1987 BMW M3 E30 and BMW Safir 325i E30

2014 Drive-My

Twin road test – 1987 BMW M3 E30 and BMW Safir 325i E30 – Mirror Image. BMW’s stunning M3 E30 road-racer goes on sale in the UK this week, but in left-hand drive only. For less money you could have Safir Automobiles’ right-hand drive look-alike. Can the imposter measure up? Read on. Report by John Simister. Photography by Maurice Rowe.

Estoril, Portugal, March 1987. The place where, for this writer, a new standard was confirmed. The occasion the launch by Continental of a new range of wide, low-profile Sport Contact tyres. The cars to which these tyres were fitted: many and varied, including Toyota MR2, VW Golf GTi 16V, Porsche 955, Opel Kadett GSi 2.0 (read Astra GTE for Britain), Audi 80 quattro, Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 W201. And BMW M3.

BMW M3 E30. If there was one car that was head and shoulders above the others in sheer breadth of its ability – yes, above even the redoubtable Cosworth-head Mercedes – the M3 was it. This homologation- special, built-to-race BMW was the fastest thing on the track. It handled the best, pulled the strongest. It was utterly addictive. At Estoril it became clear as day: for the hard-driving enthusiast who doesn’t want to scare himself there is probably no better car.

The chassis is taut, perfectly balanced and totally forgiving. The engine is smooth, docile, gutsy low down, and pulls like a fighter plane high up. In race trim, the M3 is fast proving to be the car to beat on the track: first at Monza, then at Donington, it steamrollered the opposition by filling the top half-dozen places at both of these World Touring Car Championship rounds (though the Italian result was later quashed after the BMWs were accused of wearing boot- lids made of unhomologated material).

To begin with, British buyers couldn’t have an M3 unless they imported it personally. BMW (GB) have since had a change of heart, and provided you don’t mind left-hand drive an M3 can be yours for a surprisingly low £22,750. That’s £5650 more than a Sierra-Cosworth, but £1920 less than a Mercedes-Benz 190 2.3-16 W201. But you can forget any thoughts of a right-hand drive conversion. It can’t be done without wrecking the exhaust manifold design, and that’s it.

If, however, it’s the thought of driving a hot 3-Series with wheel arch blisters and a huge rear wing that appeals – and not necessarily that it’s the product of BMW’s Motorsport Division – then Safir Automobiles, of Byfleet, Surrey (09323 52520) have an alternative. It’s a two-door 325i clad with Safir’s own body panels, in Kevlar and GRP. They make this E30 BMW 325i look as much like an M3 as Rory Bremner can sound like the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

{module BMW M3 and 325i E30}


Safir are no strangers to high-quality bodywork and sound engineering, as it is they who own the rights to produce new Ford GT40s (though the cars may no longer bear Ford badges). But the Safir is more than just a BMW-plus-bodykit. Its suspension is lowered, stiffened, and fitted with Bilstein dampers; its wheels are Rial 7.7Jx390mm alloy items shod with 220/45 VR 390 Michelin TRX tyres. At extra cost you can have 8Jx15 King wheels fitted with 225/50 VR 15 Yokohama A008 asymmetric- tread tyres, as fitted to the test car. And, of course, its engine is tuned.

As standard, the 325i’s 2494 cc straight-six delivers a useful 171 bhp. Safir’s modifications-revised camshaft profile, larger valves, modified Motronic management chip to suit the new state of tune, plus an opened-up exhaust manifold leading into a stainless steel free-flow exhaust system – currently liberate another 19 bhp and enhance the mid-range torque; further work is in progress to bring the total power up to the magic 200 bhp. Which will match exactly the M3’s output.

The cost of a 325i with the full Safir Style and Safir Power treatment (terms which mimic BMW’s own “M” designations) is the price of the basic BMW (listed at £14,350) plus £6075 for the conversion. Total, £20,425. Cheaper than an M3 – and you get right-hand drive.

But what you don’t get is the M3 s sheer, bespoke sophistication. This starts under the bonnet with an engine quite unlike that of any other 3-Series BMW; its cylinder head is effectively two-thirds of the four-valves-per-cylinder unit used in the M635 CSi E24 and the M5 E28. So the M3 is unique among rapid threes in having four cylinders instead of six. Its 2302 cc engine block, instead, is the biggest stretch yet of BMW’s venerable iron four-pot, a block used in everything from the 1961 BMW 1500 to the F1 turbomotor. In M3 trim the engine produces its 200 bhp at 6750 rpm, backed up by 175 lb ft of torque at 4750 rpm; fuel is metered and ignition controlled here, too, by a Bosch Motronic management system, and the compression ratio is 10.5:1.

These outputs are transmitted through a close-ratio Getrag five-speed gearbox with a dogleg first gear slot, and in which the fifth gear ratio gives punchy gearing of 21.3 mph/1000 rpm other changes – from the 3-Series E30 norm include bigger brakes with ABS (still all disc, as in the 325i E30), a quicker steering rack, and comprehensive suspension revisions.

