This Is What It’s Like To Drive A Bone-Stock BMW E30 M3 In The Alps
Photography by Alex Sobran
Reading about the E30 M3 these days is like watching a slideshow featuring the meals and toddlers of your acquaintances. Things like food and progeny are important to us on a firsthand basis but tortuously boring when they come in the form of these unsolicited peeks into the lives of others. It’s the same with this car; it’s hard to really care about some acquaintance’s Cheerio-smeared toddler, and I really don’t care about why anyone thinks someone shouldn’t meet their hero just because it’s slower to 60 than most new Toyotas.
And yet here I am adding another clump of words and pictures to the overgrown pile of content that’s been created around this BMW since the mid 1980s, and meeting heroes has already been mentioned… I’m sorry for the rest of the cliches and the trite bits to come, but maybe that’s just an indicator of how remarkable the M3 still is—that it compels you to jot something down even when it feels like there’s nothing original to add to the matter. It’s a car that’s owed a proper thank-you note in writing after driving it, and this one should also be addressed to BMW Classic for lending me the keys.
As someone with a particular fondness for the boxy homologation specials that were churned out to compete in touring car championships like the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, the OG M3 remained elusive despite my efforts. The boat full of affordable ones sailed off a long time ago, and most of what’s left has been modified like the $10,000 track rats they were before collectors started socking away unbent ones. For the often intertwined reasons of cost and rarity then, opportunities to test unmolested E30 M3s are only getting harder to come by. Chances to drive factory-spec examples owned and maintained by said factory are rarer still. For me and a few other lucky journalists, we got such a chance this summer in the German and Austrian Alps.
I tracked down and hung up 30-year-old promotional posters of this car in my room a decade before I ever sat in one. The Warsteiner advertising on the works team livery still works on me wherever “DTM beer” is sold. I can name more of the M3’s original DTM driver roster than I can US presidents. It was beyond hyped in my mind, but getting situated in the car for the first time was an anticlimactic matter of adjusting the spartan but comfortable-enough Recaro and reminding myself that the gearbox is a dogleg configuration. Besides that race-derived diagram on the shift knob, a sprinkling of M stripe motifs, the seat bolsters, and the Hennarot wing slicing through the rear window scenery, the interior is staid and mature and closer to the German pastime of making rules rather than race cars.
The geometry of the cabin is as upright as a Marine in his dress blues and its functions are more to the point than the sword on his hip. Interior visibility minus the wing is sightseer-grade. All the pedals and levers move with the predictability and reassurance of broken-in baseball gloves, but to stop with the mixed metaphors let’s just call this an easy car to feel at ease with.
And at first, trundling carefully away from our rendezvous point toward the lane-and-a-half-wide gnarl of climbing asphalt circled on our map, all this comfort and accessibility is frankly disappointing. You want a bit more tension, smaller margins of error that fit the image of door-banging touring cars. The M3’s manners at errands pace are polite enough to make its complexly crimped and flared bodywork look silly and pointless at best, because driving this car in town in compliance with the speed limit is about as demanding as a nap on a Saturday.
The second word of the M3’s “homologation special” status is only defined when the red needle in the tachometer goes right of 4,000. The 2.3L S14B23 motor shares its basic inline-four block architecture with the M10 that backboned everything from your garden variety Neue Klasse to Nelson Piquet’s Brabham. The head and the individual throttle body setup on top of the breadwinning M10 block were almost directly ported over from the company’s M1 supercar with two cylinders chopped off, and the combination manifested as a high-revving, high-output screamer of a motor that begs to live in the expensive end of the rev range.
As such, tootling around at not-my-car speeds is a dull way to get around your local alpine village. Increase your elevation until you find a tower of on-camber turns to descend though, and it turns into a big bobsled with a tape player. All those tropes about forming a telepathic relationship to the front end are true. For being power-assisted, the steering is more communicative than an auctioneer with a marching powder problem.
The M3 sharpens the more you push it but it doesn’t draw blood unless you do something truly foolish. The pragmatic leftovers of the regular 3-Series that make the M3 a dour machine at low speeds inspire confidence when you decide to cane it on scooter-sized roads between the trees and stone walls of Wall, Austria. All that ho-hum is transformed into much appreciated predictability when you try to drive it like Cecotto.
Scampering from hairpin to hairpin with you and S14 screaming in delight with each heel-toe in between puts the car squarely in its element, but it’s not only a tight-radius go-kart. Third-gear sweepers allow you to wring the motor out to its sweetest spot while the chassis blows you away with the mechanical grip and the physics-bending ability of the M3’s square snout tracks wherever you point it regardless of mph. Driving it fast on roads that are never straight and always steep makes you feel heroic in a way that modern super wide semi slicks and thousands of algorithm-driven yaw adjustments just can’t.
For a car so civil and simple to use within the limits of the law it’s amazing how much the M3 begs you to find the limits of its Goodyears. Messing around with stiffer springs and wider tires and putting more cylinders under the hood undoubtedly improve the base car’s performance, but for a first-timer’s experience there’s no beating a time capsule like this one.
I’d like to thank Ben and Stefan and the rest at BMW Classic again for making this perfect day possible.