BMW E36 First Local Drive (Wheels, April 1991)

Magazine article reproduced from Wheels, April 1991.

Orchestral Manouvres (First Local Drive)

Behind the glitz and glamour of the 3-series launch loomed the gloom of luxury tax. Michael Stahl went to the party and assessed the chances of the car that is BMW's lifeline in Australia.

A large black pond of jacketed backs had formed in the basin, with odd flecks of white and a flotsam of sequins. Corporate sponsors had paid almost $500 per ticket for the high society to settle there. Around the rim of the natural ampitheatre, where those in jeans and polo shirts were crusted, the eucalypts and vines of the Leeuwin Estate ringed a perfect Margaret River twilight.

On the raised stage, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra rode majestically through the waves of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor. A thousand clinking glasses chorused an accompaniment. My row, and several more behind, consisted of smiling, black-tied BMW management, dealers and guests. Two rows ahead of me was a rumpled pile of Dior containing Eileen Bond.

It was her face, composed of equal dollops of Innoxa and anxiety, that betrayed the undercurrent here. The Czech Phil could have played Nearer My God To Thee, but no-one would have dared stop smiling. On this night, the car dealers briefly bobbed above the worries of a dying luxury tax market and a government that shows no sign of putting the bungs back in the lifeboats.

The new E36 BMW 3-series brought us here; the old 318i paid for it. The entry-level 318i and 318is models – the only two BMWs to undercut the 50 per cent luxury tax – have been BMW Australia's lifeline. With the new E36, BMW wasn't about to forget it.

In 1990, BMW Australia sold 4004 cars, more than twice as many as either Volvo or Mercedes-Benz. But BMW's cheques came through the tradesman's entrance, with no less than 60 per cent of total sales being accounted for by the 318i and 318is. These two outsold the high profile 5-series cars by more than two to one, and their up-spec 3-series sisters (325i, 320i/325i Convertible) by almost 12 to one.

The E30 was built for eight years with minimal changes and, when discontinued in 1990, was still selling at 80 per cent of its peak volume. The lack of rear passenger space was its major drawback; the car was designed first as a two-door and later cobbled into a four-port. The E36 starts four-door to be supplemented by a two-door that is visually quite different in the turret. The coupes will debut mid-year in Europe, and Australia by the end of 1991.

That's why the 16 valve 318is is missing from Australia's new E36 line-up, which otherwise comprised 318i, 320i and 325i. Each of the latter is a four-door, available in either manual or auto (a four-speed for the 318i, and five-speed in the 320i and 325i). The 318is, with its twin cam, 16 valve M42 engine virtually a straight carryover, has to wait for the coupe body shell at the end of the year. It will be joined by a 325i coupe, possibly to be called 325is. Both coupes will be available with five-speed manual transmission only.

In the meantime, the 318i remains the price leader and, despite a rippling-muscled deutschmark, it's been wrestled under the $45,056 Keating cut-off. At $42,300 for the five-speed manual and $44,300 for the four-speed, three-mode auto, the new car represents about a five per cent price increase over the old. Thankfully, they didn't strip the spec to get there either.

If anything, the 318i is now slightly better equipped, with rear discs replacing drums (ABS is optional), and air-conditioning a standard fitment. This latter, which micro-filters and replaced cabin air five times per minute, was still pretty ordinary on the day that Perth registered a record temperature of 46.3 degrees. Otherwise, inclusions like power windows, central locking and quality radio/cassette made the 318i look only a little less luxurious than big brother 325i.

The 320i, meanwhile, will attempt to exist in the layer of thin air immediately above the 50 per cent luxury tax threshold. The manual prices at $52,000 and auto at $55,000 offer some very worthwhile improvements over the 318i, chief among them the six-cylinder, 1991 cm3, 24 valve M50 engine (from the 520i) and a five-speed, three-mode autobox.

BMW Australia's market research revealed there's an under-subscribed market here. They're people with a $50,000 to $55,000 car allowance and sensibilities easily offended by the likes of a Fairlane and Statesman. In the past, they haven't wanted to step down to a $42,000, four-cylinder 318i, but their eyes and ears glowed at the mention of a larger, six-cylinder model with 110 kW power, 190 Nm torque, and slightly better equipment.

The 320i will be an interesting theoretical exercise. Unfortunately, that's precisely what it was for us, because there were none available in Perth for us to drive.

Top of the tree is the 325i, now sexier than ever with the 2494 cm3, 24 valve M50 unit and the option of the five-speed auto. Price at $73,500 for the manual and $76,000 for the auto, the 325i gets alloy wheels, ABS, multi-function trip computer with external temperature display (which read 47 degrees that day), front fog lamps and various other niceties you shouldn't care about if you're driving the thing the way it wants to be driven.

Japan doesn't have a coherent answer to the 325i; after all, the original 323i probably started this whole thing. Although the market is swaying towards sub-taxers like the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 and Mazda MX-6 4WS, BMW Australia's Ron Meatchem warned: "We don't intend to let the Japanese take over our segment, even if it causes us some red ink." As before, the 318i can afford to carry the 320is and 325is around.

Wheels covered many of the E36's chassis advances in January. Along with the 3-series' significant increase in overall size, came ride and handling improvements owed to the combination of a longer wheelbase, 50/50 weight distribution, better body rigidity and a rear suspension design borrowed from the Z1 roadster.

