By on May 12, 2015


So here we are, celebrating forty years of the “Dreier”, or 3-Series, depending on how Euro-wannabe you wannabe. Since I don’t wannabe, I’m going to call it “39 Years Of The 3 Series”. After all, we didn’t get the 320i in the United States until the 1977 model year. When it did arrive, it was a thermal-reacted boondoggle with a tendency to rust out from under the feet of the unlucky first owners.

Although it looked like a million bucks, particularly in “S” trim, and it was one of the dream cars of my pre-teen years, I cannot allow any of you Millennial readers out there to come to the mistaken belief that the E21, as adapted for the American market, was anything other than a shitbox with the lifespan of a fruit fly. It was also easy meat for a Rabbit GTI in any venue from the stoplight drag to the road course. It was, however, expensive, costing about as much as a base Cadillac Coupe de Ville, so at least it had that going for it. The most damning thing I can tell you about the 320i is this: I worked for David Hobbs BMW for much of 1988, and although the newest 320i was just five years old at that point, I never saw one come in for service, and we never took one in on trade.

The “E30” 318i that appeared for the 1983 model year was a major improvement over its predecessor in everything from climate control to rust resistance, but it was “powered” by the same 103-horsepower, 1.8-liter, eight-valve four-cylinder that made the badge on the back of the 1980-1983 320i a comforting lie. I put “powered” in quotes because the E30 318i struggled to break the 18-second mark through the quarter-mile in an era where the Mustang and Camaro were in the low fifteens and even a 1981 Dodge Omni 024 “Charger 2.2” could rip the mark in 17.2 seconds. That’s right: if you were in a brand-new BMW and a three-year-old Dodge Omni pulled up next to you at the light, the only thing that could save you from an ass-kicking would be a swift activation of the turn signal.

But then, one day about halfway through the first year of the 318i’s lukewarm tenure in North America, things changed.

The Three’s big brother, the E28 528e with its low-rev, 2.7-liter “eta” straight-six putting out just 127 horsepower, was a real whipping boy of the automotive media at the time. The spell cast by David E. Davis, Jr.’s infamous near-advertorial for the original 2002 had finally faded to the point where criticizing BMW became not only possible, but profitable. After all, there were plenty of would-be BMW competitors like the Pontiac 6000STE and Dodge Lancer out there, and there was a lot of magazine ad space to be filled. So the same press that had pretended not to notice the unique ability of Seventies Bimmers to go pop-crackle-BOOM fell all over themselves to attack the 528e.


By Cchan199206 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1983 BMW 528e by Cchan199206 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

True, as far as sports sedans go, the eta-motored Five wasn’t very inspiring. It was the default transportation choice of realtors, yuppie wives, and financial-industry people with children. Pretty much everybody you see driving a Lexus RX350 nowadays would have driven a 528e back then. Some nontrivial percentage of them even took it with a stick, because the Eighties were an era where both men and women were still expected to know how to operate a “standard shift”. My mother had a clutch pedal in her car, as an example, until 2007, long after she was diagnosed with terminal sarcoidosis and well after her sixtieth birthday. Ships of wood, men of iron, you get the idea.

The problems with the 528e were all neatly solved by the arrival of the brilliant 533i and the even more brilliant 535i and the sublime 535is and the even more sublime E28 M5, which ushered in the kind of Golden Age at BMW that had previously only existed in the hyperbolic imaginations of autowriters and ad copywriters. The mere existence of the 533i had serious implications for 528e sales because it cost more and therefore was more attractive to realtors and yuppie wives and financial-industry people with children. This meant that production of the US-only eta motor wasn’t going to be as high as it had previously been, unless BMW could find another place for it.


BMW 325e by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BMW 325e by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And thus we arrive at the 325e, which was introduced halfway through the 1984 model year as an upscale companion to the 318i. In addition to the 127-horse eta motor, the 325e had a lot of standard equipment and a leather interior in place of the vinyl found in its four-cylinder sibling. Car and Driver called it “smooth as a jet” and recorded a quarter-mile of [email protected] Finally, a Three that could at least nip at the heels of five-liter Mustangs.

More importantly, this was finally the 3-Series that delivered what the 320i had promised when it arrived seven and a half years before. It was luxurious, quiet, effortlessly rapid in traffic, and able to outhandle most of the competition. To drive a 325e in 1984 was to be at the apex of small German cars. You didn’t have to rev it to go quickly – hell, you couldn’t rev it, really. Just snap off shifts at the four-grand mark and watch everything around you disappear into the mirror. The same kind of easy torque that causes people to wax rhapsodic about diesels today was standard equipment thirty-one years ago in the eta-motored Three. It also marked a new seriousness on BMW’s part regarding the American market; there had been a six-cylinder variant of the E21 in Europe for nearly its entire lifetime, and the E30 had a 323i variant from Day One over there, but the company had never bothered to provide one for us.

The arrival of the 325i two years later, with its high-revving Euro-spec six, cemented BMW’s market position and enthusiast prestige for years to come. The four-cylinder variants that followed, the M3 and the sixteen-valve 318is, acquired devoted followings of their own, but it was the 325e and 325i that changed the image of the E30 from “gutless yuppie-mobile” to “legitimate sporting sedan”. These were the cars that formed the basis of BMWCCA racing for years and made the Spec E30 class a viable proposition.

