[30 years ago, BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine featured stories on the then-new E36 325i. Reprinted from the June 2002 BMW CCA Roundel magazine, all rights reserved.]
1992 BMW 325i: Recalibrating My Standards
By Bill Siuru
Most Tuesdays are like Christmas for me. That’s the day I usually get the next press car to evaluate for one of the magazines I write for. A pretty wide variety of cars passes through my garage over a year’s time.
American cars have gotten better, much better. Cars like the Dodge Stealth, Corvette, and Mustang 5.0 Liter provide many grins-per-mile. The Ford Taurus, Crown Victoria, Buick Regal, and even Chrysler’s Mini-vans, if set up right, are superb cross-country tourers. Japanese cars are uniformly good, though most have as much character as a Frigidaire. Thus, I was a bit skeptical that the BMW 325i could show me anything more, especially with a sticker that read about $4,000 to $8,000 above most of the very competent sport sedans I have tested.
Well, I lived with a 1992 325i for a week driving some 1,300 miles over the interstates and back roads of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario. I am recalibrating my standards—the new 3 Series is that good!
The BMW 325i’s styling is a significant improvement over the previous 3 Series. By sharing styling cues with upscale BMW models, the 3’ers now have an exterior appearance that goes along with their price tag. Even in appliance white, the test car got lots of second looks, especially in Detroit. Or maybe the lookers were really “car-jackers” looking at a potential victim. Two Bimmers were taken at gunpoint or knifepoint while I was in Motown. One owner just lost his car, the other his car and part of his ear!
The wedge-shape, flush-mounted side windows and lower body ground effects give the 325i a respectable drag coefficient of 0.33. Wind noise is non-existent. I found the car a bit over-sensitive to winds when I was blasted by some pretty stiff cross winds near the “Windy City,” where else?
While only just over four inches longer than the car it replaces, it looks much larger. Inside, it is larger and is now a serious four-passenger car, with room for five adults in a pinch, four in comfort. The luggage compartment has been increased to over fifteen cubic feet of capacity.
However, the smallish lid opening, the result of the aerodynamically influenced rear window, does limit the size of objects that can be loaded inside. The traditional BMW tool kit on the trunk lid seems to grow less complete with each new model, and the tools are bit more K-Martish.
However, BMWs are the only cars that come with anything close to a comprehensive tool kit, and not just a jack and lug wrench.
While you can find many sports sedans that look as good as the 325i, usually for less money, you will find few, maybe none, that work as well. This was the most “fun-to-drive” car I have driven in a long time. I had to periodically look around inside to realize that I was actually driving a four-door sedan rather than a two seat, hi-tech sports car.
The 24-valve six-cylinder engine is extremely smooth, powerful and responsive, but still makes the right sounds when revved. And it loves to be revved. Within minutes of picking the car up, I had punched the engine to redline, quite unintentionally.
Fortunately, BMW electronically limits rpms to prevent over-revving. It felt like I had run out of gas, but it got my attention.
BMW calls this a “low-maintenance engine” with such features as an ignition system that doesn’t require adjustment for the life of the car, hydraulic tappets that eliminate periodic valve adjustments and expanded self-diagnosis capabilities n the engine electronics. The huge engine fills the entire engine compartment. All the wiring and plumbing is either hidden or well laid out with typical German efficiency. There is none of the hodgepodge spaghetti-look that is still found under many car hoods today. It looks concours-ready.
The five-speed gearbox is the slickest I ever shifted, and most auto scribes agree on this, though the abundance of low speed torque requires a minimum of gearshift rowing. The clutch is light, yet precise. Even you automatic-types should try out the Getrag five-speed before you decide to go for the optional electronically-controlled four-speed automatic transmission. Just a minor complaint – the power window controls are located close to the shifter so while shifting I often opened the back window as well.
BMW has had outstanding engine speed-sensitive, power-assisted, rack & pinion steering for years so just the right amount of road feel with no numb spots came as no surprise. The tight 34-foot turning circle is greatly appreciated. Stopping is as impressive as starting. Even in hard braking, there was minimal nose-dive.
