By on October 6, 2016

1988 BMW M3 Evolution (E30), Image: BMW

Finding an E30 M3 isn’t particularly hard.

Unlike contemporaries such as the Audi Quattro, locating a good example on any given day of the week is easy. eBay has no less than seven for sale at the time of writing, all in generally good shape. Specialists such as Enthusiast Auto Group (EAG) have the same number, none of which would be unwelcome at a high-brow show. Since BMW brought over 5,000 of these homologation specials to the U.S. market, you don’t need to search long and hard to find exactly the E30 M3 you want.

Paying for it is another matter entirely.

The E30 M3 has enjoyed a wave of popularity over the past few years as 1980s cars have finally become collectible. Outside of some supercars that have greatly outpaced the Bavarian, few others have gotten anywhere near the same amount of press.

The result: the M3 market is unreachable for most enthusiasts.

That’s problematic as nearly every article about the M3 paints a picture of angels singing the moment its motor cranks, the gates of automotive Valhalla open before you and all enemies are vanquished, while half-naked virgins throw themselves before you and your discerning choice of automotive royalty.

Being in vogue costs, and the seven cars on eBay had an average asking price of $60,000. That sounds like a lot until you see EAG’s inventory, which has an average asking price of $100,000. Outrageous market gouging? Not quite. There’s auction evidence to back up the pricing. Pristine models are now near $200,000 sometimes, and even Hagerty values fair examples at a baseline of $25,000 — hardly a drop in the bucket for a car that probably needs expensive mechanical or cosmetic restorations.

But the E30 offered much more variety than just the M3. Part of what made it popular were options like the first small wagon and first convertible of the big three luxury marques, all-wheel drive options, and plenty of engine choices. On top of that, you could get M3 performance out of tuner models and alternatives in BMW’s own E30 lineup. Plus, nearly all E30s (save those built at the end of its production run) are legal to import to these shores.

With that in mind, I assembled a list of six notable alternatives to the bonkers priced, box-flared E30 M3 that offer fans performance and uniqueness without the required black market sale of internal organs.

1988 BMW 325i Baur TC2, Image: Karosserie Baur

Baur TC2

BMW’s own E30 convertible may have been the first factory ‘vert from the company, but Baur beat BMW to the punch by coachbuilding the soft-top E21. Baur’s targa top models wore the TC moniker — for ‘Top Cabriolet’ — and featured innovative multi-position roofs and pressurized air blasts above the windshield to cut down on cabin turbulence. The TC2 was Baur’s second convertible based on the E30 chassis. With just shy of a reported 11,000 TC2s built, they’re even rarer than the M3. Performance in unchanged, but any Baur turning up at a BMW meet will certainly draw crowds. Most TC2s are fairly affordable when they come to market.

Pro Tip: Leave the ‘e’ out when you spell it, but pronounce it as Kiefer Sutherland would.

1987 Alpina B6 3.5 (E30), Image: Alpina Automobiles

Alpina C and B Series

Like Baur, Alpina has a deep history with BMW, and was responsible for BMW’s racing program in the 1960s and ’70s. In the 1980s, Alpina really came into its own by offering increased performance coupled with sportier looks and sport-tuned suspensions. So good was Alpina at its trade that it incorporated as its own manufacturer; Alpina cars carry unique chassis numbers. Alpina offered several different series, from the C1 2.3 and 2.5 to the big-motor B6 3.5 shown above. In total, according to the Alpina Archives, the company offered eight variants with M or better levels of performance and sold 1,116 modified E30s. They are often seen on the market, but expect to pay a premium as they enjoy nearly universal appeal commensurate with their performance, looks and rarity.

Pro tip: Since there is no e, make sure not to say ‘al-pine-ah.’ It’s ‘al-peen-ah.’

1989 Hartge H27 (E30), Image: Hartge

Hartge H Series

Hartge followed Alpina with several of its own E30 variations, all with subtle aerodynamic, engine, suspension and wheel tweaks. While they had a total of six different configurations, you’re most likely to run across the 190- and 220-horsepower 325i-based H26 or H27 models, both of which were very popular in Japan. Though desirable in their own right and harder to find, they typically don’t demand the premium of the Alpina models, yet still offer M levels of performance.

Pro tip: Since there is no second a, make sure not to say ‘hart-age’. It’s Hart-guh.

