If you're looking for a BMW E36 and you're on a budget, then you're starting in the right place. Although it's not an inexpensive car, even as a used model, the prices are becoming more reasonable. There are some exceptional E36 cars out there. There are also some real lemons. Our buyer's guide will help you learn everything you need to know about the E36 to make sure that you can sift through those that are not worth your time and find a high-quality vehicle that will grant the performance of your heart's desire.
What you need to know before you begin
Before you inquire about the various E36 cars listed for sale, it's wise to have a solid working knowledge of the vehicle you're buying. Consider the history of the E36 along with the known problems in some editions. You should know how to tell a car in good condition from one that may turn into a money pit. It's also essential to understand how to evaluate the overall condition of the vehicle to assess the current value before you enter into a deal.
History of the BMW E36
Beef up on the history of the E36, so you'll know what you're talking about to the seller. Your knowledge can also help you to sense when a seller is giving you inaccurate information on a used vehicle. Garage Dreams, offers a history of the BMW E36 from the time of its inception to the final edition. The E36 was the newer model that came after the E30 M3. The first E36 emerged in 1990. In 1992 an updated version was redesigned and called the E36 3 Series. It was larger, heavier, and loaded with more luxury features than the previous edition.
The specs on the BMW E36
The E36 M3 received a new engine. The four-cylinder engine was replaced with a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that generated 286 horsepower for the European version. The North American model cranked 240 horsepower. The acceleration was exceptional. In test runs, the E36 M3 moved from a standstill to 62 mph in just 5.6 seconds. The top speed of the E36 is 155 mph. The M3 edition of the E36 was available with options that include a rear spoiler. The M3 version featured side skirts, a chin spoiler, a deep rear diffuser, and new wing mirrors. The aerodynamics saw improvements that set it apart from the standard E36 model. New buyers had their choice of left-hand or right-hand drives.
In 1994 the E36 M3 Sedan launched. It was a four-door sedan in the M3 lineup with even greater comfort and luxury features with special trim features including burr walnut for the center console and other areas, softer seats, wider tires, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a softer suspension. There was a convertible edition of the M3 version available. It featured a strength enhanced suspension to compensate for the absence of a roof. In 1994, the M3-R version was made available for the Australian market. Only 15 examples of this car were made. This version was the most powerful E36 with a 322 horsepower output. Four of them were built for racing. The remainder were sold to the general public. In 1995 the E36 M3 GT was made for endurance racing in a more powerful version with 356 examples built.
1996 E36 M3
The 1996 model was updated. The engine was changed from a 3.0 liter to a 3.2 six-cylinder that generated 321 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque with a 6-speed transmission, up from the previous 5-speed. The same year a Compact Concept version emerged in a lighter weight version. It was a special edition to commemorate the anniversary of the German Auto Motor and Sport magazine with just one model built. The M3 Evolution Imola individual appeared in 1998. There were only 50 ever released for sale. In 1995 a lightweight M3 E36 was produced in a special edition in Alpine white with just 125 ever built. The E36 came in a sedan and a coupe initially. These vehicles were followed by a touring wagon and the compact hatchback edition.
Known issues with the E36
Superstreet points out a few issues prospective buyers should be aware of. They recommend checking out any check engine lights with a Peake Research scan tool for self-diagnosing issues to save money on diagnostic bills. The aluminum core of the radiator is prone to cracking in some models. This can affect the AC unit. Another known issue is the water pump on OBD1 cars. Those with plastic were made before 1996. Those prior were the ones with the most commonly reported issues, along with high mileage E36 models, additionally with cracked water pump pulleys. Those with iron pulley replacements hold up longer. The rubber coolant hoses also become brittle and crack over time. Other issues include thermostat failure due to plastic parts aging and failing. Brass replacements are the best solution to keep this issue at bay. The ignition key number may become worn. It's indicated when the key turns without engaging the starter. This is an issue that needs immediate attention or you could get stranded along the road.
