Some pretty spectacular cars have been showing up at my doorstep over the last few months, and this month was no exception. I got a call a few weeks ago about a local 318iS that was in great condition, a car that had been maintained by all of the right old-school BMW heads in the area. It belonged to a local real-estate agent who had acquired it from the original owner. The agent had kept it for over a decade enjoying it with his daughter, but now he was ready to find it a new home. We had a long conversation in which I extolled the virtues of the E30-generation 3 Series 318iS.
This morning I was photographing an E36 M3 sedan when I caught a glimpse of another E36 coming down the taxiway. This is odd, I thought. Then I suddenly realized that this was the 318is I had been talking about—and it was not an E30.
The early E36 318is was a continuation of its predecessor. It was powered by the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder M42B18 engine as the E30, which was good for just shy of 140 horsepower in both applications. The rev-happy twin-cam M42 is a feisty little engine, and it’s at the core of what makes a 318iS so fun—E30 or E36!
This 1993 318is was finished in two-tone Brilliantrot red over gray lower sills, a trait unique to the “iS” model. Sitting on fifteen-inch Style 13 wheels, the exterior was delightfully simple and remained true to the focused purpose of the 318is. Inside, black leatherette manual seats complemented the red perfectly, and wore their age much better than beige would have. Those seats were heated, one of the few options available in the spartan 318is options catalog. Notably, between the seat-heater buttons was nothing but switch blanks; the absence of the ASC (stability control) button meant that this early E36 318is should be fitted with a limited-slip differential.
I was shocked at how wonderfully pristine the entire car was. Although E36s were produced in much greater numbers than E30s, there seem to be fewer survivors—especially with non-M variants. The E30 318iS has enjoyed significant appreciation in recent years, no doubt due to its iconic boxy form and the lightweight 318iS driving experience. The E36 318is is a lesser-known subvariant, but arguably a much better car thanks to its multi-link Z-axle rear suspension. An E36 318is in this condition is exceptionally rare, much more so than its E30 predecessor.
After standing around and chatting for a while, we hopped in to take it for a drive. The M42 engine was frisky and begged to be revved. The engine itself is positioned well aft in the engine compartment to maintain a 50/50 weight balance. From behind the wheel, it was the ultimate slow-car-fast driving experience, which was only made better by how wonderfully composed the tight sport suspension was.
The great thing about driving a car like the 318is is how supremely confident you can be with just a little bit of talent. Want to push this car to 9/10ths? No problem! Make sure that you have a clear road ahead of you, put your foot into it, and drive it like a hero. The limits of a 318is can be reached well before the socially irresponsible or felonious realm. And because it’s a BMW E36, it will do exactly what you ask of it, with ample warning when you are reaching the edge.
We pulled back into the hangar, chatting casually as the engine ticked itself cool. I broke the reality that being an E36 instead of an E30, it probably wouldn’t pull the same premium that I had promised in our initial conversation, but I said I would find a good home for it.
My older brother was looking for a fun car that got 30 miles per gallon. I immediately texted him a dozen pictures, telling him that I had found the one. Then I posted a picture on Instagram, and lo and behold, my older sister saw it and fell in love! Shortly thereafter, my brother called me back and said he was in.
A sibling rivalry has since developed, and I will make sure that whoever gets it will be a good steward for the next chapter of its ownership. What is remarkable is that neither of these two is a BMW-phile; neither knows what an E36 is, or what a 318is is, but what they do know is that this little Brilliantrot BMW pulled at their heartstrings. I cannot think of a finer tribute to the E36 318is!
But whichever sibling gets the car, I’m bound to wind up being the bad guy in the eyes of the other.—Alex McCulloch