The iconic BMW E30 has now been debated, glorified, worshiped and written about ad nauseum. If you haven’t owned an E30, and you’ve never had the chance to drive one, all of this fuss over a 30 year old car must be driving you properly nuts. What could possibly be so special about a car released the same year as Michael Jackson’s Thriller album?
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Rather a lot, actually. The E30 ascended to cult-classic status because its parts coalesced into one harmonious whole. The E30 was a driving instrument that sought to convey every bit of sensory information possible from the road surface to your brain. Strapping into the E30 was like plugging an HDMI cable into your head – the other end gathering data from the contact patches. As you made progress down the road, this car remained raw and honest. If you only let it, it would please you until you ran out of fuel, tires, or brakes. To put it simply, the E30 delivered purity unmatched by modern cars.
Fast forward to the current millennium and you will find a car-scape mostly devoid of precision driving instruments. Burdened with comfort, technology and safety appendages, modern cars have grown in weight. Through the years they’ve also gown layers, incrementally distancing you, the driver, from the sensory experience. The latest layer to surface between driver and road has risen from the necessity of increased efficiency. Electronic power steering replaces the hydraulic pump that used to reduce the muscle needed in wheeling your steed. Somehow, in the application of this technology, the subtleties wiggling up through the steering shaft have been erased – or at least, reduced. Even the Porsche 911 – fabled for its telepathic steering feel – has fallen prey to this technology, though reviews thus far suggest the damage is limited.
At the racetrack or on a snaking road, only a car free of sensory callus can carry you to driving nirvana. The magical pixie dust of the E30 is no magic at all – it’s a mechanical simplicity that connects you to the driving experience. In the quintessential linguistic contradiction: less is more.
Let’s distill the E30 down to its fundamental ingredients. The car was lightweight, the M3 tipping the scales at a scant 2,865 lbs – earlier non-M models dipping as low as 2,460 lbs. All E30s were rear-wheel drive, save for the iX one-off which pioneered the 3 series’ first AWD system. A manual gearbox was standard. Six-cylinder models and sports four-cylinder models came equipped with a limited-slip differential. While the engines on offer varied widely in power, all engines were responsive and free-revving – save for the Euro market diesels.
The above, in a nutshell, defines the essential DNA of a pure sports car: lightweight, rear-wheel drive, manual gear selection, and responsive, free-revving power delivered through a limited-slip differential. You cannot overlook any of these ingredients without undoing a helmet-full of driving fun. Add much on top of these ingredients, and you begin to distract from the purity of the car.
So then, what cars in the market place today were baked to simple perfection using the prescribed ingredients? All Lotus cars, the Mazda Miata, the Porsche Cayman, Boxster and 911 GT3 RS, all Caterham cars, the Weismann MF4-S, and a few other small-batch independent sports cars. By and large, the short list is very, very short. Recent favorites such as the Honda S2000 and Mazda RX-8 have gone the way of the cassette player, and their presence is sorely missed.
Of course, all of these cars fail to embody the essence of the iconic E30. For one reason or another, they all miss the mark in some way. The car that comes closest is arguably the Mazda Miata. It combines all essential ingredients into a handsome package, at a reasonable price point. Yet the Miata is still slightly soft relative to the E30 of its day – particularly the E30 M3, which had a telescopic focus on performance. The others on the short list are overpriced, bordering on exotic – which the E30 was not. What we’re looking for is the simple everyday performance car – attainable, and thrilling, for all. And if our candidate is to truly match the E30, it must also have a side of practicality and everyday utility – just as the E30 mustered.
Enter the long awaited Toyota FT-86. That the name Toyota has even appeared in the acclaimed company of the aforementioned sports cars is nearly cause for alarm or moderate stomach upset. Defibrillator cast aside, desperate chest-thumping abandoned – we had all gone home, the collective body of driving enthusiasts considering the Japanese brand clinically dead.
A blip occurred on the EKG over 5 years ago when rumor began to spread of a pure sports car surfacing from the brand. As much as it pained sports drivers to glance their eyes on Toyota dealer lots – lest their eyes set hold of the world’s most homely and boring automotive lineup – memories of happier times could still be called to mind. Iconic cars such as the Sports 800, 2000GT, Corolla GT-S and Supra spring to mind – dating back to the late 1960’s. The Corolla GT-S, internally code-named the AE86, finds a special resting place in many enthusiasts’ hearts, as this car captured much the same appeal as the E30. It was a simple, honest performance car that combined all essential ingredients into an affordable package, while retaining everyday usability and practicality. It was, to some extent, a Japanese E30.
