The Torque Equation

When it comes to driving fun, we know that handling is more important than power, but how much torque is the absolute minimum? To find out, we drive a pair of relatively low-torque BMWs: the E30 M3 and its tax-dodging cousin, the E30 320is.

March 3, 2016
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In the olden days, BMW’s engines were rev-hungry little things, small-displacement wonders that made most of their power at the top of the tach. The M engines, especially, favored high revs and time-in-gear over torque. The cars weren’t quick off the line, but once underway they could outpace those with far more power through sheer momentum thanks to high redlines and agile handling.

The advent of turbocharging changed the equation, making high-revving horsepower secondary to torque developed right off idle. Even the M cars have seen the balance shift from high engine speeds to big torque, and it only makes sense: Once curb weights crest 3,500 lbs. in even the most compact models, you need all that torque just to get things rolling. Handling doesn’t exactly improve with higher curb weights, either, requiring massive tires and sophisticated electronics just to keep everything from flying off the road.

In light of all that, it’s easy to be nostalgic for the simpler days of sub-3,000 lb. cars and high-revving engines, but are low-torque BMWs all that fun to drive? Won’t we miss having 300 or 400 lb-ft at the slightest press of the throttle?

There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to drive a pair of BMWs known for their modest torque outputs: the E30 M3 and its Italian cousin, the E30 320is. The E30 M3 is no torque monster, and the 320is suffers an even greater deficit, powered as it is by a downsized S14 that has even less pulling power than the M3’s. To further accentuate the torque deficit, we’ll be driving these cars over the Alps from Italy’s Lake Como to Munich.

“Too much ain’t enough,” as Tom Petty sings, but too little might be just right.

E30 320is: Stealthy sport sedan

The first car we’ll drive is a 1989 320is, one of 3,748 built for the Italian and Portuguese markets. There, tax laws in the late 1980s added a 20% penalty on top of the price of any vehicle whose engine displaced more than 2.0 liters. That meant that an E30 M3 with a 2.3-liter S14 engine cost about €6,000 in addition to its MSRP of around €30,000, making it prohibitively expensive for all but the most dedicated enthusiasts.

Also from Issue 138

  • 1800 ti nearly wins1964 Spa 24 Hour
  • 2015 Dinan M235i-S3 road test
  • 2016 F48 X1 xDrive 28i road test
  • Buyer's Guide: Z3, Z4, Z8
  • Chris Kohler's 1985 E28 Alpina B7 Turbo
  • Clarion Builds' 1974 2002
  • 2001 E46 M3 GTR restoration
  • Paddock Pass
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