The BMW M3 E36 and Nissan 300ZX Z32 were two of the best performance cars to come out of the 1990’s. In 1990, the 300ZX cost $69,720 while in 1994 the M3 cost a hefty $124,650. There are a number of similarities between the two cars. They’re both good looking two door coupes. Both have three litre six-cylinder naturally aspirated engines featuring double overhead camshafts and 24 valves with the M3 being an in-line six and the 300ZX a V6.
Both cars have their engines placed at the front and send drive to the rear and the two have five speed manual gearboxes’. The M3 is a performance model based off the regular three series E36 however the 300ZX is a bespoke sports car. It therefore makes for an interesting comparison between these two cars that I’m fortunate enough to own.
Interior quality of the M3 far exceeds the 300ZX’s. The black leather ‘Vader’ seats look good and hold you in well however the head rests are too far back to give any head support. The driving position is spot on in the M3 with ideal distance to the main controls (steering wheel, pedals and gearshift). There’s also a power operated sunroof that has always worked well. The rear seats offer much better head and legroom over the 300ZX. I like the dashboard layout of the M3 over the 300ZX with its 280km/h speedometer and both cars get good looking three spoke steering wheels. The 300ZX isn’t an Australian delivered car therefore only has a 180km/h speedometer.
The 300ZX has cloth seats that don’t look anywhere near as good as the ones in the M3 and feel a bit too narrow. The car is a 2+2 but the rear seats don’t offer enough room for adults. I also don’t like the look and feel of the tweed on parts of the dashboard and think that it looks a bit cheap and nasty for what was an expensive car. The low slung seating position of the 300ZX is good, reminding me of sitting in a mid engined car (NSX or Lotus Exige) however the gearshift is a bit far away from the driver. The car features a targa roof; it’s not to my personal taste but was the cool thing to have back in the late 80’s to early 90’s.
Like most of the BMW M cars built both past and present, the appeal of the E36 M3 is the combination of relatively understated styling with fantastic performance. The Daytona Violet metallic on the M3 looks better than the light grey on the 300ZX. Cosmetically, the M3 differs from the normal three series by the addition of lightweight 7.5 x 17 inch M Double Spoke cast alloy wheels, M3 badges, front and rear diffusers, aerodynamic mirrors and side skirts, cooling ducts for the brakes in the front spoiler and twin exhaust outlets.
The look of both cars appeal to me for different reasons. The 300ZX has a low, wide stance like a supercar whereas the M3 is quite narrow. In terms of overall looks, I personally think that the 300ZX is the better looking of the two. It still looks beautiful and modern 28 years after it was built and was years ahead of its time. I like the 300ZX’s low, wide stance and how it’s understated yet aggressive at the same time. The design is really up there with the great mid engined cars from this era including the Honda NSX and Ferrari F355. It’s interesting to note that well after production stopped, in 2010 GQ Magazine listed the Z32 300ZX as one of the most stylish cars over the past 50 years.
The cars share similar standard equipment. Both have ABS, limited slip differentials, cruise control, power windows and air conditioning. The M3 has driver and passenger airbags whereas the 300ZX doesn’t have any. Interestingly, the 300ZX has a power drivers’ seat whereas the M3’s is manually adjustable. The M3 has a full sized spare tyre but the 300ZX makes do with a space saver.
Handling, steering and braking
Way back in September 1997, Car and Driver did a test to see the ‘Best Handling Car at Any Price in America’. The E36 M3 featured and was up against an Acura NSX-T, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper GTS, Ferrari F355, Porsche Boxster, Porsche 911 Carrera S and Toyota Supra Turbo. Against this field, the M3 came out as the winner and was the only car to score a 10 for directional stability, cornering under acceleration and agility. High speed lane changes were its particular strength.
Interestingly, the M3 got a nine out of ten for steering feel. I’ve always felt that the steering feel is the Achilles’ heel of the M3. It has no feel on centre and needs a few degrees of lock to make the wheels turn. In an oversteer situation, it can be hard to know how much lock to give the car to not unsettle it. The steering rack out of the similar era BMW Z3 is known to be the fastest, and something that I want to fit to the car in the future. The variable ratio gives better feedback to the driver as the speed builds but for such a high performance car BMW really should’ve got this right. The steering wheel also looks good but a smaller diameter wheel would be nicer.
Aside from the steering, the near perfect weight distribution (49.3 front/50.7 rear) means you can attack higher speed corners with confidence. If your line needs to be modified mid corner, the M3 is more than up to the task without any loss of traction or chassis instability. Considering that the car has no traction or stability control, it demonstrates just how great the chassis balance is. Hitting a bump mid corner also doesn’t seem to unsettle the M3. On the Broadford circuit, the M3 had predictable handling but body roll was more noticeable on the track. The 235/45/17 Bridgestone Potenza RE003’s offer good traction, particularly in the wet.