From 1984 to 2012, the naturally-aspirated six-cylinder BMW Three of between 2.5 and 3.0 liter displacement was, to quote a thousand advertisements and editorials, the benchmark by which entry-level sports sedans were judged. It was a product of consistent and admirable excellence, a pleasure to drive and a privilege to own. There were often faster or more stylish options on the market, but none of them had the staying power of the Three.

The first lap I ever took around a racetrack was behind the wheel of my brand-new 330i Sport, as was the first flag I ever took as an autocrosser. During the year I worked for David Hobbs I drove plenty of eta-motored Threes, including a BBS-and-Bilstein-equipped 325es that shocked my teenaged self with its lateral grip and responsiveness. But the strongest memory I have of those cars was a rural day in Ohio back in the summer of 1989.

It was Orientation Day for parents and students at Miami University. My father’s schedule didn’t permit him to waste his time attending such an event, so he commanded that I attend it alone. When I protested that my red Marquis couldn’t possibly make the 117-mile trip to Oxford, Ohio, he handed over the keys to his black 325 and told me to return it at the end of the day.

It wasn’t a 325e, just a plain 325, the vinyl-interior model that replaced the 318i in 1986. No options, no gingerbread, just two doors, five speeds, and a fresh set of Michelins on the fourteen-inch alloys. Down Route 70, I stretched the Bimmer’s legs past 120mph and used the shoulder where I had to. I arrived at school about ninety minutes after leaving the house. Dad was right about the orientation; it was mostly hand-holding shit for kids terrified of the idea that they’d be living away from home. So at around two in the afternoon, I pointed the black BMW’s big chrome bumper out of town with the intent of beating my inbound time. Could I make 117 miles, some of it two-lane, in seventy-five minutes?

I chirped second leaving the last stoplight at Miami and never looked back. Up Route 127, the 2.7 stuttered against the rev limiter in third as I pulled across the double-yellow and blasted past the slow-moving tractor-trailers. When I pulled up in front of the house, the brakes were hot and the fuel tank was empty, and the little digital clock to the right of the tape player said 3:35. Not the 3:28 for which I’d hoped, and a few minutes above my target time. I told my friends, but they didn’t believe me. In 1989, that kind of pace was more the stuff of legends than anything else. And that was appropriate, because that squared-off coupe was, indeed, legendary in its own time, and to this day.

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80 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: Return Of The King...”

  • avatar

    If only they didn’t fall apart once the lease period ended…..

    For a few years now my dream has been to get an E36 318iS and install a VQ35 in its place. Would be great if I could replace its window regulators with those from a Honda too.

  • avatar

    Still have a 325e beater. The paint is shot, gave up on the A/C years ago, interior plastics are rotten, power window regulators are 50/50 at best. Will put a smile on your face if you like driving, especially on wet pavement. Any slip angle you want.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Kudos (again) to JB for telling the truth. Both the good and the bad about previous generations of Bimmers.

    Now what about the current generation?

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Ah yes, the early eighties. yuppies and 3ers. Being from that demographic, I remember my coworkers lusting after BMWs even through they were not in the financial or real estate industries. Colleagues would often ask me if I drove one to which I would reply. Nothing personal but “No, too little car for too much money”.
    Now I’m becoming caught in a role reversal situation. My 87 year old mother wants to dump her Panther and get a new car. I was in the process of setting her up for a test drive in new Honda CRV, but she keeps talking about my nephew’s 3 series and how nice it rides. She even likes the idea of leasing one for three years. By the end of the lease she may not be driving anymore so that may be a good way to take the keys so to speak. I’ll see how this plays out over the summer.

  • avatar

    The ad that opens this piece is so 70’s. How long has it been since admen believed that people would actually read that much text?

    • 0 avatar

      Still makes for excellent bathroom literature, though 4g smartphones are taking over that micromarket, as well.

    • 0 avatar

      People DID read that much text, and as an adman, I’ve seen the numbers to prove it. Mass illiteracy only came later.

      • 0 avatar

        You’ll find that automakers still take out two and three-page spreads to explain a car’s features, but they primarily do this in science and auto magazines, for people who are likely to read them. For most other advertising venues, especially—as someone mentioned—Internet-enabled phones, such large amounts of text would make for a poor user experience. So a pretty picture and a tagline is good.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually love ads with that much text. Then again, my favorite ad copy writer is Grant Petersen, so that makes me sort of an odd duck.

  • avatar

    BMWs don’t generally fall apart after their lease period. I’m 10+ years into my E46 coupe, it’s still a fantastic car. Does it require some TLC maintenance? Yes. Are the parts and labor pricey? Yes. But you knew that when you bought it, right?

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe you got lucky. Sajeev just told someone else not to buy a similar vintage Bimmer as they are apparently overrun with problems by that age, on average.

      And the stuff that seems to go bad with Bimmers really makes no sense. Window regulators? Cooling systems? Electronics? How is it that cars 1/4 the price of Bimmers manage to have these systems intact for decades? It’s added headache that adds nothing to the driving experience.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t know about luck. I like to believe care and maintenance play a bigger role on BMWs and on any car. I’ve owned 4 BMWs, and three I’ve owned past warranty. Every single one of them have been stellar. Normal wear and tear of course. They longest I ever owned a BMW was over 7 years (I was the 2nd owner – it was 9 years old when I sold it) and it was fantastic. My wife’s current BMW is now over 3 years past warranty and not a single thing has ever gone wrong with that car, which is why we keep it.

