1996 BMW 328i & 1995 BMW 320i Touring. Click image to enlarge
Review by Chris Chase
Talk to a BMW fanatic about their favourite cars and you’re bound to hear a bunch of confusing three-digit alphanumeric phrases thrown around. These are the chassis codes (E30, E34 and E60, among many others) used internally by BMW to differentiate the many different generations of its 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 Series models. Among the most commonly known of these chassis codes is E36, the code associated with the third generation of BMW’s 3 Series, a line of compact sedans, coupes and convertibles that had been enthralling automotive enthusiasts and journalists alike since the first 3 Series was launched in 1975.
The E36 first appeared in BMW’s line-up in 1992. For that first year, the 3-series was only available as a 325i – built on the new platform – or as a 318i or 325i convertible built on the previous generation E30 platform. The rest of the E36 line – an all-new 325i droptop, 318i and 320i sedans, 318iS and 325iS coupes and the mighty M3 – arrived the following year. In 1995, a budget-Bimmer 318ti hatchback was added and in 1996 325i models became the 328i thanks to a slightly larger six-cylinder engine and the 320i, with it’s 2.0-litre six-cylinder engine, was dropped. In 1998, the 323i was added, using the 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine and slotting in below the 328i models. In 1999, the E36 was sold in hatchback, coupe (M3 and otherwise) and convertible forms and an all-new sedan – this one based on the E46 platform – arrived, marking the end of the E36 3 Series.
Like all BMWs, the E36 3 Series benefited from the stout construction and mechanical components that had come to define previous versions of these German cars. The E36’s looks were also a bit of a departure what with the cars’ high beltline and rear deck and fared-in headlights. The E36 not only looked more substantial; it was significantly bigger, gaining width, length and height, and gaining weight too. Some enthusiasts panned the E36 back in 1992 for its increased size and many BMW afficionados today still prefer the previous generation E30 model for its simpler looks and more compact dimensions.
Consumer Reports’ reliability used-car reliability ratings only go back as far as 1997, so getting an accurate feel for how these cars have held up can be difficult. CR gives 1997 to 1999 models an average reliability rating and notes electrical components can be problematic as can the cooling system (there’s at least one recall related to this) and air conditioning system become common trouble spots as these cars age. Even if reliability isn’t as strong as it could be, many owners of these cars will tell you that the occasional hiccup is more than made up for by the high levels of refinement, handling and roadholding that these cars offer.
You won’t find much in the way of crash test results for the E36, but ABS and dual airbags were standard equipment from the start. Traction control became an option on sedans, coupes and convertibles a few years into the E36’s production run and became a standard feature on all E36s in 1998, as did front-seat side airbags.
While fuel economy isn’t likely to be a main priority for most BMW shoppers, 3-series fuel consumption is reasonable. According to Natural Resources Canada, early six-cylinder models will use about 13 L/100 km in the city and just over 8 L/100 km on the highway. The ratings improve as you move into the later years of E36 production with a 1998 328i using 12 L/100 km in the city and 7.5 L/100 km on the highway.
BMWs hold value very well, so don’t expect to find many deals. That said, about $10,000 will get you a 1995 325i and a 1998 328i is worth just under $14,000, according to Canadian Red Book. Those selling extremely well-maintained, rust-free examples may ask for more, but that doesn’t mean the car is necessarily worth it. If an E36 is to be your first BMW, get any potential purchase inspected by a shop specializing in BMWs. Also, take a look at some of the BMW forums listed at then end of this article. Spending some time browsing may offer some insight into what the E36’s most common problems are and how to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.
Whether paying $10,000 for a car that’s a decade old is worth it is a choice only you can make. While the same money will buy a much newer Honda or Toyota, for example, few cars can offer the driving experience that even a 10-year-old Bimmer will. While these well-built cars are not without faults, a well-cared-for E36 is a cost-effective choice for an enthusiast looking for a truly gratifying driving experience.
www.bimmerforums.com – this is one of the most comprehensive BMW enthusiast sites on the web. With close the 50,000 members, the forums here are a veritable encyclopedia of BMW knowledge with sections dedicated to the company’s many models, past and present. Membership is free.
www.dtmpower.net – DTMPower calls itself “the future of BMW tuning.” As such, it caters to BMW owners interested in modifying their cars, of which there are apparently many: more than 50,000 members call this site home. Like BimmerForums, this site’s discussion area is split up into sections for each BMW model, plus sections dedicated to other car-related talk. Membership is free.