The E36 is 130 mm longer in the wheelbase and 110 cm longer overall than the car it replaces. Tracks are wider too, with 15-the inch steel-wheeled, 185/65-tyred 318i gaining 11 mm up front and 16 mm at the rear. The 325i is a rubber lubber, with 205/60 Z-rated tyres on 15 x 7 allow heels, which necessitate track widths 10 mm narrower than the skinny-wheeled 318i.

The E36's gain in body size is less obvious from outside, however, than from within, and it is easy to believe BMW's claim that the E36 matches or exceeds the old 5-series model for interior space in virtually every direction.

For the 318i, all this adds up to a 70 kg penalty with what amounts to a carryover engine. The 1796 cm3, four-cylinder M40 unit, with single ohc, has had only a few minor changes. The most noteworthy of these is the swap to a Bosch Motoronic 1.7 engine management system, previously reserved for the 318is's M42 twin-cammer. Longer and lighter conrods, and a correspondingly repositioned gudgeon within the piston, aid internal balancing. Otherwise it's just a case of fitting the M40 into the new bodyshell. The sump shape now allows for the engine's positioning behind the front axle line and a new, flatter intake manifold fits beneath the new bonnet.

Power and torque figures remain unaltered, with 83 kW at 5500 rpm and 162 Nm at 4250 rpm, but the weight problem is largely answered by a severe messing about with gear ratios. A taller final drive ratio is over-compensated by shorter gear ratios in the five-speed manual, and fifth gear is now a direct ratio.

The four-speed, three-mode (Sport/Econ/Manual) automatic is still geared on the tall side, with fourth pulling just 2700 rpm at 100 km/h. BMW claims 11.3 seconds for 0 to 100 km/h in the manual, and 12.3 for the auto. We found nothing that would stand up against these figures in a lawsuit.

Our fears that the 318i would be a highway chicane proved unfounded. Kick-down response was smart and the engine's mid-range response suitably strong to keep the 318i auto flowing nicely. The four-speed is of the type that kicks down automatically when slowing into a corner or to a standstill, thus helping to avoid tranny indecision when taking off again.

Unlike the five-speed auto fitted to the 320i and 325i, the four-speeder's Sport mode does not lock out top gear. Both boxes, however, have an annoying shift gate that goes all the way upwards into neutral, but can only be downshifted by using an awkward detente switch.

BMW's Aural Engineering Department, meantime, seem to be people just like us. Engine noise is almost negligible in the 318i, yet bordering on intrusive in the 325i 24-valver. Which is fine, because the four-cylinder sounds flat and dull while the six-cylinder scream ought to be available on Compact Disc. The 318i, on the other hand, has its tyre noise less well suppressed, and there's considerable wind noise fluttering around the exterior mirrors.

A BMW bod confessed he'd been worried about the 318i's standard 185/65 tyre size, yet the chassis suffers only a little for having them, and indeed dispenses with the fatter-tyred 325i's noticeable steering tramlining. Stability under heavy braking is excellent however you cut it.

The turn-in response and overall grip of the chassis is fantastic. In this class, we've long rated the Mercedes-Benz 190E the top player in chassis stability and rear-end tenacity. With the E36, BMW has evened the score in the back row and lifted the game in the forwards. And hand in hand with the cornering competence comes a ride softer than you'd expect. The entire package just speaks precision.

A pity that steering the 3-series is made slightly less pleasant by a column offset badly to the left. A height-adjustable column costs extra and doesn't fix it. The scuttle is surprisingly tall and you get the impression that the 3's extra headroom came about by having its seat mounts pushed further into the floor. Only the driver's seat is height adjustable in the 318i, but they relocated the lever to make it more confusing.

The seats themselves are most deceptive of all; thinly cushioned and plastic-backed, they work a lot better than their shape suggests. B-pillar belt adjustment and automatic tensioners are standard. Rear passengers, still marvelling at the amazing kneeroom, will find plenty of footroom beneath the front seats, and draw their seatbelts from the centre of the seat outwards.

Thus faded the final notes on the Czech violinists, who had returned for an encore. We straightened our bow ties, re-buttoned our dinner jackets, and brushed the grass from our shiny black shoes. Then one hundred James Bonds strolled regally to the parking enclosure... and went home in a rented Japanese minibus.

BMW 318i

Front engine, rear-wheel drive, four door sedan
List price $42,300 manual, $44,300 automatic

Type: In-line four, sohc, eight valve
Bore x stroke 84 mm x 81 mm
Displacement 1796 cm3
Compression ratio 8.8:1
Fuel system Bosch Digital Motor Electronics
Power 83 kW @ 5500 rpm
Torque 162 Nm @ 4250 rpm

TRANSMISSION 4-speed auto
Gear ratios
First 2.40
Second 1.47
Third 1.00
Fourth 0.72
Final drive 4.45

Wheelbase 2700 mm
Length 4433 mm
Width 1698 mm
Height 1393 mm
Track f/r 1418/1431 mm
Kerb Weight 1185 kg
Fuel tank capacity 65 litres

Front: Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: 'Central arm' axle with longitudinal control arm and double track control arms, anti-roll bar

Power-assisted rack and pinion

185/65R15 87H
6J x 15

PERFORMANCE (Manufacturer's Figures)
0 – 100 km/h 12.3 sec
Top speed 198 km/h
Average fuel consumption (claimed) 8.6 L/100 km

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