Hydraulic valve lifters need to be replaced around 200,000 miles when they become noisy. The cam timing units also tend to fail if the car is not serviced with recommended oil change intervals. They become noisy before failure. There is also a tendency for the oil pump not to back out which leads to a detrimental drop in oil pressure. Again, regular servicing can help to prevent the issue. Failure to replace the air filter can lead to a loss of power. These should be replaced every 60,000 miles. Also, check the exhaust manifold as the cast-iron component is prone to cracking. Any E36 that has more than 100k miles is subject to alternator failure. The rubber in the suspension generally starts to go after 50,000 miles. the repair cost including TMS shims to reduce vibration runs about $700. Subframe failures are also common in high mileage vehicles that begin with a clunking sound and result in the rear suspension disengaging from the car.
How to inspect a used E36
Your awareness of the most common issues in the E36 is vital. First, inspect the body for any signs of an accident such as denting or bodywork. Look for signs of rust in the rear wheel arches and around the rear bumper. Check the interior and look for signs of wear or damage. Check out all of the systems to ensure that the electric seats and power windows are in working order. Ask the seller about the service history for the car. Turner Motor Sport (https://www.turnermotorsport.com/t-BMW_E36_Buyers_Guide), recommends avoiding cars that do not have a solid maintenance history. Failure to have the oil changed at regular intervals and to have known issues addressed as recommended can result in an unsafe vehicle that can leave you stranded on the road. This is commonly the case with E36 models that are offered at a low price that seems too good to be true. Consider how much you're willing to invest in a car to bring it up to good operational standards. A lot can go wrong with an E36 that has not received the recommended care. Insist on verified service history for all the major functions of the vehicle. If this isn't available, it might be wise to continue your search. Poor maintenance history is usually a sign that there is trouble ahead. The prices are likely to be higher, but it will save you money in the long run.
Build a checklist
Your checklist should include a Carfax or Autocheck to ensure that the vehicle has had a solid history. This includes any modifications that could depreciate the value of the car, records of maintenance, and repairs. All service records and receipts should be available. You should also ask if the car has ever been used on the track. This could cause stress on the chassis. If there is evidence that suggests the car has been driven hard or not properly maintained it's best to walk away from the deal. It could cost you thousands in repairs. Ask the seller for a complete history of the car including how many owners, where it has been, how it has been stored, and about any known issues or repairs. Don't take anyone's word for it, insist on verifiable documents.
The test drive
After you've inspected the vehicle inside and out and confirmed that everything is in good working order, it's time to take it out to get a feel for it. The engine should turn over right away. Listen to the engine for any signs of noise that signal a problem. Listen for any rattles or exhaust leaks before you take off. When you hit the road, the suspension should feel tight. The car should be easy to handle. Be on the lookout for play in the steering when you go over bumps. Take the car to 60 mph, then test the brakes to make sure they don't pull to one side or the other or vibrate. Check out the clutch by shifting into a higher gear while you're still at a slower speed. If the engine revs and doesn't lug, but you don't go anywhere, the clutch may be near failure. Also, watch for signs of oil leaks under the car, and upon starting it up, look for indications of blue or black smoke. These are all indications that it is not in the best condition and is likely to need some work done shortly.
Assessing the value
We always recommend checking out the current assessed value of an E36 before you even agree to take a look at it. The worth of the car will depend on the model, the year, and the condition. Kelley Blue Book. This guide gives you a baseline idea of how much a car in excellent condition is worth. You can make mental deductions from the value as you move through the inspections and test drive if you do identify any problems that will need attention. By doing so, you will know what the fair value of the car will be. Don't pay more than a car is worth it because you've always wanted to own one. Your dream car could easily turn into a nightmare if it's not in good running or operational condition. There is a lot that can go wrong with an E36 that has been poorly serviced.
When you're looking for a used BMW E36 there are quite a few potential problems that you should be aware of. This doesn't reflect on the quality of the build or the design of the model. It's an amazing car, but the condition is the primary concern if reliability is a concern. One of the most important things to ask the owner is about the oil changes and servicing record for the car. Ideally, you'll find one that has had few owners, is low in miles and has all of the service and maintenance records available for your inspection. This was an expensive vehicle when it was sold brand new. It's not going to be inexpensive as a used vehicle. You should always be suspicious of a seller who offers an E36 at a low price because it's usually an indication that there are some serious underlying issues with the car that will cost you a lot in repair bills. Do your homework to become familiar with the history of the vehicle and don't be afraid to ask questions or to negotiate a price that you believe to be inflated.
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Written by Benjamin Smith
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