1989 BMW 320is M-Tech (E30), Image: BMW

320is

The 320is emerged from BMW’s Motorsport Division skunkworks as a special project to dodge taxes on engines over 2 liters in Portugal and Italy. As the standard M3 had a 2.3-liter inline-four and the rest of the sportier E30s had bigger sixes, this meant de-stroking a motor to just under 2,000 cc, exactly what BMW did to the current S14B20. Still, the car lost little power and it’s proportionately one of the more powerful variants of the S14 motor with 192 horsepower. Unlike the M3, these could be bought new in basic four-door configuration with cloth interiors, manual windows, 14-inch alloys and no body kit, the perfect recipe for a super sleeper. More commonly seen are the M-Tech-kitted two-door models, but even then BMW produced only 3,745 in total. Though much more infrequently seen than the standard M3 and still having the heart of a champion, these usually come to the market at half or less of the ask of their flared bigger brothers.

Pro tip: Just keep saying “Italian M3.”

1988 BMW 318i Touring (E30), Image: BMW

E30 Touring

In 1987, BMW beat Audi (1991) and Mercedes-Benz (1996) to the small luxury wagon market by introducing the E30 Touring. Though often equipped with smaller motors and lacking the performance of the other models, the Touring model is a very popular choice in the E30 world to set you apart as it wasn’t offered in North America. Because of this, like the others on this list, Tourings are quite rare to see and will draw a crowd, yet they’re still affordable in the used market.

Pro tip: Buy one imported from England and dress up for Halloween by pretending to be a horrified passenger in a driverless car.

1988 BMW 325xi (E30), Image: BMW

325ix

The 325ix is the only model on this list that BMW sold in the American market. Still, it’s unique and hard to find as BMW only sold them between 1988 and 1991. Powered by the familiar M20 2.5-liter inline-six, the 325ix offered adequate power coupled with all-wheel traction from twin center and rear viscous coupling differentials. The weight penalty was pretty minimal overall, and the 325ix featured a handsome rocker and fender flare kit to distinguish it from the standard 325i.

Pro tip: Proudly disappoint Audi owners by reminding them that the ix started production in 1986 and they weren’t the only all-wheel drivers out there. While they sulk and come up with an argument about how the Quattro drivetrain is better than the viscous differentials in your E30, check for rust.

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54 Comments on “No Box, Plenty of Flare: Six Alternatives to the Increasingly Expensive E30 M3...”


  • avatar
    VoGo

    I like these articles quite a lot.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    How is it helpful to list a bunch of super rare and one-off versions, especially when the author himself admits most were not even sold in the States??

    If the E30 is a must, I’d say buying a plebian 325e/325i or whatever and having a competent indie BMW shop work the motor over with some cams/exhaust and suspension work. Much more realistic in terms of actually being able to find a car to buy, and much cheaper as well I’m sure.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The author does note that all of these cars are eligible to be imported into the USA. Still, it’s going to be far easier and quicker to buy something that’s already here.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        I don’t mean to be too harsh, it is in fact very interesting to learn about these Hi-Po variants that I’ve never heard of or considered. But to pitch them as budget friendly alternatives is just silly IMO.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          So, certainly not all of them are budget friendly, but to be fair to me I just said they were more affordable.

          -325ixs usually come to market under $10,000 unless exceptional.
          -Tourings are coming up on eBay, again usually in the $10,000 range.
          -Baurs are harder to come across, but usually aren’t hugely expensive when they do pop up.
          -320is models regularly come up for sale. Plan on $20,000 – $35,000 depending on condition and options.
          -Harges are very hard to come by but usually range from $20,000 – $30,000 when they do.
          -Alpinas are not the hardest to come by, but in aggregate are probably the most expensive on the list. Plan on $20,000 for a C1 up to $50,000 or more for a B6 3.5 if you can find one.

          All on the list do come up for sale relatively regularly on eBay, having already been imported since the market is pretty hot for E30s now.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Fair enough, and again I don’t mean to be overly negative, my apologies if it came across that way. I definitely enjoy this type of article on TTAC.

          • 0 avatar
            Carter Johnson

            No worries at all, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment! If you just want an E30, grabbing a U.S. spec 325i certainly is the cheapest way to do it. This was more a how to stand apart from the crowd and get a lot of respect at shows type of alternative offering of more rare E30 models to see in the U.S. than the M3. As others have noted, there are better cars available for less money (including many in BMW’s own lineup), but the same could be very much said of just about any collector car market.

    • 0 avatar
      skeeter44

      Agree with this. I owned the rate E30/M3 for years and can say for sure that the car is way overrated.

      Good handling, good shifter, awesome breaks, ridiculous looks, absolutely freaking terrible engine. Let me say that again. One of the worst performance car engines I have ever experienced. I went from a Ford Taurus SHO to the M3 and the SHO engine was far superior. The car did hold it’s value though.

      Now drive a Fiesta ST and it is both comparable size-wise and drives very similar to the E30/M3.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Or you can just buy a BRZ, and give it some new tires and solid suspension bushings.

    http://www.evo.co.uk/toyota/gt-86/14125/toyota-gt86-vs-renault-clio-cup-honda-integra-type-r-and-bmw-m3

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      And that is ultimately why I have an FR-S. I was still in college when M3s were affordable.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Or you can buy a lightly used E46 M3, which is what I did!