Deceptively simple, these are the key to the M3’s chassis prowess. The castor on the front wheels goes up by a factor of three and the anti-roll bars front and rear are stiffer. In the case of the front one, its pivot points are moved to the outside of the MacPherson struts, virtually doubling the roll stiffness provided by the bar compared with that of the standard car.

At the rear, the springs are stiffer, while twin-tube gas-filled clampers are used all round. To complete the chassis changes, there are a limited-slip differential and 15-inch diameter BBS alloy wheels equipped with 205/ 55 VR 15 tyres (Pirelli P600 on the test car). But what sets an M3 apart from a 325i doesn’t end here: virtually every body skin panel, apart from the bon-net and the doors, is new. So are those blistered front and rear wings are bespoke steel panels, the windscreen and rear window are bonded to the bodyshell for greater shell rigidity, the rear window is more steeply raked and surrounded by a rearmost roof edge and rear quarter pillars which flow aerodynamically into a raised plastic boot lid with a prominent wing. The result is reduced rear lift, improved directional stability, and a drag coefficient reduced to 0.33.

The Safir car lacks the raised boot lid and modified rear window position, but unless the two cars were parked side-by-side the lack is something which would be spotted only by the cognoscenti. The same goes for the windscreen and rear window surrounds, and the guttering above the side windows; these are black in the M3, anodised aluminium in the Safir 325i. There are, too, subtle dimensional differences in the front spoiler and the skirts along the sills and under the rear bumper; what Safir’s BMW lacks in the size of its rear wing, moreover, it compensates for at the front. And it sits even lower on the road.

Start them up, though, and they’re chalk and cheese. The Safir has the usual six-cylinder BMW silky hum – super-smooth, yet underlaid in this case by a sporting, slightly hollow bark from an exhaust that’s less restrictive than standard. It sounds potent; it promises a velvet- gloved yet iron-fisted punch. The M3, in contrast, sounds initially like a 318i with loose tappets, though there’s a crisp edge to the exhaust note that gives a clue as to what’s coming.

What comes is this. At around 4000 rpm the M3 – a paragon of tractibility and docility until then and lively with it – really wakes up. The exhaust note hardens and takes on the rasping buzz so typical of a hot 16-valve engine. The shove continues all the way to the 7250 rpm red line, and it’s only the rev-limiter’s intervention that stops the engine soaring on to self-destruction. It’s an eager, :drive-me-hard feel, fresh and young and more immediate in its excitement than the sophisticated-sounding six. And it’s a very strange experience to be driving an indecently rapid 3-Series that sounds like this one. You feel it ought to be sounding like the Safir does.

And the Safir, let it be said, does not disappoint. Its smoothness is such that you’re unaware of mechanical movement under the bonnet; you just enjoy the flood of silken power and that seamless, straight-six exhaust note. Very smooth though the M3’s engine is, here the Safir’s six has it beat. What both engines share, though, is an eager yet progressive throttle response; here the M3 is better simply because every bit of movement, at whatever engine speed, has practically a linear effect on acceleration.

BMW claim a maximum speed of 147 mph for the M3. Sadly, our test car developed an elusive fuel fault during the maximum speed runs at Millbrook and couldn’t exceed 136.3 mph. That there would have been more to come we have no doubt. As it is, the Safir 325i all but matches the M3 with a 136.1 mph maximum; but worth bearing in mind is that the standard 325i is good for 135 mph.

The longer gearing (23.1 mph/ 1000 rpm on the Yokohamas), and the more widely-spaced gear ratios that the Safir 325i inherits from the regular version, place it at a disadvantage in the acceleration contest. From a standstill there’s little between it and the M3 to 50 mph, both demonstrating brilliant traction off the line. But 60 mph comes up in 7.0 sec in the M3, 7.3 sec in the Safir. We expected the M3 to be even quicker, for BMW – not a company noted for inaccurate claims – reckon on 6.7 sec to 100 km/h (62 mph). Perhaps a few more runs would have seen a few tenths shaved off, but that fuel feed problem reared its head again.

Further up the speed range, the M3 demonstrates its superior top-end urge and its more favourable gearing by scorching to 100 mph in just 17.8 sec, while the Safir requires 20.5 sec to reach the same speed. The fourth and fifth gear times tell the same story; 30-50 mph in fourth takes the tractable M3 an impressively short 6.3 sec, while the flatness of its torque curve – and the engine’s sheer bite – are shown by a 60-80 mph time of 5.8 sec. Not that the Safir is disgraced; those -same increments take it 7.5 and 6.9 sec respectively.

M Power says it all. This is the best four-cylinder 16-valver yet.

Change up to fifth, and the M3’s shortest 20 mph increment proves to be that from 60-80 mph, which requires 8.1 sec – yet even accelerating from 20 to 40 mph takes only 9.8 sec. The Safir is at its best between these extremes, 40-60 mph being the increment that requires the least time (10.5 sec).

