The BMW E30 M3 is one of the most coveted classic BMW’s on the market today but that doesn’t make it the best E30. Car companies work wonders when they are building cars for enthusiasts; however, their true prowess is revealed when they are building fun cars while skirting government emissions standards. When BMW was building an M3 for southern European nations which were taxed for cars with a displacement over 2 liters they needed to modify their successful M3 formula. The result was a de-stroked version of the M3’s S14 engine in the body of a normal E30 creating one of the greatest E30s and a forgotten gem.
Known as the Italian M3, the 320is had M’s legendary s14 engine and a close ratio dogleg 5-speed. It was never acknowledged to be a flow blown M car, instead, it offered customers in Italy and Portugal the opportunity to drive a sporty alternative to the heavily taxed 325i. Only 3,745 320is were built from 1987-1990 in both coupe and sedan layouts during its three-year production run making this car far rarer than a mere M3. Factor in the unique history and add rarity, the 320is is a great alternative for the classic M3 shopper.
Since the 320is doesn’t have the flared bodywork of the M3 it weighs 242lbs less and looks like a regular E30 to the untrained eye. The de-stroked engine is happier to rev and the shorter rear axle ratio gives this car a more playful driving experience than its more powerful sibling. The only gearbox is a close ratio 5-speed dogleg box that keeps the driver involved to ensure this engine is at a constant boil delivering its 192 hp at 6,900 rpm and 155 lb/ft of torque at 4,900 rpm. It may be down on displacement but it only gives up 3 hp and 15 lb/ft of torque to the M3 which is remedied by the 320is’s lighter curb weight and gearing.
Buying a 320is is a tricky proposition for those of us located in the United States where they are only recently legal to import. Their low number in the states coupled with the general fatigue associated with importing a car means you either spend the extra money on a car that’s already here or take a vacation to Italy. Although it may seem glamorous to fly to Italy to buy your dream E30 it’s important to remember this will still be an expensive endeavor. One nice example recently sold on Bring a Trailer for only $14,500 and another for $24,000 so it’s not out of the question to find one at a reasonable price, the hardest part is finding one.
The 320is may not have the presence of the M3 or come with the greatness that’s associated with the word homologation but it offers a more athletic driving experience. Sure the M3 is a great car and for those who want to fly under the radar while owning a truly unique piece of BMW history, the 320is cannot be beaten. However, the rising prices of E30 M3’s continue to drag up the price of the 32ois as they become more popular with collectors. The growing cost and limited numbers make them hard for the average enthusiast to enjoy but this hidden gem is the E30 BMW your dreaming of.