www.mwerks.com – The membership statistics for Mwerks.com are deceiving, listing more than 200,000 members. This site is run by Vortex Media Group, which also manages VWVortex.com, a huge Volkswagen enthusiast community. Mwerks.com is actually one of the lesser-populated sites in the Vortex empire, but a free membership here also gets you access to The Car Lounge, a very active general automotive interest community that’s full of knowledgeable members.
forum.roadfly.com/forums/76-BMW-3-Series-Forum-(E36) – this rather cumbersome URL takes you to RoadFly.org’s E36 discussion forum, one of many run by this site. The layout is simple, and the forums use an antiquated style of displaying member’s posts and threads, but there’s lots of information here. Membership is free.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998197; Units affected: 22,752
1992-1995: Failure of a cooling system component such as thermostat, water pump or fan belt can result in a significant increase in coolant temperature and system pressure. Increased system pressure could result the formation of a crack or separation of a seam in the heater core end piece which would cause hot coolant to be expelled from the heater core. This hot fluid could contact car occupants resulting in possible personal injury and/or fogging of the interior window surfaces. Correction: radiator cap will be replaced with a new design cap in order to avoid build-up of excessive pressure in the cooling system. Related recall: Number 1993100
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1994096; Units affected: 10,661
1989-1993: The fuel feed hose could harden and “set” over time due to engine compartment temperatures. If this “setting” occurs, it is possible that seepage between the hose and fitting could result because the clamp cannot provide sufficient sealing force to compensate for the hardening of the hose. Fuel seepage, in the presence of an ignition source, could result in an engine compartment fire. Correction: fuel feed hoses and associated clamps will be replaced with ones of a new design. Related recall: Number 1994096
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1991163; Units affected: 2,040
1991: At temperatures below -10 degrees centigrade with the engine partially or completely warmed up, condensation from the crankcase ventilation system may freeze at the throttle housing and prevent the throttle plate from fully closing when the accelerator pedal is released. This could result in a slow rate of deceleration from speed or increased idle speed both of which may adversely affect vehicle control. Correction: throttle housing will be replaced with a version containing a modified heating system and the crankcase vent will be rerouted. Related recall: Number 1994115
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1991110; Units affected: 63
1991: In vehicles equipped with an airbag, the knee bolster may interfere with the lower steering column trim cover during a frontal impact. This may prevent the steering column from moving forward as designed, thus increasing the risk of driver injury. Correction: the knee bolster will be modified.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1996158; Units affected: 2,617
1992: The locking tab for the airbag contact ring in the steering wheel assembly could break without warning. If this happens it is possible that the contact ring wiring could break. This would cause the readiness indicator lamp (“SRS” or “Airbag”) to illuminate and in such a case the airbag would not be available for deployment in a frontal impact. Correction: locking tab will be replaced with one of a different design. Related recall: Number 1996159
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1995115; Units affected: 314
1994-1995: Defect: these vehicles do not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 110- Tire Selection and Rims. There is an overstatement of the vehicle capacity weight and designated seating capacity on the tire information placard. Correction: a revised placard will be placed over the existing placard.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1997173; Units affected: 17,879
1994-1997: The cruise control and throttle cable are attached to the same throttle valve actuating lever at the throttle housing. It is possible that the plastic bushing on either cable could break causing the outer cable housing to separate from the bushing. Throttle pedal application without cruise control engagement could cause the outer tube to catch on the edge of the broken bushing resulting in the throttle valve remaining partially open. If this were to occur, the car might not decelerate as expected and a crash could occur. Correction: a spring clip will be installed on the outer tube of each cable to prevent dislodgment from the bushing.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1993014; Units affected: 39
1991: The windshield wiper switch ground screw, which also secures the wiper switch on one side, may loosen, causing erratic wiper/washer operation. This could result in impaired driver vision during inclement weather conditions. Correction: windshield wiper switch ground wire attachment will be relocated on affected vehicles.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 1996158; Units affected: 9,290
1992-1994: The brake light switch may fail due to a reduction of contact force on the “snap contact” system which the switch incorporates. This could cause heat induced distortion of the plastic internal switch parts in the area of the electrical contacts. This could cause the switch to remain either in the “on” or the “off” position resulting in the brake lights being continuously illuminated or inoperative regardless of brake pedal operation. Correction: switch will be replaced with one that utilizes a different contact system.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.