If you had about $40,000 dollars to spend on a brand new, top of the line European sports car in the late 1990s, you would have two main choices: the tried and true BMW E36 M3 or the newly introduced Porsche Boxster. Both cars were essentially designed in completely different ways to do the exact same thing. The Porsche Boxster was a lightweight, mid engined, rear wheel drive roadster whereas the M3 was a front engined, rear wheel drive, slightly less lightweight coupe and both proudly exceeded their job of putting a massive smile on your face. Today, the debate is still rather the same but thanks depreciation, one can now pick up either of these cars for well under $15,000. Yet their new, similar price tags still beg the same question one would have asked 20 years ago, which one do you buy? Well now, we have an answer.
To start off, the BMW E36 M3 is powered by BMW’s famous S52 engine which is a 3.2 liter inline 6 producing 240 hp and 236 lb/ft of torque. The E36 is also front-engined, as mentioned before, and weighs in at around 3200 lbs. The Porsche on the other hand is powered by a 2.5 liter flat 6 that makes 201 hp and only 181 lb/ft of torque. However, it only weighs in at a feathery 2822 lbs. But despite being almost 400 lb lighter than the M3, the Boxster still has a lower power to weight ratio so Round 1 goes to the Bimmer.
Since both cars are from the 1990s, interior design was not something they were known for when new. Both cars have cheap plastic bits and tacky interior designs so if you’re looking for a nice place to sit, get another car. That being said, there is a clear winner though and it’s the BMW. Even with it beings a 1990s car, the M3 still has a surprising amount of leather whereas the Boxster was criticized for having a cheap, plastic covered interior. The quality of the M3’s interior and the overall car itself is also much better despite it being a few thousand dollars cheaper than the Boxster. When you’re at high speeds, it doesn’t rattle or whistle, it feels properly put together which is sadly something I cannot say about the Porsche.
Let’s be honest, these cars are not going to be bought for their practicality but in case you were wondering, trunk space is the same on both cars since the Porsche has two trunks, but the BMW has back seats and a glove box so it’s a bit easier to daily drive. Being 20 year old German sports cars, reliability is also not a strong suit with each car having its own set of special problems. The M3 mainly leaks and burns oil while the Boxster has its infamous IMS bearing issue. However, early model Boxsters with the 2.5 liter engines-like the one we tested-don’t have the IMS bearing issue and overall are more mechanically sound than their BMW counterparts so reliability goes to the Porsche but not by much; these aren’t Toyotas after all.
How They Drive
The main factor one should consider when buying these cars is how they drive, they’re sports cars for God’s sake. Honestly, you can’t really go wrong here, they both drive amazingly well. Part of this has to do with sound and thankfully, unlike their newer versions, the E36 M3 and 986 Boxster both sound exceptional. The E36 has a lower, angrier scream while the Porsche sings with its signature flat 6 howl. Determining which car sounds better is all subjective but again, you can’t go wrong with either, they both sound absolutely amazing.
The steering on both cars is also very direct and engaging, but the Porsche clearly has superior steering feel and enjoyment. In the Porsche, the wheel connects you to the road in a way that the Bimmer can’t seem to deliver.
Earlier, I mentioned that the BMW has about 39 more hp and 55 more lb/ft of torque and if there’s one thing that separates the two, it’s the torque. The Bimmer accelerates harder and is noticeably more powerful than the Porsche. Also the M3 always has power to put down whereas you really have to work the engine in the Porsche to get 40 less hp. Handling is superb on both cars but you do feel more planted in the Porsche because of its wider tires, lower power output, and its mid-engined layout, then again, the unpredictability of the BMW is one of its best features.
In the end, it’s all about what kind of experience you want. The Porsche makes you feel safe, it’s friendly, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to slide at every turn. The Porsche is also easy to master, not once have I felt the car struggle for grip or not be able to take a corner. It’s like your grandmother, you always feel safe when you’re with her, you’re always smiling, and you know what to expect. But if the Porsche is your grandmother, than the M3 is your crazy uncle that you only see once every two months. The Bimmer is constantly on the edge, it’s loud, it’s scary, and it pushes you to your limits as a driver. It’s fast, it’s skittish, it’s freaking amazing. Unlike the Porsche’s docile nature, the M3 is ready to bite your head off at any moment. Driving the M3 is like putting your foot on a tiger’s neck, one mistake, and you’re toast. Again though, it’s all about personal preference, someone like my dad-and Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there-would likely prefer cruising the Malibu canyons with the top down, listening to the Boxster’s iconic howl. But if you ask me, I would definitely take that amazing M3.
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