Now, in January of 2012, we can add the Toyota FT-86 to the list of pure, uncompromising sports cars. The mandate of this car is in parallel with that of the original E30, and this Toyota’s mechanical similarities may surprise you. Since we’re all driving enthusiasts at heart, let’s use the E30 M3 as a reference point. The M3 weighed in at 2,865 lbs, the FT-86 weighs an impressive 2,700 lbs (final figures are not out yet, but some expect it to weigh as little as 2,600 lbs!). The M3 was powered by a naturally aspirated 2.3 liter inline-4 cylinder that produced 192 hp at 6,750 rpm and 176 lb-ft of torque at 4,750 rpm, en route to a 7,300 rpm rev limit. The FT-86 is powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0 liter boxer-4 cylinder that produces 200 hp at 7,000 rpm, 151 lb-ft of torque at 6,600 rpm, eventually bouncing off the limiter at 7,400 rpm. The M3 was rear-wheel drive with a limited-slip differential standard, the FT-86 follows in kind. The M3 transfered power through a 5-speed manual transmission, the FT-86 offers a 6-speed manual. The M3, along with all other E30s, offered surprising practicality with a sizable trunk and 2+2 seating configuration. The FT-86 features a 2+2 layout with a sizable trunk and fold-down rear seats expanding total storage volume.
What of the alleged successors within the BMW brand? Some – not least the marketing department – will point to the 1 series as heir to the E30 thrown and go on to insist that the 1 series M Coupe is the true successor to the E30 M3. I’ve spent a healthy amount of time behind the wheel of the understeering 1 series, and it lacks two of the core ingredients necessary to make it a worthy successor. The base 128i weighs 3,208 lbs, putting it a stout 200 lbs over the pivotal 3,000 lb tipping point that tends to exemplify a light weight sports car, and all other cars mentioned fall below this weight. The 1 series fails to include another ingredient: a limited-slip differential. What of the 1 series M Coupe? The car goes further astray as mechanical muscle adds considerable weight, the 1M registering 3,296 lbs on the scales. 431 lbs is a monumental amount of weight to be added to a sports car, and it permanently and irreversibly alters both the driving experience and the spirit of the car. I’ve driven the 1M in haste and while it delivers in all other departments, there is a spiritual element missing. In sports car rhetoric, that spiritual element is called, “lightness.” Further, it’s not a sports car for everyone, as hardly anyone can purchase it.
If you long for the visceral appeal of a BMW E30, the best solution may be to go out and buy a classic E30. If you’re bent on the sublime M version, then you’ll have to gather up a few more dollars, because current appreciation of the car has a low-milage specimen sitting at approximately $25,000 to $30,000 USD. Coincidentally, the Toyota FT-86 is expected to launch with a base price just over $25,000 USD.
While I’m smitten by the E30 and stand in awe of its driving appeal, I’ve already been down the vintage car path. I’ve owned an E30 and loved every minute of it, but for an assortment of reasons, I’m ready to drive cars built in step with modern hair styles. Even the most hard-core among us might rationally insist on owning a car built within the last decade.
If you fall into the category of reformed vintage sports car driver, or earnest enthusiast looking for a modern E30, your options are limited – but no longer absent. As far as I see it, there is only one car that closely matches the performance of the E30 M3 while capturing the spirit of the car. BMW have reportedly played with the idea of a Z2 sports car, but as of yet, this car is set on the far off horizon – and there is tragic rumor that it may launch with front-wheel drive. It’s clear that in the year 2012, there is only one true successor to the BMW E30: the Toyota FT-86.
I’ve yet to drive the Toyota, but I’m eagerly awaiting track-time at the helm. The only complaint I’ve read thus far from recent reviews would be that the tire size is a touch to small, leaving the car needlessly searching for traction. Stock tire sizing is 215/45/17 square, so I imagine going to a 225 sticky compound all-round would solve this issue, and allow for serious track pace. If this car delivers half the fun of an E30 on track, I’ll be smitten – along with thousands of other track-addicts.
If you’ve never heard of the Toyota FT-86, it could be because it carries so many different name plates. In actuallity the car was conceptualized by Toyota, but executed by Subaru – hence the ripping boxer-4. Subaru’s version is called the BR-Z while the Asian market retains the FT-86 moniker, and North America gets the flabby Scion FR-S badging. I cringe at the thought of owning a Scion – imagine: a brand below Toyota. But you mustn’t judge a car by its badge – not when the ingredients are so pure underneath. Hail the new E30.
What car do you believe is the true successor to the E30? Tell us in the comment section below! (As a reference, remember that weight must be well below 3,000 lbs!)