Everything You Need to Know About BMW E30 vs. E36 M3

The BMW 3 series has been a favorite with automotive enthusiasts worldwide ever since it was first introduced in 1975 as a replacement for the 2002 model. That first generation 3 Series, the E21, provided the same excellent handling and feel of the 2002, but with updated styling to the exterior and interior which helped bring BMW into a more modern age. This first 3 Series model was only available in two-door coupe form with styling cues such as the Hofmeister kink (the C-pillar and rear side window’s shape) and options for six or four cylinders which would continue with second and third-generation 3 Series models. The E21 also enjoyed success in competition ranging from local autocross competitions and club racing to International Endurance and Sportscar Racing, but it would be the second-generation 3 Series, the E30, that really put BMW on the map when it comes to motorsports.

The E30 3 Series

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The E30 was introduced in 1982 as the replacement for the E21.  It was also initially only available as a two-door coupe, but later a sedan, convertible, and station wagon versions would hit the market, and all are desirable today.  Over its production run, the E30 came with various engines, some of which were carried over from previous models like the M10 four-cylinder and the M20 six-cylinder.  Other power plants were created during the car's production run, like the M40 and M42 four cylinders which would find their way into models produced after the E30’s run.  

The most desirable E30 model is hands down the E30 M3.  The first of a long line of M3’s, the E30 M3 was produced from 1986 until 1991 and has become one of the most desirable GT cars of all time.  The M3 was introduced as a homologation special for the DTM racing series, which required that 5000 examples be produced to meet the rules at the time.  The M3 featured the new S14 engine, a four-cylinder power plant featuring two camshafts and individual throttle bodies that ranged anywhere from 192 to 215hp.  Almost every single part of the M3 was different from those found on a standard E30.  Wider body panels, five-lug wheels, upgraded suspension, brakes, and many more BMW performance parts can be found on the M3.  The M3’s windshield was even glued in instead of being held in place by a rubber seal for an aerodynamic advantage.  The M3 is still considered the best handling E30, but it earned its place among the best performance cars in the world on the racetrack.

BMW has had racing success globally dating back to the pre-World War II days and had won many prestigious car races like the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Mille Miglia, but the E30 M3 made BMW into the powerhouse that it is today. The E30 M3 has five overall wins at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring and four overall wins at the 24 Hours of Spa. The E30 M3 might only have one World Touring Car Championship, but it has won Touring Car Championships in the UK, Italy, Germany, Australia, and Japan. It was a winner in Endurance Races, GT Sprints, and even in a few rally events.

Any E30 is a desirable car; they handle well and are comfortable in modern traffic.  Values for these cars have been climbing over the years, and several E30 variations are now considered collector cars, especially the M3.  They have constantly been developed and upgraded with BMW performance and aftermarket parts over the years, and almost any performance part you can think of is available for the E30 platform.  To see the best BMW E30 parts available, whether you have a daily driver or an all-out endurance racer, check out Condor Speed Shop for all your BMW racing and performance needs! 

The E36 3 Series

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BMW’s third-generation 3 Series was launched in October 1990, and examples began to hit the road in 1991.  From the beginning, the E36 had big shoes to fill as the successor to the E30.  Visually, the E36 was like no BMW before it.  While the kidney grills and the Hofmeister kink remained a constant, the headlights received an updated look that suited the 90s very well and brought the 3 Series into the modern era.  It was available in many body styles, including sedan, coupe, convertible, station wagon, and even a hatchback.  There were four-cylinder and six-cylinder versions, and a diesel was available in some parts of the world.  

The E36 also was the platform for BMW’s second generation of the successful M3.  The E36 M3 had many performance upgrades over the standard E36 models, and unlike the previous model, the E36 M3 could be purchased as a four-door sedan.  This M3 would be the first to be powered by a six-cylinder engine.  They were powered by versions of the S50 or S52 engines, depending on which regional market it was purchased in.  The E36 M3 did not feature a wider body than standard E36 like its predecessor, but underneath it was all business.  

The M3 tends to be the most desired E36 out there, and one version stands above the rest.  The E36 M3 Lightweight was introduced in 1995 and is the true spiritual successor to the E30 M3.  They weighed 200lbs less than a standard M3 and featured many upgrades.  No one seems to be exactly sure, but it’s thought that about 125 of these special Lightweights were built in total, making them one of the rarest BMWs of any era. 

Like the E30 before it, the E36 platform carried on the BMW racing tradition and continued to prove why BMW is known as the Ultimate Driving Machine.  E36s found success in Europe with sedans racing in multiple touring car series and winning the British Touring Car Championship in 1993.  The E36 continued the tradition of success in Sportscar Racing, including multiple wins in the IMSA series, and a diesel-powered E36 320d would take the overall victory at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, the first-ever for a diesel-powered racer. 

The E36 is a great platform to build a track car.  A stock E36 handles well, allows for comfortable traveling, and many examples have reached the bottom of the depreciation curve.   They have been developed and raced since day one, and lots of upgraded BMW racing parts are available for these cars.  To get a good idea of just what is available, check out our website.

E30 vs. E36, Durability

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So how do these titans of BMW history compare head-to-head?  They are similar in many ways but do have a few differences.  They both feature durable power plants with individual models’ engines having their own quirks.  For instance, some E30s feature engines with chain-driven belts that need regular servicing, and it is recommended to change the E30 M3’s timing belt every 30k miles.  The E36’s Achilles’ heel is normally its coolant system due to many plastic components being used under the hood.  

Both models of 3 Series utilize rubber mounts and suspension bushings that wear out over time and need to be replaced. If the car sees any track time, these components will need to be upgraded to achieve maximum performance. When it comes to durability, The E30 tends to come out on top of most lists solely based on the E36’s plastic coolant issues, which can be upgraded and improved upon. Both platforms prove incredibly durable and are still racing and winning Endurance and Sportscar races today.

Speed

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Most E30 and E36 cars were considered quick during their respective eras, but more modern BMW models have taken over the crown as the fastest 3 Series. What makes the second and third-generation 3 Series so great is not their overall speed but their exceptional handling. Because the E36 M3 was available with more power from the factory, it edges out the E30, but speed is not what makes these cars special. These cars were able to beat far faster opponents with higher displacement engines on track due to their superior handling, and this still holds true today. Both platforms are popular candidates for engine swaps, so the sky's the limit when it comes to horsepower, just don’t forget to upgrade the car's suspension and other components to handle increased speeds.

Luxury

One of many things that BMW has always done best is creating a car with a perfect balance between comfort and performance.  The E30 was an upgrade from its predecessor, but the E36 brought BMW into the modern age of the 90s with its exterior and interior.  The cabin of the E36 feels bigger than the E30 in both coupe and sedan form.  Both have adequate A/C, except for the E36 M3 Lightweight, which has no A/C! The E36 may win on luxury, but the E30 wins on longevity because the E36’s door panels tend to fall apart. 

E30 vs. E36 Summary

So, is there a clear winner here?  The answer is that there is no wrong answer; both are great examples of the Ultimate Driving Machine.  These two platforms are two of the most popular cars of any manufacturer to modify for track use and have a racing history that others can only dream of.  They have been continuously developed since day one, and almost any performance part is available at the click of a button.  Check everything available on our website to upgrade your E30 or E36 with the best parts out there and hit the track!

January 27, 2022 by The Condor

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