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Underpowered but inexpensive

BMW 316i (E36) - 1994

02/08/2013 06:05 |  Comments: 


As typical of a long-serving automotive journalist he worked at nearly all of the major printed automotive magazines in Hungary before ending up on the internet. More of the new cartester type, he’s also an automotive engineer by profession. Although he’s the editor in chief
of the mother magazine,, he loves doubling as a photographer – we sometimes
think he made a mistake when choosing titles. Has a wife and a small daughter.

We test drove a BMW 316i, the lowliest of all 3 series. You can get them as cheap as €1500 locally; and they cost a whole lot less back in their homeland of Germany

In case you are having a trouble specifying „a whole lot less”, let me just say that this specific BMW was bought for €470 but a friend picked up another one in Germany for a mere €100 and drove it back home a thousand kilometres because it was still roadworthy. Let's just stop right here for a moment though. Before you'd think you've hit the jackpot, rest assured that these are vehicles in need of a lot of work. The one with the €100 pricetag, for example, has been through a bad hail storm. Either way, Germans are beginning to discard their E36's simply because they are growing tired of the high taxes they have to pay for such old vehicles. The E6 was manufactured from late 1990 up until 2000. This makes the youngest of the pack a cool twelve years old, while the oldest is over twenty.

Cheap is one thing. Truth is, most of the E36 are in an inexplicably bad shape. For Eastern Europeans with little cash but lots of desire to show off, that means the E36 is a highly preferable vehicle, especially the cheapest, though visually identical 316i. There is a significant influx of this model to the developing region of Europe.

And now, on to maintenance! A vehicle this old and battered needs plenty of attention. The owner of this specific one has another copy of the same model, with a less weathered interior, so he simply transplanted everything into this one – and I mean everything, including all the seats and door panels. The roof upholstery was torn and loose, so that had to go, too. There was no radio in the car but the owner managed to scavenge a factory one. After that the interior was declared fit for use. Even though the E36 has a wheelbase of 2.7 metres, space is limited, there is barely enough room for two in the back. The sedan has a boot of 435 litres which, while not huge, makes the cut, if only barely.

One reason the E36 is not considered a prime choice is that after all these years it no longer ages with dignity. Wheel arches are prone to rust; so are the bottom edge of the doors and the tailgate of station wagon variants. Luckily none of the load bearing structures will likely be corroded unless eventual damages were repaired by a cowboy mechanic. Trouble is, at this age it is more than likely the car has seen a body ironer.

The model has some inherently weak points. The rubber tubing connecting the air mass sensor to the intake system is prone to crack and take in outside air. The specimen we inspected also had a damaged crankcase gas tubing making the idle unstable – luckily replacement cost no more than a few Euros. Soon after this was remedied, the exhaust system gave in, right where the lambda sensor is located. One of the rear wheel hub bearings needed replacement; that was another thousand Euros down the drain at standard parts and workshop costs.

The name 316i actually denotes two different engines within the E36 series. Up until 1993 BMW installed the M40 engine, a 99 PS eight-valve unit, and then the M43, adding 3 PS and 5 Nm. This specific vehicle had an engine of the later type, a timing chain construction. This has always been a dynamically challenged version, best suited to peaceful strolling. If you want anything more you will need the 318i with 16 valves, or any of the inline sixes, 2.0 litres and above. Except, most of these have been driven beyond repair.

Consumption values are not something to make you smile. The German online community Spritmonitor reports an average of 8.18 l/100km, although this may include some of the lighter Compact models. Reported data range between 7.5 and 9.5 l/100km. Use the 316i in the city though and you will see a huge spike in consumption as you can literally hear the pedal hit the metal as you try to make the car go faster. Trust me, it won't. It's a sloth.

And yet it is still a viable alternative for anyone in need of a daily drive with no intention to go fast. However, you may want to reconsider your purchase unless you know your way around cars and are happy to frequently work on them. For someone with an inclination to fix his own car the E36 may in fact be a great choice because there is an abundance of affordable spare parts if you know where to find them – avoid your official distributor and seek out aftermarket suppliers. The E36 is just a whole different experience than a Suzuki Swift: it feels good to drive, however slow it may be. But the final verdict is sobering: the E36 is no longer a car you should buy unless you can maintain it yourself.

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