BMW M3 E30 vs Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth: pick your poison

Published: 14 April 2020

► BMW M3 E30 vs Merc 190E Cosworth
► Two giants of the 1980s reunited
► We debate which is best

E30 BMW M3. Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth. Two poster boy heroes for any child growing up in the 1980s, and the Cossie has been back in the news this month as the brawny Evo II version notched up its 30th anniversary.

Which reminded us of the time our sister newspaper Classic Car Weekly pitted two striking examples against each other for a feature. Two CAR writers hopped along for the ride - here they swap notes on two of our favourite modern classics super-saloons.

From: Tim Pollard
To: CJ Hubbard
Subject: E30 M3 and 190E 2.5-16v Cossie – want!
Well, that was a blast from the past. I grew up reading about these two extraordinary super-saloons in the 1980s in the pages of the original Performance Car magazine. For me, they defined the very notion of affordable sports cars in that excess-strewn decade, pre-empting the Japanese and European rally nutters which followed. Didn’t the M3 and Cosworth pave the way for the Lancia Delta Turbo (later Integrale), Subaru WRX models, Mitsu Evos and others of their ilk? Even before I climbed onboard the two German saloons, their import was clear to see. What were you expecting, CJ?

Two 1980s super-heroes reunited: we introduce E30 BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworth 2.5

From: CJ Hubbard
To: Tim Pollard
Subject: Re: E30 M3 and 190 E 2.5-16v Cossie – want!
What was I expecting? More from the Merc, I think. What a curious device for a car that homologated those awesome DTM warriors – although to be fair, with 160,000 miles on the clock, our test example probably deserves to be taking things a little easy. The engine seemed astonishingly torquey to me, making for a relaxed and rapid cruiser, rather than an outright laser-guided missile. Especially with that enormous steering wheel. I loved the interior, though – how about those incredible bucket rear seats? The BMW, by contrast, felt very fit. Having half the miles must help – and that's surely got to be one of the nicest in the UK – but it just begs to be driven. The Mercedes only seems to want to waft, at least at first. What did you make of them on the road?

This BMW M3 is one of the finest E30s in the country; it's owned by BMW

From: Tim Pollard
To: CJ Hubbard
Subject: Driving the E30 BMW M3
They say never meet your heroes. What a load of cobblers. I loved driving these two! First up the E30 M3, BMW GB’s own press demonstrator. What a cherished piece of machinery – it’s in quite beautiful condition, down to the striped carpet that characterises Bracknell loaners. Truth be told, I tried to get in the ‘wrong’ side. Momentary lapse of memory; the E30 M3 is a left-hooker only, famously. But you settle in, notice the dog-leg ‘box and admire the simple switchgear, the slender pillars. It’s a great view out and the compact footprint is reassuring. So it proves on the road: this M3 is a cinch to drive. Once you master the left-and-back first gear location, it’s a pleasure to drive around. It’s a revvy four-pot, the slimline kerbweight means acceleration is eager and the noise is addictive. It rides brilliantly, too, those now-modest 225/45 ZR16 Continentals soaking up the worst back-road bumps around our office. I’m smitten within 10 minutes of sitting onboard… What was the biggest surprise for you of the E30?

The spartan cabin of the E30 BMW M3

From: CJ Hubbard
To: Tim Pollard
Subject: Re: Driving the E30 BMW M3
Having similarly never driven either of them before, for me the biggest surprise about the E30 M3 was the ride quality. I was expecting it to be sharp behind the wheel, I'd mentally prepared myself for the dog-leg 'box (hadn't realised the Mercedes was the same), and I was enormously relieved to discover the engine was as strong and as characterful as I'd been led to believe. But I hadn't anticipated the suspension would be so supple. Quite the contrast to some more recent M-sport models. Proves newer isn't necessarily better, although neither of our 'youngtimers' (as I believe the Germans like to call such relatively modern classics) have to deal with the safety legislation of their current 3-series and C-class equivalents. Given the comfort and the performance of the M3, I'm struggling to think of anything I preferred about the Mercedes, actually. How about you?

The Mercedes 190 Cosworth 2.5 is a torquey beast; way more relaxed than frantic M3

From: Tim Pollard
To: CJ Hubbard
Subject: Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth on the road
Well, those snug-fitting rear bucket seats in the Cosworth are fabulous. Never seen anything like them before. And the 190 feels bulletproof. A reminder that Merc know how to do quality when they put their mind to it. Everything still works, as far as I can make out, no doubt helped by its even more modest 205/55 R15 Dunlops which contribute to a relaxed gait.

The cabin of the Merc Cossie: more of a luxury affair

From:  CJ Hubbard
To: Tim Pollard
Subject: Re: Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth on the road
That's a good point –  the Merc really did have that old-school bank vault feel. I also thought the different-sized door mirrors were a really nice period detail. The comfort suggests it would certainly be an easy car to enjoy over long distances. Oh, and the way it sits on the road, hunkered down low over its wheels... together with the relatively subtle bodykit, the Cosworth has serious 'for those in the know' kerb appeal.

Mercedes 190E Cosworth bucket rear seats

From: Tim Pollard
To: CJ Hubbard
Subject: Summary
This Cossie is a master of the modern-day Q car. I love it for its import: for how it ushered in the current-day, now-inhouse AMG go-faster Mercedes models; for its torquey, laid-back performance, all the better for being the 2.5 not the earlier 2.3; the robust interior, whose beautiful leather has the patina of a durable, quality hide; the fact that it’s right-hand drive and that everything feels more robust than in the tinny BMW. But which would I drive off into the sunset in? I’d pick the M3 every time. It was honours even on my bedroom wall in the 1980s, but now I’ve driven both cars, it’s the E30 that thrills more, whose motorsport bloodline is purer, the one which looks, drives and feels as laser-sharp today as it did in 1985. Those beautifully bulging wheelarches hint at the bespoke M-sport treatment within. It’s a seminal, and very special, kind of car. I loved driving both these 1980s saloon heroes.

They might be 20 years old, but this pair still entertain

Big thanks to owners Mike Duff (Cosworth) and BMW GB (M3). This pair feature in the new issue of sister title Classic Car Weekly, photographed by the talented Stuart Collins

Classic Car Weekly front cover: BMW M3 vs Mercedes 190E Cosworth

 

By CAR's road test team

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