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        Even the E46s are starting to climb in the more desirable configuration (6MT, hardtop). Now is the time to buy an e90 or e92 as the last of the N/A M3s and they aren’t on owner 3 and 4.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          Agreed, which is why I made the plunge last year before they became unreachable. It’s possible to fairly easy convert SMG cars to manuals, though, and they’re often maligned because the internet says so. Finding a nice one in original condition with lower mileage, up to date service and no salvage title can be difficult, but is still possible, and those in good shape are still quite a bit cheaper than the nice examples of the E9x which are still on their way down. Don’t wait though.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Or the E36. The E36 M3 is the ultimate Bimmer of all time. BMW’s NSX or ITR. No idea about pricing, but the 30 and 36 are special. And getting more so, as everything keeps growing and getting softer and less visceral. The 46 is already a bit big and powerful and track focused, like pretty much any newer “performance” car.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          E36 is a pretty good option, but a really nice, lower mileage E36 M3 is already on the rise, too – often there’s crossover between E36 and E46 pricing, and some are even more expensive. I just witnessed a $65,000 sale of an E36 only a few weeks ago – which granted was a very special car, but it shows where the market could be heading if trends broadly continue. I’ll argue your E46 point, though, as I have one. It is definitely not a track-focused car in stock form. I know, because I have one of those, too. The E46 is much closer to a GT car than to a track weapon.

  • avatar

    What about non-BMW alternatives like the Mercedes Cosworth 190 2.6-16 or Nissan Sentra SE-R? Granted, the Sentra is FWD and doesn’t have the same level of performance/refinement, but there are at least a dozen alternatives if you want to think outside the box.

    I agree with gtemnykh–not sure how even more rare E30s can be alternatives to the M3.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      The Evo Cosworths are even more valuable now than the M3, believe it or else. Box stock 2.3-16s aren’t and are probably undervalued in the marketplace. Maybe a good article idea of non-BMW alternatives (says the guy who has two Audi B2s – a very good alternative to the E30).

      • 0 avatar

        I keep seeing good non-Evo 2.3-16s going for $10-15K. But you’re right the EVO commands six figures.

        Props on the B2s–I love the styling of the coupes from that era.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          Thanks, that’s exactly what I have – an 86 and 87.5, but my first car was a 4000CS quattro. The 86 is turned up quite a bit, the 87.5 is stock (and not currently working…). They’re great looking, great driving cars that I have had fun harassing E30s on track with for years.

          Hard to believe, but I’m just over a year away from 20 years deep in my GT and I’ve owned 7 B2s. Yikes.

          Here’s an article I wrote about it:
          http://germancarsforsaleblog.com/exceeding-expectations-1986-audi-coupe-gt-20v/

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    I daresay the Hartage looks tidier than the hallowed E30 M3 does. The box flares look cartoonish from certain angles.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    That is one ugly wagon, and well I am not a BMW fanboy, you would need your head examined to pay these prices, of course I said the same thing about air called 911 prices ten years ago , so that shows my wisdom.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Came across a right-hand drive E30 wagon in Florida earlier this year. Quite unique to see. And it showed up later on for sale. Once in a while, you see one pop up on eBay. The rest are fairly unobtanium.

    Makes me wish I had taken the plunge to buy the M3 I test drove back in the early 90s. At the time, it was “only” something like $20k used, but being a recent college grad and newly married, it might as well have been what they are selling for now. It really is amazing at how much they’ve gone up in price.

    Me? I’m tearing up over a 1980 518 (yes, 518…with all of 90HP on tap) for sale currently. It reminds me so much of a man I grew to love and admire, who carried a passion for BMW that became deeply ingrained into me, and not for the bling or fashion statement. My first ride in a BMW was in his 1970 1600 (I was all of six at the time in 1976) in Knielingen, Germany. He also always owned a vintage BMW motorcycle. Every time I’d go back to visit, he had a base version of a BMW sedan, always manual transmission, usually cloth seats and steel wheels. He is one of the few non-family members that I cried about when I received word he had passed a few years back. The 1980 518 currently for sale embodies Herr Kuehn with it’s plebian output, clean and durable cloth interior and lack of options (crank windows, no sunroof and all labeling inside is still in original German!). I’d love to have it, but even the current $4300 is beyond my reach. Granted, it’s a ton less expensive than a M3…

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Love the E12! A relative owned a ’81 528i for a while and though it was slow, it was a great looking and fun to drive car that made you feel special. It rusted like it was on a mission to be abandoned in the field, though.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Someone else (C/D? R&T?) recently did a feature on cheaper E30 alternatives to the M3.

