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Face Off--BMW M3 (E30) vs. Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16

I'm pleased to introduce a new blog feature, Face Off, inspired by the wildly overwrought and extremely entertaining John Woo film of the same name. Instead of John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, the Car Lust feature will put head-to-head various lust- and disgust-worthy cars for your voting pleasure.

Essentially, I will give you the option to vote between two or more cars that I think would create an interesting matchup, and then I'll provide some background on the cars and divulge my leaning. You should vote for the car you prefer, using whatever criteria you see fit--perhaps you prefer the way one car looks, or you hate the type of people who drive the other type of car, or you think one car would make a better base for your restomod project. You're voting your preference on your own criteria. However, please feel free to discuss your criteria and your choice in the comments--I think there could be some interesting comments that result.

Today's face-off is between two high-strung 1980s European sports sedans with racing pedigrees--more detail after the jump.

[The poll widget is no longer available because has ceased operations.]

BMW M3 (E30)
Like many other interesting European homologation specials, BMW produced the E30 M3 street car to make the model's special hardware legal in a racing series--in this case, the German DTM touring car championship. As a result, the M3 received some trick hardware not enjoyed by the more prosaic 3-series of its generation, including a high-performance, 195-horsepower, 16-valve engine; a tauter suspension; and more aggressive bodywork with box fender flares that allowed for better aerodynamics and wider wheels and tires. Those were the specs for the American version; Europe received evolution versions that pumped up power to as much as 238 horsepower--serious grunt from a 2,700-pound car.

Bmw_m3_dtm_teamThis M3 is also notable as one of the first BMW M-cars broadly available in the United States, along with the highly lustable M635CSi and M5. This M3 had a rougher, more competition-honed edge than the more polished M-cars that followed; the M3 made no pretensions at being a luxury car, and its aggressive fender flares and high spoiler advertised its high-revving, sharp-cornering nature. If most BMW M-cars are iron fists in a velvet glove, the E30 M3 was an iron fist in a serrated titanium glove.

On the track, this M3 was absolute dynamite--Wikipedia says it has won more road races than any other model in history, and given its ubiquity and success in the 1980s and 1990s, I wouldn't doubt it. The official BMW "works" M3s, driven by such greats as Roberto Ravaglia, Johnny Cecotto, and Emanuele Pirro, were iconic in the European touring car series, and took the M3 to various national championships, the one-off world championship, and race wins in the 24 hour races at Le Mans and Spa.

Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16
Rekord 11 As with the E30 M3, this special 190E was a homologation special to help legalize go-fast equipment for use in the German DTM touring car series; Also like the M3, the standard entry-level 190E was made special with a limited-production, high-revving 16-valve engine in an era in which such engines were considered exotic; a buttoned-down sport suspension; and a body kit that reduced drag for better performance on the track. The key difference is that the 190E actually came before the M3; it debuted in late 1983, a full three years before its BMW doppelganger.

The 16-valve head was made by noted racing engine manufacturer Cosworth, and it helped boost the baby Benz's sleepy 2.3-liter engine into a 185-horsepower screamer that pushed the hot 190E from 0-60 in the 7-8-second range and to a top speed of more than 140 mph. Unfortunately, the American-spec cars were detuned to 167 horsepower;. Later evolutions, such as the 204-horsepower 2.5-16 and two evolution models based on the 2.5-liter engine, were kept in Europe, meaning Americans only had access to the weakest 190E 16V variant made.

The 190E 2.3-16 has enjoyed touring car championship success, but not to the same extent as the E30 M3; however, three lightly modified 190E 2.3-16 street cars set several world sustained speed records by running for more than 201 consecutive hours with only fuel, tire change, and oil changes performed. The cars averaged 153 mph over that span and covered more than 30,000 miles.

