Concluding the story of the seminal BMW E30-generation 3 Series.
Sales of the new 3 Series, initially available in two-door saloon form only, started briskly around the end of 1982. Renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright drove the new 3 Series for the first time and reported his findings in the January 1983 issue of Car Magazine. Whilst largely agreeing with Georg Kacher’s assessment of the car, published in the previous month’s issue of the magazine, he took a more nuanced view of the handling issue.
Setright acknowledged that a base 318 fitted with the ZF three-speed auto was likely to be “a dull understeerer” but the more powerful models with a manual gearbox made full use of the “cleverly designed new suspension” which made the car “a very sharp performer in the corners, however blunt it may be in the wind.” The latter was a reference to the car’s bluff shape and unimpressive 0.39 drag coefficient, which made it “directionally less secure than I would have liked” at high speeds in a strong crosswind.
The four and six-cylinder engined cars were noticeably different in the way they drove. The former was “lighter and more responsive to the steering” while the latter “had the power to be more responsive to the throttle.” Overall, while feeling a little underwhelmed by its appearance, described as “a Three Series BMW, but nicer.” Setright thought the new car represented a significant advance over its predecessor in terms of handling, weight (the body-in-white was 8.5% lighter than that of the E21), fuel consumption (a claimed 12% improvement over its predecessor), safety and corrosion resistance.
In late 1983, a four-door saloon joined the range. This retained the profile and dimensions of the two-door car and the extra doors were incorporated neatly into the side profile. That said, it lost a little of the commendable crispness of the original.
In October 1983, Car Magazine published a ‘Giant Test’ of the 320i four-door, pitched against its nearest rival, the newly launched Mercedes-Benz 190E. In the comparison, both cars had notably different strengths and weaknesses. The 190E was adjudged the better because it was “substantially more economical”, felt “considerably more relaxed at speed” and “should offer a higher resale value”. It was “an utterly forgiving car” with “better balanced suspension and a much more advanced low-drag body.” However, it was still “far from perfect” with a “noisier engine, uninspiring dashboard and interior, huge steering wheel, rather slow gearbox and cramped rear compartment.”
Against this, the 320i was “quicker off the mark and goes faster round the bends, it feels nicer inside and is more inspiring to drive fast, provided you can cope with its still slightly iffy chassis. It is also quieter and has a more refined engine.” However, it was “marred by a lack of torque at low revs, too-high top gear coupled with an extremely tall rear axle ratio. It also looks unexciting, comparatively heavy on fuel and its ride comfort is middle-of-the-road.”
In truth, the car one would choose from this pairing really depended on one’s priorities. The BMW was more about driver engagement, the Mercedes-Benz better suited to relaxed cruising. Apart from the slightly arbitrary ranking, both manufacturers should have been reasonably pleased with the outcome of this comparison, with each car playing to its marque’s traditional strengths.
For those for whom fuel economy was a priority, BMW introduced a 2.4-litre turbodiesel six producing 114bhp (85kW) in 1983. The next development for the 3 Series was the arrival of a convertible version in 1985. Unlike the Baur Cabriolet conversion of the two-door saloon, with its roll-over bar and fixed side window frames, the factory-built convertible had no such encumbrances. Roll-over safety was achieved with strengthened A-pillars and windscreen header rail, and also the insertion of fixed quarter windows into the doors, the stout frames of which provided additional bracing for the A-pillars. It was a great looking car and, with no direct competition apart, perhaps, from the Saab 900 Convertible, it sold strongly from the off.
Also in 1985, the 2.3-litre six was replaced by a more powerful 2.5-litre unit producing 168bhp (125kW) and the model designation changed to 325i. There was also a 4WD version for the first time, dubbed 325iX, and a less powerful version of the engine producing 121bhp (90kW) tuned for economy and badged 325e. At the same time, a normally aspirated version of the 2.4-litre diesel was introduced, producing 84bhp (63kW).
The 3 Series would benefit from a ‘halo’ model to exemplify its sporting credentials, and this duly arrived in late 1985 in the shape of the M3. As is often the case with such models, the M3 was originally designed as a homologation special, to qualify the car for the DTM(1) German Touring Car race series, which required a minimum run of 5,000 road-going examples to be built.
