E30 BMW 3 Series | Reviewed
I recently decided it was time to buy something with a little more character and with a sheer focus on the driver. Here are my thoughts on it.
Before I get into my thoughts on paper or online as is the way, I must mention that I filmed and produced a video version of this review over on my YouTube channel. Check it out here, put a lot of time into this one! www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpjXBSflCTk
The E30 BMW 3 Series is somewhat of a retro icon. Produced between 1982 and 1994, over 2 million units made their way onto the world's roads and all for good reason. It had a reputation there is no denying, for some it was the Yuppie mobile, however the reason I am interested in is for it being a pure driver's car.
The E30 I decided to buy is a 1989 320i Touring, and each of those 3 elements of the name have their own individual meaning. 1989 makes this a fairly early Touring model of the 3 series. The Touring model itself however has a rather unique and interesting story. In 1985 a man called Max Reisböck, an engineer at BMW, began working on converting a 323i saloon into something that could provide more space for him and his family. He moved the c-pillar right to the rear of the car and fitted a boot lid stretching from the bottom to the top of the E30. After perfecting the design, he decided to show what he had done to BMW. They were mighty impressed with his work and after some minor changes they actually decided to put it into production, and thus the Touring variant was born, offering that level of additional practically and undeniably a very cool looking design. The 320i part of the name references specifically what power unit this particular had under it's bonnet. This was a 2.0L version of the M20 straight six engine producing 129hp at 6,000 RPM and 121ft-lbs of torque at 4,300 RPM. The M20 engines were used across the range, from the 320i, to the US exclusive 325e to the range topping 325i, producing different power outputs and experiences in each respective use.
So what's it like to drive? This is the part you probably are here for so I suppose I had better actually get to it. If you want the short answer, it's bloody fantastic. However I simply cannot leave it at that. Let's first of all start with that chassis, which for a 30 year old car is amazingly well balanced. In the dry the car feels very neutral under cornering load and will gently push into understeer once the limit of grip is reached which can be trimmed beautifully on the throttle. In the wet the car has a totally different character. Throw that front end into a corner and it darts right in, the weight shifting over and around the chassis, but crucially in a very controlled manner - body roll almost doesn't exist. If you the instigate the rear end of the car at this point, via the pedal on the far right, you unlock what for me atleast, is the most exciting part about driving the E30. Despite having an open-differential on my car (limited slip differentials could be optioned from the factory), a sharp but precise throttle action will break that rear end loose in a very progressive and controlled manner, but bear in mind it is preferable to be above 3,500 RPM at this point make use of the not so large torque levels that 2.0L lump produces. The car will slide into a steady oversteer and be prepared for this - the E30 has a very slow steering rack which means you'll need a fair number of turns on that wheel to counter steer the slide, but once perfected it is a hugely rewarding experience. Gather it all up again on the throttle and simply progress onto the next turn to repeat. Being in a 30 year old 3 Series Touring while all this is happening is both hilarious and just one of the best driving experiences in my opinion. We're only just getting started too.
Onto the engine next then. As mentioned above in my car is the M20B20 BMW straight six petrol engine. The B20 designated 2.0L of capacity. Although many have mocked the M20B20 for it's somewhat pathetic power figures, it is no doubt a BMW straight six engine. A beautifully linear and precise power delivery. Yes there is very little on the low end, but who cares? It's naturally aspirated and revs to the thick end of 7,000 RPM. Floor that throttle at 2,000 RPM and you have a pure spectrum of straight six soundtrack. 3, 3 and a half, 4, 4 and a half, 5. Now it's getting pretty damn raspy at this point in the rev range. Think E46 M3 soundtrack with 1/4 of the speed and you're pretty much on the money. But my God it's a fantastic sound. By this point it's genuinely shifting quite a bit, surprisingly so in fact. You're on or just past the peak torque and fast approaching the peak power number. That raspy sound fades out a little and you have the classic BMW motorsport straight six glory. Hit the redline, shift up and enjoy it all again through the subsequent gear. The M20 engine, modest it may be, is a wonderful unit to live with. My car is fitted with a chip tune which boosts the figures by around 10 each. This gives it a little bit more low end torque which definitely helps with driveability.
Mated to that six cylinder engine is a Getrag 5 speed transmission. With 97,000 miles on the odometer this car has certainly lived a life. The shift can be a bit vague at times and the gear shifter itself is sloppy. But drive the car for a bit and let everything get up to temperature and it actually becomes really quite nice to use. You get a really good sense of functionality from that box. Yes some of the bushings are probably past their best but as I mentioned at the start, this car for me is all about character remember.
I have touched on the steering briefly, but it's certainly an interesting point on the E30 so I would like to add that extra level of immersion. The number of turns lock-to-lock may be laughable by modern standards but that really doesn't matter if you ask me. It features hydraulic assisted steering which blows modern day racks out of the water, especially when considering the good old cliché of 'steering feel'. I won't mention that again however. It's superbly direct on the road and placing the car is a breeze. What makes the E30 really fun is pushing on a little bit down a good British B Road and learning to navigate that rather large wheel coupled to a slow rack. It's certainly a proper driving experience.
The interior of the E30 3 Series is classic 1980's. With some gentle retro reminders placed around the cabin it makes it a cool place to be for a late millennial like myself. The driving position is just something else. The seating position is low and everything is angled right towards that driver's seat. Analogue dials keep you focused on the important things only and above all else the driving experience itself. Of course the Touring variant offers a lot of practicality and I really do love the look of a nice estate, so to me it is aesthetically pleasing too.
To wrap up then the E30 BMW 3 Series is a hugely entertaining and fun car to own. If you're worried about the maintenance and repair costs of owning a 30 year old BMW, you can certainly worry less. The E30 isn't a hugely complicated car to work on and there is a vast array of information available out there for newbies. Having recently done the cambelt change on my car myself, amongst a whole bunch of other parts in association with that, I can say that technically speaking it is not out of most people's reach. A little patience is all that is required. Above all else I can say that the E30 BMW is a hugely refreshing thing to drive compared to all the dull and outright boring modern stuff we found ourselves immersed in these days. If you love driving, get out there and buy a classic while you still can.