The third-generation 3 series, introduced in 1991, was a radical step forward from the E30. The design was completely new, with much improved aerodynamics. The six-cylinder engines were all new, employing four valves per cylinder. Top engine was the 325i with 192hp. Besides the entry-level 316i and 318i four-cylinders, the sixteen-valve 318iS was also carried over from the E30.
The E36 was offered as sedan, touring, coupé and convertible. The coupé and convertible feature completely different sheet metal, being lower and longer than the sedan. In 1994, the shorter compact was added as entry-level model. As a cost-cutting measure, the E30’s simpler rear suspension was used. Available engines were the 1.6l (316i), 1.8l 16-valve (318ti), and the detuned 2.5l (323ti), with the latter two models once again using the ti moniker that was used on the Neue Klasse and 02. The compact sold well in Germany, were it was popular as second car for the wife.
The E36 did not receive a major facelift during its production run. The only major changes were slightly enlarged kidneys and the addition of a third brake light. There were some changes regarding the engines, with the top engine being upgraded to a 2.8l (albeit with only one extra hp) and the four-cylinders being increased to 1.9l displacement. The E36 was phased out starting in 1998, being replaced by the E46.
The eight-valve four-cylinders are nothing to write home about, although I considered the 316i compact I once owned to be adequately powered. The 318iS is a bit quicker at 140 hp, but the performance gap to the top engines is bigger than with the E30. The 325i and 328i do 0-100 km/h in less than 8 seconds and have a top speed approaching 240 km/h.
Top engines offer serious performance. Most modern amenities are available, and prices are still low. If you can get an original 325i or 328i in good condition, now is the time to buy.
Low prices and high performance mean that many have been treated poorly. Modifications are plentiful. Quality may also not be what you might expect from a premium brand, with both rust and disintegrating interior being an issue.
This is actually a tough one for me. The compact wasn’t available with the top engine. I’m not a big fan of the looks of the coupé, but I’d have to pick it above the sedan. 328i please. If you are on a budget, consider the 318ti or 323ti.