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//M Car



BMW E36 Three Series Model Range


On the surface the E36 changed less during it's 13 year run than any previous BMW. The facelift was subtle and only a BMW nerd such as myself would spot the differences. The real changes came under the skin as the model evolved. .

Unlike today the launch saloon had to wait around 18 months for the coupe to join the family and three years for the touring and cabriolet. During this period the E30 versions were still sold, a fact made more remarkable as they retained their M20 12 valve engines whilst the E36 always had the M50/M52 series 24 valve units. The power difference was remarkable between the 316i which struggled to make 100bhp and the brutal 321bhp of the M3 Evo. This showed just how capable the basic E36 chassis was as all models shared the same basic suspension components and systems design.


BMW E36 325i saloon

Early US 325i without colour coded sills.

The Facelift

Early cars were sold with a dull gray underseal coating the sills and a matching flat paint on the lower bumpers. Many owners, myself included, had this colour coded as soon as possible. The grey didn't age well and was hard to colour match for touch ups. In addition all pre-facelift cars had 15x7" alloys or steel wheels usually with 205 tyres. The one concession to an upgrade were the rather ungainly 15x8" cross spokes available on the 325i with 225 tyres.

The model was thought to have been slightly rushed into production and the one area this showed was in the interior. The plastics could have been of higher quality, could have fitted better and rattled less. They would have been fine for other brands but were slightly below BMW quality. The seat fabric wore badly, no lesson had been learned from the E30 in that regard.

The 1995 facelift remedied these shortcomings and completely revised the electrical system. The older cars used discrete relays to control systems whereas the new version set the tone for future BMWs by using plug in modules and a simplified wiring harness. These cars also had the M52 six cylinder or M43 / M44 four cylinder engines.

A third brake light was finally fitted and the steering wheel design was updated, airbags were now standard (my '93 didn't have one). The revised kidney grills didn't appear until 1997 two years after the other changes. Depending on model the process was one of evolution over time.

16" wheels became a factory option when the 328i was launched and were eventually standard on some models. 17" were always fitted to the M3 and the 328i Sport but never to other cars as standard equipment.

The M3 had revised bumpers and plastic sill covers. After a few years versions of these appeared for non-M E36s but were always subtly different from the real //M parts.


BMW E36 316i baur cabriolet

Rare 316i saloon Baur cabriolet.


The 316i was the baby of the range. I don't use the term economy model as you had to rev the poor thing so hard it could use more fuel than a larger engined car. 316i's Initially used the M40 engine from the E30 but in 1995 the much improved M43 replaced it. The M43 had the advantage of a timing chain rather than a belt, one coil per cylinder and the fact it didn't sound like a damaged sewing machine when revved.

When the 318ti and it's M44 engine were discontinued the surviving 316i Compact got the 1.9 litre M43. Whilst not a patch on the M44 the M43TU was nevertheless helpful to the final Compacts. None of these were sold in the USA.


BMW E36 318i SE black

1997 318i SE saloon.


As was the case with the 316i the 318i used the M40 engine until the arrival of the M43. It used the same rear drum brakes but was blessed with a rear anti-roll bar which improved the handling no end. The car was usably faster than the 316i but was still a disappointment. In particular the M40 powered cars should be avoided.

American and South African cars always had the excellent 16 valve engine used in the 318iS coupe and were a much better drive as a result. Owing to the introduction of the E46 the final year of UK 318i saloons had the sixteen valve engine because they were built in South Africa.


BMW E36 318iS coupe

Late model 318iS coupe.


The 318iS coupe was a fine car but not the great one it should have been. In 1989 BMW launched the E30 318iS with it's superb M42 16 valve engine. This was on a different planet to the 8 valve M40 where performance and technology were concerned and in the light E30 it was an utter joy. That's why I've owned three and can't wait for summer to come every year so I can take mine out of the garage. But the E36 was 120kg heavier and that really killed the buzz, it was OK but some of the fun had gone.

Now don't get me wrong I really like the 318iS, but the fact is that on the E30 BMW strangled the M42 down to about 140bhp so as not to compete with the more expensive 320i M20 (which made 129). A well tuned and very slightly modified M42 can easily made going on for 160bhp with lots more potential. Had BMW expanded the M42 to a two litre and unleashed the engineers on it 170bhp would have been possible and the 318iS would have been a superb coupe. For the record Alpina, Schnitzer and Hartge all did 2.1 M44s with 170+ bhp but they were marketed for the Z3 which at launch time only had the M44 and no six cylinder version.

The M44 brought the engine up to 1.9 but the car was still called the 318iS, power was unchanged but there was more torque and a different final drive ratio. M44 cars can be spotted as they have a hot film meter instead of an airflow meter with a flap.

The 318iS came with firmer suspension which was better than the saloon but not quite stiff enough to be called sporty in my opinion. It rode well though and was a fine drive. It gained rear disc brakes and vented front discs which were excellent in operation and a vast improvement on the E30. Early cars had 15" minilite style wheels which I always liked.

Final 1999 cars were sold with either the //M-Tech body pack or with leather seats and more extras as a lux version.


BMW E36 318ti compact red

318ti Compact with //M-Tech body pack.


The hatchback E36 has it's own dedicated page.


BMW E36 318tds

318tds saloon with non-body colour sills.


The 318tds was introduced half way through the life of the E36 using the M41 turbo diesel engine with intercooler. The M41 displaced 1.7 litres and was basically two third of the M51 six cylinder diesel. It was a good engine and when compared to rival four cylinder units of the time was both refined and powerful. It could be had as a saloon, touring or compact and the compact in particular sold well in the UK.