      • 0 avatar

        It depends. Honestly, even the current 3-Series is fairly reliable, especially if you forego some of the more complex features. The 5-Series, X5, X6 and 6-Series are hit-and-miss, but mostly just have expensive maintenance. The 7-Series is…a festering pile of unreliability and will probably give you heart and wallet-ache to no end.

        You can buy and keep a modern BMW and not have it literally fall apart on you. You just have to buy the right one. But if you’re really that concerned, a non-iDrive-equipped E90 isn’t a bad bet.

        • 0 avatar

          N-series engines are trash. Too hot, too fragile and prone to sludging, oil glut and all related issues. E39/E46 are the last BMWs that I am not afraid to keep way past the warranty (my E39 is 13 years old and IS reliable).

          • 0 avatar

            100% in agreement with Acubra. The latest 5 series I’d own is the e39, and the latest 3 series I’d own would be the e46. Engine wise I’ve replaced a couple of Vanos units, water pumps (plastic), and thermostat housings but otherwise they are very durable. Maybe a DISA valve and an intake boot here and there (easy).

            My last e36 went 287,000 miles, 100% original long block, it did not consume nor drip a single drop of any fluid. Not the most powerful powerplant but it could not be killed no matter how much abuse was thrown at it.

            Anything post e46 does not seem to hold up anywhere near as well. Electronic waterpumps and electronic thermostats are a constant failure item. They also seem to leak every fluid imagineable. Blown turbos, vacuum leaks, ughhhh. Beyond the lease period I could think of other cars (Japanese) that out perform or perform close enough to not warrant a BMW purchase.

        • 0 avatar

          HAHAHAHHAHAHAHA!!! wow, amazing how delusional some BMW owners are. As a person who spent $3-$4,000 a year on maintenance on a BMW, and having had four in the family, all I can say is: window regulators. radiators. light switches made of fragile plastic. leather that cracks and breaks. constant, expensive maintenance. but dream on fan boys, dream on… just don’t fool others into believing your dream.

          • 0 avatar

            160k miles on our e90 and all original window regulators, light switches, and radiator. leather looks fantastic with an application of meguiars leather conditioner once or twice a year. oil changes at a DEALERSHIP at $90 AND i get a F30 loaner. (F30 is disappointing)

      • 0 avatar

        I recently witnessed at work a woman unable to open the trunk of her (probably at least) $50k E-Class Mercedes. That made it clear to me that German over-complexity is what makes for premature failure and expensive repair, because only a German car would have a bizarre trunk opening procedure that doesn’t f*cking WORK.

        • 0 avatar

          A-frickin’-men. The German luxury car makers have fallen into this paradigm of “more complexity equals more value.” At one time they were known for solid engineering. Now they are known for malfunctioning electronic gizmos.

          Consider the original version of the Mercedes COMAND system. Came with a textbook-sized instruction manual. Enough said.

          Or the system where each key fob could be programmed so that the car would reset the driver’s seat and mirror positions when you approached the vehicle. You never had to touch a button; the car did it all for you. Worked great until, “Honey, I can’t find my car keys. Can I borrow yours?”

          Does this sh*t really enhance the luxury car ownership experience?

          • 0 avatar

            BMW will still sell you a relatively sparsely equipped car. Which causes endless whining about how an $18K Elantra has more toys.

          • 0 avatar

            I sort of remember GM doing the memory key thing first. That’s why a lot of the cars have keys labeled 1 and 2.

          • 0 avatar

            Volvos also have fob-based settings memory, too.

            A quick internet search suggests that Jeeps (with the appropriate options) do as well, and Volkswagens, and Fords…

            In fact, I think from that search that it’s not so much a “German thing” as “pretty much universal anymore”.

            People want automatic settings a hell of a lot more than they care about “what if I have to use the other set of keys once in a blue moon?!?!”.

            (Also, well, I suggest taking damned good care of “keys” when they’re modern keyless-go fobs; those things cost a bloody *fortune* to replace.

            Not being able to find them is an organizational personal problem – unless there’s a toddler around, of course.

            But then again, a new key and remote for my ’05 Corolla is a hair over $200.)

          • 0 avatar

            I have two E32 740iL (93/94 models). Most of the problems you can fix yourself and they are fairly reliable vehicles.

            Now, at 20 years old, there are some weird electrical problems from transistors getting old and going bad.
            Occasionally the speedometer will stop working along with the temperature and fuel gauge. The fix is simple – Pull the cluster and replacing the bad parts, but take it to the dealer and it becomes a $2k+ repair for something that can be fixed for under $50 with some parts and solder.

            Where BMW’s get a bad name is some of the wear and tear parts. Front suspension parts (wishbones / thrust arms) need to be replaced every 50k miles or so. About $500 if you do it yourself – 4-6 times that at the dealer. That’s where a lot of the “expensive to own” reputation comes from.

          • 0 avatar

            Tell me about it. What a pain in the ass it is to press the “1” or “2” button on the side of the seat when the 5% of the time I happen to use the wrong key in my wife’s 2004 BMW and it moves right to my settings. You know, way harder than having to adjust it every single time I get in.

            You just argued having to do something sometimes is harder than having to do something every time.

