History today BMW M3 Evo II E30 vs. BMW M3 Evo E36

Drive-my.com 2016 / 2017

History Today E30 vs. E36 M3. The original M3 is universally loved but is the later E36 a better buy? Everyone knows that the E30 M3 is better than the E36, right? We take a look at how the cars drive and feel on the road today. Words: Mark Williams. Photography: Matt Richardson.

History Today. An age old question: do we prefer the E30 or E36 M3?

History hasn’t been too kind to John Major. Lampooned in his day by the satirical wizards behind the wit of Spitting Image, and constantly haunted from the shadows by the formidable reputation of his predecessor, the years since have preyed on that ‘grey’ image, seeking to claim that the stoic, slightly dictatorial period which defined Thatcher’s reign (and which many moaned about at the time) was watered down a tad when he entered office. And they still complained.

Those that look to the past though can quite often forget the achievements during the period in question. It’s not for me to detail what those were, but a little research unearths various facts and figures which suggest that in actual fact, Britain under Major was not necessarily the basket case popular wisdom would have us believe. Did you know, for example, that John Major’s government was instrumental in setting up the National Lottery, funds through which have since demonstrably achieved so very much in the sporting world in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics? In other words, there was sufficient achievement in those years for us to at least consider the reappraisal of that time in history, set against the context not only of what went before, but also what came afterwards.

History today BMW M3 Evo II E30 vs. BMW M3 Evo E36

When launched in 2007, the E92 M3 had gained a little more weight, a little more girth, and two extra cylinders when compared to the E46 which preceded it. But it was still eminently capable of living up to the name. As to which is best between those two generations is rather like asking a snooker fan to pick between Hendry and O’Sullivan. They’re both brilliant, but quite different. And in reality, the comparative analysis was only a repeat of 2001 anyway, when BMW replaced the ageing E36 with the E46. It is the way of things. Shiny things lose their allure and need to be replaced, just as John Major succumbed to the sniping and retreated to the backbenches to be replaced by A Whole New Thing. But the step change which saw the E46 replaced with the E92 was equally as significant in M3 history (even allowing for the switch to V8 power) as was that move from E36 to E46 in 2001.

Bear with me. Hands up anybody who can recall a magazine article during the E36’s reign which didn’t feature a comment along the lines of “it’s not an E30”. Not many, I bet. And here’s the thing. We’re led to believe that the more steely-edged E46 reintroduced some mojo back into the BMW M3 (and hence, quietly admitting the E36 lacked something) which was lost when the track refugee E30 evolved into the six-cylinder generation. But fast forward to today. The M4 uses forced induction and paddle shift. It’s trendy. It’s an achiever which bends time when conditions permit (i.e, when it’s dry). It’s the equivalent of a social media-savvy MP commenting on Twitter, whereas what we possibly want is an understated John Major-type who just gets on with the job without shouting about it. So is the E36, complete with normal aspiration, a manual ‘box and less electronic intervention, at least in part representative of the car the M4 can no longer be and hence, does history allow us to consider it in a fairer context against the E30?

BMW M3 Evo E36 engine

To be able to drive an E30 M3 Evo is a special treat, ditto an E36 Evo. Gathering them both together though is a real red-letter day. Proof that it’s not what you know but who you know, a chance meeting between myself and Darren Parker from James Paul down in West Sussex allows us to achieve just that, owning as he does magnificent examples of both, and a bright and sunny morning sees us gathering at Darren’s place not far from James Paul’s Bucks Green base and pouring over the two cars (plus one or two others in Darren’s eclectic but impressive collection).

Fired up and out into the sunshine, there is an immediate and obvious difference between the two beyond colour and styling. The E36 runs with a turbine-like smoothness compared to the more boisterous E30’s warm-up, which chunters and chatters away to itself like a frustrated tiger pacing left and right in a zoo enclosure. It wants to be off and up the road already, not sat around here merely idling. Fading into the background a little as a consequence, the E36 nevertheless adopts an air of quiet sophistication and subtle power, the twin pipes rasping the morning air as the fluids warm a little. What we appear to have then is an exuberant teenager in the shape of the E30, being held up by his professional occupation father…

Enough analogies, let’s get out there. I’ve driven E36s previously, but never an E30. Well, not an M3 version anyway. So whilst Bob climbs aboard the E36 I remind myself what it’s like to drive a left-hand drive car on UK roads (I used to live in Brussels and would frequently visit friends and family in the UK, so this is no hardship). The dog-leg ‘box is pretty curious though. A manual gearbox is rare enough these days, but one where first is back towards you and down is nigh on unheard of (although the recently-announced Aston Martin V12 Vantage S offers one – perhaps there’ll be a renaissance). First engages happily enough, and with a tickle of revs and a fairly friendly clutch, we escape Darren’s lair and motor off into the hills.

