Track Marks

They were the ultimate machines in the frenetic world of ’80s German touring car racing – but should BMW’s Sport Evo or Mercedes-Benz’ 2.5-16 Evo II be the car to crave today?

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hink of the key 1980s battles. Iran fighting Iraq for dominance of the Persian Gulf. Testarossa versus Countach for supercar supremacy. Wham versus Duran Duran for space on your sister’s wall. For schoolkids in der Fatherland, there was another serious grudge match going on. In the DTM touring car series, Germany’s home-grown tin-top championship, BMW’s E30 M3 was duking it out with the Cosworth-powered Mercedes-Benz 190E.

Instead of one of the big six-cylinder motors both firms were known for, they used screaming 2.3-litre fours, sending more than 300bhp to the rear wheels in competition trim. But these were no silhouette racers. To legitimise these cars in the eyes of the FIA, BMW and Mercedes-Benz had to build 5000 examples. The result was some thrilling racing and a pair of now legendary road cars.

But stand still in racing and you’ve lost. In their battle to stay ahead BMW and Mercedes-Benz needed to push their ageing cars further. And the FIA obliged, allowing car makers to homologate changes to existing models by building just 500 roadgoing examples. These weren’t ground-up rebuilds, but evolutionary changes. The Evo was born.

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BMW M3 SPORT EVO

‘Go on, rev it up!’ demands the oik on the bike at the petrol station. We try to wave him away, telling him he’s got the wrong idea and will be disappointed, but he’s adamant. You can see why. They’re all high-rise spoilers and jutting splitters, menacing black paint and fat arches. Maybe he recognises the M3 badge mounted at both ends of the BMW. Maybe he’s confused by the lack of an AMG one on the 190E, but the ludicrous front splitter probably more than makes up for it. To oik, weaned on a diet of Shmee150 and Top Gear, they were obviously going to emit some kind of glass-shattering shriek or bowel loosening bellow. But they don’t. I give the M3 a few chunky blips. The sound is hard-edged, crisp and purposeful, but totally disappointing in the context of a modern ’63-engined AMG. Oik looks nonplussed and rides off.

He was a child, likely born 15 years after these cars’ heyday, but even when they were new you had to understand why they existed to see the appeal. Because in both cases you could buy a conventional six-cylinder car with almost as much power, and a much fruitier soundtrack, for less money. And in the case of the BMW, sit on the right side of the car.

Does that left-hook layout add to the M3’s kudos on a subliminal level, like the boxy arch flares and re-profiled rear window? Possibly. It certainly makes grappling with the Getrag dogleg ’box – another touch of the exotic, or maybe just anachronistic – an even bigger challenge, at least for us Brits. That gearbox was connected to a 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine in the original 1986 M3. A bored and stroked version of the 2.0-litre M10 four found in the early 320i, the M3’s cast iron block is canted over at 30º and topped with a twin cam 16-valve head.

For all the hype, original M3s can seem pretty underwhelming coming to them fresh with modern eyes. Yes, the handling is sweet, but it can feel like there’s simply not enough engine to make the most of it. The little 2.3 sounds pretty tuneless and is only moderately muscular. Early cat-equipped cars produced as little as 195bhp, along with 176lb-ft of torque, although later cars nudged power up to a more substantial 215bhp.

But the Sport Evolution was different. It was the third M3 Evo, built in greater numbers than Evos 1 and 2, and less successful on track, but hugely more desirable today. And when it comes to the Sport Evo, you can just about believe the hype. It’s the one first-gen M3 that really feels like something quick when you toe it.

Stretched to 2.5-litres it squeezes 235bhp at 7000rpm and, if not quite the wind from your lungs, it at least gives you a proper slap on the back. That extra capacity makes it feel like there’s more punch low down, though the figures say there’s a solitary lb-ft in it. Either way, you need to stroke that ’box to make the scenery blur, something made more difficult by this car with its sloppy bushings, a notorious used BMW weakness.

Get the rev counter spinning and the flat noise turns into something more serious. Never tuneful, it’s interesting to listen to with those four individual throttle bodies metering out precisely the right amount of fuel. This is an E30 M3 that has enough muscle to haul your neck hairs to attention and ask some proper questions of the E30’s excellent chassis.

That’s the M3’s chassis, as opposed to a regular 3-Series’ item. I love E30s, the styling, the compact size and the solidity, but with the steering ratio of a manual window winder and the traction of a pair of banana skin-soled moccasins on greasy lino, they’re not quite the dynamic deity they’re often made out to be. Fortunately, there are more changes to an M3 than simply wider arches. Although the suspension layout is the same, meaning there’s a pair of struts up front and a pair of trailing arms at the rear, the hub assemblies are actually from the E28 5-Series. The geometry was different at both ends too, and the steering lost almost an entire spin between the stops for a more respectable, if still hardly spirited, 3.6 turns.

That was for the M3s and the Evo I and II derivatives that followed. The Sport Evo dropped 10mm closer to the ground and had even wider arches to fit racing rubber, although road cars wore the same 16in BBS rims as earlier Evos. Even with the 2.5’s extra muscle, the Sport Evo feels rock-solid, responding smartly to steering inputs and soaking up all your right foot can throw at it. Body roll is well controlled and the brakes feel firm. This is a light and taught car that feels like a proper racer, where the contemporary 325i feels more extrovert and less together. 

You’d have to try hard to slide the Sport Evo around, which, if you’ve spent any time in grunty 1980s BMWs, is a surprise. The curved dash and slab-sided door glass feel familiar – so familiar that it’s hard to reconcile the near-£100k price, particularly given that this car – sold at a recent Historics at Brooklands auction for £78,400 – is in far less sorted nick than one I drove in 2007 when they were worth a fifth of today’s values. But the market says that’s what they’re worth, and they’re still climbing. 

