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BMW E36 Three Series - Guide to Interiors

The E36 was a good deal larger than the E30 and the main beneficiary of this was the interior. Not only was the car a good deal wider but the extra length translated into much better rear legroom. The seats themselves were wider and employed a totally new construction technique.


BMW E36 328i front seats

Half leather sports seats and wood effect trim in my 328i touring.

Up until the E36 all BMWs used a net structure made from spring metal on top of which was padding and the seat fabric. The new seats had a solid plastic base with molded foam padding then the seat fabric or leather. This would have been considerably faster to assemble and offered good support. It didn't breathe as well, especially in leather, but was supportive albeit in a different way to the older seats. Most manufacturers have gone down this route.


BMW E36 interior

Non-sport seats on 1991 318i without airbags.

Front seats could be had in normal or sport versions. The normal seat had a solid base and more open design. The sports seats were reminiscent of the older types with a sliding support for the keen area and much deeper side bolsters to hold the occupant in place. Invariably the side bolsters catch the occupant as they enter and exit the car and wear accordingly. The M3 had the "Vader" seats which are described on the M3 page. Electric adjustment and heating were both options but aren't common. A leather centre armrest was a fairly common option on later cars.


BMW E36 rear seat

Standard rear saloon seats with arm rest and cup holders.

The standard saloon rear seat had a folding centre armrest and a centre lap belt for a fifth passenger. An optional ski hatch could be installed behind the armrest. The main seat belts worked in the opposite direction from other cars, they came out from the top centre and plugged in on the outside edge of the seat. The arrangement held the occupants in place better during a collision and so far as I know was a first for the E36. The coupe had similar seat belts but the rear seat folder in a 50/50 split to make a useful extension to the boot space. This meant that coupes had no centre arm rest. Normally saloons had a solid steel bulkhead behind the rear seat but folding seats were an option. Rear head restraints were standard in tourings but optional in all other models.


BMW E36 folding rear seat

Optional folding rear seats on a 1997 saloon.

Early seat fabrics wore better than the standard fabric used on the E30 but not by much. I had to replace the fabric on my 1993 car after only a few years due to premature wear. The 1995 facelift saw a new fabric with more of a velour texture and it lasted a good deal better. The leather was always a good grade and well stitched. Later special editions, mainly Compacts, had mildly garish custom fabrics which seem to last very well. It's worth mentioning that German taste in colour schemes is a bit louder than ours, some of the combinations on offer would have been more at home in the 1970s. Dashboards and door cards came in several colours to complement the rest of the decor.

The quality of materials used on the dash and centre console were good but there were early teething problems especially with the glove box and centre vents. Cars with a passenger airbag had a completely different moulding and are easily spotted. When the M3 Evo was released it came with wood effect trim for the centre console and door handles, it wasn't badly done but it didn't really seem to go with the rest of the car. My second 328i had it and it wasn't uncommon on later cars.


BMW E36 compact dashboard

Different centre console used in the Compacts.

An analogue clock with adjacent coin tray was the standard fare for owners on a budget but there were two upgrade options, just like the E30. My first E36 had a digital clock and external temperature sensor but the full OBC (onboard computer) was the thing to have. The OBC could tell you the average speed, economy, bleep at you if you exceeded a preset speed and had a nice mileage countdown and estimated arrival time function for long journeys (something I miss on my E46).


BMW E36 M3 dashboard

M3 dashboard with red needles. OBC and later heater controls.

Airbags were optional on early cars even for the driver, my '93 didn't have one. They seem to have become standard in the UK around the 1995 facelift but passenger airbags were always technically an option although it's rare to find a post '97 car without one. Early airbag steering wheels have an all black cover with an embossed BMW logo in place of the usual colour badge. They look fairly nasty although in an accident I'm sure that would be the last thing on the driver's mind (literally!). Seatbelt pre-tensioners were standard equipment after around 1997.

Coupes had opening rear windows which unlike the later E46 were almost always manual rather than electric. They were hinged at the front and had a clip at the back similar to the optional E30 design. On mine the rubber tended to warp and buckle up leading to the occasional water leak so I had to open the windows and push the rubber back once a month or so.


BMW E36 M3 interior

Cloth interior on an early M3 Coupe.

E36s were a good deal quieter inside than E30s due to better aerodynamics and more effective sound deadening. The first time I drove Coupe after being used to my E30 I couldn't get over how close the sun visors were to my head due to the lower roof line and more raked windscreen. They felt far more modern inside and were a very comfortable place to be on a long drive. Controls fell easily to hand and the ergonomics were excellent.

Air conditioning was very rare on early UK cars as it was exceedingly expensive. The control panel is totally different to the later cars with their digital display (which failed a lot). Cars with the digital display also had dual heater control valves to allow driver and passenger to set their own temperature preferences. BMW had traditionally used three sliders for top, mid and foot level vent control but the E36 saw the end of that with a rotary knob replacing them.

Most E36s had a metal sunroof which could be tilted or fully opened. I believe they were all electrically operated as I've never seen a manual one. They tend to be very reliable but by now some grease in the runners wouldn't hurt, be careful though the mechanism has very sharp edges below the cover. In the final year or two a higher numbers of cars were given aircon instead of a sunroof. Manufacturers don't like sunroofs as they're time consuming to fit on the production line. I believe the cost was 850 pounds as they were always officially an option.


BMW E36 boot

Generously large boot in a 318iS coupe.

Saloons and coupes had a generously large boot with a good sized opening and a much lower lip than the E30. Due to the slant of the rear window the boot was deceptive in size as the top of the lid was fairly short. On four cylinder cars there was an oddments tray on the right hand side but six cylinder cars placed a rear mounted battery in that location. The storage compartment on the other side housed the CD multi-changer. A boot lid mounted tool kit was fitted as expected but had slightly less in the way of tools than before. Tourings had a tool roll instead.


BMW E36 tool kit

The standard tool kit.