By on June 18, 2018

1996 BMW 318ti in Colorado wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe most affordable BMW in the United States, during the middle years of the E36 platform, was the 318ti. A four-cylinder hatchback, it sold for about two-thirds the price of a six-cylinder 328 sedan or coupe.

In 1996, buyers could get a version with a huge canvas-covered sunroof, known as the California Edition, and that’s what I have found in a Denver-area self-service wrecking yard.

1996 BMW 318ti in Colorado wrecking yard, sunroof - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe California roof was similar to the big “ragtop” sunroofs on 1950s Volkswagen Beetles — sort of halfway between a regular sunroof and a full convertible. My excruciatingly hooptie 1958 Beetle had a roof like this, and it was handy for teenage passengers who wanted to stand up on the freeway and yell at occupants of other cars.

1996 BMW 318ti in Colorado wrecking yard, sunroof - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsLater on, the California roof became an option on all 318tis. The mechanism appears to be in good shape, but no junkyard shoppers bought it during the several weeks it had been in the yard prior to these photographs.

1996 BMW 318ti in Colorado wrecking yard, engine - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 318ti never achieved serious sales success in North America, though plenty of fully depreciated examples have ended up as nimble 24 Hours of Lemons race cars.

The base price on the 318ti was $20,560, or about $33,500 in 2018 dollars. That looked pretty cheap next to the $32,990 328is, but the 138-horsepower 318ti looked like less of a steal next to the $21,000 Acura Integra GS-R and its wild 170-horse engine (which, granted, drove the front wheels).

1996 BMW 318ti in Colorado wrecking yard, interior - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis one, like most BMWs sold in the United States after the middle 1980s, has an automatic transmission. Even with the big sunroof, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun to drive as the Integra GS-R or, for that matter, the $14,200 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 with manual transmission.


The compact E36s sold much better in Europe, where six-cylinder and diesel engines were available.

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30 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1996 BMW 318ti California Edition...”


  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    I really liked my ’97 318ti. It was fun, nimble, practical, and efficient.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I remember people scoffing at these because they only had 4-cylinder engines. My how times have changed.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    I kind of like these. I like the period color of this one, with a manual it would be a neat 2nd car. I did not like them when they were new however. Funny that.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      Heheh yeah. I loved them from the first one I laid my (eye) balls on. I don’t really know why, but I just remember thinking I really wanted one. I still do.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    I totally agree. I thought the 318ti looked out of proportion when they first came out. The design grew on me and now I like it. Mine was a darker Montreal Blue (not the teal seen in the photo) which looked really good in full sunlight.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Fun fact: this was the first BMW built in the U.S.

    • 0 avatar
      windnsea00

      The 318ti was built in Germany, had two of them. I know there were some E36’s initially built in the US for export if I remember correctly.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        I’m sure some 318tis were built in Germany, but the SC plant definitely built them, and it was the first model built there. The Z3 was the second.

        http://www.goupstate.com/news/20080311/timeline-bmw-in-spartanburg

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Did these also use the trailing-arm rear suspension from the E30, or that was that just the Z3?

  • avatar
    Featherston

    Grain of salt, as I’ve never ridden in one of these let alone owned one, but they’re probably my favorite BMW of the past 25 years.* I liked the looks (which remind me of a Manx cat), the hatchback practicality, and the fact that it seemed to cut against BMW’s post-1980 tack in North America.

    These had a different rear suspension from their E36 half-siblings, didn’t they, using the E30’s trailing arms?

    Points for the cloth interior, too.

    And finally, I’m guessing this example spent at least the first 75% of its life garaged. Nonetheless, I’m impressed by the canvas top. You’d think it would be an obvious failure point. But judging only be this example, it looks like BMW actually properly invested in the design and execution.

    – – –
    *OK, I’d take a Z8, money no object. Money considered, I’d sell a Z8 and get one of these.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      Yes, these used the semi-trailing arm setup from the E30, and from what I’ve read in the past, it’s because that’s what would fit with the short rear end (short overhang).

