• 1986 BMW E30 M3 review

As staded by Jean Alesi, famous ex-F1 driver the 1986 BMW E30 M3 is one of most enjoyable best handling road cars he has ever driven, offering astonishing balance due to its 48/52-weight distribution, telepathic in choosing the correct line, with a chassis that is alive and gives the car a personality, which is missing from many of today’s mundane cars.

  • 1986 BMW E30 M3 review
  • Year:
  • Make:
  • Engine:
    R4, DOHC, 4 Valves per Cyl
  • Transmission:
    5-Speed Manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    192 @ 6750
  • MPG(Cty):
  • MPG(Hwy):
  • Torque @ RPM:
    170 @ 4750
  • Displacement:
    140.5 L
  • 0-60 time:
    6.5 sec.
  • Quarter Mile time:
    15.4 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    146 mph
  • 0-100 time:
    19.8 sec.
  • Layout:
    Front, Longitudinal
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Until the mid 80’s, BMW Motorsport had produced just three models, the M1 supercar, the E12 M535i saloon and the sublime M635 CSi. But with the E30 M3, BMW were aiming for a much wider audience. The production of that one was dictated by FISA’s Group A homologation requirements that stipulated 5000 road cars had to be produced. Exceeding by far the Garching Motorsport department’s capability, M3 production consequently took place at BMW’s Munich factory.


Soon the newly born BMW M3 signaled war against the Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3/16V in the DTM (Deutsche Touren Meisterschaft). This was a true battle against two direct competitors only separated by a stretch of Autobahn between Swabia and Bavaria. FIA mandated that a minimum of changes should be performed, but allowed modifications to the drive train, engine and body. BMW sold easily all the 5,000 production M3’s required to enter DTM.


The M3 won many races and spread the fame of BMW’s Motorsports Division worldwide. That would be the same department that developed the M1, M5, and the V10 F1 engine, which has shown that they can beat their competitors like Mercedes, Ferrari, and Ford (Jaguar) on a regular basis. But, what does all of this mean to its road going competitors of the day, like the Lancia Delta, Ford Cosworth, and the previously mentioned Mercedes 190E 2.3/16V? It meant that from a driving standpoint this car was superior.


The power-plant for this was a high-performance 4-cylinder engine, a direct descendent of the M10 unit. The engine block had a forged crank, a four valve head and strengthened internals.


The BMW E30 M3 Cabriolet was produced from 1988 to 1991 and was hand built on BMW Motorsport GmbH’s production line at Garching in Munich. Only 786 models were made.


BMW produced a total of 13 different versions of the E30 M3. Some of the models were in very limited production, and most were European models that never made it to the United States.



Development work for the M3 began as far back as 1981, but production did not start until five years later in September 1986. The model proved to be an instant commercial success despite its hefty price, nearly 18,000 M3’s of varying types were eventually produced between September 1986 and July 1991 when the last Cabriolet rolled off the production line. Just as important is the fact that the M3 massively enhanced BMW’s already impressive racing fame with unprecedented success in European and World Championship touring car racing that continued right up until its retirement in 1991.


In order to keep the car competitive in racing and following homologation rules, homologation specials were produced. Those homologation rules roughly stated that the racing version must reflect the street car aerodynamically and in engine displacement therefore improved models were periodically released for the public. They were called special editions and homologation specials that included the Evo II and Evo III (aka. Sport Evo)


The Evolution 2 was available in 1988 and had a power output of 220 HP and a top speed of 152 mph. Differences between the standard M3 and the Evolution 2 included a higher
compression ratio, some lighter body-parts, a deeper front spoiler and bigger wheels.
The Evolution 2 model was available in Misano Red, Macao Blue or Nogaro Silver.
There were only 501 build between March and May 1988.

Evolution 3 model was available in 1990 as Sport Evolution. It came in red or black only and had grey or black cloth-leather Recaro bucket seats. The engine was this time producing 238 HP. The front and rear spoilers had from then on adjustable splitters. BMW also fitted the optional 16 inch cross spoke wheels as standard. Also standard were for the Evo 3 a suede steering wheel, a suede gear-knob, a suede handbrake grip and a three way adjustable suspension

Production of the original BMW M3 (E30 coupe) ended in 1991.

