25 Greatest Cars of All Time: Driver's Cars

Sam Smith
Charlie Magee

Numbers rule our lives. Given a chance, humans will quantify anything and everything, reducing the things we love to cold, heartless figures. Engineers live for this--it gives them a definitive "yes" or "no," a way to instantly separate good from bad. So, too, with cars: we measure output, performance, and even the number of heads turned, all in the name of calculating end worth. Blinded by stats, people forget that numbers often lie. And so, here we give you our five favorite driver's cars--cars that entertain above all else, cars that possess that elusive, almost ethereal quality: balance. Some are fast and expensive; some are slow and cheap. But they all have one thing in common. They're great to drive.

BMW E30 M3

Thank goodness for homologation requirements and the unbridled competitiveness of German industry. If it was to respond to Mercedes-Benz's compact new screamer, the 190E 2.3-16, and save face in 1980s European touring car racing, BMW's motorsport division had to design and build something like the first M3. Based on the successful E30 model, as the second 3-series (1984-91) was internally designated (and which itself marked a return to form for BMW), the original M3 was an instant classic. That it still tugs at our heartstrings twenty years later suggests that it probably always will.

This is, notably, in spite of the fact that all subsequent M3s have been faster, with bigger engines. The original M3 laid claim to the 2.3-liter S14, a robust and rev-happy engine whose humble cylinder count numbered only four. It revved like a banshee and rarely broke, a useful real-world combination. But many people still can't get past its paucity of cylinders.

Don't let us hear you making that mistake. The E30 M3 is that rare, latter-day example of the historic ideal--a car fit for both road and track. It reminds us, too, of what has been lost as cars get ever heavier and more powerful. The first M3 possesses the sort of balance, composure, and grace that only a lighter, smaller car can offer. Progress is by no means pitiful, with the M3's stock 192 hp capable of shifting its 2735 pounds to 60 mph in just under seven seconds. That may not be supercar fast, but it's enough to explore the underlying brilliance of its chassis. To aid the racing effort and the worthy cause of bigger tires and brakes, the M3's fenders were box-flared. A Boeing 747-size spoiler bolted to the rear deck lid may not be to everyone's taste, but it comes in handy on the way to a 141-mph top speed and helps reduce lift.

The M3 was quite the racing car, too, winning more races than any single BMW model ever, including the German, European, and World Touring Car championships, along with endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Nrburgring and Spa.

But it is as a driver's car that we'll always cherish the M3. A key benchmark in the history of rear-wheel-drive handling excellence, it reminds us of a time when carmakers trusted drivers to control their own traction and one didn't have to drive 90 mph to start having fun. It continues to make a great daily driver, and as our well-sorted test car's owner, assistant editor Sam Smith, reminds us, it's never going to be more affordable than it is now. Jamie Kitman

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