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Mercedes 190E 16V Evo II

On track and at auction, the 16-valve 190 has been playing catch up. The 190E Evo II, however, is not like other 190s. There’s no mistaking this thing for a gussied up Munich minicab. Looks outrageous, doesn’t it? And we’re looking at it through eyes that have become accustomed to watching Evos and Imprezas prowling high streets and seeing be-winged Porsches on every magazine cover. This car came out in 1990.

Let’s briefly rewind six years, and the launch of the car underneath that battle dress. Officially known as the 190E 2.3-16 in honour of its size and the number of valves belonging to the special engine underneath its bonnet, it’s often just referred to by the people who did the work: Cosworth. Bolting a four-valve twin-cam head onto the 190E’s exiting 2.3-litre bottom-end resulted in a useful 185bhp and 173lb-ft of torque in the road cars, more than double what a cooking 190 offered.

The hot 190 was supposedly engineered with rallying in mind, to continue the success Mercedes-Benz had achieved with the SLC. But by the time the engineering had been done, Audi’s four-wheel drive Quattro had changed the game. Instead, the hottest 190 would earn its stripes on track. And it did that before even entering the DTM world, first setting a stack of endurance records at the Nardo high-speed bowl in Italy in 1983, and in 1994 providing a PR boost for both the Mercedes-Benz brand and a young up-and-coming F1 driver, when Ayrton Senna slayed a stack of F1 stars past and present in a one-off one-model race before the 1984 Nürburgring Grand Prix.

With no livery, just each driver’s name above each sill of 20 plain-looking saloons hurtling around a German race circuit, it must have looked like a bunch of reps on a team building day. As if the sober four-door styling didn’t already tell you as much, one option on the spec sheet gave a clue that the 2.3-16 was a more gentlemanly steer than the M3. While the standard gearbox was the very same dogleg Getrag ’box you’ll find in an M3, Mercedes-Benz also offered a four-speed automatic alternative from 1985. As far as most road car fans were concerned, the other big news in 190 chronology was the switch to 2.5-litre power in 1988, boosting output to 204bhp and adding the security of double timing chains.

But, though little known in the UK, there was more to come. In 1989 Mercedes-Benz launched the Evo 1 featuring a more aggressive body kit than standard, with a larger rear wing and deeper front spoiler. Wheels, similar in style, were actually an inch bigger to cover larger brakes. And though the engine was another 2.5-litre lump offering an identical 204bhp, with, confusingly, 5lb-ft less twist action, its internal dimensions were different, giving more tuning leeway on track. But it wasn’t enough. BMW tied up that year’s championship, leaving Mercedes-Benz trailing in fourth. Enter the Evo II.

And what an entrance. That much plastic shouldn’t look right on a humble four-door saloon, let alone one from staid old Mercedes-Benz, but the Evo carries it off. Those 17in wheels are an inch bigger than the M3’s and bolted to suspension that can be shifted through three different ride heights via a switch on the dash. Drop into the driver’s seat and you’re immediately aware of how much less huggy, and how much more slippery the seat is than the excellent Recaro SRDs in the Sport Evo M3. The steering wheel is a typically huge Mercedes-Benz affair too, though supposedly smaller than the norm, its ugly boss ruining the sporting atmosphere. Hmm. In truth, having spent quite a few miles in Sport Evos, I’m not expecting a great deal from the Benz.

Big mistake. It’s laugh-out-loud brilliant. There are clues to this car’s special nature before you’ve turned the spindly key or twisted the wheel to sample steering that’s way more talkative and responsive than you’d expect given that it’s a doddery old recirculating ball setup. Stuff like: a production number (323/500 in this case) on the gearknob, and a rev counter that’s not cordoned off until almost 8000rpm. The engine is superb. Not growly enough to impress our garage forecourt audience, but a serious bit of kit. It’s essentially an Evo 1 engine with an even higher compression ratio, and all the better with a few revs on the dial. Wind it out and it feels and sounds angrier than the M3’s with a really vicious bite at the top end as it soars on past its 232bhp power peak to 7800rpm, 800rpm after the BMW has thrown in the monogrammed M towel.

The gearshift is notchy, but throw the lever across the incongruously wood-trimmed console with your right hand (like all M3s, 190 Evos were exclusively left hookers) and the travel seems shorter than the BMW’s. 

Contemporary – and obviously conservative – manufacturers’ figures tell you that the BMW was quicker, getting to 62mph in 6.3sec, to the Merc’s 7.1, which ought to tally with their identical power outputs given that the 1255kg BMW is 85kg lighter. But which one makes the driver feel like a heavyweight driving hero? 

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The Modern Classics view

On the road these cars feel all but inseparable in a straight line, but through corners, and even with its special limited slip differential apportioning the torque, only the 190’s engine feels strong enough to trouble those rear tyres. It’s a fascinating car and – brilliant though the Sport Evo certainly is – by the end of the day it’s the Mercedes-Benz that feels that bit more special. 

Collectors seem to agree. Today the 502 190 Evo IIs are worth huge money. This car wears just 8700km and a £220k sticker in the window, dwarfing even that of a
good E30 Sport Evo, reflecting its rarity, its outlandish persona and the fact that it was the only 190 capable of outmanoeuvring its nemesis on track. It doesn’t roar like a modern AMG, or play elevens with a lazy stroke of the right foot. It’s the purest kind of homologation special, a car that exists only to let its track-based brothers go faster. The kid at the garage didn’t get it, but we know better.