If I got handed a beer every time I was asked which was the best performance car I’d ever driven, I’d probably be sitting in rehab right now. I often struggle to answer. My eyes glaze over as my mind explodes into a blurred mosaic of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of cars I’ve been fortunate enough to pilot over the years.
Usually, because I um and ah for too long, the interrogator loses interest and the conversation moves on. But sometimes, if I’m feeling up for a debate, I blurt out: “A 1989 BMW 320is.” A blank stare usually ensues, followed by a smirk of disbelief. And for good reason because, technically speaking, this humble E30 3 Series is barely worthy of the “performance” label we stick on cars today.
It doesn’t have a fancy, million-horsepower engine breathing through twin turbochargers. There’s no double-clutch transmission swapping cogs faster than your eyes can blink. The chassis is not hewn from ultra-rigid aluminium and the steering wheel, should you ever have a crash, will leave a permanent BMW logo imprinted on your forehead, as there’s no airbag. Hell, you don’t even get airconditioning.
So, yeah, on paper this claim sounds utterly absurd. But it isn’t and I’ll tell you why. You see, as cars have evolved over the last two decades, they’ve become sleeker, faster and infinitely more stable. Technology has made them not only more efficient but also much, much easier to handle on the limit.
Incredible innovations such as torque-vectoring, adaptive damping and traction control allow everyday people to fire a new BMW M4 coupé, for example, through a set of bends at 180km/h without breaking a sweat.
This is all well and good until you grow in confidence and talent and that adrenaline kick creeps ever higher up the speed spectrum. To experience that fizz of excitement shooting up your spine, you now have to chase velocities well over the 200km/h mark. And let’s be honest, where other than on a racetrack can you really do this? Exactly. So you spend your time mooching around the city streets in a funk of frustration.
This evolutionary dilemma is exactly why the 320is was such an eye-opener, when I got to drive one briefly in 2015. Known as the “Italian M3” this particular model was built purely for the Italian and Portuguese markets in which cars fitted with engines 2.o-litres and bigger were hit by draconian tax laws. It had a smaller, de-stroked version of the same S14 motor used in the M3 that made slightly less power but could, at the same time, be revved a little bit higher.
It was also lighter than the M3 and, as we all know, lightness is a good thing. You want figures? Well, the two-door version I drove weighed a whisker under 1200kg and had approximately 143kW and 210Nm at its disposal.
Again, underwhelming on paper but out in the real world it is a recipe for deliciousness. Why? Simply because everything is so beautifully balanced. In a lot of modern performance cars you’ll find an explosively powerful engine bolted to a chassis that can barely cope. In the 320is, the two work together. There’s enough power on tap to move you along rapidly but not send you to jail. There’s enough grip to give you confidence but enough slip to keep you entertained should you feel the need for a little (controlled) sideways action.
This combination equals a visceral, fun-filled driving experience. You don’t need a racetrack. You don’t need to push yourself beyond your capabilities. What a revelation. There I was, ripping down a country road in Austria, having the time of my life, and I don’t think I once went over 130km/h. Yet I felt I was doing double this, thanks to the tactile trappings of older cars: less insulation, slower steering, real engine noise and a proper manual transmission.
Another revelation was the interior, with everything focused on the driver: placement of pedals and gear lever; spatial relationship between steering wheel and seat. BMW used every resource to make the 320is embody the firm’s bygone corporate maxim of “the ultimate driving machine”.
The new M4 might be a technological marvel that closes distances 100 times faster, but it will never give you the thrills dished out by this 28-year-old box on wheels. They don’t make cars like this anymore. They never will. And if you drive one you will discover, as I did, that the world is a poorer place for it. – Thomas Falkiner