1990s / 2000s / BMW / Future classic / German

Is the BMW 3-Series Compact (E36) a future classic?

bmw-3-series-compact-e36-3The E36 increased the distance between the BMW 3-Series and the 2002 that inspired it by moving the nameplate up a notch on the market. Bigger, faster and more opulent than its predecessor, the E36 alienated a small group of purists that longed for a simple, nimble and relatively affordable rear-wheel drive machine.

To cater to that crowd, BMW created the 3-Series Compact in 1993 by truncating the E36’s rear end and adding a hatchback to it. Many enthusiasts saw the car as a spiritual heir to the 2002 Touring of the early 1970s, but it was often criticized for its awkward look.

On paper, the idea was very similar to the Touring: From the front bumper to the A-pillar, the Compact and the regular E36 were identical. Beyond that, the car had a considerably reduced wheelbase, a short rear overhang and a taller trunk lid that some of the harsher critics compared to a European-spec three-door Ford Escort hatchback.

The Compact made its debut in the United States about a year after being launched in Europe. The only model offered was the 318ti, which was initially powered by a 1.8-liter and later an upgraded 1.9-liter unit. In Europe, buyers could choose between a wider offering of engines that included an entry-level 1.6-liter four-banger (316i / 316ti), a 2.5-liter straight-six (323ti) and even a 1.7-liter 90-horsepower turbodiesel mill (318tds)

BMW never mass-produced a M3 Compact because the model slotted at the bottom of the 3-Series lineup. However, it launched several sport-oriented limited-edition variants in both Europe and North America. One of the better known ones is the 318ti MSport, which packed extras such as Recaro bucket seats, a specific-exhaust and a full body kit.

Reasonably popular in Europe but less so in the United States, the Compact was phased out in 2001 and replaced by a very similar model based on the the E46 3-Series. The new model did not last long and it was phased out with the arrival of the more conventional 1-Series hatchback in 2004.

Will the 3-Series Compact remain the black sheep of the E36 family forever, or will BMW enthusiasts eventually warm up to it and treat it as the descendant of the 2002 Touring?

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12 thoughts on “Is the BMW 3-Series Compact (E36) a future classic?

  1. always liked these. found 1 on the net ( autotrader.com ) with 31k miles. the rest are either over 100k miles or automatics.

    • I can imagine! Used, they were / are often seen as a cheap way to drive a BMW so many of them got beat up. Same deal with the Mercedes C-Class coupe and CLC.

  2. For a year I used to go regularly to the Nürburgring Nord-Schleife – I was the co-pilot for a friend who participated in “regularity rallies” with his Alfa 155. On the Nürburgring BMW 3-Series were a common sight, both E30 and E36, both in two door and four door – but very seldom a Touring or Compact. On one weekend we saw two crashed E36 Compacts. Both not really serious crashes, but both Compacts had spun out of control, hit the traffic barrier with the front and the rear of the car – they both looked a bit totaled. There were other crashes before and after, but these two Compacts were the worst and stand out in my memory.

    A couple of years later two friends of mine got killed in a E36 Compact, when they lost control on the Autobahn in winter, one lane snow covered, spun off the street, missed the traffic barrier (that had ended some 50 meters before) and hit a tree in a freak accident.

    So I guess I’m a bit biased against this car. It might be nice to drive around in the city, but I would guess it does not have the same sporting heritage as the two-door E30 or E36. I think I remember the weight distribution is not as “perfect” as the saloon. And as far as I know BMW made the Compact to compete as an economic car with VW’s Golf, and it was using older and cheaper components at that time (older and cheaper headlights, older and cheaper rear axle and so on). And I found the end of the car always looked a bit “botched up”.

    I would say:
    The Compact is not a classic – especially compared with a E36 coupe or saloon, which have wonderful “flowing” lines and are both classics , IMHO.

    (And I am glad that BMW moves to front wheel drive with the 1-Series. Small economic sporty car, real wheel drive and inexperience drivers is a recipe for disaster. A friend of mine told me once how she spun out of control with her Mazda MX-5 in the city during rain, and that she had no idea what had happened.)

    • Yikes – sounds like you’ve got plenty of reasons to dislike the Compact.

      That’s interesting about the older components – I knew they were cheaper, but not older.

      Mercedes pulled the same trick on the CLC, which was an awful car. I worked for a Mercedes dealership when those came out.

      • As for the look.. I mean, to each their own, but I think the rear of the car looks okay, the front of the car looks great, but the two simply don’t go together. They should have made some modifications to the E36 front end.

  3. Hard to say whether it will ever be seen as a classic or not, but at least here in the USA their relative scarcity means that well-kept ones seem to hold their value so well that they end up being more expensive than a 328is! That and my disdain for the less-sophisticated rear suspension (E30-based, not unlike the Z3) are the only things that have kept me from buying one for use as a daily driver.

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