The E36 3 Series was a game-changer for BMW. It marked a pivotal transition from old to new, with headlights housed in aerodynamic covers, a futuristic interior with integrated door panels, and an entirely new design language that would eventually permeate the lineup. While most of the attention has been focused on models like the E36 M3 though, there remains a dedicated following for the compact version, or the E36/5, which was sold in the U.S. solely as the 318ti. Today, the epicenter for E36 compact enthusiasm in the U.S. is found in the BMW Compact Club, which is a BMW CCA Special Interest Group (SIG).
Although the E36 compact is merely a footnote for many enthusiasts, BMW sold more than 400,000 of them according to a recent video posted to the BMW Classic YouTube Channel. While the conventional E36 lineup represented what was to come, the compact was built to a price point, relying heavily on previously-developed E30 parts which found their way into the interior and suspension, not unlike the contemporary Z3. This unique amalgamation of tried and true and brand new makes the E36 compact an interesting model, with a handful of special bits and pieces that aren’t found on any other BMW model.
The video by BMW Classic explains the model and its target market, which wasn’t far off from the that of the Volkswagen Golf. BMW only built one more generation of the 3 Series compact, which was based on the E46. The E46/5, as it was internally designated, was sold until 2004, when it was replaced by the 1 Series, which is now in its third generation, and offered in a performance trim that competes directly with the VW GTI. Before all of that though, BMW M built a one-off E36 M3 Compact which was powered by the S50B32 European double-VANOS engine with 321 horsepower. Check out the video below to see why the E36 compact was such a special niche model that still demands attention today.—Alex Tock
[Photo and video courtesy BMW AG.]