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BMW 3-SeriesBMW 3-Series

It's not perfect, but boy, it's close

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.

Strengths

Weaknesses

Handling/Ride

Responsiveness

Performance

Fuel economy

Total package excellence

Room

4-cylinder

Interior starkness

 

 

 

The subject of this profile, the 1992-98 3-Series, are a direct  descendant of the revered 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.

What's Available

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.

What They Said When New

"...some minute steering corrections and a sensitivity to crosswinds are the only minor complaints we can muster."......Road & Track 10/91

"A sports sedan with its priorities straight. BMW has moved the target again.".......Car & Driver 9/91

"Despite its 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

"This responsive and agile sedan is long on driving fun but short on rear-seat comfort and trunk space.".........Consumer Reports 8/94

"Is this (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

"It's 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.

Also 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.

Exterior Design

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.

1994 BMW 318i
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.

 

Running Changes

1992 -- All new model; convertibles and coupes remain based on previous generation.

1993 -- No major changes but coupe models now based on new platform.

1994 -- Dual airbags added; convertible now based on current platform; new traction control option 1995 M3 coupe added; 318ti hatchback added.

1996 -- Six-cylinder engine stroked to 2.8 liters and get an aluminum block and a significant torque increase.

1997 -- Traction control now standard on six-cylinder cars; M3 4dr sedan added.

1998 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.

In 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.

As 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.

The 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, ouch.

Interior Design

Typical traditional 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.

Limited Editions

There were some other 3-Series models available during this production run, but they were only available in limited numbers. Two that were available here:

318ti Club Sport

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.

M3 Lightweight

For an 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 should be.

It's 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.

Room/Comfort

The 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.

The 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.

3-Series BMW
The 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.

The 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.

Ride/Handling/Performance

This 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.

All 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.

BMW 318ti hatchback
A rarely 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 speeds.

The 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.

These 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.

Fuel 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 harder.

Safety

Dual airbags were added in 1994. Before that only the driver had an air bag.

U.S. 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.

Service/Maintenance

All 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 you.

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.

A 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 ridiculous either.

Reliability

The 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.

Recommendations

For 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.

There 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.

General Specifications

General

Models: 318, 325, 328, M

Body Styles: 4dr sedan; 2dr coupe; 2dr hatchback; 2dr convertible

Dimensions&Capacities

Weight: 2900-3100lbs (cpe & sdn); 3400lbs (cnv); 2800lbs (hdk); 3200lbs (M3)

Length: 174.5"

Wheelbase: 106.7"

Width: 66.9-67.3"

Height: 52.6-54.8"

EPA Class: subcompact

Interior Vol: 96 cu. ft.

Cargo Vol : 10.3 (sdn); 9.2 (cpe); 15.0 (cu. ft.) (hbk)

Fuel: 13.7 gal (hbk); 16.4 (rest)

Mechanical

Layout: Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive

Engines: 1.8L (4cyl-134hp) 1.9L (4cyl-138hp) 2.5L (6cyl-189hp) 2.8L (6cyl-190hp) 3.0L (6cyl-240hp) (M3)

Transmission: 4 or 5-speed automatic w/overdrive; 5spd manual

Brakes: Front disc/rear disc w/ABS

Performance(1.8L/2.8L/3.0L w/5spd manual)

0-60mph: 8.7/7.0/5.8 seconds 1/4 mile: 16.815.0/14.4 seconds Top Speed: 123/128/137mph (limited)

EPA Mileage: (city/hwy) manual trans 20/29 (2.8); 20/28 (3.0); 22/30 (1.8); 23/31(1.9)

Safety

ABS Brakes: Standard

Air Bags: Driver only ('92-'93) Dual ('94-up)

NHTSA Safety Rating: (all years)

Driver **** Passenger ****

Key:

Best: ***** No or minor injuries probable

Worst: * Serious injury probable

IIHS 40 mph Crash Rating: not tested

Original Warranty:

4yr/50,000 mi limited bumper-to-bumper with roadside assistance; 3yr/36,00 mi scheduled maintenance ('97-'98); 6yr/unlimited mi corrosion

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