Chassis control feels better in the M3 but the steering system in the 300ZX is wonderful and enables greater feel and a more direct and responsive front end. There’s a big difference between the two steering systems with the 300ZX inspiring much greater confidence when turning into a corner. It surprises me how much better the steering system is in the 300ZX considering both cars have similar steering ratios of around 16:1.
Weight distribution in the 300ZX is 53/47 front to rear meaning it isn’t quite as well balanced as the M3. Despite its lack of power compared to the M3, the 300ZX feels like it struggles more to put its power down. It could be due to it currently having mismatched tyres and a narrower tyre profile (225/50/16). I’m planning on getting a set of Bridgestone Potenza Adrenalin RE003’s of the same size to give more traction at the rear. All things considered, these are two very good handling cars that have great composure through the bends.
Brakes are adequate enough on both cars. The M3 has 315mm vented discs while the 300ZX makes do with 280mm vented discs. Both systems aren’t up to modern braking standards but do well considering these cars are relatively heavy.
Power and torque are in favour of the M3 with 210kW of power and 320Nm of torque. The 300ZX puts out a respectable 168kW and 271Nm. The M3 is also the lighter of the two (1450kg versus 1490kg). As a result, the M3 has the higher power to weight ratio of 141kW/tonne as opposed to 113kW/tonne. Although on paper the BMW has more torque, in the real world the 300ZX feels more responsive in the lower rev range. The higher both cars rev, the more they seem to build speed with both cars coming alive at about 5000rpm.
The M3 is the faster of the two and when new, BMW claimed that the car could hit 100km/h in 5.5 seconds and reach a limited top speed of 250km/h. It probably wouldn’t achieve this 0-100km/h time today however it would be interesting to see if it could still reach its limited top speed. Where’s an Autobahn when you need one! When new, the 300ZX would hit 100km/h in 7.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 250km/h. Today these figures wouldn’t be too far off. The M3 has the better sounding and smoother running engine whereas the 300ZX’s engine is a bit coarse.
The M3 is run on 98 octane fuel whereas the 300ZX can be run on 95 octane. Urban fuel use for both cars is 12l/100. The M3 has a 65 Litre fuel tank and the 300ZX has a 72 Litre tank. They are both efficient even when driven hard.
The downside to owning the M3 is paying for high servicing costs, and if scheduled oil services and inspection 1 and 2 services aren’t routinely carried out, major damage can occur. VANOS units can be a weak point and can cost up to $10,000 to repair while a manual gearbox can be upwards of $12,000. The drivers’ side window regulator has been fixed on my car and this is a common problem with the regulator breaking due to the original welding not being strong enough. Bonnet struts were recently replaced and also the alternator. The alternator is a bespoke item for the M3. When it failed on my car, it had to be rebuilt as I couldn’t find a new alternator that would fit into the existing location.
I’ve only owned the 300ZX for a few months but have already had to replace and repair a few items. So far I’ve added sun shades to the targa roof, repaired the washer bottle hose, had the non-standard rear control arms replaced, fixed the loose instrument cluster and replaced all spark plugs. It has an interference engine so I really want to get the timing belt looked at. Another thing that needs replacement is the heater core. A full service and oil change needs to be carried out and the ABS system needs to be looked at. Finally, the six coil pack connectors need to be replaced soon as some of them have become brittle over time due to under-bonnet heat. When one becomes loose, the car doesn’t run on that cylinder causing a lot of frustration.
Down the track, the plan is to further modify the car to compete in Tampered Motorsport track days at Sandown and Targa events. Future updates include fitting a roll cage and extinguisher, a decent racing seat, adjustable coil-overs and larger brake discs and pads. Lightweight wheels and semi-slick tyres will come with time and money!
Back in 2010, the M3 was bought for $20,000, having travelled 134,000 kilometres. It now has 234,000 kilometres on it and would still fetch between $20-30,000. The 300ZX has only travelled 153,000 kilometres. It was bought recently for $6,500 and could be sold for closer to $10,000.
Both of these are wonderful cars that really reward the driver. The M3 is great all-rounder; it looks good, seats four in comfort, handles wonderfully and has one of the best six cylinder engines ever put into production. With values increasing steadily, it’s also a half decent investment and a guaranteed modern classic.
The 300ZX is a beautiful looking car and is one of the best handling cars I’ve driven. In my opinion, it looks better than most modern performance cars. It lacks the outright top end speed of the M3 but actually feels more responsive in the lower part of the rev range.
They are both exceptional drivers’ cars that do away with electronic aids that have plagued modern cars. You get back to the fun of driving and these are two of the best performance cars ever built. It’s difficult to pick one over the other. On outright performance, the M3 has the edge but the steering of the 300ZX is so perfect and precise and I love how it looks. I’m just grateful to own both of these great cars from the 1990’s.