When you think of sport
sedans, for most of us one manufacturer immediately comes to mind.
There are two reasons why BMW is so identified, and they both
occurred in the sixties: the 1800ti 4-door sedan, and the 1600 and
2002 2-door sedans. These cars were reasonably sized (small by U.S.
standards), roomy and practical, and fun to drive. They took
BMW's confused image (anyone know what an Isetta is?) and turned it
into one focused on sporting sedans, and the company has done an
admirable job of staying on course ever since.
The subject of this
profile, the 1992-98 3-Series, are a direct descendant of the
2002. This all-new 3-Series bowed at a time when it seemed
like many others in the car business were beginning to find the
measure of BMW when it came to small sport sedans. The 3-Series was
getting old, and it didn't help that they were becoming more
identified with those "Yuppies" of the eighties rather than with
automobile enthusiasts. All of them quickly found out, however, that
they were shooting at a moving target, and to this day there are
only a handful a vehicles that possess the portfolio of qualities
that these Bimmers have enjoyed for years.
When this model was
introduced, the lineup consisted of a four-door sedan powered by a
potent 2.5 liter six-cylinder inline engine. Soon a coupe, less
expensive four-cylinder versions, a convertible, a hatchback and a
performance version all joined the lineup.
Said When New
minute steering corrections and a sensitivity to
crosswinds are the only minor complaints we can
muster."......Road & Track 10/91
sedan with its priorities straight. BMW has moved the
target again.".......Car & Driver 9/91
lowball price (for a BMW) the 318is won't attract the
serious bargain-hunters. Better value can be had
with a Honda Accord or a Pontiac Grand Am 2-door.".......Car
& Driver 8/92
responsive and agile sedan is long on driving fun but
short on rear-seat comfort and trunk space.".........Consumer
(M3) the one car we most want in our driveway? Damn
right. Is it good enough to be the 1995 Automobile
Magazine Automobile of the Year? Without a
doubt."........Automobile Magazine 1/95
amazing what a little change can do for a car. By simply
fattening the engine's torque curve, BMW has changed the
3-Series' overall demeanor, making it faster, more
nimble and more fun to drive."....Road & Track
The coupe and a 1.8
liter 4-cylinder version of both the coupe and sedan arrived after
the sedan's introduction with the 318 badge. A convertible based on
the previous design was available in '92 and '93, after which it was
based on the new platform. For 1995, a new performance oriented
coupe with BMW's famous "M" (Motorsports) designation hit the
streets. Also bowing in 1995 was an "economy" version, the 318ti
that sported a practical hatchback body. A short-lived M3 sedan
joined the lineup in '96. "M" models were also available in a
slightly less extreme luxury version which, as the name suggests,
traded some of the all-out performance features for comforts ones.
in 1996, BMW stroked the six (increased piston travel) resulting in
2.8 liters and a substantial increase in torque. The model name, now
the 328i, was changed to reflect this displacement change. The four
also got a slight displacement increase, to 1.9 liters, but the
model name remained 318. Perhaps 319 just didn't sound right.
The 3-series still looks
good today, even though the design is almost ten years old.
Purposeful looking with little flash, BMW's designers did an
excellent job of capturing the car's mission in it's look. Subtly
aggressive is one way of putting it.
A '94 318ic
In the front, of course,
is BMW's traditional kidney grille flanked by dual round headlights
under plastic covers. Driving lights reside under the bumper as does
a rectangular opening for engine cooling.
Moving down the sides, a
sharp relief line starts just behind the front directionals,
intersects the door handles and travels all the way to the
taillights. Along the way it passes under BMW's other traditional
design cue, the canted C-pillar. A horizontal rub strip also runs
down the sides of the car, positioned to deflect as many stray doors
as possible. A directional light was added to the rear of the front
fender in 1996.
-- All new model; convertibles and coupes remain based
on previous generation.
-- No major changes but coupe models now based on new
-- Dual airbags added; convertible now based on current
platform; new traction control option 1995 M3 coupe
added; 318ti hatchback added.
-- Six-cylinder engine stroked to 2.8 liters and get an
aluminum block and a significant torque increase.
-- Traction control now standard on six-cylinder cars;
M3 4dr sedan added.
Last year, no major changes.
One design element we're
not fond of is the plastic bumper covering found on all the earlier
models and which continued all around the lower part of the car. The
flared fairing below the rocker panels looks particularly tacky. BMW
must have thought this, too, for they gradually diminished the width
of this plastic and painted it the same color of the body after '95.
the back, two large rectangular taillights occupy the outboard
positions of the rear end. These taillights are fully integrated
with the backup lights and directionals.
mentioned above, rooflines all have the familiar c-pillar design.
Even the ti hatchback gets into the act and it works rather well
despite the stubby, shortened rear end it flows into.
myriad of wheel designs on most of the 3-Series leave us a bit flat.
