COAL: 1998 BMW 318i and 1995 Mazda Miata – My Current Rides

In late fall of 2013 with a desire for something new to drive and my 2006 Saab 9-2x on the market, I started my search for something new to drive. Little did I know at that time that my search would yield not one but two cars that are currently sitting in my carport.

My 1995 Mazda Miata I got by accident and luck. I’d seen the listing for a $1,300 white Mazda Miata on Autotrader and it was even located in my hometown. I figured for that price it would be a rusted-out basket case, but my interest was still piqued. So I called the phone number listed and left a message. Heard nothing back for a week, so I called again. When asking the fellow who picked up the phone if his white Miata was still available, he cut me off in mid-sentence.

“I don’t have a white Miata. I’ve been getting a shit-ton of phone calls asking to come see it. The number listed in the ad is wrong!” Click.

However, the listing also offered the option to email the seller directly, which I did. Within the day, I received a reply back from the seller, saying that yes the car was still available, and that I was the only one who had contacted him about it so far. I thought about telling him about the wrong number in the ad, but not wanting to ruin my chances of possibly getting the deal of a lifetime, I decided not to until I’d seen it for myself.

With my partner John by my side, I pulled up to his address the next morning. In the driveway was a somewhat forlorn looking dusty white roadster. The owner said it had been his summer car but that he didn’t use it much anymore. He was also leaving town (and this was during a particularly cold November, maybe the worst time to be selling a convertible roadster), so I got the impression that he was a very motivated seller.

However, my inspection didn’t yield what I expected. I was thinking that the rocker panels would probably be starting to rot (most Miata aficionados know these are a weak spot, particularly in middle Canada where we use lots of road salt in the winters) but they were solid. In fact, although the paint wasn’t great (it was obvious it had been used and parked outside, not a garage queen), the overall condition of the car was quite acceptable visually. The top wasn’t great but I knew that relatively cheap replacements could be had through any number of parts suppliers.

I then took it for a test drive. There were no odd hesitations, the clutch engaged and the transmission shifted like it was supposed to, and the brakes seemed fine. The ride was quite stiff, but most of what i’d read about the first generation Miata said that was how it was supposed to be, so i didn’t take that as a problem.

But, the seller hadn’t gotten the car saftied, he said he thought it would probably pass but also acknowledged that for the price he was asking a safety certificate wouldn’t be part of the deal.

As I usually did before buying anything big, I conferred with John before making the decision. “Well, it’s a leap of faith,” he said. “You need to be prepared for the possibility of big repairs when you get it safety checked in the springtime. Still, I’d go for it, if you want it.”

That was good enough for me, so I drove to my bank, took out $1,300 and was the proud owner of a 1995 Miata whose total mechanical condition remained a big question mark. However, I let it sit for the next few months in my garage until the weather was nice enough to drive a convertible with the top down.

In the interim, I actually got a bite on my 2006 Saab 9-2x, and sold it for only slightly less than i’d paid more than two years previous. I needed another car that I could drive the whole year round, and I needed one fast.

I still wanted something unique, and I didn’t want to spend the entire amount I pocketed from the 9-2x sale, so after some looking around, I went to Carleton Place (a small town about an hour from where I live) and tested out a vehicle that had been on their lot for some time; a 1998 BMW 318i.

I’d long been a fan of this particular generation (E36 platform) of 3-series; to my eyes the clean, uncluttered styling lacked both the old-school boxiness of the E30 before it or the me-too curviness of the E46 that followed. My partner was also a longtime 3-series fan; he had a black 318i (E30) when we met and had a 1982 320 before that, so he encouraged my testing out of this vehicle.

The test drive didn’t get off on the best foot, however. When I tried to start the car and it wouldn’t go. The salesman grabbed a jumper pack and said it had been sitting for a while. After getting a charge, I was off to the races.

I found the 318i to be a nice car to drive. While it lacked the spunky acceleration of the 9-2x, it was also far more comfortable and solid feeling, and while it took a little while to get up to 120km/hour, once there the ride and handling were what anyone would expect from a BMW. It did have a small engine paired with the four-speed automatic, but I reasoned that I already had one manual vehicle and it was sensible to buy an automatic in case John (or anyone else who couldn’t drive stick) wanted to drive it.

I checked out this car at night (not ideal for a used car, as you’ll soon see) but overall the condition seemed quite acceptable. It was in the almost ubitquious 1990s BMW colour of Boston green, with a tan interior (vinyl, but at least it looks like leather to the untrained eye).

The salesman told me that it had been a Florida car, which accounted for the good body condition. The dealership had brought it from Florida a few months earlier but hadn’t been able to sell it; I decided to take the plunge, and got John to drive me back up a couple of days later with $3,300 in cash to complete the deal.

In the harsh light of day, it became a bit more apparent to me why the car had been difficult to sell. It had probably the crappiest full-body paint job I’d ever seen; with copious orange peel and many noticeable paint runs. I started to have second thoughts, but then I reasoned $3,300 was not a lot for a relatively low-mileage BMW (117,000 miles) in seeming solid mechanical shape. I rolled the dice.

