Duffer or desirable? Time to take another look at the BMW 3 Series Compact


There’s one BMW 3 Series E36 Compact that could never, ever be displayed under an “Unexceptional” banner in a convincing way. The 323ti is, indeed, quite exceptional. It has BMW’s fabulous 2.5-liter straight-six in a handy three-door hatchback. It packs 170bhp, a top speed of 143mph, 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds, and the kind of compelling road manners, sound, character and driver involvement that have made the greatest BMWs of the 1980s, M3 and M5 among them.

Don’t drool too uncontrollably. It is highly unlikely that you will encounter any of the approximately 15,000 examples built. They were left-hand drive and weren’t even sold in the United States. In the hectic arena of early Compacts, that’s about as typical as a Viagra pill in a box of Rennies.

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The first Compact, based on the E36 3-series, is generally remembered as one of BMW’s few duffers, a supposedly three-out-of-five-star effort to broaden the brand’s appeal into sedan territory, with concern only for skimp on the investment. People give it an abnormally harsh lick, but it’s all an unfair, even misinformed mite. A friend of mine recently picked up an immaculate, green, no-frills specimen, and in my opinion – and after nearly three decades have passed since the collective ears of the BMW community began to swell, in 1994 – it has a decidedly old-school appearance that makes it a rather smart classic for youngsters.

Go back to the early 1990s and we find BMW, like most premium brands, struggling with growing pains. It was still a long way from simply adding extra capacity through its ill-fated acquisition of Rover Group, and instead looked again at its starter Series 3 range to see what could be achieved internally. Could a Golf rival be, perhaps, artfully forged from the 316 without even touching the wheelbase?

Designing a rear three-door hatchback was possible, although its chunky contours would sit poorly with the sleek nose. Some 22cm of external metal length has been removed. But with rear-wheel drive, the rear seats should fold down in fairly tight circumstances. That would mean an almost impossible redesign of the multi-link rear suspension that was one of the E36’s key features, giving it its exemplary handling. The less fancy semi-trailing arm setup used on the entire previous E30 range, however, fit the bill perfectly, with the added bonus that it was much cheaper to manufacture. This was very important price-wise, as the new Compact 3 series had to be competitive with the Golf to be worth it. All the justifications fit together perfectly.

Interior of the BMW 3 Series Compact

Criticisms ranged from lamenting the compromised handling and ride to outbursts of intense screaming that it was, in fact, the ends of two cars welded together. There’s nothing more reactionary than an 1980s/90s BMW purist, as Chris Bangle and his “ass” were to find out. In fact, the Compact was only inferior in handling when driven hard enough or on really terrible road surfaces, and of course a base 3-series sedan was more expensive.

However, the rear passenger and luggage space data didn’t compare very well to the front-drive rivals. Interior trim, plastics and door panels were also lower quality, harsher and less tactile with a more austere dashboard.

Still, the quality of paintwork and assembly was well up to the usual meticulous Munich standards, and all the important safety kits of the time such as anti-lock brakes, seatbelt pretensioners, driver’s airbag and side impact beams were included. Most important, as Coach pointed out, this vital “sense of occasion and pride of ownership” was immediately evident.

In 1994 there were two engine options, a smooth but thrifty and refined 1.6 liter with 102 hp in the 316i and a 1.8 liter with 140 hp in the 318ti. Even the smaller engine gave the Compact a top speed of 117 mph and zero to 60 mph in just under 10 seconds, which was enough for eager newbies to the brand saying goodbye to car life. ordinary with a Renault 19 or a Vauxhall Astra. In the six years leading up to the replacement of the original by the E46 Compact, there were myriad modifications and tweaks to keep the cars attractive, in the absence of the 323ti and the exclusion of the diesel, the 1999 318ti Compact Sport with a 140 hp 1.9-liter engine delivering 133 lb-ft of torque at 4300 rpm was probably the ultimate package of this oft-maligned type, including just over 371,000 copies have been sold. [Ed’s note: Don’t forget the likes of Hartge. Birds Garage transformed the 318ti into the Hartge H3, which was a revvy 2.1-litre beast of a Compact that the company pitched as an alternative to the more ‘grown up’ M3.]

And yet, of course, as a car to seek out and own today, you’ll mostly see mid-’90s 316 compacts with understated interiors, minimal bells and whistles, and very little testosterone coating the steering wheel and pedal. accelerator; these items, indeed, might not even shine with frenzied enjoyment after all these years, it’s the key Beemer of this decade likely to have received loving Sunday morning care from their delighted owners.

This is the beautiful aura of my friend’s example; it looks like a retirement car belonging to an old man of good taste living in Barnes or Leamington Spa. So even if you find the Compact itself a bit of a parody of familiar BMW ethos, pick one up like this and enjoy its enjoyable, long-lasting qualities for many years to come.

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