Only on the "M" and some sports package-equipped models do the
wheels look like the rest of the car -- aggressive. We've counted no
less than eight different wheel designs (and one wheel cover), and
we're not sure we've got them all! You should also be aware that at
least one magazine's long-term test on an early "M" model turned up
a startling predilection to damage its wheels, suffering no less
than five failures over 35,000 miles of driving. At over $400 a pop,
Teutonic design dominates the early cars. No warmth, just cold
efficiency. If you don't like the stark look, then you should search
for a '96 or later model with the premium package that include some
relief in the form of wood trim.
some other 3-Series models available during this
production run, but they were only available in limited
numbers. Two that were available here:
Based on the
entry level 3-series hatchback, this version sported a
lower and stiffer suspension, 16" 5-spoke alloy wheels
instead of the standard 15 inchers and some interior and
exterior trim changes, including special rear view
mirrors and a rear spoiler. Only 200 were made for the
1995 model year. All of the features except the special
mirrors became part of the Sports Package in '96.
additional $12,000 or so above a base M3, you could get
a lot less. About 200lbs less in the M3 Lightweight. How
did BMW get rid of the weight? Gone are the A/C, the
power windows, stereo, sunroof, spare tire and jack,
tool kit, trunk lining, and some sound deadener.
Aluminum doors replace the stock steel units. There's a
slightly stiffer suspension and a shorter drive ratio
for quicker acceleration, too. As for us, we'd take out
the spare, jack and toolkit ourselves, lose 10 lbs,
install a pair of lightweight buckets and save the 12
grand. About 85 were earmarked for
Early models also look
rather cheap, with plastics that don't look as good as those in a
Honda. The fit and finish and the tactile feel of everything that
moves in the cabin mitigate the materials shortcoming but don't
eliminate it. The ambiance is not at the level a $30,000 vehicle
tough to fault the layout, though. A very readable instrument
cluster sits in front of the driver, and with the exception of the
radio all controls are easy to reach and operate. It's almost as if
the car is trying to become an extension of the driver--a trait all
exceptional road cars share. On '92-93 cars the glovebox is small
and flimsy, and there aren't a lot of storage places. When the
passenger airbag was added in '94 the glovebox grew. The "economy"
318ti has a slightly different dash and in our opinion actually
looks a bit cleaner than the regular one.
front buckets are for the most part comfortable. They're firm in the
German tradition, maybe too firm for some. Padding is not overly
generous. They're most appreciated on longer trips.
sport seats with their extra lateral support may be uncomfortable
for passengers of wider girth. Many examples have the heated seats
option. We also noticed some examples that showed heavier that would
be expected upholstery wear. Leather cracking and stretching should
not be happening on a 50,000 mile car.
Headroom is adequate
front and rear, even in the lower coupe. The sunroof cuts almost an
inch from this space.
high-performance M is a driver's dream.
In the rear, the seats
themselves are well designed, but there's just not a lot of leg room
back there, even in the sedan. It's the biggest flaw in the car, and
one that seemingly was glossed over by all the major car magazines.
If anyone over 5'10" gets comfortable up front, there's no room! As
you would imagine, the coupe is even worse. BMW was certainly aware
of the issue as resculpted seatbacks were installed during the model
run, which helped a little. Although these cars are rated for 3
passengers in the rear, that's laughable. To be fair, a big reason
rear space is tight is because the engine had been moved back to
achieve 50/50 weight distribution. So it was a conscious trade-off,
not poor design.
Still, after the lambasting the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique (which
properly equipped is a passable bargain priced 3-series alternative)
received for cramped rear seating by the automotive press, we can't
help but wonder why they weren't as vocal with this car.
trunk is a small but usable 10.3 cu ft. The narrow opening makes it
difficult to stuff anything odd-sized back there. The rear seats
fold forward for more cargo capacity. The 318ti with its hatchback
configuration is the obvious exception here, with lots of cargo room
with the rear seat folded forward (but not flat) and the huge hatch
making cargo loading a breeze.
is where the 3-series shines. The steering feel, precision and
communication is terrific. The suspension is not terribly exotic
with MacPherson struts up front and a multilink setup in the rear
(except on the ti, which uses a revised but older--and
cheaper--design), but BMW manages some magic with it and it's hard
to argue with the results. All of these things add up to a vehicle
that is among the easiest to drive fast with confidence.
this would be terrific by itself, but what's really remarkable here
is that it combines this handling excellence with remarkably supple
ride, especially for a smallish car. The 3-series soaks up bumps
with aplomb, rarely jarring it's occupants or upsetting the car's
attitude. Body motions are controlled and firm but gradually so.
Wind noise was
ever-present on all the cars we drove at speed. We're not sure if
this is just a characteristic of the 3's from new or if the window
seals tend to break down over time. There was a moderate amount of
road noise on some surfaces--almost a resonating type of sound.
seen '98 318ti hatchback.
BMW does not try to
eliminate the sound of the engine in the cabin, and you'll always
hear it. The six is silky smooth and sounds great. The four on the
other hand, is not especially smooth and it buzzes and thrashes when
pushed. Nothing bad mind you, but you'll get at least equal
refinement from any Honda engine.
You'll lose some suppleness in the ride with Sport package equipped
models but gain some handling quickness and responsiveness. There's
less roll, too. "M" models ride quite stiffly, but oh, the handling.
