What do you buy when you just want a cheap run-around, that you don’t mind bearing a few small scratches from other careless drivers coming out of parking spots? Most people would go for a small hatchback and then call it a day. Me? I’ve bought an 18-year-old E36 BMW 320i, and considering that it was just a regular run-of-the-mill 3-Series in the ‘90s, convincing you that it’s a standout car might be a bit difficult.
The problem with being a car enthusiast is that you tend to make your purchasing decisions with your heart rather than your head. If I wanted a cheap run-around, why didn’t I just buy a 10 year-old Toyota Yaris diesel and be done with it? It would have cost less to insure, it would probably be very reliable, it would be more economical, cheaper to maintain, and if some drunken youth keyed the side of it – thinking it was funny – I would probably just shrug my shoulders and go on with my day. The reason is probably obvious – because it’s not that exciting of a car. I’ve never driven a 10-year-old Toyota Yaris diesel, but I’m willing to bet my savings that the driving experience is as mundane and as forgettable as the last pair of socks I bought.
I spotted this silver 320i about a month ago on a random drive at a roadside dealership in Versoix, with most of its inventory consisting of dirt-cheap cars – including a slightly rusty Maserati Ghibli I gathering a lot of dust. The 320i had a fairly low (for its age) 133,900km on the odometer, has electric windows all around, climate control, an aftermarket radio, and an old-fashioned onboard computer. The car also had some service history, a valid road license that will last until March 2015, as well as a valid antipollution sticker. The dealer initially wanted CHF 3,600, but after a test drive and some haggling we agreed on CHF 3,000.
So what was it that really pushed me to get the ‘96 BMW 320i? Easy. It has a straight-six engine and rear-wheel drive, and in my mind that means power oversteer and a soundtrack from the 1960s. Now granted, in 1996 there was nothing special about a straight-six engine: Mercedes Benz, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Opel, Volvo, Chevrolet, Dodge, Jaguar, Ford, and others all offered some kind of straight-six for some of their models. But in 2014, the straight-six engine has almost disappeared from most manufacturers’ model line-ups. Even BMW – known for being a champion for the straight-six engine – now reserves these engines for their top-of-the-line models, using turbocharged four-cylinders for their regular models instead. So now any car with a straight-six engine – to me – seems rather unique.
The 320i’s 2.0-litre engine produces 150hp and 190Nm of torque, giving the 1,420kg car an official 0-100km/h time of 9.7 seconds and a top speed of 214km/h. Fuel consumption figures are 12.9l/100km in the city, 6.7l/100km on the highway, and 9.0l/100km combined. CO2 output is 213g/km.
The fact that the 320i produces 150hp (110kw) means that I won’t pay a crazy amount in annual taxes either. But apart from that, just starting it up makes me smile. It’s not loud by any means, but the quality of the engine note itself is proper old-school BMW straight-six. The bass from that engine makes even driving at low speed enjoyable. But if you do call for higher revs, it almost sounds like a slower-revving E46 M3.
The driving experience
There are more old-school attributes from the 320i, like a throttle cable, a slightly heavy steering, as well as a five-speed manual gearbox that you cant just flick through the cogs with a finger, but SHIFT into place. You really have to “feel” the gears into place, otherwise there’s always a chance of hearing a nasty crunch or the gear popping out of place if you try to rush it.
For the most part, this car does not feel like an 18-year-old car. Its engine has a decent spread of torque from the low- to mid-range, allowing for decent in-gear acceleration around town and overtaking on the highway. It has a comfortable ride too – reminding us how having a decent amount of rubber can do wonders for comfort (the tyres measure195/65 R 15). The car is nice and stable on the highway, and with the windows up, it’s got great levels of refinement for a car of its age. There’s a little bit of body roll if you go around the corners too quickly, but its handling is mostly well-balanced.
New vs old
The only things that show their age are the brakes, the sound system, and its exterior dimensions. The brakes don’t squeal, but the pads and discs might need replacing, as there’s not a lot of stopping power left in them. The radio is clearly from the era of “can you burn a CD for me?” The sound quality is clear, but there’s no real thumping bass to be had from the standard speakers. As for the exterior dimensions, in 2014 a ‘96 BMW 3-Series looks tiny compared to more modern cars. I parked the 320i next to a Peugeot 307, and the French hatchback actually dwarfed the old Bimmer.
Having mentioned the exterior dimensions of the E36, the interior has decent space for average-sized adults, but might be a bit of a snug fit for tall rear passengers. As for the quality, most of the plastics and cloth seats are still in good shape – no cracks or tears to be found. All the buttons and switches work too. Visibility out of the car is far better than most modern cars too. Thanks to thin A-pillars, going through blind corners isn’t as cumbersome as in most new cars.
Is it a good buy?
Whenever you buy an old car, especially one with a BMW badge, the possibilities of high repair bills never really leave your mind. As I’m writing this, I’ve been driving the car for about three weeks, and already have had to get something fixed. Luckily it was only a rear brake light switch, and is pretty easy and cheap (CHF 36) to fix. Despite this though, the car feels great, and its ride quality is what surprised me the most – I really wasn’t expecting it to be this comfortable. Whether I made a mistake or not, all depends on whether or not it makes several unscheduled stops to the garage. If I manage to go a year without it breaking down, then I think I would have made a great straight-six purchase.
By Alex Kisiri