(First posted July 30, 2014) “The perfect car,” that’s what the ad for the then-current 3-series, which I remember running on MTV between segments of The Real World San Francisco and advertisements for Clueless, said. It showed a line of twenty-somethings, slinking toward the camera through a desert landscape with steering wheels, shift knobs and other assorted BMW car parts in their hands, with a voiceover extolling the virtues of the then-current 3-series with no implication of expense or of prestige. But even then, I knew the advertisement was full of it; both my parents worked full time, both were professionals and they were looking at Galants and Altimas. Despite all the appeals to rationality and athleticism, the smallest BMW was primarily a status symbol.
If there’s a better car (not SUV) to define the “roaring nineties,” I can’t think of one. The E36 BMW 3-series easily jumped to the head of its segment when introduced in 1992 and has remained there ever since. The 3-series was how we defined class two decades ago and it remains the basic metric today. And while we might be waiting for someone to decisively knock it off the pedestal, even the most cynical person would have a hard time discrediting the entry-level BMW of the era. As much as the advertisements would browbeat you, this really was the perfect car for a lot of people.
What made this car, the sole German car Jerry Seinfeld featured on his show, so damn special, anyway? Well, it was the last instance of BMW having to prove itself versus Mercedes, and it took forever for anyone to match it. While we see it as the definitive modern BMW, it really was a case of Stuttgart envy. The Mercedes W201 (190-series) hit the scene in 1983 with an upright, wedge-shaped structure, an unflappable rear multilink axle, and an aerodynamic, contemporary design; unfortunately, while it had a price to match such sophistication, power was wanting (as it often was in the ’80s). The equivalent BMW in those days, the E30, was an excellent car and a better value, but it was much more traditional proposition, with slow-ratio steering, poor aerodynamics and a tendency to swap ends in spirited driving. And while, by 1987, it had the power and drivetrain to be truly fun, it was feeling its age (by contrast, it was primarily the Mercedes’s drivetrain which dated that car).
The E36 that brought the E30’s sporting characteristics and allied them with the safety, stability and luxury expected of prestige car in the ’90s. It was a small, entry-level car, to be sure, but with all the gadgets and electronic pieces high-end Japanese offerings had made their specialty during the years that the 3-series still had a crank-open sunroof and manual seat adjusters. Of course, it wasn’t all bundled together as standard as with many Japanese cars, nor was it even offered especially cheaply, but nevertheless, most buyers ordered their 3-series loaded (though the mockup shown here is of a basically kitted European model).
BMW’s ability to charge large sums for options which could’ve been expected as standard on such an expensive car shows just how strong the reputation of their newest offering was. The early ’90s was somewhat of a wild-west in the luxury car market, with a landscape very much in flux. Audi was still reeling from its late ’80s PR fiasco, Mercedes once more found itself fighting a stodgy reputation and struggling to lower prices, and Lexus had hit the ground running with the LS. In the entry-level sector, the E36 found itself facing off rivals we’d scoff at (or at least question) today, with comparos pitting it against such cars as the ES300 and the Acura Legend, which were similarly priced, depending on equipment. Other than the Mercedes 190E/early C-class, it was hard to directly pit the new 3-series against anything other than the Saab 900 (which went from aging to flaccid after its redesign) and the Audi 90 (which was a slow seller and a tamer competitor). There was no Volvo S60, no Lexus IS and no Infiniti G, though the E36 would inspire their creation, as well as that of the ill-fated Epsilon-based Saab 9-3.
The key to the BMW’s segment defining success seems obvious today and, indeed, it was quite simple. It involved studying the competition very closely throughout the ’80s and integrating their most accessible traits into the new car. As mentioned, the E36 owes a lot to the Mercedes W201 (six-cylinder versions of which went for approximately $35,000 in 1992), but for eight grand less, the new 325i offered a lusty twin-cam engine which made the Mercedes’s unit seem languid by comparison. Even better, it was widely available with a decent five-speed transmission, something Stuttgart never took seriously, while the optional four-speed automatic similarly avoided the clunky hydraulic controls or second gear starts that defined the Benz experience in those years.