    Also, in other news, Brock Yates passed away yesterday, at 82.

    http://www.motortrend.com/news/automotive-journalist-cannonball-run-founder-brock-yates-dies-at-82/

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    E30 M3 or nothing. At least for me. That’s why god gave us the SVO!

    I just don’t have a hard on for E30s or BMWs otherwise.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      The SVO is a really cool alternative to the E30, for sure!

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        Yep very similar in specs/performance. Except I’m not sure the SVO didn’t inspire the M3 and the M-series actually! Seriously!!

        *DUCKS*

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          Yeah, no. The Quattro and the 190E 16V development really drove the M3. The Motorsport division was already established long before the Fox-body was even conceived. They were racing CSLs in the 1970s.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            They sure took their time getting around to it, and only after the SVO hit the circuit, getting much press, both here and Europe. Btw, the US is BMW’s biggest market by far. Yes bigger than Germany.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          Believe it or else, China was their number one market recently. But yes, the US market is bigger, which makes sense since gas prices and taxes are lower and the population here is nearly 4 times that or Germany. Good stuff though, enjoy the SVO!

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Haven’t seen a Baur TC in a while. I always wondered what “TC” stood for – now I know.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I will say that obviously, the best and most exclusive E30 M3 is the Maserati BiTurbo.

    The W124 Mercedes models were available with 4MATIC starting in 1986 as well. How’s it compare to the Quattro and ix systems? *Paging gtem*

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      ’87 for 4Matic, I believe. And the system isn’t (properly, wasn’t) all-wheel drive all the time.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I got that date from a few places in Wikipedia, so you might be right. The 4MATIC system at that time was closer to the system in the Tempo then, ha.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          Mercedes-Benz lists production as ’87. It did debut at the ’85 auto show, but didn’t actually go into production until later:

          https://www.mbusa.com/mercedes/benz/performance/4matic?&gclid=CNaO4eHMxs8CFYwkhgodMlMGgA

          Timeline is at the bottom. The system defaulted to rear drive but had a transfer case and automatically locking differential that would transfer power forwards.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        In my experience, the early 4matic was AWD a bit AFTER you wanted it to be… A very German solution, extra complicated for no good result.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Seems like it would be substantially more affordable to find a well kept standard e30 and convert to LS power.

    Way better performance for not a lot of dough.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    I almost traded me a Touring once, against a 1st. gen Audi 100 Quattro (standard 2.2i, but with 200 front clip and V8 taillights). It looked good, drove decent, but the ‘touring’ name is just a name. The rear hatch is basically just the tiny rearwindow and the license plate. it’s barely large enough for groceries, no kind of baby stroller could fit through the tiny hole, although the actual trunk floor is as big as in the sedan version. (is this the only time a ‘wagon’ has been less practical than it’s sedan sister?)
    Other than that, I would honestly prefer a Datsun 510 Bluebird over an E30 any day. The styling is a bit cleaner withouth the kidneys in the grille, I like proper chrome bumpers, and the old 1.8 SSS engines (with some tuning) can rev to hell and back faster than you can say ‘BBS rims for 3K …’

  • avatar

    ’89 325is reporting in. No complaints. Highly recommend.

  • avatar
    never_follow

    Thanks for another great article. I don’t post too much as I’m usually reading this at work, but that’s two quality articles in the span of a week. Keep it up!

    Also, out of curiosity, I checked goo-net for some BMW’s… there are a LOT in Japan, they seem to have loved the E46.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @never_follow – thanks! And yes, BMW did sell a bunch of very nice models that appear lightly driven and well cared for in Japan. They’re a hotbed for imports.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Seems like an extremely obvious alternative was missed here – the ’91 318iS. 90% of the fun for <10% of the cost these days, though good ones aren't cheap anymore. Better handling than any of the six-cylinder e30s, and while not as fast, it is extremely willing in a "wants to rev to the stars" sort of way. And no timing belt or valve adjustments!

    I've had two, would buy another one in a heartbeat if I could find the right one.

    • 0 avatar
      hgrunt

      The list looks more like alternatives that have at least as much street cred or collectibility as the M3.

      I’m not surprised the 318is was left off the list. Only E30 enthusiasts seem to know about it, and people often lose interest when I mention I have a ’91 318is, because it’s ‘just the four cylinder.’ Never mind that it’s the poor man’s M3 with a 16V aluminum block four cylinder and less weight than a 325i. I got very lucky with my car, no sunroof and a limited slip rear end.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      @krhodes; not missed, but this was for more rare alternatives that most haven’t seen or don’t often see. It’s the same reason that the 325i/s isn’t on the list. The 318is is a great car – I spent a fair amount of time in an equally underrated and equally entertaining early E36 model.


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