In Praise of the BMW E36 3-Series

Back in 1998, my parents picked up what was, for them, an uncharacteristically ostentatious automobile. In late 1975, I arrived home from the hospital in a 1962 Rambler, which is the first car I ever steered. Our other car at the time was a '64 Belvedere sedan with a 318. From there we graduated to a '69 Catalina and a '68 Country Sedan. And then an '83 Olds Firenza and an '80 Mercury Colony Park. The Firenza gave way to an '89 Camry in '91, while the Merc was supplanted in trailer-towing duty by an off-lease '94 K5 Blazer in '96, which to date, was the first time my folks had ever dropped over 20k on an automobile. They would likely still be driving the Camry today, had a man in a nearly-identical Camry not totalled the thing while it was parked. At a loss what to do, they purchased a '90 Legend from a friend, but the seats bothered my dad's back to the point that he felt that he couldn't drive it anymore.

And for the first time in my life, my parents actually listened to my advice as to which car to buy and entirely acted on it. Which set the stage for the most out-of-character purchase my folks ever made. They'd been in Ireland that summer and my rich-yet-frugal uncle let them borrow his E36 318. Bear in mind that this is a man who owned 13 houses at one point, yet still drove Toyota Starlets and Nissan Micras. By the time he moved to one of the most exclusive enclaves in Belfast, he figured he probably needed a nicer car. So he picked up a used 318.

So I said to my mother, "Well, did Dad have any trouble driving Joe's BMW when you guys were over there?"

"No, he didn't complain at all."

I talked her into taking one for a test drive, and a week or two later, they were the new owners of a black '96 328i sedan, a car which they've owned for nearly a decade and seem to assume will end up in their will. At which point, myself and my other personalities will conduct an expensive, protracted legal battle that will bankrupt all of us over this black-and-tan Teutonic slab of automotive genius. Simply put, the E36 is one of the finest cars ever built. It's relatively light and the BMW I6 is — big freaking duh — absolutely fantastic. The power delivery is wonderfully linear, it makes a great noise, the controls are intuitive and the handling is simply impeccable. Styling? Handsome. And after spending years looking a bit dated post-E46-intro, it's starting to come back into its own as a classic design as less-well-maintained examples fade from the roadways.

When the Loverman and I reviewed the RS 4 last year, I bitched and griped about how it felt like the car was being held to the ground by sticky rubber and advanced electronics, rather than by a well-sorted design from the get-go. The E36 is one of the primary reasons I feel this way. It's simply a correctly-engineered, correctly-built car with a great motor, great chassis and great brakes. It is quietly amazing — no more, no less. I want a girlfriend like this car; attractive, feels perfect, intelligent, eager to please, slightly intimidating, distant now and then, but perfectly engaging when it absolutely counts. And always ready to go, even if the upkeep costs might be a little higher than I'm used to.

Some nights, when I'm home in Sac visiting, I'll sit on the steps of my folks' garage, light an American Spirit and just gaze at that car. Simply put, it may well be the finest attainable enthusiast car of the 1990s, and indeed, really of any era. My parents are prudent drivers; senior citizens at this point, actually. While hoonage is in my bloodline, the propensity for it skipped them both. And as prudent sorts, the keys I'm invariably handed when I come home to visit are always to the Blazer. Sometimes, though, when the stars align; when my dad and I are out in the Bimmer, he lets me blow the gunk out of it. I've driven faster cars. I've driven more expensive cars. But there are few cars I could spend the rest of my life caning like I could an E36. Just don't tell my mom. I'd never get to drive the damn thing again.

E36 [Unofficial BMW]

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