Openingrace 04 The car's most compelling motorsports moment in my eyes came in the 1984 Race of Champions, an ostensibly promotional event to celebrate the opening of the revised Formula 1 track at the Nurburgring, in which 20 contemporary and past Formula 1 greats raced against each other in identical 190E 2.3-16s. The race was meant to be light-hearted, but predictably it turned very intense, and today it is described in reverent tones by those who were there. Significantly, the event was won by young Ayrton Senna, who would go on to win three Formula 1 championships and establish himself as one of the great drivers of all time. In a sign of things to come, he shoved Alain Prost off the road early on and outdueled Formula 1's most legendary drivers to take the win.

My Choice
Interestingly enough, despite my well-publicized prediliction for 1980s European cars, I'm not a huge fan of the base versions of these cars. The E30 BMW 3-series was wildly popular, but I prefer the 5- and 6-series cars of its generation as well as the 3-series that preceded and followed it. Likewise, while I love the similar-looking W124 Mercedes 300E, I've never cared as much for the baby Benz 190E. It always seemed like a cut-rate car to me, and most of the examples I see today have been beaten to within an inch of their life. These cars, though, are very special in terms of their hardware, their rarity, and their significance--I'd jump at either if I could find one anywhere near my price range.

This was a really tough choice for me. The 190E 2.3-16 earns points from me for being first, and I love its subtle sports-sedan lines. Its record endurance run is hugely compelling, as is its role in one of Formula 1's legendary moments. But after lots of consideration, I'm going for the M3--it was the better-performing car in American trim, it was dominant on the track, and as one of the first wave of BMW M-cars it has carried more lasting significance in the American market.

--Chris H.


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My criteria is which vehicle would I want to jump over a washed out bridge in Dukes of Hazard fashion. I'm going Benz.

But I'd much rather own the M3, those Benz's are fugly. Those Benz's look like a a R-31 Skyline humped a '68 230 Benz and this was the bastard love child.

Tight race early on - 57% BMW, 43% Mercedes. I was a bit worried that my endorsement might sway the voting.

You think that 190E is ugly, Chris? I don't much like the base 190E, but looks were the one thing in its favor.

I'll cast my vote for the M3 given it's far superior handling more than anything else. I bought a pristine '88 M3 at Park Place (Bellevue, WA) in '92 with under 20K miles for $19K when it had major new car depreciation from $34K when new. Over 12 years I put another 60K miles on it (stored winters as it deserved) and sold it for $17K. For the cost of regular maintenance and a few minor and tasteful performance upgrades I got to drive one of the most interesting cars on the road for less than the cost of ownership for a bread-and-butter Camry/Accord when you factor in depreciation. Now the example I had would be a closer to $25K on the market, but I'd have to give up owning a 2002tii and a couple vintage Alfa Romeos so can't be too regretful.

Not to be snotty, but I think you meant "iconic"?

I have to vote for the E30 M3 due primarily to my familiarity with this era Bimmer as an E24 6-series owner. The best color combination on the early M3 is Alpine White with a beautiful Cardinal Red interior. Gets me drooling just thinking about it. I only wish the M6 was receiving the widespread collectior interest of the M3 at this point.

However, I have considerate lust for the "Cozzie" Benz as well. The biggest downside is so many were painted that awful shade of Camrybeige in your pics. Not the least bit sporting.

Thanks, Mark - not snotty at all, I appreciate the feedback and made the change. I don't really think the E30 M3 is particularly ironic, but the brain gets caught up in its channels ...

Hands down, the E30 M3. I passed up an opportunity to buy a low miles example in the early '90s and have regretted it since.

So many nice cars, so little time.

Great new blog idea! The 190E 2.3-16 is more of a sleeper, which really appeals to me, but I have to go with the E30 M3 for it's performance, significance in M-car heritage and fun to drive factor.

"The official BMW "works" M3s, driven by such greats as Roberto Ravaglia, Johnny Cecotto, and Emanuele Pirro, were ironic in the European touring car series..."

Surely, you meant, "iconic" and not "ironic." lol.

