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12 years ago

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Review of BMW 318is (E36) 1992 - 1998 (Australia)

johna posted 12 years ago

Almost exactly a year after the introduction of the E36 generation of BMW 3-series sedan came the first of the coupes, the 318is. Although the coupe looks very similar to the sedan, virtually every body panel is different. The cabin is set further back, the boot lid is shorter and the roofline is lower. At the front, the headlights and grille are the same. At the rear, the coupe's rear lights are wider.

A 5-speed manual transmission was the only option at the time of release but a 4-speed automatic became an option in the second half of 1993.

Powering the 318is is BMW's M42 four-cylinder engine. This engine powered the previous generation of 318is coupe (E30) which had been introduced just a few years earlier in 1990 and was carried over with just a few changes. The twin camshaft, multi-valve engine displaces 1.8 litres and produces maximum power of 103 kW at 6000 rpm and maximum torque of 175 Nm at 4500 rpm. Premium unleaded fuel is required but fortunately, fuel consumption is low for a car of this type.

Changes to the M42 for the E36 include a variable-length inlet manifold and knock sensors which the computer uses to selectively alter the ignition timing of any cylinder. Early in 1994, the engine was further upgraded to make it quieter and meet new emission standards with a new version of the Bosch Motronic engine management system, air shrouded injectors, a one-piece ignition coil design and a single poly-ribbed belt to drive all engine accessories.

Front suspension is by MacPherson struts and the rear suspension uses a complex independent trailing arm system (called Z-axle) that was adapted from the low-volume Z1 two-seater. All 318is models come with "M Technic" suspension as standard which entailed lower, firmer springs and matched dampers. A softer suspension package was available as a no-cost option.

An anti-lock braking system was a standard feature and operates on ventilated discs at the front and solid discs at the rear which had integrated drums for the handbrake.

Inside, the dash layout is typical BMW with the centre section angled towards the driver. Instrumentation consists of a speedometer and tachometer flanked by coolant temperature and fuel level gauges. Inside the bottom part of the tachometer is an instantaneous fuel consumption gauge that reads in litres per 100 km and inside the speedometer is a small LED display with odometer, trip meter and service indicator.

A driver's footrest complements the well-spaced pedals but the location of the indicator stalk-on the left-hand side of the steering column-can take a little getting used to for those new to European cars.

From late 1993 an airbag was standard for the driver, and a passenger airbag followed in early 1995. Side airbags were introduced in July 1998 on most models. In crash tests, the E36 is rated as having above-average protection for occupants, and poses an average risk to other vehicles in the event of an accident.

Standard seats are basic cloth-trimmed units but the choice for the enthusiast is the optional sports seats which provided much better lateral support and add a few extra adjustments. part-leather, full leather trim and electronic adjustment were expensive options. The front seats simultaneously tilt and slide forward to allow convenient access to the rear seats. The two outside rear-seat passengers have centrally anchored 3-point seat belts but the middle passenger has only a lap belt.

One interesting feature occurs when a door is opened. The window powers down slightly automatically, then powers back up when the door is closed. This is a feature originally introduced on the 850i which ensures a good seal, important as there are no window frames.

The coupe has sedan-like boot space with a low loading lip. For more space, the rear seats are split 50/50 and fold down almost flat. All models have a tool kit which is mounted on the inside of the boot lid and also include a proper spare tyre under the boot floor.

Standard equipment includes power windows, alloy wheels and air conditioning with separate temperature adjustment for driver and passenger.

Typical of BMW, the options list was very long. Major options were an electronic sunroof, alarm, cruise control, leather trim, sports seats, electric adjustment for the front seats, a limited-slip differential, front fog lamps, rear headrests, a boot-mounted CD-stacker, and either a digital clock with outside temperature display or a multi-function trip computer.

In late 1994 BMW offered a special "Sports" version of the 318is. These were identified by an under-bonnet sticker which said "Individual". Buyers could specify paint colours not usually available and these models featured an M3 body kit with rear spoiler and sports seats with suede leather bolsters and M3-like cloth centre sections. 16-inch 5-spoke alloys were included and there was usually a full complement of options fitted including sunroof and clock with outside temperature display.

BMW had been busy developing a new version of the engine and the new power plant, codenamed M44, was introduced at the beginning of 1996. By increasing both bore and stroke, the new engine displaces an extra 99 cc, taking the capacity to 1.9 litres. Many other changes were made, most were in the interests of reducing friction and improving NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) but some were obviously to reduce the cost of manufacture. The results didn't appear significant as the new engine produces the same maximum power and only 5 Nm of extra maximum torque, but throttle response is considerably quicker and the power band is easier to access. BMW also claimed an improvement in fuel economy.