These were not normally well equipped cars as they were sold to company car buyers at the less expensive end of the market.


BMW E36 320i cabriolet

1996 320i cabriolet.


At launch the 320i used the excellent M50 24 valve engine with 150bhp, 20 more than the E30 320i. It was an excellent seller in the UK and europe but never made it across the Atlantic. Like all the six cylinder E36s it had rear disc brakes and vented front discs. The performance was acceptable rather than fast but was very refined and torquey. Most two litre rivals were four cylinder models and against these the 320i shone.

Basic equipment didn't even include electric rear windows but a surprising number of cars ticked the options boxes to price the price to that of a stripped 325i.

The M50 became the M50TU in late 1993 with VANOS and more mid range torque and then the M52 in 1995 but all made the same 150bhp.


BMW E36 323i touring

323i touring with //M-Tech body pack.


The 1995 onwards 323i filled the gap between the 320i and 328i after the demise of the 325i. The 323i was a 2.5 litre M52 (M52TU in 1998) but it only made 170bhp, 22 less than the M50 2.5. The engine was designed for mid range torque and it's power band was lower in the rev range where BMW believed "normal driving" happened. It shared the same restrictive intake manifold as the 2.8 but this was less of an issue on a 2.5.

In the later years six cylinder E36s tended to come better equipped so a 323i is unlikely to be poverty spec. In fact many had leather, a/c and the Motorsport body pack.

This car had the same 2.93:1 final drive as the 328i, fine for economy but an easier ratio would have helped it become a bit sportier. It's not a slow car by any means and is a decent option if you find one in good condition, but the 328i remains the one to have.


Sadly never sold in the UK or USA this compact has a 2.5 M52. It has it's own dedicated page.


BMW E36 325i saloon

Early 325i saloon.


At launch in 1991 this was the car to have. The M50 engine was ahead of it's time when compared to the competition and was a very advanced unit. It had twin cams and one coil per cylinder with a decent computer controlling the whole thing. 192bhp was class leading by a good margin and the thing just loved to rev. The 325i was a truly sporting drive with an excellent engine and a chassis to match. This time even the brakes were up to the job and most were sold with a decent set of extras. A well equipped 325i coupe topped 31,000 pounds which was a heck of a lot of money in the early 90s.

The M50TU came along in 1993 with single VANOS and a bit more torque but it wasn't a huge upgrade, just incremental progress. 325i's were always superb cars and are still desirable today, the problem is you won't find one. Early E36s were BMW's experiment with water based paint, it was OK but just not quite as durable as it later became. This meant early E36s rusted a little easier and then there was the slightly lower interior quality. The 328i came along and it became the E36 to have. Folk forget the early 90s were a time of economic recession so fewer 325i's were sold than you might imagine. All this coupled means that a 325i in good condition is a very rare thing today, you'll find twenty 328i's before you see a roadworthy 325i.

US buyers should know that whilst all automatic euro E36's had the five speed A5S transmission US 325i's had the four speed A4S.


BMW E36 325tds saloon

French 325tds saloon.


The six cylinder diesel M51 engine was an ideal partner for the E36 and was light years ahead of the competition. This was BMW's first performance diesel, perhaps any company's first in fact. It came with (tds) or without (td) an intercooler and in the UK most cars were the tds specification. The intercooler increased power by almost 30bhp and it's crazy not to have to have one.

These cars tended not to be poverty spec. models, those on a budget went for the 318tds instead. The six cylinder cars often had more than their fair share of options and were certainly seen as a premium car. You still seem them for sale today often with 200,000 miles or more but it's a durable package and they last well if looked after. These cars very much laid the groundwork for the popular E46 320d and 330d.


BMW E36 328i sport

328i Sport with 17" BBS cross spoke alloys.


Short of an M3 the 328i is the most desirable E36. In fact compared to the full euro M3 some owners prefer it due to lower running costs and cheaper insurance.

The 328i is based on the M52 engine which in most markets had an aluminium block but iron was retained for the USA and some other markets due to the higher sulphur content in their fuel. As was mentioned above for the 323i the M52 was designed with mid-range torque in mind at the expense of top end power. It's intake manifold flows a good deal less then the M50's and some owners have put the older part on to greatly increase power. The M52 2.8 makes the same 192bhp as the M50 2.5, yet the later M54 3.0 makes 231bhp despite being only 200cc larger than the M52. A tuned M52 with an M50 intake makes almost at much as the M54.

The 328i drives very well and does indeed have a lot of mid-range power just as it's designers intended. This makes it a powerful yet relaxed cruiser and an excellent B-road drive. You have to actively try to use the higher end of the rev range as the tall gearing and good low end power delivery make it almost unnecessary. But for those who persist there is power a plenty at higher revs and the car can be a real beast if you choose to use it as such. It revs well but not as well as the later M54.

328i's almost all had a high specification for BMWs of the time. Sunroof and aircon can be found in the vast majority of cars and around half have leather seats. Many were still sold with 15" wheels though, especially tourings.

The 328i Sport had 17" BBS cross spokes and the Motorsport body pack and suspension. Power was the same as a normal 328i and the remaining extras weren't always that generous, not all have an OBC for example but received the digital clock and external temperature sensor instead. The coating on the alloys always lets water in underneath and peels leading to a strip down and refurbish even on fairly new cars.


BMW E36 M3

1994 M3 3.0 Coupe

The M3

M3s have their own dedicated page.