The E30 M3 was a successful racer, winning the DTM, European Touring Car Championship and even the one-off world title in 1987. The first M3 is also a multiple winner of Macau Grand Prix, 24 Hours Nürburgring and Spa 24 Hours races.


In 2004, Sports Car International named this car number six on the list of Top Sports Cars of the 1980s.


Body & chassis


The E30 M3 was different in many ways from the rest of the E30 line-up. It was equipped with "box flared" fenders to accommodate a wider track, with wider and taller wheels and tires up to 10" wide racing rims. It also had three times the caster angle of any other E30 3 Series model. The first M3 shared larger wheel bearings and front brake calipers with the E28 5 Series. Another extra-feature was a slightly larger rear window to improve aerodynamics. All of the extra aerodynamic refinements it had were fabricated from SMC composite, the same material used regularly for the deep front air dam, bumpers and extended side sills. It’s both front and rear windscreens were bonded to increase rigidity.


Despite all of the visual similarities with the stock E30, the M3 shared just a solitary panel with the series production models, everything other than its bonnet having been carefully modified. The cabin profile was altered with a larger and more steeply raked rear screen to help improve high speed air flow. Also specific to the first M3 was a raised rear deck and prominent wing.


During it’s years of production E30 M3 was offered in six distinctive colors: 

  • Alpinweiss (218)
  • Brillantrot (308)
  • Zinoberrot
  • Diamantschwarz Metallic (181)
  • Lachssilber Metallic
  • Sterlingsilber Metallic (244)
Vehicle Dimensions
  • weight 2866 lbs
  • wheelbase 101.0 in
  • front track 55.6 in
  • rear track 56.1 in
  • length 171.1 in
  • width 66.1 in
  • height 53.9 in


The suspension of the M3 was suitably enhanced over a regular E30 using up-rated springs,all-new gas-pressurised dual Boge dampers and thicker anti-roll bars for front and rear.


One interesting option that was made available for the Evo 3 was Boge’s variable Electronic Damper Control (EDC) that provided three settings for the shocks (Sport, Normal and Comfort), all adjustable via a toggle switch located alongside the handbrake recess.

  • Front suspension Mac Pherson Struts, Coils Springs, Anti-Roll Bar
  • Rear suspension Semi-Traling Arm, Coils Springs, Anti-Roll Bar

The E30 M3’s brakes were using a specially developed Bosch ABS system that worked in conjunction with the brake discs (ventilated at the front, solid at the rear), these along with the reinforced single piston calipers being sourced directly from BMW’s E28 5-series.

  • Front brakes Vented 11.0 in Discs, Vacuum Assist & ABS
  • Rear brakes Solid 10.1 in Discs, Vacuum Assist & ABS
Rack & Pinion, Power Assist
Tires & wheels
  • Front wheels / tires 15.0 x 7.0 in / 205/55VR-16
  • Rear wheels / tires 15.0 x 7.0 in / 205/55VR-16

Engine & transmission

Starting with an off-the-floor 3 Series coupe, BMW gave its M-division free rein to build a winner. After experimenting with several different engine combinations, BMW Motorsport department settled on the M10 block as the starting point for its S14 power-plant. The original M3’s engine head design was essentially a sawed-off 140 cui version of the 3.5-liter inline six unit from the M5/M6 line. A forged crank, an improved oil flow and stout internals filled the short block. Other features included siamesed pistons, a cast alloy sump, a supplementary oil cooler behind the spoiler and a long stroke camshaft. Bosch Motronic injection system fed the four-valve head and the engine ultimately cranked out a respectable 192 bhp at 6750 rpm. It was connected to a close-ratio, five-speed dogleg gearbox hooked furtherly to a limited-slip diff. The following evolution models continued with 2.3 liters but adopted revised cam timing, increased compression ratios, along with the lack of a catalyst producing approximately 215 hp. Later the Sport Evolution model increased the engine displacement to 152 cui and produced 238 hp (175 kW).


A US version was available starting with December 1986 and the North American M3’s came with 192 bhp engines, stock 325i gearboxes and the standard E30 fuel tank. Then, to celebrate winning the 1988 ETCC, BMW brought in the US the Europa Meister special.


