In 1986, BMW created a legend. Created for homologation purposes so BMW could go racing, the E30 BMW M3 was born. Ever since, the BMW M3 has been the pinnacle of performance in the segment, spawning copycats from nearly every other automaker trying to create the same magic balance of performance, with none ever finding the same level of success. The E30 M3 is the grandfather of its segment.
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Ever since, there have been four successors to the E30 M3. Its most recent iteration, the F80 BMW M3, broke new ground by switching to turbocharged engine for the first time in the M3’s history. This was a huge move for BMW and the M3, as its engines were known for their high-revving naturally-aspirated nature, not low-end turbocharged torque. But the F80 BMW M3 proved to be far better than people expected and its engine, despite its turbochargers, offers the same level of excitement and emotion as all M3s in the past.
So, in the wake of the 30th anniversary of the BMW M3, let’s take a look at the car that started it all along side the current iteration of it.
When looking at the two cars side by side, the first thing that comes to mind is their size. The E30 M3 is significantly smaller than the F80 M3. The extra doors on the F80 M3 don’t help the matter. You can almost fit the entire E30 M3 between the wheels of the F80 M3. This is just a sign of the times, though, as modern crash standards and levels of comfort and luxury require cars to be much larger than they were back in the E30’s time. So this isn’t as much of an indictment toward the F80 as it’s just a product of its time.
Inside, the outcome is similar. While the F80 obviously has infinitely more luxury and technology options, it’s still a relatively spartan and driver-focused interior, relative to its time. Today, so many cars are packed with screens and leather and technology that it makes the F80 M3 seem bare on the inside, especially in its class. However, the E30 M3 is positively barren by comparison. With little to no luxury options, aside from leather seats and power windows, the E30 M3 is about as bare as it gets. It’s just a simple, driver-focused cockpit with no superlatives.
Under the hood, things couldn’t be more different. The E30 M3 has an engine that will go down in history as one of the all time greats. The S14 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine in the E30 M3 develops 192 hp, which is less than the average family sedan today. However, it was good for its time and enabled it to get from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds. But straight-line speed isn’t what the E30 M3 is all about. Driving an E30 M3 is about so much more than speed, it’s about the way it makes you feel. it’s supposed to tingle your senses and light a fire under your ass. It has near perfect steering and a chassis balance that hasn’t been seen since.
The F80 BMW M3 has a very different means of motivation. Utilizing a 3.0 liter twin-turbocharged inline-six engine, the F80 M3 develops 425 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. While the E30 M3 only was available with a five-speed manual transmission, the F80 is available with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the latter of which allows it to launch from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, a full three seconds faster than the E30. So it’s performance is blistering. In the twisties, the F80 M3 is an exceptional handling car, one that can blitz around a race track an incredible speeds. But it doesn’t have the purity or steering feel that the E30 M3 has.
Both cars are unbelievable driving machines, cars that will put smiles on your face each and every time you sit behind the wheel. That is the intended function of both vehicles and they both nail that perfectly. The complete the task in very different ways with very different tools, but the core philosophy is the same. They both favor fun over performance figures and they both over exceptionally balanced packages. However, they do it in such different manners that reflect their times. The F80 BMW M3 isn’t any worse than the E30 M3, it’s just a BMW M3 for this time.