Hindsight: The 1994 BMW 3-series Compact

We have recently discussed BMW’s invasion of the lower end of the market. This is the car that really kicked it off.

1994-2000 BMW 3-series compact: for the same money you could get a loaded Astra, Golf or Escort.
1994-2000 BMW 3-series compact: for the same money you could get a loaded Astra, Golf or Escort.

You don’t really notice these vehicles. They are dissolving into the background of the streetscape like any jaded old Escort or roughed-up, worn out and uncared for Astra or Golf. This one is in BMW’s Ignore Me dark blue. Base-model blue if you like.

The motoring press were in awe of this car when it came out. “A new 3-series for a song,” raved Car magazine in October 1994. They showed the front end of the car which, of course, was identical to the standard 3-series, just as the front end of a Chrysler Sunbeam was much the same as that of the Avenger. However, from the A-pillar back it was cost-cutting and decontenting as far back as the tail-pipe.

The wheelbase remained the same, a telling sign that BMW was going to less trouble with this car than Chrysler did some twenty-five years earlier. As you can see from the photo above (with the benefit of hindsight) it really is two different cars joined together somewhere around the doors. A hatchback with rear-drive looks weird. The residual boot is un-needed and screams prevarication.

In truth, it wasn’t a 3-series at all, but something trading on the name, much as a Rolex with a Swatch mechanism might do. Eventually BMW did things properly and gave the successor its own distinct bodywork and its own series number but for a decade you could get something called a 3-series that was either a stripped-down Golf-competitor or a six-cylinder transcontintental ballistic missile.

"Car" magazine, October 1994.
“Car” magazine, October 1994.

How did BMW shave cost out of their Escort-competitor? They used the semi-trailing arms rear-set up from the previous version of the 3-series. Some of this was needed to allow the seats to pack down as a proper hatchback’s do and also to allow a lower boot floor height. Inside the car the switchgear was of lesser quality to the four-door car and there were fewer toys as standard.

BMW did very well with this car, moving their price range down into the heart of Ford, Opel, Peugeot and VW´s territory. It’s around here that BMW decided that commercial considerations trumped their claim to being a cut-above other makers. It’s quite fine that they want to make money; what’s a tiny bit irritating is that they did so by trading on their name in quite such an egregious fashion.

They did however right some of those wrongs with the 2004 1-series which does honour its hatchy character by having a design that is entirely its own. While at the time (2004) that car unsettled me, today it’s a design that has stood the test of time, one of Chris Bangle’s very nicest “flame surfaced” cars which I particularly enjoying looking at under street lights.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

14 thoughts on “Hindsight: The 1994 BMW 3-series Compact”

  1. The E36 compact is a real fine car while the E46 compact is pretty ugly. His front and tail lights seem to be designed from an indian expert for cheap aftermarket parts….

    1. That sums the E46 Compact up very well. An odd thing, which arrived rather late in the E46 cycle. The Rover-ish look to the front lights seems to be just coincidence.

      166,364 were built, but it still begs the question “What were they thinking?”

      Possibly ‘keeping the seat warm’ for the 1 series,..

  2. Maybe I’m in the minority here but I will never forget the massive disappointment I felt when the (full size) E36 was launched. It was such a let down after the E30. I thought it was bland and soulless even in 2 door format. The compact looked even worse. It was as if they totally gave up at the B pillar. There seem to me to be more E30s left on the road than E36s (This can’t all be explained by poor build quality can it?). Surely the compact (especially the E36) deserves to be in the running for most disappointing Bavarian of the last 40 years? (obviously with strong competition from the 2 series MPV).

    1. I shared your disappointment in the E36 when I saw it on paper – more like a Peugeot or Nissan than a BMW – but the metal reality was far better, even if some of that metal is shockingly thin. BMW chose to position the E36 below the 190E and it’s evident all over. I know this from intimate experience. I kept mine for ten years and 140,000 miles, and in its final months I was teaching my local BMW specialist various ingenious tricks to keep the things alive.