The only way the car let me down in the first year of ownership was that the tires that were on it were performance-grade rubber. Being a bit of a cheapskate, I decided to roll the dice again to see if they would at least get me through the winter. However, after getting stuck in my driveway (after I’d blown the snow out of it) and stuck again on a residential street, I discovered that snow tires on that car were not optional equipment but were necessary to get anywhere. John had one of his few “I told you so” moments once i came to this realization; he noted his 318i was also useless in winter without snow tires. Some lessons are harder to learn than others.

I also had the drivers side window regulator fail, but that was pretty much it. Otherwise the BMW proved to be a safe and solid winter vehicle.

My car from the back end. I still say its one of the best BMW designs ever!

My car from the back end. I still say its one of the best BMW designs ever!

That spring as soon as the snow left I dusted off the Miata and took it to my local trusted mechanic. I was fully prepared for him to tell me it needed hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars worth of work, but the entire bill (including the safety and the appraisal necessary for me to register it) amounted to less than $300. The only thing it needed for a safety? One brake caliper!

He also told me “if you want to sell it, I’ll give you $3000 cash right now!” I quickly realized that I’d gotten the deal of the century!

Since then, I’ve settled into a regular routine with both my vehicles. I typically drive the Miata as my main ride from mid-May through mid-October, and drive the BMW from fall till spring.

Top down and ready to go!

Top down and ready to go!

I enjoy both cars. The Miata is very basic (as many of the first generation ones were) so there isn’t much electronically that can go wrong with it. I’ve installed a new top after its first year and have had the timing belt, engine coil and plugs and wires attended to. This year I think I’ll need to replace the tires and possibly do a brake job. All things that an older car needs after a while. I also plan to get it repainted at some point, maybe next summer.

There is little about the Miata that I can say that hasn’t already been said in these pages. It’s a great handling machine, it has few frills but everything needed for an enjoyable driving experience. The 1.8 litre engine isn’t a powerhouse by any means, but it’s enough. Also, unlike a lot of more modern cars, it feels like its going faster than it really is. It’s also quite noisy and a bit unrefined, but that’s part of its character.

It’s also quite small; I’m glad i’m 5’10” and less than 220 pounds, as there’s no surfeit of room inside. A good friend of mine who is 6’4″ and about 250 pounds has told me to never take him for a long ride in it as he finds the passenger seat too confining. However, as a one-person (mostly) vehicle, I find it the perfect size for short and long trips. The fuel economy is awesome; even when gas was $1.35 a litre I was still able to drive from my home to a friends in Niagara-on-the-Lake (a 1,100 km round trip) for less than $40

The interior is tight for more than one!

The interior is tight for more than one!

The BMW 318i, by contrast, is refined and comfortable for just about anyone. I’ve often thought the four door model of my generation is the perfect size for two regular size passengers or four occasional ones. I can count on one hand the times i’ve used the back seat for anything other than hauling garbage to the dump or a display board to a trade show.

The 1.8 liter engine in that car is no fire bomb. Apparently good for 138 horsepower, one gets the impression it would be at its best with a manual transmission. It’s not terribly quick with the automatic, and the fuel economy is not the best either. However, the feeling of solidity and high-speed stability of this car is still impressive, and the logical control layout and comfortable seats are impressive for a vehicle which was designed in the middle 1980s. It is a BMW from when the name still stood for vehicles were well-engineered, high quality machines. New Beemers are still nice, but I can’t get past the feeling that they’re more about the logo and moniker than engineering excellence. As well, much of the current styling leaves me cold.

Some people I know have questioned me having two rather old vehicles as daily drivers. “Don’t you worry about it breaking down,” is a not uncommon question.

I don’t, really. I figure that part of the mindset of driving an older vehicle is an expectation that things will break sometimes. So long as my Canadian Automobile Association membership is current (John first purchased it for me back in 2001), I figure that I’ll be able to deal with any breakdown that leaves me stranded in a parking lot or roadside.

I’ve always said that what I would find far more distressing would be a four-year term monthly payment on a depreciating asset that would only be worth pennies on the dollar of what I had paid for it after it was mine. But that’s just my opinion. I’ve been driving for close to 20 years yet i’ve never had a car I didn’t buy outright at the onset.

I love cars but I’m way past having a yen for a shiny new beast of the current model year. The way I think of it, cars are better then they’ve ever been, reliability-wise. What better way to take advantage of that than buying a vehicle that’s already depreciated heavily yet still has years of useful life?

That being so, I’ll probably only keep the BMW for a couple more years before I get something a bit newer. Cars I have in the running as a replacement include a Volvo C30 or XC60 or a BMW X3, or perhaps even a Land Rover LR2. That’s another great thing about buying used; depreciation allows you to consider cars that you’d never imagine buying brand new.