I think the M3 is one of the most double-tale inducing cars of that era. At first glance, your brain processes a three series, but the wide fenders make you look back a second time to clear up the jarring confusion they induce. One of the coolest cars ever in my book, and one which the Mercedes is frumpy next to.

I must yank the lever for the M3. The 190 is a nice enough looking car, but that generation 3-series is what defined "BMW" for me growing up.

Here's a video showing the glory days of DTCC and the battles between the 190 and the M3.

And if you want to hear what they sounded like:

Had the comparison been M3 E30 vs. 2.5-16, the Benz would win.
Had the comparison been any BMW in the world vs. a 2.5-16 Evo II, the Benz would win.
As you compare the M3 with beginner's version the 2.3-16, the BMW wins.

(As a side note, in my country 2.5-engined E30s are drifting champions, yet they all have the image of a thug's car :) )


I'll go with the Mercedes because they are homologation specials (thanks for the new word) vice the real deal racing machines.

M3, no doubt. I even prefer these M3's to the new(er) models based on the following chassis.
That motor screams.

I love all US market E30s that don't have automatic transmissions. Other markets got some austerity specials, but the US ones were the absolute pinnacle of BMW quality and durability. The 190E2.3-16 doesn't do it for me for any number of reasons. While it is more subtle than the M3, it is still a Mercedes with a giant wing on the back, a harbinger of attrocities to come. Even if you think it isn't a boy racer looking car, it is no sleeper. That just about everything you can buy today can beat it whether the driver of the minivan knows you're racing or not ruins its Q-ship status. The M3 is as fast as the hottest V6 minivan, and it looks like the homologation special that it is instead of just an old car with a big wing. The M3 has handling that any other car can only aspire to, including all subsequent BMWs. Throw in standard E30 greatness, and you have a car that understandably now commands a classic car premium.

Though I love both of these cars, the M3 gets my vote hands down. I've owned two.

The 190E, especially with the higher compression european motor, is a nice drive. As a daily car, the four-cylinder homologation special/sleeper is very appealing. Almost bought one.

If you're judging these cars without having driven one, I can see how it would be a hard choice.

But the M3 is simply the better drive. The Mercedes simply can't touch its balance and steering feel.

Indeed I think this Benz is ugly. You can see in it the lines of where Mercedes has taken things (an improvement in my opinion).

The M3 is the step (or 2) above everybody's dreams of owning a Mustang 5.0 back in the day. It has killer lines and the roar to back it up. I had a friend with a shelled out M3 of this vintage and even though it had been absolutely thrashed, you could still drive the snot out of it on the twisties and giggle on that edge of fun and fear without the concern that it couldn't handle the corners.

I will almost always pick a Benz of that era over a BMW. I liked my '88 300TE better than my '88 325iX (except in the snow) and -- must my opinion -- the S Class sedan and couple wiped the floor with the 7 and 6 Series. But in this case I'd pick the M3, because it seems like a more sharply focused vehicle, and was less dumbed down for the U.S. market.

The M3 was a "real" M-series, the later E36 M3s were built alongside regular 3 series BMWs and didn't boast the fenders and suspension upgrades that transformed the E30 M3.

For the price of an E30 M3 one could find a Mercedes W124 500E. A huge step up but a different style vehicle.

I would rather have the M3. The 190E looks and feels like a mismatch -- like wearing hiking boots with a prom dress. It was a good car (if rather cramped) and a good engine that didn't quite go together.

Honestly, though, I think I'd rather have a 325is with the M3's suspension. The 2.5-liter six is a very nice engine, a lot less demanding in day-to-day driving. Or an M635CSi, for that matter...

Obligatory plug for more history of the E30 M3:

You have to compare the 2.5 Benz to the M3...

Unfortunately, the 2.5-16 wasn't available in the United States. You guys get all the cool stuff!

The M3 in touring car races often got overtaken in corners by 240hp Citroen BX19s a car that couldnt catch it on a straight.

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