BMW M3 Evo II E30 engine

Crikey this thing is a busy bee, and it’s already clear that the E30 is very much a product of the age which spawned it. Devoid of electronics or fripperies, one feels as if several layers of evolution have been whipped away like a table cloth suddenly pulled from underneath the plates and cutlery. I’m sat on the road surface, that’s how it feels; jigging around in response to the suspension movement as the chassis tries to make sense of the road surface passing beneath. This road, which snakes its way up into the Surrey Hills, looks like it was laid down by the Andrex Puppy whilst chasing his favourite ball. You’re also left in no doubt that the M3 wants you to know what it’s doing, and unless you’re buying a Caterham, or a Lotus Elise, that kind of interaction just isn’t on the menu these days.

I cannot recall, certainly in recent memory, sitting in a car which felt so very ‘thin’. Elbow brushing right up against the doorcard, it’s almost possible to extend my right arm without moving my torso, and fiddle with the passenger seatbelt which keeps rattling against the door. Every cloud and all that, though, because the payoff to this is fantastic visibility afforded by the narrow screen pillars and lots of glass. I cannot imagine it’s terribly effective in an accident but then again, it’s already clear that the passive safety engineered into the E30’s chassis means a driver worth his salt should be able to avoid binning it in the first place.

And the noise. Oh my word the noise. Never anything less than raucous and rowdy, there is nevertheless a quality and depth to the sounds emanating from upfront and the exhaust combined that is truly extraordinary in this day and age of regulated emissions and battery packs. Plus, on the overrun, it emits the most delicious pops and bangs as we scamper through the lanes, with an added whiff of unburnt hydrocarbons hanging in our wake. Bob will later comment on the delicate licks of flame which live and die in a heartbeat as I come off the power and the whole experience soon becomes an intoxicating mix of noise, aromas, response, feel and some more noise.

BMW M3 Evo II E30 interior

It doesn’t feel terribly fast though, and snapper Matt Richardson’s souped-up SEAT Leon (and an estate version at that for crying out loud) is setting an amusing pace over these roads. He will later claim that the Leon was barely trying, and what’s more I’ll believe him. Right now though, my mirrors are full of Bob bobbing around in the E36 whilst the Spanish Wagon disappears around yet another bend. Time to try harder.

Concentrate, blip-’n’-shift down into second, weight over the nose as the chassis tucks into an uphill left-hander. Suddenly the outside of the road falls away a little on the crest as the turn viciously snaps back into a shallow right-hander, but by this time my faith in the E30’s chassis is all but religious. So I give it some throttle. And some more. And a little more and oh, hello, that’s why it felt slow. There’s a damn sight more throttle travel than the modern driver’s turbocharged torque-developed brain thinks you need and really digging into the available arc results in more go, plus even more noise of course as the full 220hp and 181lb ft of the S14 is offered up.

Corner dealt with, we’re on to a straight now, climbing through some trees which cast shafts of light on to the road surface like an ageing roof minus some tiles. 4000rpm, keep going, recognise that the commotion is what the S14 does (max torque is at 4750rpm) and it’s not the prelude to an impending explosion.

5000rpm, deference to the car’s age rules and I pull back into third. I’m not sure whether I caught Bob napping but he’s dropped back a little and now my windscreen is full of those LEDs again as the Leon is braking for another turn. We continue onwards like this for a few miles, the brake squealing front end of the E30 which typified those first few corners have long since been banished through the accumulated heat and actually driving the thing. By the time we arrive at our designated location for the photoshoot, I am buzzing from head to foot, keen to experience the E36 and put my own context on those downers the ‘90s magazines seem to have on it. But let’s not rush. Best instead to drink the experience in and revel in just having these two to enjoy.

BMW M3 Evo E36 interior

First off then, and with the E30 pinging and ticking as it cools (and with a faint aroma of petrol surrounding it) Richardson dons his hat and gets busy with the cameras. Crumbs, these guys carry some clobber about with them, hence the Leon estate. Quite what it would go like unladen one can only ponder. So whilst Matt looks at the world through a viewfinder, I contemplate precisely what we have here.