        • 0 avatar

          “I recently witnessed at work a woman unable to open the trunk of her (probably at least) $50k E-Class Mercedes”.

          Are you sure this can’t be blamed on the operator? Seriously, what is so complicated about a trunk that it has to be blamed on the manufacturer?

          For that matter, are you sure the M-B trunk is far more complicated than really any other manufacturer’s trunk these days?

          • 0 avatar

            @Marone – I can practically guarantee you that the trunk has a touchpad under the lip, above the license plate, with no mechanical connection to the trunk latch. I can also practically guarantee you that, by virtue of some particular German logic that no one else can fathom, a certain set of parameters have to be met in order for the trunk to open. Perhaps the engine has to be off, so that you don’t get fumes in the car. Perhaps the key has to be within 3 feet of the trunk latch. Perhaps, even if the doors are unlocked, if the key fob is in the car, the trunk won’t open so that people can’t walk up to your running car and steal your crap out of the trunk. Whatever it is, one of the many if/then statements coded into the [email protected]#$ing trunk latch wasn’t happy, so no trunk for you. Is this necessary?

          • 0 avatar

            @Marone: Judging by her repeated attempts at locking the car and fiddling with the fob to try and open it, I think it’s more likely that M-B specialized a specific opening procedure and something was out of whack.

            So smartascii probably is speaking the truth.

      • 0 avatar

        They are not “overrun with problems”. They have typical 15yo car issues, which cost somewhat more because they are relatively expensive and complex cars. If you think you can just buy a random used 15yo RWD Lexus or Infiniti and drive it with no cares in the world you are living in dreamland. The question was 15yo BMW or new $350/mo lease for someone who didn’t sound like he had a lot of time or inclination to deal with an old car. In that scenario, I concur with buy a new car, but I would have no qualms with owning an E39. Buy the best one you can find for $10K, and spend the $5K sorting out the issues before you start driving it.

        • 0 avatar

          Well I simply MUST chime in as the voice of experience.
          I own an 11 year old FMY e60. Yes, it puked its cooling system, yes it has leaked oil and various other fluids multiple times. Yes, it had some REALLY stupid design elements (google alternator bracket oil leak). No, my previous Maxima didn’t do stuff like this, but it wasn’t nearly as fun. However, as noted, I knew what I was getting into when I bought it.
          Should an 11 year old car that was pretty expensive in its heyday require this much maintenance? Maybe not, but given the low purchase price, I’m not complaining. For what I paid, I could have bought a 5 year old Accord (probably with cloth seats and auto) and it would have cooked along just fine with little maintenance.
          If I had to take this thing to someone else for all my repairs, I would not own it. I am excercising the privilege of being able to fix my own stuff and as a result I don’t have to drive a boring-ass econosedan.
          So they probably should’t break as much as they do, but for all of the problems, I’d still make the same choice again–it’s worth it.
          And PLEASE with the iDrive, it’s been around for ages and isn’t THAT bad! It’s like making jokes about Bob Dole at this point, give it a rest!

          • 0 avatar

            iDriveYouMad. There I did it!

          • 0 avatar

            I agree, zamoti, iDrive has become a good system. Yes, early versions not so much. I had iDrive on my 335i and once you get past the initial learn mode which is quick, I still find it far easier to use than others. (read: Cadillac CUE).

          • 0 avatar
            Dr. Claw

            Ha ha, Bob Dole. Taking it back to the ’90s, I see

      • 0 avatar
        formula m

        This spring we put an M race motor in a track car that was rebuilt after crashing last season and it still had some faults that are common to many BMW’s. The thermostat housings are made of plastic and break easily so we replaced it with a metal housing and remove the thermostat. Also the steering line kit to replace a poor design and the fittings so it doesn’t blow again and cause a crash. The place where it breaks causes the fluid to shoot into the back side of the wheel and tire. The steering fails and takes our your drivers side tire and brakes out from being covered in oil. I can see how these can fail just from daily use but the weaknesses can be fixed.

    • 0 avatar

      Likewise, another E46 coupe owner with 180K, Replaced the battery after six years of ownership,two sets of brakes, bought a BavAuto cooling kit(Rad, new fan assembly, all hoses, stat housing- all in one box), only now the Pirelli’s are needing replacement. No complaints, bought as CPO and still pleased with it. Also have an E30(325iS) that I’ve owned for ten years, that is going away to pay for Cougar XR-7 summer toy. I suggest going the CPO route, looking for a reputable non-dealer service technician, buying parts from ICP, BavAuto, or working a deal with one of your local dealers to throw all your parts biz his way in exchange for discounts(tell him you usually buy from ICP or BavAuto, and wouldn’t he like that business instead. As a former parts mgr, that arrangement worked for me when I wanted the business I wasn’t getting before. If all you truly want is a dependable ride for getting to work, get a Camry, Subie, or Honda/Acura. You don’t give up reliability with BMW as long as you check out your purchase beforehand, as you would with any car, and you maintain it after you own it. Ask several people who already own one-what they like about their car and what they don’t. And drive a number of them to see what you like and don’t like. This process should take several months, so start early.

  • avatar

    Great overview view of how things truly went down. Now I want to hear your opinions on the E39 5 Series

  • avatar

    Great summary of 3 history. For a brief moment, I thought it might end without any references to your apparently astounding driving ability, even while still in your teens!