BMW has always been on the cutting edge of suspension and handling technology, and the 325i is definitely no exception. New for the 325i is the BMW’s multi-link rear suspension system from the Zl. It works as expected. Even when pushed to its limits, very high limits, it never feels unstable. Most owners will never reach these limits, but they are there if you need them.
I have found many great handling cars today and many with superior ride, but few that deserve “10s” in both departments. The BMW 325i has achieved both without any type of adjustable ride control system. The car was especially impressive when driven on a gravel, washboard road. The press kit says torsional rigidity has been increased by 60 percent, and I believe it.
The controls on the radio and climate control system are easy to use. The dual climate control system really works. The manual, multi directional seat control makes you wonder why anyone would order the optional power driver seat. Unfortunately, both the window defogger/defroster and radio antenna are embedded in the rear window. The latter does result in somewhat degraded radio reception especially from distant stations, a problem that can be easily fixed with a “real” antenna. The low mounted fog lights are among the best I have used.
Cars have become so uniformly good, that cupholders are now becoming a rating factor. BMW scores low here. The two dimples in the glovebox door, like those in my 1960 Mercury Comet, don’t hack it in my book. I like my drink close at hand and available while driving.
The new 3 Series uses lots of sophisticated technology, but it is used only where it counts. There is a noticeable lack of gimmickry and overuse of electronics. While non BMW types might call it Spartan, I call it user-friendly. Indeed, it has many of the qualities of the 1600/ 2002s that brought so many of us into the BMW fold in the first place.
I have to make a comment about driving on Ontario’s 401 super highway out of Windsor. I immediately knew I was driving in a foreign country. The speed limit is 100 km/hr (62 mph) with excellent “lane discipline.” Most people drive around 120 km/hr (74 mph) with essentially no speeders, few pokes and absolutely no left lane bandits.
After passing, people immediately pull into the right lane, even when passing a string of cars. It might be boring not having to blink lights to get pokes out of the left lane or when they don’t take the hint, pass on the right, but it sure is lot safer. Oh yes, radar detectors are banned, and I don’t think they are needed when traffic flows at a constant 70+ mph. I hear that if the Ontario Provincial Police catch you with a radar detector, they will flatten it under the wheels of their cruiser right before your eyes.
[This article originally ran in the June 1992 edition of BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine.]
325i Owner’s Report
By Ellie MacDougall
For months now, you’ve been reading about the 325i in this magazine and others. But how a car performs day to day can be a lot different than its performance in a short-term test. So we asked 325i owners to share their observations with us.
Our sampling of 325i owners is admittedly small – seventeen responded. Even so, many of their comments are startling in their consistency, leading us to believe that they may well represent a significant segment of 325i owners.
In our survey, we asked eight questions. Here are the answers we received.
What other cars did you consider?
- 47% Acura Legend
- 29% Lexus ES/SC300
- 29% Mercedes 190
- 24% Audi 80/90/100/Quattro
- 18% Acura Vigor
- 18% BMW 525i
- 18% Infinity G20
- 18% Lexus LC400
- 18% Mitsubishi Diamante
- 6% Buick
- 6% BMW 535i
- 6% BMW 735i (used)
- 6% Cadillac Seville
- 6% Eagle Talon
- 6% Lexus ES250
- 6% Mazda 929
- 6% Mercedes 260E (used) 6% Mercedes 300ES (used) 6% Mitsubishi Gallant VR4 6% Nissan 300ZX
- 6% VW Golf GTI 16v
- 6% Volvo
David Barton in Indiana commented, “I didn’t even give any other cars a serious looking at. They were all lacking in that feel that a German car, specifically a BMW, has… But I will tell you that when Cadillac puts the Northstar motor in the 1992 Seville ST S, I will give it a serious look.”
