Image of classic black BMW 3 series driving on a road

BMW 3 Series (E30)

BUYER’S GUIDE

BMW 3 Series (E30) Review

Timeless looks, stirring performance and inspiring handling guarantee the E30 BMW 3 Series top billing on the modern classics stage

What Is It?

40 years after its launch the shadow of the E30 3 Series still looms large over BMW and perhaps remains the marque’s definitive model. The simple and timeless three-box silhouette, delicate glasshouse and perfect balance of elegance and aggression were a hit in the day and remain just as popular now, while the pairing with revvy four-cylinder engines and more muscular straight-sixes meant strong performance delivered with that trademark rear-driven thrills. Joined later by convertible and then estate-bodied Touring versions, there’s an E30 to suit all tastes and the size, handling and performance remain as relevant and enjoyable now as it was back in the day. Homologation M3 versions were the icing on top of already tasty cake, these now highly sought-after and valuable in their own right.

Corrosive Areas

Windscreen lower edges and front bulkhead

Front subframe mounts and strut towers

Boot floor

Checklist

• E30 arrived in UK in 1983, with the four-door saloon following later that same year, a factory convertible from 1985 and Touring estate from 1988
• Naming conventions are relatively easy to understand, with the last two digits relating to engine capacity while the letter usually denotes fuelling – accordingly a 318i is a 1.8-litre fuel-injected version, while an ‘e’ suffix was used for economy focused models, ‘d’ was for diesel and a secondary ‘S’ (e.g. 318iS) usually means sport; the ‘x’ is the all-wheel drive version
• 320 and above are six-cylinder models
• E30 production is typically split into two phases, running from 1982 to the 1987 facelift and from here to the end of saloon production in 1990
• Touring production ran from 1988 to 1994
• 1987 facelift obvious for addition of integrated bumpers and larger rear lights, while under the bonnet the M10 four-cylinder engine was replaced by a newer generation of M40 engines and improved Motronic 1.3 engine management across the board
• Power steering was standard from 1988 onwards
• Early four-cylinder E30s may have four-speed manuals but most will feature a five-speed transmission; early autos were three-speed but, again, most will be four-speed; all options are considered reliable
• Desirable 325i Sport arrived in 1986 with stiffer Bilstein damped suspension, BBS wheels, a limited-slip differential and various trim upgrades
• Sporty 318iS featured a twin-cam 2.0-litre engine with 136PS (100kW), BBS wheels, sports seats and selected M3 trim upgrades
• Full M3 arrived in 1986 with dedicated S14 2.3-litre engine, dog-leg manual gearbox and bespoke bodywork, including shallower rear screen for improved aerodynamics; 1989 Sport Evo increased engine capacity to 2.5 litres
• S14 engine also featured in export only 318iS with 2.0-litre capacity to meet local tax threshold; left-hand drive only and rare
• Four-cylinder engines generally considered tough but both M10 and M40 can suffer top-end damage unless oil has been changed frequently so check for service history or signs of regular maintenance; M40 requires regular belt changes while the M42 version in the 318iS has a known gasket fault that can lead to coolant contamination of the oil – retrofitted engines from the later E36 3 Series are more dependable
• M20 six-cylinder engines again generally strong, though also need regular oil changes and cambelt replacements; blocks can crack so check for contaminated oil and while later Motronic 1.3 engine management can be more dependable, and can be fitted as an upgrade
• Power steering rack can leak; again retrofitted items from the later E36 can cure this while also improving steering response
• Rust can take hold anywhere and everywhere; beyond obvious corrosion to wheelarches and front wings check windscreen corners into the front bulkhead, front subframe mounts and strut towers, sills, jacking points, rear trailing arms and mounts and boot floors; sunroofs where fitted can also attract corrosion
• Square underside lifting pads often mistaken for jacking points and damaged, potentially opening door to corrosion

How Does It Drive?

Assuming the suspension, steering and tyres are all in good condition and there’s no slop or play in any of the controls any E30 3 Series should handle with that classic sporting verve BMW has made its signature. True, early 316 and 318i models don’t have a huge amount of power to exploit that but, by the time you get to the 318iS, there’s enough to be getting on with while the six-cylinder versions win on smoothness and sound. The smaller 320i and 323i combine this with a more revvy nature but the grunt of the 325i is hard to ignore, while the uprated suspension and limited-slip differential of the Sport version really make good on the promise.

Common to all E30s is the fantastic combination of compact size, an exploitable on-road footprint, fantastic visibility and the kind of driver-focused harmonisation of steering, gearshift feel and pedal response to put a smile on your face all day long. The M3, meanwhile, is a more urgent, focused expression of all of the above, the exotic homologation engine demanding revs and commitment to get its best, while the dog-leg gearbox adds to the curiosity value.

What’s Good?

BMW E30 Classic Car

The E30 3 Series is one of those cars that looked perfect in its day and hasn’t lost any of that appeal in the decades since, such is the timeless appeal of its perfect proportions and driving manners. In three-door form it’s a genuine sporting coupe, the four-door offers much of the same with more practicality if you need it while the Touring has a style of its own. The convertible, meanwhile, offers all this with the bonus of wind in the hair fun. Enduring popularity, a passionate and knowledgeable community of owners and specialists and decent parts support helps take some of the stress out of ownership and inherent simplicity means a lot of regular maintenance is well within the capability of a competent home mechanic. Interchangeability of parts opens the door to endless tuning possibilities as well, though originality is increasingly prized as the supply of good cars dwindles.  

What’s Bad?

While built to a high standard and with most mechanical issues generally fixable one way or another corrosion is going to be the thing that makes or breaks an E30 3 Series. And is the biggest trap waiting to snare those attracted by the idea of a cheap project or first classic. There are plenty of known spots to check, including the sills, inner and outer wings, boot floor, sunroof and lower windscreen edges but every potential purchase should be thoroughly inspected from nose to tail, with particular attention to any signs of bodged rust or crash repairs. Most will likely have had some work done at some point by now, but look for evidence of the quality of the workmanship and be wary of cars without a history file full of receipts. The desirability of models like the 325i Sport and 318iS has seen prices rocket, while the interchangeability of parts and popularity of tuning can make establishing originality tricky.

Which Model To Choose?

BMW E30 Classic Car Driving

Where once under-appreciated models like the 318iS or even rare export-only 320iS may have offered a relatively affordable route into a more interesting E30 3 Series there are now few hidden gems to be uncovered. M3s operate in a sphere of their own but, inevitably, their desirability has dragged up prices of other sporting versions like the 325i Sport. Post-1987 facelift models are generally considered more desirable for their more cohesive styling and later engines, and a 318i may yet offer some stripped back fun for relatively sensible money.

The small six in the 320i would be a nice step up if you can stretch to it, while choosing a four-door over a two-door or Touring might save a bit more cash upfront. If slightly less sporty convertibles are popular and priced accordingly. Accepting these are all now properly desirable classics and priced accordingly if we had the money the a 325i Sport would be an absolute delight, a clean 318iS perhaps a close second while a more basically specced four-door with a six-cylinder perhaps the most accessible option all things relative.

Specifications

 

Engine

2.5-litre six-cylinder, petrol

Power

170PS (125kW) @5,800rpm

Torque

222Nm (164lb ft) @ 4,300rpm

Transmission

Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

1,200kg

0-62mph

8.3 seconds

Top speed

132mph

Production dates

1982-1990 (total saloon production; Touring 1988-1994)

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