  • avatar

    “David E. Davis, Jr.’s infamous near-advertorial for the original 2002”

    Infamous only in your mind so far as I can tell. I heartily disagree. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you weren’t even born at the time, and rendering judgement years later carries zero weight with me. When you are there, you compare to what else is available. Some guy years later with a hate on for DED is just sour grapes.

    Even the UK mags praised the car and its derivatives. I lived in the UK from 1969 to 1974 and the 2002 was a legend there too, no matter what you might think of its qualities. I was a car nut and had been driving and rallying (yessir) since 1964. Those were completely different times.

    I’ve noticed and commented on your revisionism over the years here, mostly when your imagination took flight back when the old SSL stuff was recycled for TTAC. Your interpretations may make sense to you, but may also have zero bearing on the facts.

    What I will agree on was the weak sauce 318 then 320 sold in Canada after the 2002. Sure they rusted like everything else except VWs in those days. However, a friend of mine has a decent one he’s kept up and drives every day. Dog slow. Also, the six cylinder engine in the Bavaria rarely lasted 80,000 miles before the cam calved or head gasket failed. Same basic engine as the 528e. The modern lighter weight one came out for the 3 series after that.

    I enjoy reading your stuff, but I don’t have to agree with your every assertion. For some things you just had to be there.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      “I enjoy reading your stuff, but I don’t have to agree with your every assertion.”

      I would hope that nobody does. I’m not interested in starting a cult.

      At least not one with dudes even older than I am in it.

    • 0 avatar

      My neighbor restored (stock) a ’74 (I think) BMW 2002 and let me drive it one day. That car was a blast to drive and great driving dynamics. There was more spirit and fun in that car that many modern applicance and rental cars I’ve driven. I can see why they were so popular. He’s curently rebuilding a 2nd one.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually the Bavaria motor has very little to do with the “e” sixes. The Bavaria used an early variant of the M30 “big six”, which is the same engine family as the 2002’s four. The e and i m20 motors used in the e30 were a newer design, basically six cylinder “little six” versions of the 1.8L M10 four that was used in the late e21. The e28 533i and 535i used the M30 engine. The obvious difference was timing chains in the M30 series and timing belts in the M20 series, but they are very different engines internally.

      The early engines suffered terribly from the awful thermal reactor pollution control systems. They got much more reliable once BMW went to catalytic converters. Head gaskets are a wear item on iron block straight sixes with aluminum heads. Just the way it is, physics you see. Even on straight six Toyotas. Replace the gasket, continue on down the road.

      I’m surprised Jack did not touch on why the “eta” motors were low revving and used in the US. Our old friend CAFE, of course. The eta motor was designed to maximize fuel economy by minimizing friction and maximizing torque to allow really tall gearing. To minimize friction, they had a super lightweight valvetrain which necessitated the low, low redline, originally 5450 rpm, IIRC. Upped to 5750 in the late cars. Once Bosch improved fuel injection enough, BMW started offering the i motors here. Those early six cylinder injected motors were thirsty beasts once tuned to meet US emissions requirements, which is why we never got the e21 323i here. BMW got away with it on the big cars because they sold enough small cars to average it out, but they could not afford to sell 323is here. And even then, our 2.5l had only about the same hp as the Euro 2.3l.

      My stepfather/Mom had an ’83 e28 528e for almost 25 years. Even with a 3spd slushbox, it would get 25-26mpg on the highway, which was not bad at all for a big car back then. 30mpg was easily possible on the 5spd and later 4spd automatic cars. So it worked, but took a lot of the fun out of the proceedings. Despite Jack’s teenage enthusiasm (the mind shudders at the thought), the e was still not really fun even in the e30. The i is where the fun begins. The biggest problem is that BMW forgot to tell the eta motors that they were supposed to be low-revving sloggers, so they would hit 3500 or so and want to rev, then the rev limiter put a halt to the fun 1000rpm later, just as they started to feel and sound good.

      Jack is about my current favorite writer in both car blogs and buff books, but I also think he is a bit of a rabble-rouser who loves to write to his audience. Which ultimately is what he is paid to do.

      • 0 avatar

        On the other hand, the M20B27 in an E30 325e/es is quite a bit of fun once you add a Conforti chip.

      • 0 avatar

        The 6 cylinder derivative of the M10 4 cylinder was the M30. That’s why it was developed before the M20, and why it shares so much architecture with the M10. Look at the bore spacing, cam drive, head design, and cylinder cant. The M20 was a later design that was more tightly packaged than the M10 between cylinders and had a belt driven cam.

        M30s started coming here years before the dreaded thermal reactors made them a liability in the mid ’70s. They were first seen in the US in 1969 in the 2500, 2800, and 2800 CS with carburetors and no reactors. Many of the 3 liter powered cars did have disastrous emissions controls, but they were sorted when the M30 reverted to 2.8 liter displacement for the 1979-1981 E12 528i. This car had 169 reliable, high reving hp compared to the 121 hp of the ’82 528e with its M20B27. The M30 returned in 3.2 liter form and there was much rejoicing.

