In Defense Of The Humble 318i

Story and photos by Kevin Albino:

The E36-generation 3er was one of the most eclectic and multifaceted generations of BMW’s historic portfolio. Back then they did not use single alphanumeric identities for a convertible versus a coupe, and thus you have everything from the pedestrian 318ti hatchback under the same moniker as the venerable M3 Lightweight. Even the Z3 coupes and convertibles, with small footprints and swooping lines fell under the E36 badge.

With a family photo that crowded, the quiet siblings tend to be overlooked. It is here we can find the humble 318i. The smallest-displacement sedan has neither the power of a famous inline-six nor the quirk of a ti’s truncated rear end. It does not have a motorsport history or a fabric roof or the sporting pretense of a coupe.

That brings us to this fine example. This 1997 BMW 318i was bought pre-owned by this author’s uncle in 1998. It has a plain silver exterior over a plain black interior with heated seats, alloy wheels and a 5 speed. The sedan served as his only means of conveyance for 19 years and 340,000 miles, commuting back and forth in D.C. traffic to a day job that involved the final frontier and a 4-letter acronym you may have heard of. The car was replaced by a Korean sedan late last year, at which point it was offered for free to any family member with a truck and a trailer and a couple of hours to kill.

What does a nearing-on-two-decade-old BMW that’s driven the distance to the moon plus 100,000 miles look like? The headliner, as is typical of BMWs of a certain age, was sagging. The radio did not work and a few dozen pixels in the gauges’ LCD screen had retired around the same time the great-uncle did. There is a little bit of rust at the bottom of a door and the sunroof switch was held in place with a wooden paint stir. A minor incident in a parking lot had broken the original tail light so both were unwittingly replaced by European ones with clear indicators.

Aforementioned Uncle packed the car above the beltline with things he no longer had any use for, much like silver german saloon that sheathed them. Among the unintentionally symbolic treasures within were an oversize laminated world map, an incomplete encyclopedia set, and a dozen well-used road maps of europe. It is a little bit ironic that the reason for giving up on the car was a check engine light that the former rocket scientist couldn’t quite figure out.

The rogue check engine light turned out to be a faulty idle air control valve. Later on, the water pump bearing let go and took the accessory belt, tensioner and idler pulleys down with it. The air conditioning compressor impersonated a cement mixer when requested, and so the belt drive was removed until it can be replaced. When you consider their years of service, each one of those parts could have earned themselves a purple heart.

With a fresh change of fluids and the windows rolled down, the 318i roars to life whenever it is called upon. Though the old M44 engine lacks the oomph and charisma of that classic BMW six, it is counterbalanced with smart gearing, a playful chassis and…is that a real exhaust note? The old adage of slow car fast is defined by such a car; a 5-4-3 downshift with a perfect heel-toe as you apex the corner carrying as much speed as the tires can handle to slingshot down the straight and- wait a minute, this isn’t the Mulsanne Straight and I’m only going 35 miles per hour. Why am I so sweaty?

It is remarkable that this many birthdays and miles later that a car can still deliver this much joy to the driver in such an unassuming package. This is what journalists coo over every year that a 3-series is “challenged” for the crown of its segment. This was the legacy that BMW cultivated by building every single car, no matter the variant, to this standard. Much like its previous owner this 318i is a living memory of an era gone by, full to the brim of lessons to teach and stories to tell – even if a few pixels in the cluster are missing.

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