Not all BMWs are created equal, and the E36 is certainly no exception. BMW has built some amazing cars over the years, but it has also had some duds. How does the BMW E36 stack up to other 3 Series generations such as the E30, E46, and E90?
The BMW E36 is one of the best-built vehicles to ever come out of BMW’s lineup. The BMW E36 is reliable, beautiful, affordable, and the handling is impeccable.
But there is a lot more to the BMW E36 that can’t be summed up in two sentences. In this article, you will learn about my personal experience owning several BMW E36s over the course of ten years. I will discuss the many advantages of owning a BMW E36, and I will also discuss the E36’s weak spots because not even though the E36 is a great car, it’s certainly not perfect.
BMW E36 Background
The E36 is a 3 Series BMW which produced from 1990-1999, and was a huge hit when it arrived in the U.S. The BMW 3 Series has long served as a benchmark for entry-level luxury vehicles and the E36 is no exception. It was practically the defining executive car during the 1990s. It is now in its mid-20’s and remains universally recognized by BMW enthusiasts as one of the best series BMW has ever created. Although this generation was not all that sought after a few years ago, times have changed and demand for the E36 has increased astronomically over the past few years.
The E36 was available in a variety of styles and motors depending on preference. The E36 came in a 4 door, 2 door, hatchback, and my favorite… a convertible! The E36 came in a variety of motors. Whether you are looking for a smaller 4 cylinder 318i or a larger inline 6 they will all put a smile on your face.
The E36 was solely available in rear wheel drive, and they could be purchased with a standard or automatic transmission. My how things have changed, BMW makes front wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles. Astoundingly, BMW has announced that it is doing away with the standard transmission option and the newest 3 Series is only available in automatic.
So What is Special About BMW E36s?
I have personally owned two E36’s, my very first car was a 318i, and my current daily driver is a 328i. I have been in love with the E36 Series since I bought my 318i. One of my brother’s also has a 318i and my other one has a 325i. It is a little scary honestly how much we like these cars, but I personally think they represent the best generation of BMW ingenuity.
When it comes to handling, these vehicles are impressive to say the least. BMW 3 Series models in general are highly rated for handling, but I believe that the E36 takes the cake within the 3 Series. The E36 was a major update from the E30 in terms of handling and suspension because of the Z-axle innovation. The Z-axle was a new independent rear suspension which improved the riding experience and cornering ability of the E36. The suspension was multi-link, and resulted in the tire’s maintaining better contact with the road.
Styling is extremely subjective depending on who you talk to. The E36 is often called a “dolphin-shaped” design, and it falls in-between the boxy E30 and the modern sleek sports sedans of the 21st century. I personally really like the style, and I appreciate it even more when I take a look at the designs that BMW has been coming out with lately.
Although, the E36 is certainly not the fastest car, it does have plenty of power for daily city driving, and the handling more than makes up for it. If owners want to get a little more horsepower out of their E36, I would highly suggest looking into the M3. The E36 M3 was available in a 3.2 litre motor, and an upgraded sports suspension.
On the other end if you are looking for a highway car I would stick away from the 318i. It makes a great city driver as you will be more than happy with your gas bill, but it just does not have the power to be much of a highway car.
The fuel mileage varies depending on what size engine you get, but overall the E36 is no gas guzzler. It’s definitely not a four-cylinder Honda, but neither is the E36 a V8 Chevy. My 328i averages about 26 MPG between highway and city driving. Smaller engines such as the 318i get even better gas mileage.
Perfect Combination Between Luxury & Affordability
Many enthusiasts argue that the 90s was the golden age of vehicles like the BMW, because it was a perfect combination between better luxury electronics, but they were not too frustrating to work on that you would send the car to the mechanic every time.
The great thing about the E36 is that these cars are beautiful inside and out, and you can fix them yourself. Post-E36 series BMWs get less and less friendly toward the home mechanic. It seems like every year BMW is throwing another sensor into its vehicles and making it more difficult for DIYers to maintain their cars. BMWs in recent years have really become a rich man’s car, because the expensive maintenance in my opinion has pushed the DIYer out.
The biggest negatives typically associated with BMW is the high dollar tag price, and the cost of maintenance. No need to break the bank on this generation however, as a quick search in your local area will reveal these gems at a typical price tag of under $4500. At 26 years old these vehicles will soon be considered collectible classics, yet they can still be had at discount prices.
I have personally been maintaining these vehicles for years and can honestly say that they are inexpensive to maintain, especially for someone with a little mechanical knowledge. Although BMWs have been getting more and more expensive in terms of maintenance in recent years, the E36 is very manageable.
There are a few issues however, that are unique to the E36 that you should be aware of.
The coolant systems on these vehicles are somewhat infamous because of all the plastic components. I strongly suggest that you perform a coolant rebuild every 80-100,000 miles as preventive maintenance.
A suspension rebuild is guaranteed if you own an E36. Every E36 I’ve owned needed struts, shocks, sway bars, and tie rods right out of the gate. Honestly, I cannot even blame E36 for the suspension issues, any old sports sedan will need it’s fair share of suspension repairs. Just be aware that if it has not been done it will need to be, and it can cost several thousand dollars for a mechanic to replace struts, shocks, and other suspension components.
These vehicles don’t need the kind of maintenance that today’s high tech performance vehicles need, however they certainly require more maintenance than a Honda or Toyota.
The other issue I sometimes have with these vehicles is finding parts. I mention this in passing, because it is fairly common knowledge that import vehicles are tougher to find parts for. Especially ones that are more than twenty years old.
Although it may appear that parts for an E36 are more expensive than other cars, this is not always accurate. Why? Well, I personally buy almost all my parts online from rockauto, bavarian auto, or amazon. Yes, parts are more expensive if you purchase them from your local O’Reillys, this is why I tell everyone to just get the part number from your local auto parts store and cross-reference it online.
Where To Find a BMW E36 & How Much to Pay
The E36 is definitely a middle aged car at this point and with that in mind you should take a few precautions when on the hunt for one. When I’m in the market for an E36 I usually have the most luck on Craigslist, but always be wary of cars that have been poorly maintained. At this point in their lifetime a poorly maintained model will stick out like a sore thumb. Anyone asking less than $3000 for one probably realizes there is something wrong with the car.
These are great cars, but if you buy a POS, than expect to spend a lot of time and money on fixing the vehicle up. Personally, I prefer to buy an otherwise good example, but with one or two “serious problems” that I have already fixed before.
Typically E36s in good condition with lower mileage will be $4,000+ , but this can vary wildly given the area. Expect a completely different price range if your in the market for an M3, as they have shot into the stratosphere over the last five years.
If you are in the market for specifically an E36 M3, expect to pay closer to $8-$10k for a solid example. Before everyone got excited about these vehicles I used to find them for less than $4k, but unfortunately those days are gone.
It’s difficult for me to actually find a bad thing to say about these vehicles. I have owned several other cars and several other BMWs, and the E36 Generation is my favorite, hands down. At the end of the day the E36 BMW isn’t the fastest car, and it’s not the most expensive either, but it will give you one of the most enjoyable driving experiences you have ever had. My 328i only has 130k on it now, and I intend on driving it for many years to come.