        All this US-centric, US-only eta stuff is pure ignorance. BMW built the eta engines because they were trying to sell cars in Europe to people that were being taxed out of their gasoline cars. Diesels still stunk from a performance perspective to go with the stench of their fuel and exhaust. Gas in some countries cost twice as much or more. The eta was a way of maximizing fuel economy while pushing the E28 in a manner that met with its price. The 525e, with its 2.7 eta engine(4,550 RPM redline), was Europe’s best selling version of the E28 in the mid ’80s. If anything, BMW didn’t care about CAFE at all. They could charge whatever they wanted for their cars at the time, so fines for missing targets didn’t matter as much as consumer acceptance. We got the 325e because it worked better with an automatic than the 323i did. When Europe went to the 325i, we got it too.

  • avatar

    And now I am looking at this and thinking about head swaps to make it quicker:

  • avatar

    Spot on with the description of the 325e – I owned one for a few years, and really enjoyed the combination of good handling and comfortable ride. I’m not surprised that E30s are so common in inexpensive racing series – it’s the one car I’ve owned that was as fun to drive as my Miata.

    There were occasional niggling problems with the electronics and electrical components, but given how old it was when I owned it, no more so than other old cars I’ve had. I’d probably still own it if it had had more headroom – I had to tip my head to the right to keep it under the sunroof to clear the headliner.

  • avatar

    “the US-only eta motor”

    I remember the 325e and 525e were for sale in Germany as well.

  • avatar

    The eta engine was far from a US-only offering. I lived in the Netherlands in 1984, and the 525e was the best-selling E28 variant. It had the same M20B27 we did, 4,500 RPM redline and all. It probably didn’t have a catalytic converter though, since Europe was about 15 years behind us in worrying about air quality.

    It’s interesting that you didn’t see any E21s at your dealer in 1988. I wanted one pretty badly during the ’80s, and they were commanding serious prices as used cars right up until they were used up. Today, a nice E21 is will cost a few times as much as a 318i, 2 valves or 4. My original BMW guru detested the 320i, having wrecked one of the very first ones off the boat, for which he blamed the rear suspension changes from the 02. I don’t know if he had a point or not, although the front suspension of the E21 was famously bad, using only the anti-sway bar to locate the bottom of the strut.

  • avatar

    Friend of mine won a 325i in a raffle in the early 90s. I got to drive it once, very sweet little car. And that six sounded terrific when you wound it up.

  • avatar

    Big engine into smaller car, that formula has been successful for decades- just ask any auto manufacturer. Now instead of raw displacement we use things like turbos and direct injection.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m still waiting for more twin turbos.

      400hp twin turbo Ecoboost 4 cylinder? Sure!

    • 0 avatar

      Turbos yes… direct injection no…

      I cannot fathom why DI gets the accolades it does? It ultimately requires expensive repair as the valves coke and its worse when it comes to particulate emissions. It does provide a nice extra bit of power over most port injected engines but in the case of Ford at least clever intake port design coupled with clever use of variable valve timing narrows the gap between a port and direct injected engine.

      • 0 avatar

        raph – – –

        I fully agree. The reason why DI gets hot press nowadays is that it’s perceived as one more “trickle-down” technology from the racing world, and was used on expensive German cars, so everybody wants that, right? (I don’t.)

        In addition to the failings you noted, DI requires an ultrahigh-pressue fuel pump; reinforced fuel lines and “Swedge-Lok” type connections; superb filtering for added fuel cleanliness; special cooling of the intake valves (which can no longer be “bathed” in the evaporative fuel-air mixture, as in port injection); and much more elaborate computer control from the ECU and its sensors.

        However, it’s benefits are:
        1) Allows very high compression ratios, almost like diesel engines;
        2) Virtually eliminates pre-ignition (“knocking”);
        3) Improves gas mileage;
        4) ironically, can run on lower octane fuels (since pre-ignition is no longer an issue);
        5) Provides a multi-charge option for performance vehicles (more than one “squirt” per cylinder).

        For ordinary drivers, are these goodies worth it? I doubt it. Can’t wait to see what sort of repair bills will occur on BMW’s with DI engines. But then again, I never had any trouble with carburetors on my vehicles….(^_^)..


      • 0 avatar

        NMGOM got all the low hanging fruit, but DIs biggest benefit is its ability to run in stratified burn mode for short periods at low load. The fuel savings of this “lean burn mode” are quite significant. Once catalyst technology catches up, periods of stratified burn can increase. As for intake valve coking, its a symptom of removing the fuel wash from the port injector, but the cause is imprecise and inefficient oil/air separation in the PCV system. Newer generation DI engines claim to have cured this with better PCV designs, but like everything else, only time will tell.

        • 0 avatar

          Mieden – – –

          Mulit-charge capability is what can be used to “stratify” the two or more delivery sprays for better fuel economy (as you mention), or use the same doses for higher performance needs (e.g., race-driving)


  • avatar

    Jack never fails to entertain but I have come to the conclusion that many BMW owners view older model through rose colored spectacles.

    I have owned every 3 series coupe from the E30 to the E92 and have also recently bought a M235i. My first thought were “Is is as good as my previous BMWs?”.

    To find out I got some friends together with an E46 M3, a low mileage E46 330 coupe as well the guy who owns my old E92 335 to drive them back to back.