The transmission was based on the European close-ratio "dogleg" box, held in place with BMW E28 transmission mounts. It used a Getrag close-ratio five-speed box with a racing style dogleg first and hydraulically operated clutch with bonded lining. M3’s performance was a match for many more elaborately engineered super-cars, although it should nevertheless be remembered that the M3 was not an inexpensive vehicle in its own right. Top speed and sprint to 60 mph were not astonishing, but the M3’s true ability laid with its perfect balance, sublime handling and a real-world driving experience that was second to none.


BMW E30 M3 models list


Model / Engine / Power / Topspeed / Year:

M3 coupe / S14 4 cylinder / 195 HP / 225 km/h / 1986 - 1989

M3 coupe kat / S14 4 cylinder / 200 HP / 225 km/h / 1986 – 1989

M3 cabrio / S14 4 cylinder / 200 HP / 235 km/h / 1988 - 1991
M3 coupe / S14 4 cylinder / 215 HP / 230 km/h / 1989 - 1992
M3 coupe Evo 2 / S14 4 cylinder / 220 HP / 244 km/h / 1988
M3 Evo coupe 3 / S14 4 cylinder / 238 HP / 250 km/h / 1990
  • engine Water Cooled, Inline-4
  • valvetrain DOHC, 4 Valves per Cyl
  • displacement 140.5 cu in
  • bore 3.68 in
  • stroke 3.31 in
  • compression 10.5:1
  • power 192.0 bhp @ 6750 rpm
  • hp per litre 83.41 bhp per litre
  • bhp/weight 147.69 bhp per tonne
  • torque 170.0 ft lbs @ 4750 rpm
  • drive wheels Front Engine / RWD
  • body / frame Unit Steel
  • transmission 5-Speed Manual
  • gear ratios 3.83:1, 2.20:1, 1.40:1, 1.00:1, 0.81:1
  • final drive 4.10:1
  • top speed 142.0 mph
  • 0 - 60 mph 7.0 seconds
  • 0 - 100 mph 19.8 seconds
  • 0 - 1/4 mile 15.4 seconds
  • epa city/hwy 17 / 29 mpg


Difference between cheaper E30s and M3 at the inside included adjustable Recaro seats trimmed as standard, with hound-stooth check cloth centres, plain grey bolsters and PVC backs. Also a three-spoke leather-rimmed Motorsport steering wheel fronted the standard E30 instrument binnacle although there were new VDO instruments with red needles. There was also a 160mph speedo and 8000rpm tach, separated by a Motorsport logo, one of which could also be found on the gear knob. Also individually contoured rear seats, tinted glass and electric door mirrors were standard, air conditioning, electric windows, an electrically operated sunroof and full leather trim were cost options. Other possible upgrades included an on-board computer and heated front seats.


Half-leather Motorsport-striped trim got on the options list soon after. Several years later, a new three-spoke leather-rimmed steering wheel and grey cloth upholstery were introduced for 1990 model year examples.

Standard equipment
Central locking with deadlock
Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)
Speed sensitive power steering
Heated washer nozzles/drivers door lock
Oil temperature gauge
Active check control
Catalytic converter
Rear fog lights
Driver’s footrest
Deep contour Recaro seats with racing harness eyelets
Optional Equipment
Headlight beam throw adjuster
Electric heated mirrors
On-board computer
Cassette holder
Headlamp wash/wipe system

Leather interior (leather seats cost 1,310 UK pounds in 1990)

Electronic Damping Control suspension system with three settings: Comfort, Normal and Sport. These settings are chosen by the driver through a knob mounted next to the handbrake handle.

Electric front windows (cost 413 UK pounds in 1990)

Sunroof, manual or electric (cost 745+ UK pounds in 1990)

Radio (radio fitting service was 187 UK pounds in 1990)

Optional cassette holder on center tunnel console
Closing comments

One of the myth-cars of the 80’s, the E30 M3 was the first Motorsport Department model to reach world-wide fame and success. With perfect weight balance and super-sharp steering it is considered to be one of the most pleasing to drive production cars ever and there’s no wonder about it’s extensive racing success. 20 years after the model emerged it’s popularity seems to be undiminished, as proved by the many fan clubs. It’s genes were clearly present in the two generations of M3s that have followed and hopefully they will still be there for the model to be launched in 2007. 

Andrew Avarvarii
About the author

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