The tradeoff is not for everyone however, and many will find the
ride just too uncomfortable. If you're interested in an "M" try to
drive it for a while and find all kinds of road surfaces.
Acceleration on the six-cylinder cars is brisk. The fours are merely
adequate overall, and weak on the low end. The 2.8 liter six
installed on '96 and up cars offers increased low and mid-range
performance through a broader torque band. You can feel the
difference if you go from a 325 right into a 328. The "M" is in
another league altogether, offering neck-snapping power at all
manual transmission is a gem. Throws are short and positive.
Although for us the only transmission to consider is the manual, the
automatics are excellent, too. We were only able to drive the
4-speed, but published reports indicate the 5-speed automatic
(available only on the "M" models) detracts little from their
sporting character. Both have selectable modes of operation and the
5-speed has a fully driver controllable shifting capability.
cars have a horrendous reputation of going in snow. A sophisticated
traction control option was added in 1994 for the 325, and made
standard in '97. It was not available on the 318. In case you're
wondering, towing is not recommended on any of these models.
economy is yet another 3-series strong point. The six will return a
solid 22-26mpg in combined driving, and that's without babying it.
The four only does slightly better, probably because it's working
airbags were added in 1994. Before that only the driver had an air
Government crash tests on all models yielded a very good rating for
both front seat occupants. ABS control on big 4-wheel disc brakes
was standard equipment on all versions of the 3-Series. Another
safety feature that these cars have that doesn't show up in any
rating system is their ability to avoid accidents. Their
responsiveness allows them to avoid certain situations that would
catch a lumbering SUV or wallowing sedan.
BMW's have a feature that we hate. It's their service reminder
system. Supposedly, a computer judges the way you have been driving
and calculates when you should bring your car in for service. A
reminder light in the dash goes on and you're supposed to bring the
car in to have it checked. For what, you'll have no idea. This seems
ridiculous to us. A simple service schedule works just fine, thank
Normal maintenance intervals are average. Maintenance items are a
bit more numerous than average and include such things as valve
adjustments. BMW did not switch to ozone-friendly A/C refrigerant
until the '95 model year, so be aware that a conversion on earlier
models will run you somewhere between $300-$400.
surprise for us occurred when researching parts costs. They were not
as high as we expected, and in fact were reasonable for a
performance European sedan. Clutches for $200-$250 and alternators
at under $200 aren't too bad. Brakes were a bit high, though. So the
parts may not be Chevy priced, but they're not Mercedes or Lexus
3-Series has a good reliability track record. Problem areas are few,
and even those do not show up on every car. The major things to look
for include the fuel delivery system and minor electrical glitches.
Warranty coverage was an excellent 4yrs/50,000 miles for the '94 and
up models. 6yr/unlimited mileage corrosion protection came with all
3-series models, but BMW required a dealer inspection every two
years, so you'll want to check to see if this was done. Even 3/36
scheduled maintenance was included for '97 and '98 models.
all-around use, the 328i is the one we like the most. The fatter
torque curve feels great, you'll get the dual airbag interior and
some minor interior upgrades. If you're on a budget and have to have
a Bimmer, any one of the 318 models is not a bad choice. We've seen
some terrific deals on the 4-cylinder cars -- you can be a little
tougher in your negotiating than with the more popular and desirable
sixes. Some of this, no doubt is due to the dropping of the four and
replacing it with the more powerful and smoother 2.3 liter six in 98
and up cars. Putting the six in the base model put downward pressure
on the prices of used fours.
really aren't any bad choices here. The 325 is slightly below the
328 on the desirability scale, but we'd stay away from a 4-cylinder
car with an automatic. If you're leaning toward an "M", we strongly
advise you to try to spend as much time as you can with one before
you leap. Even though it will treat you to awesome performance, the
stiff ride may wear thin after awhile.
318, 325, 328, M
4dr sedan; 2dr coupe; 2dr hatchback; 2dr convertible
2900-3100lbs (cpe & sdn); 3400lbs (cnv); 2800lbs (hdk);
96 cu. ft.
9.2 (cpe); 15.0 (cu. ft.) (hbk)
13.7 gal (hbk); 16.4 (rest)
Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive
1.8L (4cyl-134hp) 1.9L (4cyl-138hp) 2.5L (6cyl-189hp)
2.8L (6cyl-190hp) 3.0L (6cyl-240hp) (M3)
4 or 5-speed automatic w/overdrive; 5spd manual
Front disc/rear disc w/ABS
8.7/7.0/5.8 seconds 1/4 mile: 16.815.0/14.4
seconds Top Speed: 123/128/137mph (limited)
(city/hwy) manual trans 20/29 (2.8); 20/28 (3.0); 22/30
Driver only ('92-'93) Dual ('94-up)
No or minor injuries probable
Serious injury probable
mph Crash Rating:
mi limited bumper-to-bumper with roadside assistance;
3yr/36,00 mi scheduled maintenance ('97-'98);
6yr/unlimited mi corrosion