    It was an interesting comparison (one which I may yet turn into a reader review) and I was surprised how my memories of these cars no longer lined up with reality. There was a magic in driving the older model again but its amazing how many short comings I had forgotten about. There is no doubt that the steering feel was better on the older cars (E46) but there is very little else that I missed about them apart from the nostalgia.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, but to a point. Like you, I’ve owned multiple BMW’s to include M models and driven many more. My wife drives one now, but my last was a M-sport e92 335. Nostalgia will always play a role, but I do feel there are some great traits from those older versions that have been softened up over time that I miss.

      My brother in law only recently sold his e36. A best friend of mine owns an e30 M3 (and an e90 M3) and my neighbor has one fully restored 1974 2002 and is working on a 2nd. With the exception of the e36, I absolutely love how raw and basic those previous cars are. Simple and engaging. Sure there are shortcomings, but all cars have shortcomings. Sure the 2002 or the e30 M3 didn’t have the power or punch of my 335, but the steering, the feedback, the noise, even just the feedback coming from the seat just aren’t the same as they are today. It can be argued that it took more skill too. On my 335, those twin turbos kicked in at 1400rpm. It took nothing. Driving those older cars, you had to be so much more aware of what the car was telling you and you had to work with it. That kind of engagement does wonders for the fun of driving.

      Anyway, I’m not some old timer missing the good old days. The e36 came out when I was starting college. Maybe in the end I would say they are good in their own ways and not so good in others. Maybe we’re really not that far apart, but nostalgia is just a piece of it.

      • 0 avatar

        I have to say the E92 335 did not come off well in my comparison. I loved that shape and the extra space of the 335 but I found the steering heavy and even less communicative than the M235i. The lack of suspension travel and nervous disposition over broken pavement also didn’t help and the (N54) engine isn’t nearly as rev happy as the N55 variant in the 2 series.

        The E46 M3, however, is a charming today as it was in its day – it just felt a lot slower than I remembered it!

        • 0 avatar

          I agree with you 100% about the e9x steering. Any added feel is lost in the weight – it feels like the steering column is full of glue. Call me a heretic, but I actually prefer even the early f3X steering to the e9x! I find Sport Package e9xs to have a ruined ride but very little actual added grip in the real world, and I also find them terrible on bad pavement, they just skip all over the place – the tires don’t grip when they are airborne. Stickier tires get you 95% of the way there while saving your butt from a pounding.

          Also agree that the e46 M3 is pretty darned special, but another case of way more commotion than I want in a daily driver. But in that fantasy world where I had a choice between a brand-new e46 M3 and a brand-new M235i as my second car? That would be a pretty tough choice given I am keeping my e91 328i alongside the M235i. But I have zero interest in dealing with an older used M-car. Not that I can’t, I just don’t want to.

          • 0 avatar

            I was always a big fan of the e46 M3. The other e46 models, not as much. No arguements on the e9x steering. I was much happier with the e9x M3 version, but I think they stuck with hydraulic on the M3 if I remember. Also a big fan of the M235i.

            I almost pulled the trigger and ordered a 1M when they were first announced. Kicking myself now as they pretty much sell for more used than they did new. Never driven one though. I also debated buying a Z4 based M roadster coupe a year ago, but that’s mostly because my first M car was a Z3 based M Roadster which used the same engine as that e36 M3.

    • 0 avatar

      As I have said multiple times, it is the same old crap every time BMW has come out with a new car since the e21 replaced the 2002. Too big, too heavy, lacks feel, blah, blah, blah. Rose tinted goggles for all.

      I have ZERO interest in driving an old sporty car as a daily driver anymore. I want my peace and quiet and some toys, along with my fun. Which is why I have an M235i on order and no longer daily drive an e30 318is as I once did. Fabulous car, super fun, but dear God what a lot of noise and commotion for not very much motion. A same year 325is was less fun and less noisy but still a complete penalty box by 2015 standards. Fun when you are 26, not so much at 46. Great toys, but not an everyday proposition, at least for me anymore. We put up with the noise because the alternative was a quiet floaty barge. Now you can have refinement and speed too.

      • 0 avatar

        I love, love, love it that you call other people boring from time to time, krhodes1.

        BTW, precisely nobody complained that the E30 was inferior to the E21, because it wasn’t. The E36 was also greeted to great acclaim, Hell, my local dealership filled up with traded in 2002tiis. It wasn’t until they started self-recycling before the first E30s did that people started finding faults with them. The E36 had the best steering of any BMW ever made. People only say they get worse every generation now because they get worse every generation, provided you knew what was good about them in the first place. As cars for people that want to drive a price tag without being inconvenienced by driving something other than the Eldorado they should be driving, they’re getting closer to the bull’s eye all of the time.

    • 0 avatar

      A proper comparo! I’d *love* to hear about that in a review.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    So you now drive a Honda??

    What happened to your admiration for the BMW?

    I do like the 3 Series from the late 80s and early 90s, especially the Ms.

    I don’t know if the current BMW design philosophy is as attractive as the BMWs from the 80s into the 90s as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I have a 911, and a Boxster, and a VFR800, and a CB550, plus a NASA race car, to cover the enthusiast side.

      The Accord is supposed to be reliable and safe.

      The V6 and six-speed manual are extras.

  • avatar

    I own a 2001 325i MT with 165k miles on it that I bought two years ago for $5k and 135k miles. It’s a blast to drive and hasn’t left me stranded yet. The car has no leaks and everything works great.

