Review and photos by Justin Mastine-Frost
Over the past 5 years it has been made quite clear by the pre-owned market that the BMW E36 coupes, convertibles, and sedans have pretty much reached the bottom of the depreciation curve. The beloved 3 Series iteration that ran from 1992 right through to 1999 is often viewed as one of the more conservative bodystyles the 3er has taken on. On the other hand, that slightly conservative exterior means that their style has aged quite well. When placed side by side it wouldn’t be tough to argue that the Chris Bangle-era 5 Series sedan looks more dated than the E36, which was penned an entire decade earlier.
Style points aside, these cars are becoming cheaper and cheaper to scoop up, and for the most part they are an absolutely great car. I should know, after all I’ve owned 3 different generations of the 3 Series over the last 10 years and I’ll always have a soft spot for the old E36. These cars pack a reasonable amount of power, and their sport-tuned suspension makes them one of the best handling cars of their generation. Add to that their simple yet well finished interiors and there’s no wonder that BMW enthusiasts are still in love with them after more than 20 years on the road.
1996 BMW 328i & 1995 BMW 320i Touring. Click image to enlarge
What to look for
The 3 Series came in a whole slew of shapes and sizes so whether you’re after a safe family sedan or a relatively quick and sporty convertible, your bases are mostly covered. As a general rule the 325is and 328is are the most desirable (unless you’re after an M3) as most came equipped with a limited slip rear differential and stiffer suspension. Both of these inline six-cylinder engines have proved to be somewhat bulletproof over the years, and I’ve seen many an example clock well over 300,000 km without needing an engine rebuild. The best candidates for long-term ownership will be somewhat rust-free, and have somewhere in the ballpark of 120–160,000 km on the odometer.
If you’re erring on the side of economy, the earlier 318i/is can be a solid choice as well. For starters they commonly sell for a fair bit less than their six-pot counterparts, and other than a leaking profile gasket issue that was usually always remedied in the car’s first 5-10 years on the road they can be just as bulletproof as their bigger brothers. Most interestingly the M42 engine in the earlier cars was built with a forged crankshaft and rods which makes it an oddly appealing candidate for a mild turbo or supercharger kit.
As with any car service history is a big deal, particularly anything from BMW. Inspection I and Inspection II services can get really pricey at the dealer level, and quite often pre-owned Bimmer owners start turning to quick Jiffy Lube oil changes rather than looking after their cars properly. Also keep a close eye on the items we list in the Common Problems section to make sure there aren’t any ticking time bombs waiting for you once the current owner hands over the keys.
What to avoid
When checking out a used E36 there are a handful of issues to keep an eye out for.
On the powered-roof convertibles make sure the top opens and closes smoothly, as those motors have a nasty habit of crapping out over time. Upon first inspecting the car try opening and closing the roof before you go for a road test, and a second time afterwards just to be sure. If it moves slowly or seems to struggle through the motions that motor could be on its way out.
With either of the six-cylinder engines make sure you get the chance to fire the engine up when it’s cold. Both of these motors can develop a bit of a ticking noise when cold, which means its self-adjusting hydraulic lifters could be on their way out. This noise will sometimes go away with a fresh oil change, but at least if you hear it on start-up you know the noise is there. The second tell from a cold start is how smoothly the car idles. If there is an erratic idle on cold start the idle air control valve may be sticking and not allowing correct airflow to the engine. This is a relatively cheap fix, but also something a potential seller could try to hide.
As much as the engines of these things hold out exceptionally well, there are a number of key components that do like to fail on a somewhat regular basis. Cooling system components, in particular the expansion tank, radiator, water pump, and fan clutch will all have a limited lifespan on any E36 model, so if any or all of these components have been replaced recently on the car you’re looking at, consider yourself ahead of the game.
On the suspension end of things, lower control arm bushings will wear out and cause a bit of a knock when tapping the brakes at low speeds. They can also cause a bit of a steering wheel shake once you get out on the highway. These are relatively inexpensive to replace. The real interesting failure that some owners never even notice is the collapse of the rear springs. E36 and E46 springs have a tendency to break off the first coil and a half, leaving the rear axle sagging just enough that it looks like the car was slightly lowered. If you’re planning an upgrade to coilovers this won’t be an issue, but have your mechanic have a quick peek in the cradle of the rear springs just in case.
At the time of publication Canada-wide search for E36 3 Series in the $2-7K range came up with a respectable 34 cars via autoTRADER.ca, including a good number of low mileage convertibles for around $6,000. While those seem appealing, be sure to avoid things like high mileage cars with the odometer that stopped, or M3 ‘conversions’. Picking through that list there are clearly more abused examples out there than there are good ones, but there are still some nice examples to be had.
If you do your homework and get your local mechanic to give the car a proper once over you could be driving away in one of the best driver’s cars the 1990s had to offer at a fraction of their original sticker price.