So I drove an E30 M3 tonight...
...and man, it's a fun car to drive. I'll share my review here, but I'll give you a spoiler -- I haven't decided what to do yet. A rambling review follows, and the summary is down at the end if you're lazy.
The technical details: It was an '88 M3, Lachsilber with red leather interior. The car had about 155k on the non-digital odometer and was stock except for a Borla exhaust, UUC short shifter, some 17" wheels with "winter tires," and some other minor/unimportant items. The owner said that he much preferred the stock 15" wheels with Falkens for grip.
Overall the body was in excellent shape -- the paint looked just as good as mine and there wasn't a hint of rust. Not bad for 15 years of use. The upholstery was creased of course but not torn anywhere, and the cushions were still in great shape. One of the headlights had burnt out and the check control's "WASHER FLUID" light came on during the test drive, which the owner thinks is due to a leak somewhere. The engine bay was clean and everything in there looked tight.
The first thing I did after starting the car was to familiarize myself with the shifter. I rowed through the gates a few times to familiarize myself -- it felt different from mine, yet vaguely familiar. I then played with the clutch and was surprised at its lightness. I was starting to doubt the whole idea until I let out the pedal in gear. The feel was amazing! The clutch on my car is much more direct and communicative than the E46, but the clutch on this car was fantastic. I could tell exactly where the clutch started to engage and when it was fully connected. Plus, there was none of the slipping clutch syndrome from very fast shifts at high RPM.
After a brief warmup period (which we measured by watching the oil temp gauge, located where the ergonometer is on most Bimmers) I started to drive more aggressively. At first I was underwhelmed by the car's performance. I was expecting a lack of low-end grunt, but this seemed unreasonably slow. I was again about to give up...until I realized that I was barely applying half throttle. Apparently the gas pedal nearly hits the floor on the E30 M3. The off-the-line performance then became much more agreeable. Where the engine really shines, however, is at high revs. The engine really starts to sing around 5000 RPMs and it pulls hard up to redline. The acceleration in that range was awesome.
I was struck by how quickly the engine revved and how quickly the revs dropped with the clutch disengaged. It seemed to be instantaneous -- I'd stab the pedal and the tach would swing right up to 4000, then drop back to idle. Much faster than my S52US engine, which itself is the fastest to rev and fall that I'd seen until tonight.
After getting used to the straight line characteristics, I took to the curves to check out the car's handling (like I said, this car's suspension is stock). I took an onramp at moderate speed, followed by a trip through some twisty backroads at progressively higher speeds. It was dark so I didn't really push it, but the car felt very sure-footed and balanced. The lightness of the car made a HUGE difference in the way I drove it, and the fabled feel was there in spades.
Speaking of feel, I can't say enough about it. The car's suspension felt softer than mine -- perhaps due to age -- but I've never felt more in touch with the road. I desperately wished it was brighter outside because I really, really, wanted to push the limits in this car.
I want to drive the car again in the daytime, and I want to drive an M3 that's been modified. The darkness and my unfamiliarity with the E30 made me too nervous to drive as hard as I would've liked.
So what's the verdict? This is a tough one. First of all, read my subjective opinions with the knowledge that I am a performance-oriented enthusiast. I cancelled an order for a brand new 330Ci because I drove an E36 M3 and fell in love. And now I'm facing an interesting choice: Is my car better than this '88 M3, or is the E30 a better platform FOR MY NEEDS?
First, an indisputable fact. The E36 M3 is much faster than the E30 version and the torque makes a HUGE difference in normal driving. In my car, I can hit the gas in nearly any gear, at any RPM, and pull away rather well. My car really shines from above 4000 RPM to redline but I can do just as well from idle. In contrast, the E30 M3 really needs to rev before it feels powerful. From 5000 RPM to redline (~7200), the car pulls very hard. I don't know if it pulls harder than the E36 -- I doubt it.
Another fact: The E30 M3 is easly 300 pounds lighter than the E36 M3, and it shows. There is a BIG difference in tossability that can only be explained by the weight difference. While the E36 is no pig, the E30 is a waif by comparison.
The E30 is much less refined and much less comfortable than the E36. While the seats seemed cushier in this '88 M3, remember that my car doesn't even have 25000 miles on it. The cushions are practically brand new. Other than that, the shifter buzzes at around 4000 rpm and I understand that this is a common E30 M3 ailment. The exhaust makes PLENTY of noise in the cabin (remember that this car had a Borla, but still) and the cabin vibrates slightly from the noise. The interior, while familiar to any 3-series owner, is not as cushy as the E36. And we all know how the E36's interior compares to the E46.
Now for the subjective stuff. To me, the car really does have the edge in feel. I want more time behind the wheel, but in my half-hour test drive I could tell that the chassis is far more communicative. That should translate to more confidence in corners, but again I didn't have the chance to push it. The feel through the clutch was awesome, which I didn't expect at all. The engine, while less powerful, feels much racier than mine.
I also feel that in capable hands, the E30 M3 would be very hard to beat on the track. The weight and suspension on the car make it more tossable than the E36, and I feel like it's more of a no-nonsence racer. Its lack of power is offset by the ability to carry much more speed out of a turn. And anyway, with some money put into engine mods, it's possible to create the 2.5L engine from the European M3 Evo Sport. Think roughly 230 hp in a 2800-lb package.
I don't think it's possible to say that either car is better than the other for all people. For every day commuting, I would have to say that the E36 is the better choice. It's the best way to have a reasonably practical car that can also kick ass at traffic lights or on weekends at the track/autox. The torque is always on and the car is relatively comfortable.
For dedicated sport driving, however, the E30 has the edge. It lacks horsepower but is a much rawer (is that a word?) experience than the E36. Its agility can't be matched by the E36 without mods, and even then its light weight gives it an edge that the E36 simply can't match.
I'm not sure where that leaves me. I need to spend more time behind the wheel before deciding to ditch my car. But for now, I'm very impressed! I wasn't too happy when I started the drive, but the details that make the E30 so wonderful made themselves evident one by one. More impressions as I get more seat time. For now, I'm starting to think that the SUV/E30 route makes a lot of sense for me. And I won't miss the comfort of the E36.
Conforti chip, Evo airbox/K&N filter, UUC short shift kit, oil pan baffle, Hella H4 lights, OEM glass sunroof
sold: '99 M3 Coupe
Airbox baffle removed, ZKW ellipsoid headlights, UUC short shift kit, BMW x-brace, debadged
'96 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo V8