Along with the new engine, BMW increased the level of standard equipment. The new standard inclusions were sports seats, rear headrests, front fog lamps and a remote control built into the key for the central locking system. The climate control system now had an LED digital display and used push buttons in place of the previous rotary controls. A traction control system was introduced as an option and it uses the ABS system to prevent wheel spin by applying any individual brake and, if wheel spin continued, it could reduce engine power.

For 1996, the entire E36 range received a minor facelift to the front grille and spoiler. This also coincided with the introduction of the 318is four-door sedan which, unlike the majority of the BMW model range which is imported from Germany, came from BMW's factory in South Africa. Essentially the sedan is the same package as the coupe except in the four-door sedan body and there is little to differentiate it from other sedans, even the base model 318i. The only external changes are full colour-coding and unique 15-spoke alloys. Sports seats are standard - and are a rare feature in any E36 sedan - with the side bolsters trimmed in leather and the centre panels in cloth. In place of the usual analogue clock is a digital unit with outside temperature display that was an option on coupes. Fog lamps were standard, and an electric sunroof optional. Despite the two extra doors, there is only a slight increase in weight, and performance and fuel economy figures are virtually identical to those of the coupe.

BMW often produce limited editions near the end of a model's life, and the 318is is no exception. The coupe-only Sport was introduced at the beginning of 1998 and looked almost identical to the M3 due to the standard fitment of the "M Aerodynamic Package". This consists of M3 style body parts including a front bumper (which differed to the one fitted to the M3 by having a different grille and no rubber lip), side skirts, rear bumper, clear front indicator lenses and side rubbing strips. If not for the single exhaust and smaller 16-inch 15-spoke wheels, the same as fitted to the 318is sedan but an inch larger in diameter, it would be very difficult to pick a 318is Sport from an M3.

A limited range of colours was available for the Sport. The choices were Jet Black, Cosmos Black, Avus Blue, Arctic Silver and Sierra Red. Inside were black sports seats with side bolsters trimmed in Alcantara (suede leather) and cloth centre sections in either red or blue. Also lookout for the black roof lining.

The Sport sold alongside the coupe-the sedan having been discontinued in the second half of 1998-until near the end of 1999. By this time most of the E36 range had already been superseded by the next generation 3 series, the E46.

Common Problems

Early models with the M42 engine suffered from premature failure of a gasket at the front of the cylinder head. This has become well known as the profile gasket and was apparently caused by poor quality gasket material reacting with coolant. This is nothing to worry about as all cars should have had the gasket replaced by now and there are no reports of failure of the new type of gasket.

The timing chain system on the M42 engine can cause problems and a loose or worn chain can result in costly damage. The M44 has a revised timing chain tensioner and this part can be retrofitted to the M42.

Regular oil changes using high-quality oil should prevent the hydraulic valve lifters and oil galleries clogging and causing an irritating ticking noise. There have also been reports of the bolts that secure the oil pickup coming completely loose causing a loss of oil supply, so it is a good idea to check the sump for loose bolts and stop immediately should the oil pressure warning light ever come on whilst driving.

The viscous coupling for the cooling fan tends to fail after two to three years and water pumps last around 80,000 km. Early pumps had a plastic impeller but newer pumps have a more robust metal impeller.

A poor quality idle can be caused by deteriorating rubber vacuum hoses in the intake system or a faulty idle speed control valve.

Some parts of the radiator are made from plastic and after several years and many heat cycles they can become brittle. Check by squeezing the top radiator hose where it joins the radiator as the plastic neck is usually the first part to disintegrate.

Models with the M44 engine have some more brittle plastic parts, such as the thermostat housing and an engine block-mounted coolant distribution pipe at the back of the engine which can only be replaced with the engine or transmission out.

Manual gearboxes are strong and reliable units that rarely give trouble. They can be notchy when cold, which can usually be improved by replacing the gearbox oil. Automatic transmissions are made by GM and can be problematic, usually after 200,000km. Check for slow to engage reverse gear. Differentials can become noisy with high mileage but should go on forever. Regular oil changes will keep it in good condition, even more important if a rare limited-slip differential is fitted (make sure the correct oil is used with the LSD).

Front suspension lower control arm bushes and ball joints wear out, as do sway bar links. At the rear, the rubber mounts at the top of each shock absorber can wear causing a knocking noise.

