The cars we loved.
Changing perceptions about small cars was an uphill battle during the 70’s. By the time the second fuel crisis had gobbled up enthusiasm for large gas guzzling cars, a few manufacturers were taking bold steps to elevate the compact car to respectable status. Europeans had a considerable head start. Over there, some smaller cars had evolved to near luxury sedan status in ride quality, power and performance. These technical and performance leaders were mostly from Germany. One of them, BMW would advance the compact car cause in America substantially with its line of 3 Series executive cars. Along side an emerging class of car like the Audi’s 4000 CS Quattro and Mercedes C Class, the 3 Series would become the personification of the word “yuppie” as the 80’s evolved.
About the size of a Chevy Cavalier, the 3 Series was introduced in 1975, as an upright and quirky looking 2 door sedan replacement for the beloved 2002. When the second generation car, code-named E30 arrived in the US in 1984, it had become a polished update of the outgoing E21. Despite growing just a few inches longer, its wheelbase was substantially increased, improving ride quality. Like other 3 series cars, the 318 was available as a rear wheel drive coupe, sedan or convertible, but not always in every configuration during the years that the E30 was available. Interestingly the E30 convertible would be available for a few years after the new E36 was introduced in 1992.
The 3 Series might have been BMW’s least expensive car, but it was not cheap. The least expensive 318i, cost a whooping $18,000 in 1984. More expensive 3 Series cars
like the 320 and eventually the 325 used an inline six cylinder engine. The 318 used only four cylinders and made 103 hp thanks to electronic fuel injection. By contrast, the typical American intermediate from GM during the mid-80’s used a 3.1 L V6 with 160 hp, but cost thousands less. This sort of math made the 318 a hard bargain to some shoppers. Small inline fours were common in Europe where BMW offered engines as tiny as 1.6 L (116i). In America, the perception of German cars was maturing to the point where buyers were expecting power with their high priced luxury.
The interior was rather spartan, but was well laid out and more sport oriented than most of the competition. Jetronic fuel injection increased power and drivability, but did not offer the driving experienced American expected on wide open roads (globs of torque from big displacement engines). Transmissions for the 318 ranged from Getrag built 4 and 5 speed manuals and a 3 speed ZF automatic unit. When equipped with a manual 5 speed transmission, a 1984 318i managed a 0 to 60 time of 11 seconds. While not the best in class (even for the mid 80’s), the 318 did offer BMW handling and engineering,
even if it lacked some oomph.
Power issues would be addressed in 1987 with the introduction of a new 1.8 L engine. The new DOHC engine made 142 hp and ushered in the age of advanced multi-valve dual cam engines for BMW. Sales for the E20 3 Series would sky-rocket, peaking around 1986, while at the same time the 318 could not compete at the lower end of the market where price was a major consideration.
1986 also marked the year the 318 was dropped from the US market. The 325is and later the M3 would all but erase any memory of the four-cylinder 318. Like the Camaro/Firebird twins, the 318 was not perceived well in its underpowered form. A $12,000 Firebird might be excused, but at nearly $20,000 a small German car did not seem to offer the same value for those shopping in the low-end sports sedan/GT market.
The 3 series was quickly becoming the symbol of a young upwardly mobile America, even as BMW marketing was trying to cultivate an image as “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. The convertible had become the poster child for 80’s style (regardless of which engine was in it). Sales of the 318 became a smaller percentage of overall 3 Series sales each year.
You might have thought that a cheaper BMW would have thrived in this environment, but the wealthy were only going for the sixes. BMW would try again with the 318 with the E46 models during the 90’s. After some experimentation with new form factors, their fates were similar.
Could it be that Americans just prefer their BMW’s with the power and smooth performance of the straight six? History has already repeated itself again as BMW has moved back to installing four cylinder engines in some 3 Series models. This time a future 318, 320 or even 325 might use technologies like twin sequential turbochargers and variable intake timing in an attempt to again change American’s minds about four cylinder BMWs.