BMW E36s are past the point where a majority of the owners have upgraded or at least thought about upgrading their car. The oldest E36s are now nearly three decades old and there has been a plethora of upgrades and modifications created specifically for this BMW.
The best affordable upgrades on a BMW E36 will cost you no more than $500 apiece (and most substantially less), and focus on the suspension, cooling system, and intake. That way you have an opportunity to upgrade your E36’s performance and increase its reliability.
I have personally purchased all of the affordable BMW E36 upgrades I will discuss below. I have been repairing and modifying BMW E36s for nearly ten years, and I am certain that these E36 upgrades will put a smile on your face and won’t break the bank.
Cold Air Intake
When first diving into the world of performance upgrades I believe it’s best to start with the lowest hanging fruit. A CAI (Cold Air Intake) is my first and most simple recommendation. This is because it’s relatively cheap, it can be had for under $300, although premium brand CAI’s can cost more. With a CAI the biggest thing to remember is that you need to make sure that your intake is actually getting colder air. Don’t try and save a few bucks here by getting an eBay kit that doesn’t come with a heat shield.
I recommend the K&N intake kit, I absolutely love the brand and feel like they make an excellent product. The performance gains are not enormous, depending on the kit you can get up to 5 or 6 horsepower. One of the most enjoyable things you’ll get out of a cold air intake upgrade is the sound. A CAI make a nice roaring sound in the upper rpm range.
But before you go and get a CAI, take a look at the M50 Manifold Conversion!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
M52 to M50 Intake Manifold Conversion
Before you buy a cold air intake, check out the M50 intake manifold conversion! The intake manifold kits certainly cost more and it will take you more time to install but trust me it will be well worth it in terms of the performance gain.
This is one of my favorite BMW e36 upgrades, and it is awesome on any later model inline 6 E36 Series (96-99). Check out the BMW forums for confirmation on this one, as this upgrade is universally recognized among e36 fanatics as one of the best bangs for your buck. I have a 1996 BMW 328i and am currently on the hunt for a junkyard M50 intake.
So why on earth would you replace the M52 with an M50 intake? Simple, the early E36 M50 intakes have larger intake ports which allow for more air and will give a later model E36 a nice HP boost. If you decide to go the eBay route, expect to spend up to $150 for the intake, and then another $100 if you want the conversion kit. Unfortunately, the M50 intakes are becoming more difficult to find at the junkyard, but maybe you can get lucky.
A manifold upgrade is relatively inexpensive and within the scope of many DIYers. I recommend buying the intake conversion kit as it will make the process significantly quicker. E36 owners frequently report that it feels like they are driving a new car after installing this upgrade.
Bilstien Suspension Upgrade
If you’re upgrading your e36 with engine performance as your main focus, you probably haven’t thought too much about the suspension. I can’t tell you how big a mistake this is if your focus is entirely on horsepower upgrades without considering the suspension. Traditionally, the number one highest-rated component of an E36 is the handling. After 20-25 years though, these vehicles suspension have typically had it, and no longer handle anywhere close to what they did when they were new.
Depending on how much you want to throw into parts you can really get involved with an E36 suspension. Sway bar bushings and linkages, struts, shocks, tie rods, RTAB’s, control arms, the list goes on and on. There are well over a dozen bushings in the rear end alone. To get the best gains out of your suspension without going upgrade crazy I would suggest going with bilstein struts & coils, shocks and RTAB’s (rear trailing arm bushings). I highly recommend going with aftermarket RTAB’s that come in three parts. You have to press the oem bushings and it can be a real nightmare.
If you are looking to replace some of the old bushings, I suggest replacing them with urethane bushings. Why are urethane bushings better for performance vehicles? Rubber is a far softer material than urethane and it has a lot more give when you hit bumps. Urethane bushings reduce suspension movement and therefore make the suspension far more responsive to the driver. Urethane also has higher abrasion, cut, and tear resistance compared to rubber.
Horsepower upgrades on an E36 can be a lot of fun, but not if the suspension is in poor condition. This I why I highly recommend making performance suspension components a part of your focus.
