BMW E30 M3

How does Eighties legend compare with modern rivals?

Only a handful of cars deserve to be a called a legend, but the original BMW M3 is definitely one of them. Designed with motorsport in mind, the E30 M3 caused a stir when it made its debut at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show. With its wildly modified body, race-bred engine and track-honed driving dynamics, the hot saloon became an instant classic.

On the track, the M3 was a huge success, notching up touring car titles all over the world, while on the road, it was the high-performance saloon to beat. Better still, in an effort to stay ahead of the competition, there were a number of even faster Evolution and Sport Evolution versions, plus the odd special edition, including the immaculate 1989 Roberto Ravaglia example in our pictures.

Named after the Italian tin-top ace, who was crowned 1987 World Touring Car Champion, it’s based on the M3 Evolution and is one of only 25 examples officially imported to the UK.

Even today, the M3 is dripping with visual appeal. The standard E30 3 Series shape has been given a muscular makeover courtesy of flared wheelarches, an aggressive bodykit and a prominent tailgate spoiler. Completing the road racer look are eye-catching 16-inch cross-spoke alloys and twin exhausts, plus discreet M3 badges on the front grille and bootlid.

Inside, you’ll find the solidly constructed layout is a little low-key by comparison. There’s a pair of figure-hugging seats for the driver and passenger, a gorgeous three-spoke steering wheel and red needles for the dials. Other than that, the interior is stock 3 Series.

On the plus side, the logically laid out dashboard is a model of clarity, while a wide range of seat adjustment makes finding a comfortable driving position easy. Look carefully, and you’ll spot some neat details, including the suede-wrapped gearlever, which is topped by a shift pattern that glows red at night.

There’s also a decent amount of space – an impression heightened by the light grey trim and large glass area. Opening the tailgate reveals a generous 420-litre load bay, which is the biggest here. 

Yet compared to its luxuriously appointed modern rivals, the M3 is a bit short on kit.

You get electrically powered  windows, a sunroof, central locking, a trip computer and, well, that’s about it. Sat-nav, air-conditioning and even a radio are conspicuous by their absence. However, this spartan specification means that there’s less to distract you from the driving experience.

Before you hit the road, there are one or two quirks to get used to. For instance, the M3’s limited production run means it was only ever available in left-hand drive, while its race-inspired five-speed manual transmission gets a ‘dog leg’ shift pattern, with first gear down and to the left. On start-up, the 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine coughs into life. Early versions developed 200bhp, but this Evolution model benefits from an extra 15bhp. On paper, that doesn’t look like a lot of power compared to its 335bhp rivals, but with a kerbweight 

of only 1,200kg, the M3 is no slouch, sprinting from 0-62mph in a claimed 6.7 seconds.

You have to work the engine hard to access this pace, because as with all race-bred units, it thrives on revs. As a result, the BMW feels a little sluggish at low speeds, but between 5,000rpm and the 7,000rpm red line, it really flies. It’s a shame that the twin-cam, 16-valve engine has such a thrashy and strained soundtrack, though.

Fortunately, there are absolutely no complaints about the car’s chassis. The Motorsport division completely overhauled the standard 3 Series set-up by adding a wider track, stiffer springs and dampers, thicker anti-roll bars and a quicker steering rack – and the results are sensational.

Head down a flowing back road, and the M3 is in a league of its own for driver fun. The steering is direct, well weighted and brimming with feedback, while the compact dimensions and deep reserves of grip serve up incredible agility. Better still, the thin windscreen pillars mean visibility is excellent, helping you to place the car with pinpoint accuracy.

Before long, you forget about the left-hand-drive layout, while using the slick and precise ‘dog leg’ gearbox becomes second nature. In fact, driving the M3 is a thoroughly absorbing experience, and one that its much faster rivals can’t match.

Amazingly, more than 25 years after it made its debut, the original M3 is still teaching its young upstart descendents a thing or two about driving thrills.


Chart position: 3WHY: The E30 has passed into automotive folklore as the ultimate M3 saloon. It’s the spiritual predecessor to the new 1 Series M Coupé – so how does it compare?

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