You know the M3, of course: staple sports offering of the BMW stable since 1985. Honed, dynamically superior to its rivals both in period and contemporary offerings, it’s the Three Series you buy if the effectiveness of the drive is what lights your candle. From that first generation E30 in 1985, leading to the Evo II model which we have here, with its thinner glazing and lighter bootlid (and the later, the even more hardcore Sport Evolution with a more twistly-wound 238hp version of the S14) to the later E36 which heralded bigger motors and a subtle shift in philosophy, the M3 stands as the sports saloon against which all offerings are judged. Born of the track but later dominant on the road, standing here in the presence of these two, it’s nearly enough to make me question the wisdom of buying a 2.0-litre diesel F10 5 Series instead of something like the E36…

My reverie is interrupted by the sound of the E30 coughing into life as Bob manoeuvres first it and later the E36 around for Matt’s Nikon, a process which doesn’t take as long as you’d think, since Bob clearly understands Matt’s direction and the latter understands what’s in Bob’s mind with regards to the photographs he needs. Experience gets the job done in far less time than I was expecting, and the E36 now sits there, door open, engine running and thoroughly warmed. Let’s go.

Road test BMW M3 Evo II E30 vs. BMW M3 Evo E36

First impressions are marked – it’s a lot darker in here, and not just as a consequence of the black hide. There’s more width and clearly a wider track (although the numbers state that the difference isn’t as vast as the feeling suggests, 1680mm compared to 1709mm for the E30 and E36 respectively in terms of overall width) but it feels slightly more oppressive through a lower roof line, higher dashboard and, of course, chunky screen pillars. Still, no matter, that’s progress.

I’m not sure the same could be said for the clutch – I’ve used electric light switches with a more progressive action. Whilst the seats and general interior feel put you at ease (and to be fair, the E30 is far from what you could call intimidating) the clutch does not. Engaging right at the base of its travel, with the remainder of the upward arc appearing totally superfluous, you’d swear it was knackered if it wasn’t for the fact that all E36 M3 Evos seem to exhibit it. There is a modification/fix (delete depending upon your disposition) to the clutch hydraulics which remedies this, ergo as the years roll on we come across fewer affected examples and hence, it always seems to catch me out.

I stall. Bad enough on its own but I’m rolling downhill too! Finally up and running and further along the road we stormed along to get the photoshoot location, the E36 starts to reveal itself. Let’s get to the bottom line. At this point you’re probably expecting me to refer to an increased weight and heft of a car which is clearly a size larger than its predecessor and with perhaps slightly fewer histrionics and less fidget to the drive when compared to the E30. And that is all accurate.

It also completely misses the point, or ignores the context. The E36 feels like a car BMW could still make today and just about get away with, while the E30 feels like a car from a different age altogether. The latter bridged the gap between the last of the ‘70s into ‘80s spec motors, where one spied ‘passenger wing mirror’ or ‘radio’ on the options list, and the first of the ‘90s modern machinery, replete with electronics and new-fangled nonsense such as air conditioning! It’s called evolution, as I’ve gone on about before in these pages (when reviewing the F80, funnily enough). I wouldn’t blame the E36 for ‘not being an E30’ any more than I’d lambast the modern BBC for providing more than just the two channels. So let’s ignore what came before for a moment and just revel in the drive. And it’s epic, once you’re used to the clutch anyway, and the fact that the steering wheel appears to adjust for rake but not reach.

Digging into the throttle’s long arc now, it’s reminiscent of the E30, which features the same weighting, length of travel and snappy response. Maintain the pressure until the revs climb and you’re rewarded with a sonorous rasp which admittedly lacks that final, slightly vicious chain saw-edged bite of the S14 but which nevertheless bathes the surrounding countryside in rich waves of thick six-cylinder sound.

Once again, it rapidly becomes clear that one has to work the S50 in order to extract its 321hp and 258lb ft of torque, but at least coming from the E30 means you’re not expecting oodles of go from just tickling the throttle. So you commit a good deal earlier with a hefty shove of your right foot, change up at around the same 5000rpm point as in the E30, note the short throw and very mechanical feel to the gear change and the fact that the exhaust doesn’t pop and crackle quite as rudely as the E30 did on the overrun. The brakes don’t squeal from the off either.

The SEAT is now finding it more of a challenge to open a gap, although in all honesty I doubt Matt is having to try as hard in order to maintain this pace as myself and Bob are. The rewards are certainly there though, and I note that the E36 is clearly less effort to punt along at these speeds. There is a little less ‘white noise’ to the E36 compared to the E30, but this merely means there is less coming at you and hence, you’re able to make clearer and cleaner decisions. As a consequence, the E36 is easier to drive with pace, with the feeling that the car is doing more in order to underpin and support your progress.

