.S.
It's one of the all-time greats. What more can I say?
You want one of these bad mamma jammas in your garage? Then buy one now! Seriously, right now! As Mike Spinelli wrote a few months ago, this is probably the ideal time to snatch up an E30 M3.
The cars have shot up in value in recent years, taking ordinary E30 prices with them, but they may have hit their peak in the last year or so. Expect to pay at least $20,000 for a good one — some have even blasted into the $40,000 or even $50,000 range. But if you're able to buy one now, it could prove to be a smart investment. Squirrel one away and then sell it in a few years when they're even more rare than they are now and you could make yourself a handsome profit.
Or you could buy one and drive the hell out of it until it dies, rebuild it, and then keep driving it forever. That's what I would do.
Engine: 2.3-liter fuel-injected four-cylinder
Power: 195 HP @ 6,750 rpm / 170 LB-FT @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
0-60 Time: 6.9 seconds
Top Speed: 143 mph
Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
Curb Weight: 2,850 pounds
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 17 mpg city/28 mpg highway (U.S.)
MSRP: Approximately $34,000 in 1988