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Which Would You Buy?
BMW 8 Series vs. 1JZ Lexus SC300

February 3, 2012 by Matt

BMW E31 8-series 850i 850Ci Black M-pars M-parallel

The age-old automotive question. This or that? Which one is faster? Cheaper? Better-looking? More efficient? Do this one’s subjective qualities outweigh that one’s objective attributes? Behold, the first post in a new series pitting somewhat superficially mismatched cars against one another in an effort to illuminate the finer points of each.

Today we stack up a pair of high-end luxury coupes with sporting pretensions: The ’90-’99 BMW 8 Series, or E31 (pictured at top), and the ’91-’00 Lexus SC300, or JZZ30 (shown below). In both cases, we’re going to consider the most enthusiast-oriented configuration available for the car in question.

Lexus SC300 SC400 Silver Gray Grey SC

Let’s assume a manual transmission for both vehicles. With the E31, a 6-speed was only available in the US coupled to BMW’s 5-liter V12 engine, the 295 hp M70, and that only for the first few years of its production run. So it’s a rare and desirable bird. The SC300 is a bit easier to find equipped with Toyota’s W58 5-speed, but as with its German counterpart, the stickshift variant is easily the most sought-after.

In addition, to level the playing field a bit, we’re going to stipulate the Lexus has undergone an engine swap, exchanging its US-spec, naturally-aspirated, 221 hp 2JZ-GE engine for a Japanese-market-only, twin turbo, 278 hp 1JZ-GTE. The 1JZ was fitted from the factory to the Japanese version of the SC300, known as the Soarer, and mated with an uprated R154 5-speed manual. The swap is as easy as lengthening the wiring harness and bolting everything in—all the mounting points are present to accept the Japanese engine without otherwise modifying the big Lexus GT. And all the requisite bits are surprisingly easy to source from a number of automotive importers.

So, which would you spend your hard-earned money on, given the choice?

Here are some more factors to take into consideration:

  • Weight. This is a problem for the BMW. The range-topping, V12-powered 850i/850Ci breaks the scales at around 4,300 lbs, courtesy of its size, huge engine, dual batteries and all the luxury crammed under the sheetmetal. The Lexus, by contrast, comes in at around 3,500 lbs—no lightweight, but nothing to write home about.
  • Handling. The E31 pioneered BMW’s new multilink rear suspension and was one of the first cars equipped with electronic stability control. The SC300’s underpinnings were shared with the vaunted Mark 4 Supra and featured double wishbones at all 4 corners, in addition to an available Torsen limited-slip differential. They remain capable, sure-footed cars, but while the E31 may its automaker’s classic steering excellence, its weight and bulk dampen the fun.
  • Looks. The Lexus is attractive, and I would even go so far as to call it one of the most stylish cars to emerge from Japan, but c’mon. Nothing says “sex on wheels” quite as effectively as a massive, sleek 8 Series, with its Ferrari-like tapered nose, flared wheel arches and pillar-less side windows.
  • Cachet. Chalk another one up for the BMW. When introduced, the E31 was the ultimate “money no object” BMW, with prices in the $80K-100K range. Again, the Lexus exudes quality, but the BMW is on another plane entirely.
  • Power. Here’s where the Lexus’s 1JZ engine comes into its own. Utterly bulletproof and much more modern internally than the BMW’s big SOHC V12, the little Lexus 2.5l is capable of delivering literally as much power as you’re willing to spend for. The stock figure of 278 hp is universally considered to be underrated, and a wide array of aftermarket single turbo conversion kits are available to optimize both output and drivability.
  • Price. Values are surprisingly similar. Big German luxury liners tend to depreciate like crazy (no one wants to deal with their complexity or the price of parts and service), while Japanese cars in general hold their value a bit better. That said, in the case of the E31 and JZZ30, the price for a 6-speed 850i or 1JZ-swapped SC300 falls in $7K-$10K range. So the cost of entry is very roughly the same.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: BMW, Lexus, Which Would You Buy?

10 Comments

  1. John D says:

    Can I get the Toyota disguised as the Bimmer? Pretty please?

    Like most automotive decisions, it all depends on what you’re looking for. If you want something to cruise around in that’s gorgeous, sounds good, and will turn heads, get the FD…I mean BMW. If you actually want a car to drive, then it sounds like you may want the SC300 with a transplant. Then again, if you really wanted performance why settle for the Lexus package in the first place? Personally, I’d take the 8 series. I just can’t get over the way she looks. Fantastic. But if I were looking for something to drive as an enthusiast should…neither. Sorry, Toyota.

    • Matt says:

      It’s all a game of compromises and offsets. These two appeal to a particular subset (like myself) who want a dash of performance, a splash of good looks and a touch of luxury mixed together in specific proportions. Whether you’d want one over the other really depends on whether this or that knob is dialed just a little bit to the left or right, so to speak, in the formula. They’re obviously not for guys for whom the “performance knob” is cranked all the way to 11. :)

  2. John D says:

    PS Is it just me or does the 8 series look just like a Supra MKIII but better? Aside from being a hatch and the c-pillar they look identical to me. Well, as similar as a European sports car and Japanese muscle car can look, that is…

  3. K Fox says:

    This one is easy – 850CSi all the way. Neither of these cars is a track/canyon terror like a proper lightweight sports car will be, so it’s about the presence they present. And the big Bimmer wins hands down, inside or out. Plus, you spec’d the manual model, which is a big plus (at least to me). Sure you can get more power from a swapped SC300 (there are vids on youtube of one with just under 900whp before nitrous), but that wasn’t the only point of this discussion, was it?

    K Fox (now looking at E31’s I can’t really afford)

    • Matt says:

      I don’t know that an actual 850CSi would be directly comparable to any flavor of Lexus SC. At that exclusivity and price point you’re really comparing apples to oranges.

      Totally understand where you’re coming from with the E31, though. The thing I can’t get over is the weight. I mean, did they really have to make it weigh that much? It’s insane.

      • K Fox says:

        Yeah, I realized shortly after posting that I included the S that you didn’t…but there’s no edit option. :p That said, i still want a manual 850 – sure it’s heavy, but that just means it’s more solid on the highway at speed. It’ll feel more substantial, more secure for the weight. And if you really wanted, you could put the car on a diet – carbon fiber parts can shed weight after more normal reductions are finished. I wonder how far you could go if you wanted…

        K Fox (waiting to have a garage to start making carbon fiber parts for the cars I already own)

  4. Tyler says:

    I’ve been thinking about building an e31 with a ls1 6 speed combo.

    Money no object, the 8 series all day, but in the real world i’d have to go with the toyota.

  5. Dan says:

    You gotta ask yourself, Do ya feel lucky, PUNK? If you want the car to actually run, get the Toyota. and, its lighter.

Leave a Reply to Dan