      • 0 avatar
        snakebit

        The reason BMW gave for using the E30 rear suspension in the E36 Compact was to enable a larger, flatter rear loading space, as that’s what would attract hatchback buyers. Truth be told, at one point, I spent about six months shopping for a used 318ti. On my last dealer visit, still no 318ti on the lot, but I found a E46 328Ci with 90K on it at a price a little more than I budgeted for the 318ti Compact, had always admired those since they were new, and I struck a deal to bring that home and the 3-Series Compact search ended.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    These are still quite common on our roads, often on their 3rd or 4th owners. The tuning and drift community bought most of them once they became affordable.

    They are not pretty, the but the 3er Compact that followed these was even uglier.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I used to see one of these driving around pretty regularly, a white one with a crap ton of BMW M emblems stuck all over it, M Technik stripes, and front and rear spoilers. Pretty hilarious, and I posted pics of it on the V.I.S.I.T. FB group.

      • 0 avatar
        ThomasSchiffer

        Many of these older 3er Compacts have been horrifically modified. They are popular with the younger crowd, and let us just say their taste in visual modifications are not aesthetically pleasing.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          I’ve noticed that when I look for them, it makes me sad.

          I can’t say I wouldn’t modify one, as noted in my comment below, but it won’t be “slammed” or “stanced” or crap like that. Visually, the mods would be extremely light or nonexistent.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    These were popular in the Syracuse University area back in the day, usually with NJ, MA, or CT plates. Mom and dad sent their little bundles of joy off to school in them. Now it’s Range Rovers, Cayennes, Wrangler Unlimiteds, or Subies, depending on how much cabbage mom and dad have.

  • avatar

    My brother owned the regular 318 coupe (in this color) for a couple of years (2009-2010). That car was too much weight for the engine. It rode nice enough, but the rest of the car felt pretty cheap. I recall the AC dragged the little engine pretty badly.

    Was not impressed.

  • avatar
    DavesNotHere

    I had a ’95 Ti Clubsport, a US limited edition of 500 meant for club racing. M Technic suspension and 5 speed manual meant it was great in the corners but definitely a ‘momentum car.’

  • avatar

    I own one. I love it. I recently completed two days at Watkins Glen in one, where it struggled to crack 112 mph (a literally wall of air prevented the anemic motor from overcoming the aero drag on the back straight).

    The California roof is a poseur hole. Avoid at all costs.

    • 0 avatar
      bufguy

      I drove mine at Watkins Glen also at a number of BMW CCA driving schools. It was a great beginners car…Not fast enough to get in trouble but nimble and responsive. I remember coming out of the “boot” uphill in third gear barely accelerating because of the elevation change and modest power.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I would absolutely love one of these with a manual. Maybe find one with cooling system issues (common) and use it as an excuse to swap in an I-6 from another 3er.

    Or I’d just drive it as is (if no issues).

    It should have been on the tip top of my hatchback list, and it would have had I remember it.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    The front sway bar is a cost effective swap onto e36s, from Ti Sport, I was able to find one for my supercharged E36 at a local yard, it made a substantial difference in handling.I looked pretty hard to find a pre-swapped M50, M52,m54 ($$) Ti for a while. But now I’m sure most examples have been raced too much

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Given that front-end damage, I’m surprised the airbag wasn’t popped!

  • avatar
    friendlyjoe

    My ’98 was a pleasure to operate until A) the plastic cooling system components failed by snapping off flush with the engine block (I think this was a feature, as my in-law’s two 740is did the same thing), and more interestingly, B) the fairly well-documented self-immolation of the entire engine bay wire harness due to an unfused short somewhere in the bundle of ridiculously under-gauged wires, prompting me to throw in the proverbial towel. I mean, some of the wires were so thin that you could have flossed your orthodontically-correct teeth with them. Lame.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    My first BMW….a 1997 Boston green with the “active” package. I had the 5 speed. It replaced my 94 Acura Integra LX. Power between the two was almost identical, but I liked the BMW so much more. Better handling, tauter and more attractive INMHO. The Acura was the most reliable car I ever owned but truly boring.
    I replaced my ti with a 2001 325ci with sport package and 5 speed….The BMW 6 cylinder was a revelation…silky smooth and deceptively powerful.


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