When the E36 series was first released it was widely criticized for poor quality interior construction and materials. Fortunately, most of these issues were rectified by the time the 318is was introduced. Unlike the previous E30 generation, the dashboards don't often crack, however they can bulge a little around the vents. Some of the interior parts, such as the headlining, door trims and consoles, can suffer damage under the Australian sun.


The M42 and M44 engines require relatively little maintenance as they have a timing chain that is designed to last the life of the engine and self-adjusting hydraulic valve lifters which are maintenance-free.

Unlike most other manufacturers, BMW does not have a set maintenance schedule based on mileage and time. Instead, a computer, known as the Service Interval Indicator, monitors the usage of the vehicle and gives a warning when it calculates that a service is due. Frequent cold starts and high engine speeds will reduce the time between recommended services.

As the engine bay can also house a larger six-cylinder engine (and a V8 or V12 in the hands of some German tuners) there is plenty of room around the engine to work on it. The average home mechanic will have no problems at all with regular service items like fluids, filters and spark plugs and the use of a conventional front engine-rear drive layout means that bigger jobs are generally easier than on a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

Being a car often owned by enthusiasts, the 318is has a strong following on the Internet so there is always plenty of support when it comes to fault-find unusual problems.

Surprisingly, many common service parts from a BMW dealer are actually competitively priced with other makes. It's the less common parts that can be expensive but fortunately, there are quite a few sources of many OEM or equivalent parts.

A useful tool for the enthusiast is BMW's ETK software, a searchable parts database that contains details of every component in all modern BMWs (Update: this system is available online, eg. realoem.com). In addition to helping locate part numbers that can be ordered through a dealer, the software also has many exploded diagrams which can help in reassembly of parts. Look for the ETK on Internet auction web sites.


Fitting a good quality off-the-shelf or custom performance chip will result in a small increase in power and torque and general drivability. Most chips also raise the rev limit to 7000 rpm.

The exhaust system is already of a good design so there is little gain to be had there. The catalytic converter does restrict the system slightly and can be replaced with a high-flow unit. Fitting a freer-flowing pod style air filter can also unleash a few horsepower but only if well shielded from under bonnet heat.

The M42 engine has adjustable camshaft timing gears and there is adjustment there for a little more top-end power or low-end torque. Camshafts can be upgraded but will move the power band further up the rev range.

Both M42 and M44 engines use the same heavy "dual mass" flywheel which makes the engine smooth but slower to accelerate and decelerate. This can be replaced with a lighter aftermarket aluminium flywheel or conventional flywheel from an M40-equipped 318i (E30 or E36 series) for quicker engine response and better acceleration. However, there is a slight tradeoff in the form of increased vibration at very low engine speeds. For the M40 flywheel conversion, you will also need the M40 clutch, pressure plate and the flywheel bolts as they are shorter. As the dual mass flywheel cannot usually be machined this is a worthwhile upgrade when the original clutch requires replacement.

Some enthusiasts have increased the capacity of their engines to around 2.1-litres using a combination of parts from other models including E36 M3 pistons and a longer-stroke crankshaft from the diesel M47 engine. Of course, this is a large project as it involves rebuilding the engine and upgrading the engine management system, and there are registration and insurance issues to consider.

For the ultimate bolt-on performance upgrade, you can fit a supercharger. Kits are available from several manufacturers, the popular choice is from Downing-Atlanta and produces around 50% more power but costs up to $7500 fitted.

Depending on the model, it may be possible to fit a lower ratio differential from another E36 model to improve acceleration at the expense of top speed and a busier engine at highway speeds.

There are many aftermarket suspension upgrades available including springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. The choice comes down to how much ride height and comfort you wish to sacrifice. For the best result select a matched kit from a reputable manufacturer.

There is no shortage of wheel designs available to suit the 318is. The tyre placard lists acceptable sizes up to 17-inch, and some owners fit even larger wheels, but beware as at least one major insurance company has a 16-inch limit.

Body kits are a common modification with M3 style kits being a very popular choice. The M3 look can be accomplished with factory parts or one of the many aftermarket replicas and, when combined with a set of M3 wheels (genuine or one of the many replicas), only the badge will give it away as not being a genuine M3. Companies like Alpina and Hartge also make attractive kits in their own style.

There are many front and rear strut braces to choose from but most agree that, for road use, this is more of a cosmetic upgrade. However, some owners claim that a front brace does improve front end feel and outright grip. E36 convertibles had an underbody cross-brace which reduces chassis flex and this part can be installed on any E36. In fact, these are fitted to the US-market M3 Lightweight.

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