Overshadowed by both its predecessor and successor, the 1990 E36 generation BMW 3 Series celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year, but will anyone turn up for the party?
By the late 1980’s, the E30 generation 3-Series, although still popular and well liked, was beginning to look (and feel) distinctly old fashioned. The E30 had been in production since 1982 and was, stylistically, a careful update of the 1975 E21 original. The 1986 E32 7 Series and 1988 E34 5 Series had introduced a new and more dynamic style for BMW. It was time for the 3 Series to follow suit.
The E36 was launched in October 1990 in four-door saloon form, followed shortly by a two-door coupé version. The design was credited to Pinky Lai and Boyke Boyer. The coupé represented a break with 3 Series tradition for BMW: the E30 two-door was a saloon that shared its profile and most body panels with its four-door sibling, while the E21 was produced in two-door saloon* form only.
With the E36, the saloon and coupé shared no external body panels. The saloon’s doors were one-piece pressings incorporating window frames that covered the A-pillars and concealed the roof drip-rails. The coupé instead employed frameless door glasses. Even items one might expect to be readily shared, for example the bonnet, front wings and tail lights, were unique to each version.
Drivetrains were mainly familiar BMW fare. The 1.6 and 1.9 litre SOHC four-cylinder engines were carried over from the outgoing E30, while new 2.0 and 2.5 litre DOHC straight-six units were introduced. One innovation was the new Z Axle multi-link rear suspension. This was taken from the Z1 and was intended to tame the E30’s sometimes wayward semi-trailing arm rear end when driven hard on twisting roads.
One controversial feature of the saloon at launch was the unpainted grey plastic bumpers. BMW argued that this was done to facilitate easier recycling, but customers regarded them as cheap-looking and unworthy of a ‘premium’ car. When the coupé was launched, it was fitted with body-coloured bumpers as standard and the saloon quickly followed suit.
It was three years before a convertible, based on the coupé bodyshell, joined the range, so the E30 convertible remained in production until 1993. A five-door Touring estate and truncated three-door Compact hatchback were launched a year later. The Compact became the entry-level model to the 3 Series range and reverted to the E30’s more compact rear suspension to save space (and cost).
Once some early quality issues had been resolved, the E36 became the default choice in the compact premium segment, easily outselling its Audi 80/A4 and Mercedes-Benz 190/C-Class rivals. Class-leading handling and a wide range of engines, including a 2.5 litre straight-six diesel for high mileage and company car drivers meant there was a 3-series for most budgets. That said, the four-cylinder models, including a 1.8 litre diesel from 1994, were more show than go. It is little wonder that the no-cost ‘de-badge’ option was so popular on the smaller engined versions.
A range topping M3 variant of the coupé was launched in November 1992, followed by convertible and saloon versions in 1994. Unlike its E30 predecessor, the new M3 used the standard car’s bodywork. The engine was a 3.0 litre 286bhp DOHC straight-six, enlarged to 3.2 litres and 316bhp when the car was facelifted in late 1995. At this time, the option of automatic transmission was offered for the first time on an M3. BMW even built a one-off prototype M3 Compact in 1996 but did not put it into production, possibly concerned about its potentially wayward handling with all that power and the light rear end.
The E36 received engine upgrades and a modest facelift in 1995. Facelifted cars are recognisable by their clear rather than orange indicator lenses front and rear. Over its ten-year lifespan, a total of around 2.76** million E36 models were produced, of which 1.55 million were saloons. 1.5 million E36 models were sold in Europe and a further 0.5 million in the US.
The E36 platform also formed the basis of the Z3 Roadster, launched in 1995. Like the Compact, this employed the semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the E30. The smaller 1.8 and 1.9 litre four-cylinder versions were underpowered and underwhelming, with a 0 to 100km/h (62mph) time of around 10 seconds, while the 2.8 and 3.0 litre six-cylinder versions were fast but a bit of a handful, thanks to the relatively primitive rear suspension and inadequate body stiffness. The Z3 was the first BMW to be built solely in the US and early models suffered some quality issues.
A team of BMW engineers working in their own time developed a coupé version of the Z3 with an unusual ‘shooting brake’ profile, which was launched in 1998. This had much greater torsional stiffness, about 2.7 times that of the roadster, so its handling was considerably improved. The coupé was only offered with the six-cylinder engines and formed the basis for the Z3M. A total of around 280,000 Z3 models were sold between 1995 and 2002.
So, thirty years after its launch, how is the E36 now remembered and regarded? Sadly, I think it currently occupies the dusty wasteland that lies between classic and contemporary cars. Most surviving E30s are likely to have been either meticulously cared for or fully restored and the shape is recognisably ‘classic’, whereas the E46 successor to the E36 still looks attractive and modern, at least to those uninterested in cars.
The sheer ubiquity and reliability of the E36 means that there is still a fair number of well used examples on the road. A brief trawl on Autotrader reveals a price range of £500 to £10k, the latter being for exceptionally low mileage examples in pristine condition. By way of comparison, E30 models range in price from £4k to £20k, but the better examples typically cost from £10k. Maybe the E36’s day will come, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.
* German coachbuilder Baur modified the saloon bodywork to produce slightly ungainly two-door cabriolet versions of both the E21 and E30, and a four-door cabriolet version of the E36.
** All production data from http://www.e38.org/BMWProductionData.pdf