So you tack into a corner, and now those rewards are in evidence. Where the E30 would bob around a little in the entry phase of the turn, at least until the front was loaded up, the E36 seems to settle earlier and establish the weight either side around the nose depending on the nature of the corner. This pushes back through the steering, and whilst the resultant force filters out some of the granular chatter and feedback that you sense in the E30 (oh what joy to experience steering which does so much more than simply steer the car), it means that you’re able to mentally skip a few thoughts through the ‘is it hooked up?’ phase in your mind and simply commit to the corner.

Road test BMW M3 Evo II E30

Through the apex now, and with the revs climbing you attack the throttle a little more, and now the trick which the E30 cannot pull off starts to tell. The S50 climbs, and as the weight transfers rearwards that underpinning support is again in evidence, power pouring from up front, coursing through the drivetrain and deploying to the road. In terms of sheer grunt, the S50 bests the S14 of course, that’s not news, but the point is that the E36’s approach trades the ten-tenths feedback-at-all-costs approach of the E30 for more power and one or two degrees of less involvement in order to use that power effectively. I drove an Aerial Atom a little while back, and the onslaught of power, noise and connection was mindblowing and all-intoxicating in those first few miles, but after an hour or so I was utterly exhausted. To live with day-to-day, which is regular usage for an M3 (it remains a practical device, despite its astounding capability) you need something which provides the thrill and connection you crave, but without taxing you or taking so much out of the driver that you begin to resent it.

So which do I prefer, and does the point we are at today indeed allow us to reconsider the E36? What needs to be taken into account here is that an M3 is a tool designed to deliver driver involvement, and epitomise BMW’s mantra of existing as The Ultimate Driving Machine. But that needs to be considered in context, and the demands placed upon the iteration of the M3 at that point in history. Some people will try to tell you that the greatest driver’s BMW there’s ever been was the M1, but could you imagine driving it every day, including those trips home from the airport after a late flight when all you want to do is get home and not have to deal with front/rear balance or brake modulation?

BMW M3 Evo E36 road test

Driving the E30 M3 Evo was an absolute thrill, and it’d be criminal if I never get to do it again throughout my lifetime. The entire car fizzed with energy, a pent-up ball of anticipation and nervous excitement. It wanted to be let off the leash continuously and, okay, it didn’t then go quite as hard and gut-wrenching as you’d like, but to dismiss it for lack of power is to utterly miss the point. Just as to dismiss the E36 for not offering quite the same level of connection (coming at it from the other direction if you will) is to also completely miss the point.

What these two offer up is the pure thrill of driving the best M3 that BMW was able to offer at that point in history, taking into account the demands placed upon it by legislators and the demands of the buying public. Having experienced the E36 M3 Evo, and set against the demands of today, and also comparing it to today’s F82 M4, it’s clear to see the lineage that has brought us to a point of twinturbocharged retina-popping torque started when BMW realised that in order to sell in numbers which make it a worthwhile endeavour, the M3 would have to evolve and switch focus from driver involvement to increased pace, but not ultimately at the expense of either.

John Major did the best job he could in his day, realising he was neither willing nor capable of emulating his predecessor, and even though hindsight has since told us that both Thatcher and Blair were arguably stronger leaders, they weren’t necessarily better politicians. This mindset defines the E36, which on the day would be my choice through a combination of its soulful S50 and engaging but not overpowering driving dynamics (not to mention the investment possibilities which come with the saloon version, of which only around 450 were made). It’s a gifted and enthralling M3 and answers the ‘what should the M3 be?’ question probably posed internally within BMW in the early ‘90s, and considering what has transpired since, history has proven that change of direction to be well chosen.

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 84]}


ENGINE: S14 four-cylinder, 16-valve

CAPACITY: 2302cc

MAX POWER: 220hp @ 6750rpm

MAX TORQUE: 181lb ft @ 4750rpm

SPECIFIC OUTPUT: 95.6hp per litre

0-62MPH: 6.7 seconds

STANDING KM: 27.1 seconds

TOP SPEED: 151mph

WEIGHT: 1200kg


ENGINE: S50 six-cylinder, 24-valve

CAPACITY: 3201cc

MAX POWER: 321hp @ 7400rpm

MAX TORQUE: 258lb ft @ 3250rpm

SPECIFIC OUTPUT: 100.3hp per litre

0-62MPH: 5.5 seconds

STANDING KM: 24.7 seconds

TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)

WEIGHT: 1440kg

What these two offer up is the pure thrill of driving the best M3 that BMW was able to offer at that point in history

Thanks to: James Paul / Tel: 01403 823723 / Web: www.jamespaul.co.uk

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