Anyone who has ever driven an E30 will tell you it is, without doubt, the best driver’s car in the world. And they wouldn’t be lying. Anything else is unnecessarily over the top or, simply not good enough. Not even other BMWs. I’d driven a number of BMWs before the E30, mostly Fivers, and they were all decisively better to drive than the E-Class Mercedes.
But nothing had prepared me for the E30, which, as the legend goes, is the reason behind the Bavarian company’s slogan, “Ultimate driving machine”.
At first impression, it makes quite an impact. It would be a misnomer to describe it as beautiful. Rather, the proportions and balance, straight lines and double kidney grille flanked by two perfectly round headlights on either side, are collectively best described as handsome; unassuming yet hard to ignore.
Compare that to modern cars and you can tell the E30 is a timeless silhouette. It looks good even parked next to the latest sports cars.
Introduced to the world in 1984, the E30 was the successor to the E21, a half-hearted over-steer, bland-faced, underwhelming example of Bavarian craftsmanship after the legend that was 2002.
To salvage the reputation, something clearly had to be done. The E30 did and continues to do it well. I have driven many cars and even now, the E30 still has pride of place in my heart.
Mercedes 190 rivalled it but it really is a no contest between the two. One would argue that they were two very different cars.
The Mercedes, as usual, was slightly more refined and the Beamer significantly better to drive. To this day, people appreciate both for similar but different reasons; the Mercedes will give a better impression of prosperity and the BMW will give you a bigger smile: for posterity.
The dashboard in the E30 is slightly canted towards the driver, underlining the fact that it is intended above all else, to be driven.
There are a number of engine options for an E30, ranging from the 1.8-litre, four-cylinder in the 318, to the sublime 2.5-litre straight six in the 325i. If you’re particularly lucky, the punch you in the face high revving S14 engine as offered in the very first M3.
Whichever the case, you won’t be disappointed. Even with the 1.8-litre, the car feels brisk and light, like it wants to dance. Keep the revs up by constantly shifting on a winding road and you soon feel like you’re in a deeply sensual dance.
It flatters and compliments your efforts and, every time you mash your left foot and change gears, it responds with compelling urgency. I don’t usually support heavy modification of cars, bearing in mind that the people who made them are vastly more experienced and better equipped than anyone else in the world.
Tampering with any aspect of a car’s driving dynamics is sure to result in either poorer handling or increased chances of breakdown, especially with German machines, which are the most complicated on earth.
The E30 doesn’t need much to improve it. A set of slightly wider tyres and strut bars to stiffen up the chassis are all one needs. Anything else is in my opinion, unnecessary. Unless of course, you’re using it to shred tyres on a racetrack in which case ignore my advice and go nuts.
Downsides to the E30 are electrical problems and lack of spares. This will necessitate joining a cult of similarly inclined BMW owners to help track down that elusive fuel pump.
It will also mean that while the car is reliable when in fighting form, you will always have a nagging anxiety that it can break down anytime in the middle of nowhere, the hallmark of any old car. Unlike older Japanese cars, which are as simple to fix as a bicycle, one will need someone conversant with the marque or risk further damage.
This is why for all its corner-carving prowess and glee-inducing abilities, I would strongly caution against an E30 for a daily driver. Like a favourite meal, it’s best appreciated in moderation, on special occasions.
It’s heavier than contemporary cars and consequently, you’ll be making more trips to the pump only to end up in snail-paced traffic that highlights the lack of power steering. The best way to appreciate the magnificence of arguably the best driver’s car in the world is on a Sunday, on a winding deserted road with your favourite jams gently thrumming through the stereo. Nothing beats that.