If you have a convertible E36 or a Z3 you can just skip right over this recommendation. The x-brace was installed as factory equipment on the convertibles since their chassis are naturally less stiff than coupes or sedans.
If you have a coupe or sedan though you are in luck! This is one of the most popular upgrades on an E36 and for good reason. The x-brace serves two purposes, it will further stiffen up the chassis on your E36 and it will also help protect your engine from hazards on the road. Increased stiffness is important for anybody looking for a fun daily driver.
Prices range anywhere from $100 (used) – $300+ (new).
BMW E36 Performance Chip
One of the simplest and cheapest BMW e36 upgrades you can do is installing an e36 performance chip. The only caveat here is that they can only be installed on OBD 1 BMWs. There are many aftermarket e36 chip makers out there that can give your bmw a significant hp boost. If you have an OBD 2 car you’re out of luck for the most part with a chip, typically you have to have the vehicle programmed.
The good news about e36 performance chips is that there are a ton of options and information on installation online. They are also relatively simple to install, and can be had for a few hundred dollars or less. A word of caution, be careful if you decide to surf ebay for one and consider buying a $40 chip. You’re going to want to confirm the reputability of the chip prior to purchase that the chip is reputable.
Performance Catback Exhaust
If you went through the time and effort to install a CAI and m50 intake manifold you’re getting increased airflow to the motor. But wait a minute, what about increasing the airflow exiting the motor? That’s where a performance exhaust comes in. OEM exhausts are restrictive, an upgraded exhaust will give you an hp gain and a really nice sound to go with it. Do some research on these as different exhausts have different sounds, and the pricing can vary widely depending on the maker. You can get a cat-back exhaust for as cheap as $250, all the way up to $1,200.
The hp gains certainly vary depending on the exhaust you decide to go with, and whether or not you already have an M3 or not. Many e36 fanatics swap to a performance exhaust simply to get a nicer sound.
Coolant System Upgrade
Everyone wants more horsepower and sound out of their car, but if you’ve owned an e36 for any length of time you understand that one of the best things you can do for your car is upgrade the coolant system. The coolant system is the BMW E36’s, Achilles Heel. It is chock-full of plastic components that too often fail prematurely and then can quickly cause a head gasket to fail. So what can you do to upgrade the coolant system?
Swap out that plastic thermostat housing unit with an aluminum unit. BMW in all of its wisdom used a plastic propeller on its E36 water pumps, this should be swapped with an aluminum model. One of my favorite water pump brands is Beck Arnley. You could even go with a high-performance aluminum water pump if you are so inclined.
Additionally, the expansion tank is plastic and is known to develop hairline cracks over time. Luckily for us, Mishimoto makes an aluminum expansion tank, yes it’s triple the price (running around $150) but I would say it’s one of the most worthwhile E36 upgrades you can buy.
There are several different types of radiator upgrades you could purchase. Mishimoto aluminum radiators are typically rated very highly. Zionsville also makes an extremely impressive aluminum radiator, although it is quite expensive. Typically the less expensive radiators are two-row and have similar cooling capacities overall. The rows in aftermarket radiators such as the Mishimoto tend to be thicker than the OE two-row radiator.
There are also three-row radiator upgrades such as the Griffin, Zionsville, & Howe. These radiators have a larger capacity and more efficiency. The trade-off is that there is a huge price jump from the two-row to the top end Griffins & Zionsville radiators.
Limited Slip Differential
The vast majority of E36’s did not come installed with LSD’s, however, some of them did come as an option. Therefore, the best thing you can do before looking to swap your differential is to get under the back of your E36 and check the tag number. The tag will let you know whether it is an LSD or not.
Another way to identify whether you already have an LSD is by jacking up the rear end and spinning one tire. An LSD will spin both tires THE SAME WAY.
Why get an LSD? They are extremely popular on sports cars and fun daily drivers because LSD’s get better traction and improve handling compared to an open-differential and allow for tighter corners.
You can buy a used LSD for anywhere from $350-$1500.
Overall, there are a ton of BMW e36 upgrades that you can choose, and many of them can be had at a relatively inexpensive price point. Finding the right ones for you can take some research, but they are certainly well worth the money and time. I hope this has given you some ideas on what you can do with your E36.