    2. Agreed: at the time I noticed how aggressive it appeared. These days I wrinkle my nose at its cheapness. The coupe is … alright, I suppose. The E36 does one good thing. The rear seat belts clip outboard of the centre, a boon for people with small passengers in child-seats. Why has no-one else done this. I loathe fiddling with a seat-belt trapped under a Romer, one foot in the footwell and one arm gripping the seatback. After 6 years it still enrages me.

  3. I always liked this Compact, while I agree with Markus and Robertas about its successor. Awful.
    The long wheelbase and short overhangs are a big plus in my eyes, and it’s the tail-heavy proportions that make the 1 series so unbearable to me.
    I had an opportunity to drive this car when it was new, and I liked its handling. If you wanted a rear-wheel drive car with sporty attitude for not much money, thanks to the cost-cutting this was quite an unique opportunity at the time.

  4. The 406 was a better car than most of the E36 BMWs. Possibly the same applies to the Primera too. You’d need to go up to the very costly and rather different large-engined models with different suspension for too gain victory – and only a hollow one at that. In May 1997 Car declared the 406 best out of a group with the 3 and Audi A4.

  5. Nobody’s mentioned the ‘new 2002’ journalistic platitude which preceded the Compact’s introduction, and was much used when it finally arrived. I couldn’t see it myself, only the revival of the ‘ti’ suffix hinted at it. If BMW had been serious about channelling the spirit of the -02 cars they would have done things rather differently.

    The Compact and 1 Series timeline is a tale of inconsistencies:

    The E36 Compact was sold in the USA but only ever as a 318ti.
    The E46 Compact was never sold in the USA. Nor have either generation of 1 Series hatchback, although the coupe and convertible were, and likewise the 2 Series coupe and convertible.
    This probably tells us more about the lowly status of small hatchbacks in the USA than about BMW’s US sales strategy.

    Another oddity is doors, Both E36 and E46 Compacts have framed windows, whereas the equivalent coupes have frameless glass – strange that BMW should have seen fit to do the aperture engineering twice over.

    Probably logical enough in terms of framed being the cheaper option.

    However, the three door 1 Series has frameless glass in both generations. Perhaps BMW found out how to do it for less money, after all the MINI has frameless windows too. I think it’s a nice touch, giving a distinctive, upmarket quality to a car which feels all too obviously “value engineered” in other areas.

    1. I remember reading that the Compact was actually based on the body of the 4-door variant, which explains the framed windows. The 3-door cars have their A-pillar moved back and a lower roofline, so interior space may have been too much reduced for a Compact conversion. Probably with the short rear part, also the proportions would have become quite odd.

  6. We should just be thankful that BMW didn’t ‘do a Marina’ and use the same doors on the two door as the four door. Even Triumph did better with the Toledo, which was made in far smaller numbers, and was only member of the Ajax family to have a two door version.

    I was told by someone who knows his Marinas that the money saved on not tooling a longer door and associated aperture paid for tooling the two door Marina’s fastback back end.

    The surviving photos of the early Marina coupe styling buck with the properly proportioned door look far better than the production reality – imagine Viva HB meets Renault 15.

  7. I had an E30 2-door, and test drove an E36 coupe when considering updating. Quite a nice car, but boy, could you feel where the lightness had been added. A colleague had an E36 compact, which she replaced with an E46 compact. I always thought the older car had much more resolved styling. The E46 seemed to be a bit unreliable too. Hers had a major failure at around 110,000km – something to do with a burnt out valve or something – and my uncle’s E46 sedan had a transmission replacement at around 80,000km. This must’ve been the point where the accountants in Munich had gone utterly bananas. Also – Robertas should definitely write an article!!

    1. In hindsight the E46 lacks the gravitas of a BMW – those lights are more Italian in character. Funnily, I have remembered that I did once drive a Compact, an American-spec version. As it was 20 years ago the only thing I can recall were the push-pull light switches, 18 mpg and a sunroof. I drove it horribly quickly and survived.

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