Some buyers found themselves sold on the 325i even when compared with larger Bimmers. “I found the new 5 series was not fast enough for me,” said Ron Harwick in Texas. ”It had too much of a ‘big car’ feel compared with my 1988 535is.”
Dan Lai of California delved into the comparative characteristics of the competitors he considered. ”The Vigor and Legend were, in a word, boring. The Mitsubishi VR4 was a blast to drive but the model I drove had mouse runner belts and the car looked like a moving fridge. I couldn’t stand the twitchy steering of the Lexus. There’s also something about knowing the ES300 is really a Camry in disguise.”
What factor(s) moved you to buy the 325i?
- 47% Styling
- 41% Overall performance/fun to drive
- 24% Needed replacement for older/out- of-warranty BMW
- 24% Handling
- 24% BMW reputation/car magazine reviews
- 18% Quality feel and appearance
- 12% Comfort
- 12% Ergonomics
- 6% Safety features
- 6% Maintenance free engine 6% Overall value
”I am put off buying some makes of car because they change the body style too often,” said Steve Carr in Florida. ”I know that this will not happen with my 325i.”
Dee Robert Gehrig of North Carolina commented, “All BMWs are a dream to drive, but this new one even more so. The handling can best be described as precise; better than my previous BMWs and much better than any other car I have driven (considering my age, this from a million-mile plus driver).”
“The ’91 BMW 525i was a beautiful car and my first choice, but the price was above our budget,” explained Reed Grabowski of Virginia. “My wife and I were pretty well hooked on an ’88 Mercedes 260E, but the dealer management was acting like snobs. I guess we didn’t fit their standard of owner. My wife saw the 325i and liked it much better than the 525i. She liked the smaller profile, the price was within our budget and she felt more comfortable in the 325i.”
What car did you drive before buying the 325i?
More than half of the people in this survey, unsurprisingly, traded in an older BMW on the new 3 Series, but there were assorted Volvos, Mercedes-Benzes, Nissans and others, too. We were particularly interested in what motivated people to change marques.
“I had leased a 1986 325 for three years and loved the car. My mistake was not buying it at the end of the lease. In 1989, I bought a Saab 900S and hated every second I owned it,” confessed Alan Perlberg of New Jersey. “When I saw pictures of the new 325i, I had to have it I dumped the Saab and took delivery on a red 5-speed 325i.”
Benjamin Przekop in Illinois told us, “I always wanted a BMW but always chose the 190 over the old 3 Series. The 5 Series is just too big a car for me. The new 3 Series is such a dramatic improvement and such a terrific car that I decided it was time to ‘go Bimmer’ at last.”
How many miles do you have on your 325i?
The owners in this survey averaged about 4,556 miles on their new 3’ers at the time they wrote to us of their experiences – from a high of 17,000 to a low of 1,200.
Perhaps the most rigorous short-term mileage test came from Julian Osante in Florida. “I’m a poor student. I don’t own a new 325i but I rented one, which sorta gives me the same authority as ‘I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV’ and, hey, if they can sell you medicine, I sure as heck can sell you this car! I only had it for a week but I liked it so much that I put 584 miles on the poor thing. With the exception of some very minor stuff (those ugly mirrors) the car not only met but exceeded my expectations by light years.” We welcomed Julian’s comments but did not include them in our statistical analysis.
What do you like most about the 325i?
Performance topped the list. The car was described as “fun to drive,” ”glued to the road,” “made for jammin’,” “at its best on curvy back roads.”
In many cases, what people liked most were the same factors as those that influenced purchase of the car to begin with. But many of these owners have discovered things about their new cars that weren’t readily apparent.
For example, Ed Cohen of Upstate New York drove a Volvo 745 Turbo before buying his 325i. Interestingly enough, it was not only “styling, handling and comfort” that he liked in the new Bimmer, but also “dependability.”
