Everyone wants an E30, but people just seem to have the E36. They tune it, they race it, they engine swap it. But no one loves it. No one truly wants the E36. Will that ever change?
The BMW 3 Series is ubiquitous, and never really ever a bad choice in a new or used car. It’s a basic and obvious choice, sure, but you know what you’re going to get—and what you’re going to get is usually good.
But we cannot pretend that all 3s are created equally. The first 3, the malaise-era E21, never lived up to the legend established by its predecessor the 2002s and is today sought after only by self-loathing weirdos, like Jalopnik editors and other undesirables.
The next 3 Series, the E30, is the king, baby. It’s supposedly the most successful touring car racing platform ever and is still beloved and worshipped today by enthusiasts for its compact dimensions, rear-drive setup, charmingly ‘80s version of modernity and endless mod-ability. It’s comfortable and practical and robust, the way German cars used to be. The car is also shockingly easy to wrench on and shockingly hard to screw up.
That love and worship hasn’t carried over to its successor the E36, introduced in 1990 and made until 1999. At least, it hasn’t in 2016. And I get why! It’s bigger, heavier, longer, wider, more complex, not as easy to work on. It is, very simply, regarded as less of a classic by nearly everyone, save for drifters, who merely see it as a means to an end—the end goal being to get sideways.
This of course wasn’t helped by the general reputation that the E36 M3 has. Infamously neutered in the U.S. market, it’s still a fine machine, but easily the least-desirable M-car ever made. It seems to have made the rest of the lineup look kind of bad by proxy.
Go on your Craigslist and search around for old BMWs. I guarantee you that if you find some E30s and E36s, the E30s will be more expensive. The damn E30 M3 and the cult-like worship around it pulled up the prices on all of them, included hot mess rusted-out automatic 318i sedans.
The E36? Now, you can get one of those for cheap. I know for a fact that you could find yourself a nice E36, with a manual and everything, for well under $4,000 if you tried. I’ve seen pretty pristine ones going for closer to $2,000. Try that with an E30 and the seller probably neglected to mention that his example is presently on fire. (“NO LOW BALLERS, I KNOW WHAT I HAVE.”)
In fact, just near me:
Here is a clean and strong-running 318is coupe with a manual for just $2,100.
Here is a clean and strong-running 328i sedan—an automatic but still a great car—for $3,500.
Here is a manual 328is coupe with a handful of issues for a mere $2,000.
Here is a higher-mileage but very nice M3 for $5,500.
All good deals!
I’m here to tell you the E36’s reputation as a less-desirable BMW is undeserved. In fact, if I had to put money on it, I’d say it’s the next great car to skyrocket in value, especially since the world seems to have had its way with all the good E30s.
Yes, the E36 got bigger, and heavier. But it was also designed with the idea that maybe a car would be quicker and more efficient if it wasn’t shaped like a brick. Aerodynamics! Wind tunnels! Enclosed headlights! An integrated computer and system check! More safety features! Several body styles to choose from! And still tons of rear-drive fun, comfort, interesting inline-four and -six engines, with a lot less of the infuriating modern car bullshit! Yes, this is a fine machine.
In a lot of ways, the E36 is the first true modern sport sedan as we understand that segment today. Take a look at the Lexus IS and RC, the Infiniti Q50, the Jaguar XE, the Audi A4 and even the 3s and 4s BMW makes today. They all have quite a bit more in common, size and feature-wise, with the E36 than they do with the absurdly tiny E30. The E36 feels like the one that set the template.
And I think it looks better than people generally give it credit for. It’s a nice, distinctive stopgap between the boxy cars of the ‘80s and the sleeker land missiles we have today. It’s often called a “dolphin shape.” Did you know that? Friend, who doesn’t like dolphins?
This could be you! The ecstasy of the wind in your hair, the Mariah Carey music coming from the CD player. It is the 1990s again! Everything is joyful and happy and optimistic because ISIS doesn’t exist yet.
I own an E30. The slow one, the 325e. It’s nice and good and I love it. I can even work on it and I’m a garbage mechanic. But sometimes I, like a person in 1991 might have, consider trading up. I’m getting older, you know. I have to pee three times a night and my joints always hurt. I don’t understand how to use Snapchat. An airbag on my car—just one, really—would be nice. A little more comfort and size and even power, without sacrificing fun or old-school BMW-ness, does not seem like the worst thing to me.
When will the E36 get its day in the sun? When will it be recognized by enthusiasts as a truly great value, even if it comes with a couple more headaches than an E30 does? Soon, I bet. And not just from the drifter crowd.