More than any other contemporary BMW since the 2002, the 3 Series family has defined the company and set international standards for sports sedans. For the serious driver, a BMW 3 Series is like slipping into a favorite pair of jeans and a comfortable old shirt. You know what it's going to do; you know what you can do with it, and you know what it's going to do for you. The 3 Series is far less about style and glam than it is about performance. It is your friend on the road. It is the product of the combined passion of the BMW engineers, designers, and assembly associates clearly evident on a tour of BMW's production facilities in Germany or the United States. It is this performance and friendliness, wrought by BMW passion, that has been emulated by every BMW competitor. Some have approached the style and performance, and some have exceeded BMW reliability in the modern era of electronic cars, but none have ever matched the unique 3 Series personality.
E21, 1977-1983: 320iThe 1968 to 1976 BMW 2002 was a tough, perhaps impossible act to follow. Crashworthiness and emissions regulations emerging in the American market did away with the jaunty carbureted sports sedan that created its own market and saved BMW from ruin. The U.S. replacement 320i, known internally as the E21 3 Series, met with mixed reviews here due to the now-familiar themes of added weight and price. But unlike new Bimmers today, it was also down on power from the 1974 2002tii, its closest fuel-injected cousin.
Penned under Paul Bracq's influence, the 320i was rooted in the 2002 and the E12 5 Series and many of its styling cues remained through the current 3 Series. BMW's trademark kidney grilles extended upward into the hood, where they formed the basis for the "power dome" stretching to the base of the windshield. The "Hoffmeister kink"-a little downturn at the base of the C-pillars-survived unscathed. A small front air dam was melded into the lower front valance panel, and quad headlights became a staple.
Inside, BMW had completely redesigned the driver's office. The instrument pod and center console were angled toward the driver. The E21's ample storage compartments, orange instrument lighting, full instrumentation and an enormous glovebox instantly became BMW hallmarks.
A unique front suspension design used the front sway bar as a stressed strut rod, and large vented front brake rotors disappeared after the 1977 model year to be replaced with solid rotors. All 320i rear brakes were 250mm drum units. The non-power rack and pinion steering unit resembled the one used in the BMW M1.
The 320i came in two versions, within the same body style, with completely different drivetrains. From 1977 to 1979, the 320i sported BMW's 2.0-liter M10 sohc engine with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection, producing 110 bhp at 5800 rpm and 112 lb-ft torque at 3750 rpm with an EGR system but no catalytic converter. Top speed was 104 mph (Road & Track 12/76). The EGR system was ineffective and quite problematic; most found their way into the dumpster as enthusiasts and technicians converted the cars to European specs. A Getrag four-speed manual gearbox fed power to a 3.64 differential, with limited slip optional.
From 1980 to 1983 BMW reduced engine displacement to 1.8 liters and dipped a toe into electronic engine management with the revised Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection system and an electronic ignition system. Gone was the problematic EGR system, replaced with a three-way catalytic converter. The new engine was far more reliable and required less tuning. However, it suffered from idle problems and fuel vapor lock. Although power was slightly reduced to 101 bhp at 5800 rpm and 100 lb-ft torque at 4500 rpm, it was virtually unnoticeable due to gearing, a Getrag five-speed overdrive gearbox combined with a 3.90 differential. An S-package offered BBS RA wheels, genuine Recaro seats, a sport steering wheel, front air dam, and a rear sway bar. The extra gearing gave the second generation 320i a slightly higher top speed of 109 mph (Road & Track 02/80).
Overall, the 320i is notable for durability above performance potential, although an additional 20 hp can easily be coaxed from the 2.0-liter version absent visual emissions verification. It is a simple car that's easy to work on, and as with all BMWs of that era, much improvement can be made in suspension performance, hampered only by a strange wheel offset that tends to defy aftermarket fitment. The biggest problem is rust. I've never seen any car rust faster or worse than a BMW 320i, and fuel injection problems on cars that have lain fallow. If a K or KE-Jetronic car sits for longer than a few months with no pressure in the fuel system, the fuel distributor will be history. Used replacements are invariably in a similar predicament. New replacements are shockingly expensive, compounded by the fact that a $1,000 replacement part on a 320i generally yields a $1,100 320i, given the rust situation.
Always a glutton for punishment, I restored a rusty 1977 320i that should have been pressed into beer cans back in the 1980s. Yes, it needed a new fuel distributor. Passionate owner; damn lucky car.
E30, 1984-1992: 318i, 318is, 325e, 325i, 325is, 325iXThe 1980s were prior to the era of globalization, downsizing and cost cutting. BMW mechanicals, long renowned for their functional superiority and longevity, were gracefully integrated with a degree of electronics that made the cars even more functional without the over-complication that appeared in the 1990s. BMW got it just right during the '80s, and by the end of the decade the company was on top of the world in terms of product excellence. The E30 3 Series is legendary for its durability, reliability, and the dramatic performance transformation possible with a few suspension tuning parts.
From 1983 through 1985 the 318i, powered by the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine as used in the second generation 320i, but with digital motor electronics, met with general approval for the chassis and vast interior upgrades. But it was heavier and slower than the last 320i and more power was clearly needed. In this era, the Germans could not fathom America's desire for power given our pitifully slow 55-mph national speed limit-slower than the slow lane on the autobahn.