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 Vizu.com 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.
This 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
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.
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.
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.