Engineer Dee Gehrig analyzed the advantages of the mechanical systems. “The new 24-valve 2.5 liter engine is strictly state-of-the-art. No timing belt to worry about every 50,000 or so. No tappets to adjust every 30,000. Oil and air filters are where they can be reached without difficulty.” As for performance, “I had considered going up to a 525i this time, but preferred a smaller car. The power-to-weight ratio is much better for the smaller car, therefore a higher fun ratio in these North Carolina mountains.”
“After picking up my new car what impressed me the most was that the fit and finish were perfect,” commented Jan Graybill of Pennsylvania.
Russ Hebb of Wisconsin discovered other refinements. “It’s quick, it’s tight and it’s quieter than my previous 3 Series cars. The 10 speaker stereo system is great, especially when playing Wagner’s ‘Der Ring’ on tape. Also, the interior light package and sunroof design are significant improvements. Front seatbelt height adjustments and the rear seatbelts with the buckle on the outside are more comfortable and easier to use.”
“My sister has an “’87 325is,” said Dan Lai. “Comparing the new engine to hers, the extra 23 horses makes a big difference.” In addition to performance, Thomas Knueppel of California found, “Reasonable gas mileage – about 25-26 mpg for mainly freeway driving. It has a sporty sounding engine, excellent and easy to use shifter, and excellent brakes.”
After his Saab experience, Alan Perlberg told us, “The 325i is a real kick to drive and holds the road like glue. You can’t get it to spin out no matter what you do.”
Said Benjamin Przekop, “Compared to the 190, it feels more like a Porsche than a sedan. Although some of the competitors (Lexus SC300 and 400, notably) handle quite nicely as well, none had that ‘razor edge’ feel that the 325i gives me.”
What do you like least about the 325i?
Owners found that while the 325i has been a blast to drive, it was not perfect.
Some of the problems:
- 59% Lack of accouterments – R rated tires, metal wheel for spare, lack of detents on radio volume control, extra cost for trip computer, no steering wheel tilt adjustment, no “one touch” windows, no arm rests, no coin, cup or tape holders
- 41% Various electrical problems/failures – turn signal noise and failure, rear window defogger, horn, cruise control, interior lights, capacitor failure 350/o Glove box size and fit
- 29% Seats – noisy, uncomfortable, lack of power controls
- 24% Heating/cooling system problems and failures
- 18% Various rattles that remain unsolved
- 18% Various fluid leaks – final drive, steering gear, oil pan gasket 180/o Various mechanical problems – blower motor noise and failure, clutch master cylinder failure
- 18% Indecipherable temperature controls
- 12% Poor radio reception with built-in window antenna
- 12% Cost
- 6% Faulty door panels
- 6% Hard to get bulky items into trunk
- 6% Fuel leak
- 6% Premium fuel requirement 60/o Lack of rear passenger footroom
The problems that 325i owners experienced have ranged from none (though Joe Ebeyer of Indiana felt the car could use “a tad more H.P.”) to a series of niggling problems that have driven one owner to question whether he made the right choice of car.
Jan Graybill’s experience with his 325i has not been happy: a failed clutch master cylinder, a faulty capacitor, mysterious white powder blowing out of the A/C vents, an erratically functioning blower fan, faulty heating and cooling system controls, a non-functional rear window defogger, an oil pan gasket leak, interior lights that blinked on and off because the plastic door latches didn’t close the contacts sufficiently while driving on bumpy roads. “BMW does build a car that is fun to drive but, if you must keep pulling over for service, what fun is that? I use my car for sales calls and it gets a lot of generous comments and I accept them graciously. It does carry a nice image. If BMW was going to keep me as a loyal car owner they have lost my interest with all of these service problems – so many that I keep forgetting to tell them about the rear window defogger that hasn’t worked since I purchased the car. I hate the new temperature controls. No one at the dealership understands how to work them either. I like the looks of car and its driveability, but the small problems are overwhelming. I just can’t believe a $30,000 car must have so many problems in the first three months of ownership.”
The glove box drew comments from “chintzy” to “it sucks!”. Dee Gehrig commented, “The glove box fit and finish, I understand, were a temporary expedient since the passenger side airbag will fit in that area when available in the U.S.” On another subject, Dee continued, “I can remember battle station alarms on a destroyer that were quieter than the door and ignition key warning sounder. And if the service indicator were an option, I’d delete it.”
