Ah, the E30 M3. The one that started a love affair most petrolheads can relate to. Modern M3s have grown to become performance monsters, with prodigious, tyre-slaying torque compensating for a significant growth in size and weight.
But the E30 was the antithesis of that – all about lightweight, unfiltered performance. Sadly, as cars have become bigger and more complicated, the desire for cars like the E30 has increased too, seeing prices skyrocket. Want one? You’ll have to cough up £50,000-plus for a goodie, or double that for a 10/10, low mileage example.
However, what if you like the ethos, but are happy to settle for something that offers more bang for your buck? Fortunately, there are a bunch of enticing alternatives that won’t break the bank to quite the same degree.
I’m starting with the Merc because it pushes the concept of not breaking the bank. The contemporary rival to the E30 has DTM looks and comparable performance, but its value hasn’t risen at anything like the extraordinary rate of the M3.
The car was built to homologate the 190E for racing in DTM, and uses a detuned version of the Cosworth-built engine that hit the track. It started with a 2.3-litre unit, which was replaced in 1988 by a 2.5, and it seems both are similarly priced in the classifieds, with mileage and condition having a bigger say in the pricing.
At circa-£25k it’s certainly not cheap, but at half the price of a similar E30 it seems like a pretty good deal.
Another indirect rival to the M3 was the Nissan 180SX. If you only care about performance and don’t really need the extra doors and seats of the saloon E30, look no further than the S13.
Sure, the Nissan is somewhat down on power compared with its German rival – by the end of their production runs in the early 90s the S13 would be about 45bhp behind – but those Japanese touge drivers tearing up mountain roads loved them for good reason. They’re playful, fun, but most importantly, capable in the twisties.
With so many destroyed by amateur drifters they can be tricky to find, but you should be able to grab one for between £3000 and £5000. Later S14 models are similarly priced but provide more E30-rivalling performance, too.
You want motorsport pedigree and a BMW badge but don’t have the best part of £10,000 to buy a healthy E36 M3? The 2006 320si could be the answer.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way – if outright pace is what you’re after then turn the page. The 320si only makes 173bhp, which means it’s got E30 performance in a decades-newer package. Its selling point, though, is that it’s billed as a proper driver’s car built so BMW could go racing.
Just 2600 were made, and they only came with a manual gearbox. The engine is a free-revving 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit built in the same factory as BMW-Sauber’s F1 engines, where it got a bunch of upgrades such as being bored out, getting new aluminium-alloy cylinder liners and having Valvetronic removed – the end result is a redline up at 8000rpm.
The downsides? Detractors say it’s not much more fun to drive than a standard 320, while many owners have complained of issues with that aluminium cylinder lining cracking. Fans call it a fun, driver-focused BMW that has the bonus of rarity.
That rarity makes them tough to hunt down in the classifieds, but somewhere in the region of £5000 could see one on your driveway.
If your first thought was to scoff at the thought of an Accord being compared to one of the most iconic enthusiast cars ever made, then hold on – this is a bloody good fast saloon.
Under the bonnet is a fizzy 2.2-litre VTEC engine that, as you’d expect, likes nothing more than to be revved. Yes, it’s front-wheel drive, but don’t let that put you off – peak power of 209bhp is made at a heady 7200rpm, while torque is just 159lb ft at 6700rpm, so when coupled with the Torsen limited-slip differential, it means there’s none of that ugly torque steer.
Instead, it handles like a dream thanks to a everything-you-could-want spec list such as a multi-link double wishbone suspension, rapid steering set-up, strengthened rear bulkhead, and a kerbweight of just 1.3 tonnes. Inside you even get Recaro seats and a Momo steering wheel.
Owners are a dedicated bunch who’ve been singing the virtues of the Accord Type R for years. It looks like their bleating about its future classic status might be starting to ring true as prices for good ones creep towards £5,000. Now might be the right time to buy.
And finally, another one for those who like their cars capable of taking the whole family to the shops and making them bring up their lunch on the way.
I’ve not chosen a specific model because for less than £5,000 there are various options of different ages and power outputs, and all above the boggo grandad-spec models should thrill.
If you’re looking for something closer to the E30, though, may we suggest looking for an early Type RA. These were more rally-esque road cars focused on stripping weight. You’d have to be pretty dedicated to run one as a daily.
In fact, if you want more of a taste of that sweet rear-driven E30 action, opt for a WRX STi Type RA, because they came with a diff controller that could push more torque to the rear wheels. The downside here is you’ll be pushing into five-figure price territory. The good news is that’s still a fifth of the price of an E30 M3…