The M3 was much more than a 3 Series with a more powerful engine and uprated mechanicals. Based on the standard two-door bodyshell, it was extensively revised in a quest to improve aerodynamics. A completely different rear end was designed, comprising wider C-pillars incorporating a faster angle to the rear windscreen and a raised clamshell-style boot lid which sat atop the rear wings, raising the rear deck by around 40mm (1½”). The new rear section was grafted onto the existing roof panel above the rear side windows.
All four wings lost their conventional wheel arches and were instead heavily flared from below the bodyside crease and from immediately in front of and behind the doors to the car’s extremities. The reprofiled wings were required to accommodate the wider 225/45R16 Pirelli P700-Z tyres on 7” wide wheels. A large aerofoil boot spoiler and aerodynamic front and rear combined bumper and valance panels, the front one incorporating a splitter, completed the changes, the effect of which was to improve the drag coefficient from 0.39 to 0.33.
Power came from a new 2.3-litre DOHC straight-four which produced maximum power of 192bhp (143kW) and torque of 170 lb ft (230Nm), mated to a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox. The suspension layout was broadly similar to the standard car but significantly revised in detail to cope with the much greater performance demands. The M3 was produced in left-hand drive form only.
Car Magazine’s Steve Cropley tested the M3 on British roads and his report was published in the May 1987 issue of the magazine. Cropley was, of course, hugely impressed by the performance, achieving a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 6.8 seconds and top speed of 127mph (205km/h), but even moreso by the manner in which it was delivered: “the power is intoxicating, but the true strength of this 2.3 litre four is the immediate, sensitive, subtle nature of its throttle responses.” The handling was much improved over the 325i, partly because of the many tweaks to the suspension, but also because the four-cylinder engine’s centre of gravity sat further back in the chassis than the 325i’s six. Refinement was extraordinary too, especially for a homologation special.
The only significant criticism was reserved for the Getrag gearbox, which needed quite deliberate and precise gear changes. The unusual dog-leg shift from first to second was slow, an issue exacerbated for British drivers more used to changing gear with their left hand. Overall, however, Cropley concluded that “the enthusiast who buys an M3 will be helping himself(2) to the best-handling, and one of the fastest cars BMW has ever built for the road. The wonder is that it’s so mannerly and refined too.”
There followed upgraded and more powerful ‘Evo’ models, the ultimate being the Sport Evolution with a 2.5-litre engine producing maximum power of 235bhp (175kW) and torque of 177 lb ft (240Nm). This model had a limited top speed of 155mph (250km/h). Total M3 sales were just 17,970 cars, but the ‘M’ designation became talismanic for ’petrolheads’ around the world and sealed BMW’s reputation for producing some of the best driver’s cars ever. E30-generation M3s are highly prized today with the best examples selling for anything up to £130k.
1987 brought the only significant visual update to the E30, which was most obvious at the rear end of the car. New, larger tail lights were fitted, between which was a black finisher panel that carried the rear number plate. The chrome-plated bumpers were replaced by deeper plastic items, black on lower spec cars and colour-keyed with black rubber inserts on higher spec models. The front valance was also redesigned and different fog lights installed(3).
At the same time, the five-door Touring estate was launched, incorporating the saloon’s new styling features. This was rather more a ‘lifestyle’ estate than a serious load-lugger. The tailgate opening was restricted by the use of the saloon’s newly enlarged fixed rear light clusters. While a narrow centre section opened down to bumper level, this meant that any large or wide items needed to be lifted to the same height as the saloon’s boot lip to load.
If the use of the saloon’s rear light clusters looked slightly ‘homespun’, there’s a good reason for it: the touring began life in 1984 as an entirely unofficial ‘skunkworks’ project undertaken by a BMW engineer, Max Reisböck. The prototype was a converted four-door saloon which Reisböck built in a friend’s garage. When the prototype was shown to his bosses, they were sufficiently impressed to sign it off for production. The Touring was an immediate hit with buyers who appreciated its good looks and modicum of additional practicality. The arrival of the Touring completed the range and marked the last major change to the 3 Series line-up.
The E30-generation 3 Series was a hugely successful car for BMW. Total global sales were just shy of 2.5 million over roughly a decade. From April 1991 onwards, the E30 was progressively phased out as the new E36 3 Series took over. The last variant to be replaced was the Touring, which remained in production until 1994.
(1) Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft.
(2) Unconsciously sexist on Cropley’s part, although probably accurate.
(3) The convertible model would not receive these visual updates until 1991.