Seat comfort and configuration drew some negative comments. During the short test drive, Reed Grabowski didn’t notice a nagging problem. “I am 73 inches tall, weigh 190 pounds and cannot find a comfortable position in the driver’s seat. I have tried all different variances of seating position, but the seat pan is just too narrow. After 15 minutes or so, it’s uncomfortable. After a long trip, I really feel the consequences.”
Ron Harwick found that he shared a problem with his BMW dealer’s service manager. “There is ‘bucking’ in the cold operating range. This has been brought to BMW NA and they have no solution at present.” The service manager suggested that the problem may be in the computer program.
Options available in Europe might be welcome here, suggests Russ Hebb. “Option code 314 for heated driver’s door lock and exterior mirrors (for our Wisconsin winters) and option code 440, the non-smoker package. The latter is a no-cost option where the ashtrays are replaced by storage areas but the 12-volt socket is retained. Most BMW owners I know don’t smoke.”
One problem appears to have been solved before many of this model ever reached American shores.
According to a note in the British magazine, Car, sent to us by Mark McHarry of California, BMW has been forced to modify the new 325i for the 1992 model year due to persistent NHV problems. Changes include alterations to the A-pillars, transmission tunnel and the rear section of the floorpan. As well as redesigned door seals and additional sound-deadening material in the area of the rear axle. Obviously, these changes must have made a significant difference in the wind noise, transmission noise and the looseness between the body and chassis noted by many automotive journalists at the time of the car’s introduction, because not one of the owners who responded to us mentioned these issues.
Does a BMW dealer or an independent shop perform service?
- 70% Dealer
- 6% Independent
- 12% Self (routine maintenance such as oil, fan belts, etc.)
Has the car lived up to your expectations?
- 71% Yes
- 18% Yes and no
- 12% No
“BMW puts its money into the important things,” observed Benjamin Przekop. “Initially, I found the 325i (especially after looking at cars like the Lexus or even the Benz) stark and plasticky. Boy, does it ever grow on you You come to realize that the money was spent on stuff that counts, not wood and gloss.”
“Generally, yes, but this car has a lot of small but very annoying problems that the dealer has not been able to trace and fix,” concluded David Barton. “I should mention that my mother-in-law so liked our car that she got one for herself. Her car has the same heater problem that mine has.”
Ed Cohen was enthusiastic about how the car has lived up to his expectations “in every respect! My car was purchased by me for me for my 78th birthday!”
Reed Grabowski concluded, “It has been a good car, but calling it great I really cannot say. It has the power, engineering and stability I have grown accustomed to in a BMW. However, for $30,000 I might have expected more comfort and functionality.”
“Yes and no,” said Ron Harwick. “The handling is superb, the engine does not have the low end torque of my 535is, but it really pulls in the high rpm range. I am disappointed with all the problems – especially the seat rattles and the ‘bucking’ problem in the cold operating range. I doubt that Lexus or Toyota have as many new car glitches.”
Dan Lai noted, “The car has definitely lived up to my expectations. It is exciting to look at and drive. I was afraid that BMW might blow it with the new 3 series, but they got it right. The cost of all BMWs, however, is starting to get out of hand. I hope future models will help BMW keep the faith it started with the 2002.”
“Despite the problems I have experienced, in my opinion, the car has lived totally up to my expectations–enthusiastic driving and (hopefully) problems that will eventually be ironed out as we replace some of the parts,” summarized Thomas Knueppel.
Robert McAdoo in Virginia told us, “Many friends have inquired, why not one of those Japanese cars? I drove and rode in my friends’ cars and I must reply, ‘I like the driving experience in my Bimmer better.'”
Mark Weaver of Arizona summed up, “You get what you pay for. I recently had the opportunity to take it out on a winding mountain road with no traffic. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a car.”