    That’s not to say the car hasn’t had it’s issues: fuel pump, window regulator, tail light plastic glue melting. But none of the issues have been major. On top of this changing things like the fuel pump were a cinch. Lift the back seats and replace. If you buy a E46 that was loved and maintained I believe it is nearly as reliable as anything from Japan.

    Next on my list is to replace the waterpump and differential fluid. Other than that I would have no worries of driving the thing cross-country on a roadtrip.

  • avatar

    Here is my brother’s BMW story. Read and Beware!

    “There was a little car, with a blue and white “star”, right in the middle of its trunk lid. When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad it was a horrid piece of sh*t.

    I grew up in the Southern California of the 1960’s, listening to songs about surfing and cars. I never really took to surfing, but even before getting a driver’s license, became a “car guy”, specifically a “sports car guy”, pprobably because my first car was a 1966 Austin Healey Sprite, a British sports car about the size of a golf cart, with the handling of a go-cart. Since those days all my vehicles have been foreign-made and fun to drive.

    The last car I bought was a 2002 BMW M3 convertible, a car consistently lauded as one of the very best sporty cars. Well, that was half-true…

    A road winding through the trees, warm spring air, top down, the raspy roar of the 3.3 liter engine, the feel of the road and g-forces while effortlessly slipping through each corner – that was why I held onto it so long. It was ecstatic, perfect… until the engine would suddenly die or the CD changer would jam.

    There were small problems with parts that should have been totally reliable. At six months the driver’s window lift broke, and the falling window broke the door handle mechanism. I was reduced to entering the passenger side and then squeezing across the center console.

    Then there were the big problems, such as the fuel pump failing, stranding me several times The dealer failed four times to diagnose the problem, which was finally fixed by an independent mechanic. The SMG transmission had a defect (never admitted to by BMW) that stalled the engine if you simultaneously braked, downshifted, and turned – like you might do when turning into a driveway. It was never fixed.

    Adding insult to injury, once the warranty ended, every repair cost thousands of dollars. Each time, I’d get it back and think “OK, NOW everything is fixed.” Ah, the power of self-delusion. Maybe that’s what drug addiction is like… the highs are so good that they make tolerable the terrible pain of withdrawal.

    Well, as of today I have kicked the BMW habit. The blue beast is gone, replaced by a 2015 VW Golf Gti.”

    • 0 avatar

      Certainly VW can take on BMW for unreliability.

    • 0 avatar

      “Well, as of today I have kicked the BMW habit. The blue beast is gone, replaced by a 2015 VW Golf Gti”

      Self delusion *is* a powerful force.

      • 0 avatar

        28-cars-later – – – –

        I too am in the process of “kicking the BMW habit”, with just one more to unload (see avatar). Yet, that 2007 Z4 3.0si (reputedly a good year) has been utterly reliable, and with the smooth ZF 6-speed (no clutch delay valve), has been a joy downshifting around curvy roads with the roadster top down.

        But BMW’s were supposed to provide a sense of the “road coming into the cockpit”; great suspension; and ultra-precise steering. What a disappointment!

        1) Road into the cockpit? NO, I get more “road into the cockpit” (and in the rest of the vehicle!) with my 2007 Jeep Wrangler;

        2) Great Suspension? For riding comfort: NO. My 2006 3-series with the original Turanza tries was almost like buckboard over RR tracks, — and forget about tar strips and expansion joints. But cornering: YES. Unfortunately, driving in America is also largely about ride comfort. Maybe the Germans forgot.;

        3) Steering? YES. It’s good. But not sufficiently unique. Commenters in the media, who started sipping the BMW Kool-Aide long ago, would wax teary-eyed over the latest effluent from Munich. (And I even believed them!). The usual test for precise steering is the ability to go around a corner and place the tires exactly “where you want them”. Gee, in all the vehicles I’ve had in 54 years of driving, among which are both cars and trucks, I don’t recall ever having had trouble placing the wheels where I wanted them (^_^). I mean, how much perfect wheel placement do I need when getting a bottle of milk from the grocery store?

        Harking back to the 8-year old Wrangler again: it’s got solid axles, simple suspension with recirculating ball steering, and I am the third owner, so nothing was “done” to it. Yet, I can “shoot the twisties”** with the same joie de vivre as the Z4, but, of course, at lower speeds. And those lower speeds may save my hide one day…

        ** We must remember the quote from Enzo Ferrari concerning the humble Jeep, when he visited America in the late 1970’s: “Truly, this is America’s real sports car”. And he completely ignored the Corvette! (which admittedly was suffering from the weird pollution controls of the “Malaise Era”).

        . _ ____
        /l ,[____],
        ()_) ()_)—)_)

  • avatar

    The HP numbers from the mid 80’s shows how lucky we are today. Old Car and Drivers are a hoot to look through.

    Love your drive story from 1989. Back then I was dumb as a box of rocks. As an Army PFC, I rented an MB 190E for the drive from Butzbach to Frankfurt to celebrate the wall coming down. I remember it being kinda slow, but better than an M2 Bradley.
    Sheesh I’m old.

  • avatar

    I was lobbying hard at the age of 12 for my mom, a realtor of course, to get the 325 in 1988. But Audi was hurting and the lease deal was too good to sway her so she traded the 5000S for an 80 quattro. She changed careers and bought it out later so spent some driving that car when i was of age.

    I often wonder how those early driving formative years would have shaped my tastes if she had gotten the BMW.

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