So the message is clear. The M3 is scorchingly quick, and the Safir isn’t so far behind. Outright performance, however, isn’t much use if the chassis can’t handle it. The M3’s can, with a disarming nonchalance that makes you wonder why the suspension modifications-aren’t applied to all 3-Series BMWs without delay. The M3 changes direction quickly, fluidly, effortlessly, faithfully; it seems to have no inertia. Overcook things into a bend and a normal 3- Series will respond either with strong understeer or snap over- steer, though much less so than used to be the case. The M3 does none of these things. Rather, if you go into a bend too fast, or you apply too much power too soon, it seems to wait for you to decide what you want it to do and then does it. Exactly.

We don’t think it’s stretching a point to say that there’s no better saloon car chassis in existence. It has everything; terrific steering feel despite the presence of power assistance, very strong grip wet or dry, superb traction, closely-controlled damping, impeccable balance, rock-solid responses, a feeling of total security. Yes, it does have ultimate limits of grip, because even an M3 can’t defy the laws of physics, but their approach is signalled by plenty of advance warning and this BMW doesn’t bite if they’re transgressed.

What the Safir’s 325i straight six loses out in muscle, it gains in smoothness.

What’s more, all this ability is matched to a ride that is firm yet wonderfully pliant, leaving you in no doubt about the car’s sporting nature at low speeds but never, ever, becoming harsh. And at higher speeds the ride just gets better. Of course, it’s not in the XJ6 class – it’s too sporting for that- but such is the suspension’s control of body movement that the underlying firmness is never uncomfortable. Even the muted bump- thump merely adds to the carved-from-solid feel.

To match this stunning ability is a task of awesome magnitude, and the Safir – at least in its present form – doesn’t come close. To be fair to Safir Automobiles, they haven’t yet finalised the suspension specification and more development work is under way. As it is, it’s something of a backward step compared with the factory 325i, especially the Sport suspension version which can truly be said to handle very nicely. The suspension settings of the Safir test car felt as though they had brought back all the handling gremlins of the original 3-Series, though the directional nervousness and twitchy steering responses were not the harbingers of massive lift-off oversteer that they threatened to be.

A brisk entry into a bend under power will find the power- assisted steering going light and dead, the response around the straight-ahead woolly as strong understeer sets in. Apply more lock and suddenly the low- geared steering comes to life, turning the car abruptly and causing it to sit heavily on the outside rear wheel. It’s a knife- edge; more power will provoke oversteer, lifting off will also tighten the line abruptly, though not to the extent of provoking a slide. There’s little in the way of a neutral phase, and the nervousness is heightened by a tendency to tramline over ridges and white lines. There’s some bump steer too.

On an unfamiliar road the Safir is unsettling, though to be fair it comes together with a pleasing fluidity if you power through a series of twists whose exit is in your line of sight. But it could never be termed relaxing, and a mismatch of front/rear spring/damper settings means that the nose is always bobbing up and down restlessly. On a big bump the suspension will bottom out, and the Safir is fidgety at low speeds.

Remember, though, that Safir are well aware of the problems and are confident that a solution can be found. Besides, there’s an easy way round the problem: you specify your Safir 325i based on BMW’s own 325i Sport. There are other advantages to doing this: as standard, the 325i is rather less well- equipped than both the Sport and the M3, so it’s an easy way – albeit a more expensive one – to get M3-matching equipment levels. You also get black window trims instead of anodised aluminium ones, the better to aid visual deception…

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 2]}

In the final reckoning, though, the genuine M3 still has to be the better car. There’s that powerhouse of an engine, flawless chassis dynamics, a satisfyingly meaty, progressive feel to all the controls including the gear- change (the Safir’s is much lighter, in the usual BMW idiom, but feels strangely disconnected after the M3’s) and the brakes (the Safir’s have the usual rhd BMW problem of a dead, unprogressive response). It’s a real driver’s car, yet one in which passengers won’t complain, because it’s far more civilised than might reasonably be expected of a car that has been groomed for the race circuits.

But it has left-hand drive. To many that matters, though to us it doesn’t. The Safir’s driver sits on the right side, and he drives a car whose dramatic bodywork is flawlessly executed. With more power (coming soon) and properly sorted suspension (Safir can oblige), the Safir 325i E30 could be a tempting, alternative. One thing’s for sure, though: such a Safir might begin to approach the M3 on ability, but match it, no. For in the M3, the Bayerische Motoren Werke have created an all-time great. To knock it from its pedestal will not be easy.

Drive-MY test results
Car 1987 BMW M3 E30 1987 Safir 325i E30
Banked circuit mph 136.3* 136.1
mph sec sec
0-30 2.7 2.6
0-40 3.8 3.8
0-50 5.4 5.3
0-60 7.0 7.3
0-70 9.0 9.5
0-80 11.2 12.1
0-90 14.2 15.9
0-100 17.8 20.5
mph sec sec
20-40 7.0 8.3
30-50 6.3 7.5
40-60 6.2 7.2
50-70 5.9 7.2
60-80 5.8 6.9
70-90 6.0 7.0
80-100 6.4 8.0
mph sec sec
20-40 9.8 11.0
30-50 8.8 10.8
40-60 8.4 10.5
50-70 8.3 11.2
60-80 8.1 12.3
70-90 8.5 12.5
80-100 9.0 13.3

Overall mpg

23.6 24.0

*See text

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.