Ever since the E32 7-series debuted in 1988, it was clear that BMW began to take buyers’ demands for sophisticated electronics more seriously. The new 3-er was the final car to reflect that change in philosophy and, while the 850i may have seemed like overkill, such things as dual-zone climate control and multi-speaker sound systems were harder to criticize in such a light and spirited car. They also made paying extra for such obvious items as leather, a sunroof and power seats easier to justify.
Reflecting the new approach was an entirely new design language for the brand. Until the introduction of the fully flame-surfaced 7-series, the E36 defined BMW style for the majority of the ’90s and it was a very tasteful look at the time. Even better, despite the obvious integration of aerodynamic principles, the car was obviously a BMW, if not as distinctive as its very upright, traditional looking predecessor. The famed Hoffmeister kink, twin kidney grille and quad front-headlights remained, but they were integrated into a much more modern shape which very much reflected late ’80s thinking.
In many ways, the design hasn’t aged as well as one might expect. Though the glass headlight covers have become a BMW design signature, they were major nod to design conventions of the era. Other details, like aircraft-style door frames reflect a similar conformist sensibility and haven’t appeared on any BMW since, already falling out of vogue when the car was introduced.
But it was the driving experience which most obviously defined the E36 and it remains one of its least dated aspects. If front-wheel drive entrants had any credibility, it was quickly gone after the introduction of this model. Mercedes had always tuned its cars for stability first, agility second and the debut of their multi-link axle in the 190E only reinforced that characteristic. The BMW (again, a cheaper car), reflected less conservative thinking, and engineers tuned the chassis to take advantage of the improved suspension geometry offered by the company’s new Z-axle rear suspension. The car was far from tail-happy or difficult to control like its predecessors were, but it wasn’t deliberately inert. If any sense of tossability was lost in the transformation was lost in the transition to the new model, there was compensation in the new steering, which lost the E30’s rather long ratio (and in a bit of foreshadowing, some of its feel).
The E36 didn’t express disdain for its owner’s abilities the way the W201 did, and few other chassis at the time were as capable. Even better, engines remained quite audible, with a throaty growl surprising in a new car at the time, and more so today. Non-enthusiast owners got the message pretty clearly that the new cars took them seriously as drivers. The C-class which followed in 1994 tried to compete with multivalve engines and rack and pinion steering, but was still more expensive and less exciting. It wouldn’t be until the Audi A4 that any car would be seen as a viable competitor in the United States, and with each subsequent generation, even the Audi has become a more rear-biased, BMW-inspired machine. At the same time, Nissan and Cadillac have entered the fray with the Infiniti G35/G37 and the CTS/ATS, which received critical acclaim and commercial success for a few years only to fall behind, with the latest iteration of the former car subject to a rather desperate renaming scheme.
In an effort to remain on top, BMW has widely equipped its cars with all-wheel drive and begun diluting the driving experience. As each newer C-class and Audi A4 became firmer and more like the 3-series, BMW has been hedging its bets by widening the car’s appeal, and current versions have become very large and somewhat inert, despite being very firmly set up on big run-flat tires, often with sport packages, with lightning-fast, electrically assisted steering. The 3-series continues the E36’s trend as a segment-defining car, and retains a very sanitized version of its driving experience, but it’s no longer fresh.
One could almost look at today’s 3-series as somewhat of an aging playboy. If the E36 reflects his limber athleticism in youth, today’s car represents a nostalgia for that era masked by minor cosmetic surgery, expensive suits and long days at the spa and gym. The cachet may still be there, but it’s all too obvious. It might be a stretch to call the current 3-series and its competitors entirely domestic, but they’re far from sensational. Unfortunately, there’s an absence of any new ideas to fill the void. Creativity and novelty have taken the form of such cars as the Tesla (and to be sure, it offers a new experience), but savvy buyers in search of a fun everyday car are faced with a distinct awareness of deja vu. Against such a backdrop, a big American classic seems more appealing than ever, and customers in the BMW’s homeland certainly agree, snapping up our big cruisers in record numbers or otherwise searching for youngtimers in the ’80s idiom. It’s time to move on.