Quite frankly, I’d like to say “I’ll take on of each, please,” but that would be a lame cop-out. The debate between the M3 and the 2.3-16v is basically the story of how the 1980’s era Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (DTM for us normal folk) turned into the legendary series it has become. But before I even get into the argument myself, here’s a quick background story for each car.
The story begins with the Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3-16v, a.k.a. the “Cossie.” Mercedes took their standard 190E, decided it should be a rally car, and told engine builder Cosworth to give it more power. Great idea, except that Audi’s Quattro had ushered in the 4WD era of rallying, rendering the Cossie pointless. So Merc put it to work at the DTM touring car races instead, having two starts in the 1985 season. The following year, the 2.3-16v scored 3 wins and 9 podiums, the most by a single make in the series.
Meanwhile at BMW, the Bavarians didn’t like what they saw. The 635CSi had been the best car by far in 1984 with 17 podiums, but by 1985 was losing out to the Ford XR4Ti. With arch-rival Mercedes looming large with the Cossie, BMW decided to make their own high-revving 2.3 liter version of their entry level car, the E30. What resulted was the M3, which completely dominated its first year in DTM in 1987, taking home a whopping 18 podiums. To put that in perspective, Mercedes, Ford and Volvo combined only had 10 podiums!
From 1987 to 1990, the BMW and Benz traded punches, introducing better and better versions of each car in an arms race for the ages. In those four years, BMW had 102 podiums and 24 wins in 975 starts (10.5% poduim %, 2.5% win %), versus Mercedes’ 48 podiums and 16 wins in 635 starts (7.6% podium %, 2.5% win%). The M3 deserves its reputation for being the most successful touring car in history.
I’ve driven both of the standard versions of the M3 and the Cossie, and by modern standards neither is particularly fast. What makes them both special is the way they make you feel when you drive them. The Benz actually looks less dated, and is the more comfortable and refined daily car of the two. It also scores extra cool points for its 1987 one-make race that featured F1’s greatest drivers, including the late Ayrton Senna. On the other hand, the BMW doesn’t need any fanfare to make it’s case. The combination of handling, responsiveness, and sporting character make it a winner in my book. Add the M3’s touring car dominance in the equation, and you come up with a seriously cool car.
In today’s market, the M3’s prices have gone past the P1 million mark, making in unattainable to most. The 2.3-16v’s prices have similarly increased, but can’t be called cheap at the P600-800 thousand range. But if money was no object, and I could only choose one, I’d drive home with the M3.
If you want to learn more about these two legendary motors, check out these links:
Motor Trend’s Article on the M3 and the Cossie.
Motor Trend’s Reader Poll shows 63% of their readers prefer the M3, while just 37% would take the Benz.
Automobile Magazine’s Article on the M3 vs. the 2.3-16v
Evo Magazine’s Video on Mercedes Benz 2.3-16v one-make race at the Nurburgring in 1984, featuring F1 Champions like Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, and the one and only Ayrton Senna.
Car Magazine’s Review from 1988 of the M3 Evo and the 2.5-16v
Automobile Magazine’s 25 Greatest Cars of All Time, including the BMW E30 M3