1992 BMW 3-Series
– Smooth engines
– Excellent handling
– German prestige
– Expensive to maintain
– Some pricey models
– Some electrical issues
When this generation of 3-Series BMW was introduced in the middle of 1991, it won awards left and right around the world. The modern, spacious interior, generous trunk space, and elegant exterior matched with powerful engines and great handling made for a very desirable car. These 3-Series compact sedans, coupes, convertibles, hatchbacks and wagons continue to be relevant even today.
The most common model is the four-door sedan, earlier available with either a 4-cylinder 102 hp 1.6L or 140 hp 1.8L, and a 6-cylinder 150 hp 2.0L or 192 hp 2.5L engine. After 1995, a 193 hp 2.8L engine was the top engine, the 1.8L was replaced with a 1.9L, and a lower output 170 hp 2.5L engine was reintroduced as a mid-range model. The 3.2L 286 hp M3 was introduced in 1994, and got a power upgrade to 321 hp in 1996. All engines were available in the sedan, coupe, convertible and wagon body styles, except the compact three-door hatchback which did not get any engine higher than 2.5L, and the M3 which comes in all body styles except for a wagon. The coupe body style was introduced a year after the debut of the 3-Series sedan, and the convertible came a year after the coupe.
To get an idea of the naming system, the 318i came with a 1.8L engine, the older 325i came with a 2.5L engine, the 328i came with a 2.8L engine, and the newer 323i came with a lower-output 2.5L engine.
The BMW 3-Series cars are tight little boxes with the apparent muscularity one expects from a German sports car. They have a compact, purposeful presence that echoes their power and engineering substance, all within a body no bigger than that of a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. BMW employs a design concept in which the wheels are pushed out to the ends of the car, creating more interior volume and a longer wheelbase for a better ride and more stable handling. This design philosophy gives the car attractive proportions, keeping more of the car’s mass between the axles to balanced weight distribution.
All models have BMW’s high level of safety features. A differentiated deployment system is now standard for the dual airbags and automotive front seat-belt tensioners. In less severe impacts, only the seat-belt tensioners activate. In more severe impacts, the airbags deploy as well. Another thoughtful safety touch is that if the passenger seat is empty, that airbag doesn’t deploy, saving you some repair costs.
All 3-Series models have standard ABS brakes. A recommended optional safety feature for the convertibles is the automatic Rollover Protection System. When the system senses that the car is about to flip over, roll bars pop up from behind the rear seats, supplementing the protection from the reinforced windshield frame.
While higher convertible models get a power top, the lower models get a manual cloth top. It requires only a few minutes of work, but it must be done from outside the car, thus eliminating the instant top-down driving offered by the power top. Both models have a slick, automatic self-sealing system to improve quietness. As you open the door, the frameless door windows lower slightly; close the door and they raise automatically, positioning themselves tightly in the seals.
The look of the interior is classic BMW–functional and simple. The gauges are BMW’s traditional round analog dials, with speedometer and tachometer front and center. Controls are all well-placed and easy to use, once you figure out their purpose. With German cars, a good read of the owner’s manual is important. Standard cruise control has been extended down to the 318i. For most, the interior looks shockingly dull for such an expensive car. Compared with the best American and Japanese interiors, the materials may seem less than luxurious and the seat padding thin.
On the other hand, the interior is remarkably roomy for a car of its size. The coupe and the convertible lose some rear legroom compared with the sedan, but they are still acceptable for adults and far more useful than the compact rear compartments in many sporty coupes and convertibles.
Highly supportive seats reinforce the 3-Series’ aggressive character. The deep side bolsters are clearly designed to keep both the driver and front passenger in place when the car is hustling around corners.
A premium 10-speaker 200-watt audio system and leather interior are standard on the higher models and were available as options on the 318i, as were sport suspension packages. All the radios have standard theft-deterrent systems.
The heart of any BMW’s personality is its rear-drive layout. In a car the size of the 3-Series, this translates into a sporty, responsive, nimble package. The long wheelbase and stiff, well-engineered chassis help deliver a comfortable and quiet ride, considering the car’s athletic character. The M3 is truly built for the race track and offers even tighter handling and cornering than the already-capable 3-Series sedans.
The refined strut-type front suspension, multi-link rear suspension and balanced weight distribution provide exhilarating handling. The large disc brakes, combined with standard ABS, provide exceptional braking ability, stop after stop.
The 1.8L 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, producing 140 hp at 6000 rpm, provides plenty of fun. But this is not a lightweight car, and the greater power of the 325i’s 2.5-liter 6-cylinder engine would be more satisfying. The 328i and M3 are even better. All engines are super-smooth, and the inline-six design has especially become a BMW trademark.
Although rear-wheel-drive offers better response than a lowly front-wheel-drive car, they have limitations on slippery surfaces compared with front-driven cars. The 318i doesn’t offer a traction-control system, but it did have an optional limited slip differential to improve traction during acceleration on slick surfaces.
The standard transmission is a 5-speed manual. It offers short, precise shifting throws and a flexible third gear that was excellent in city traffic. Given the versatility of the manual transmission, it is hard to imagine why anyone would want an automatic, but a well-sorted 4-speed auto was available. It’s a little slow off the line, but the sport mode lets you enjoy the power that comes at higher revs. The rare M3 only comes with a six-speed manual gearbox.
BMW is a legendary car maker, with lots of well-earned respect over the years. Prices are steep, but the cars deliver an unmatched driving experience that is sporty and entertaining.
There are other sport sedans and coupes that offer smoother ride quality, but they also isolate the driver more from the pleasure of sporty performance. A BMW never lets you forget that you’re in command of a beautifully orchestrated road machine. In fact, the M3 is regarded as a full-fledged sports car.
Cheaper Japanese cars are available for the price. But if a handsomely designed performance-oriented German car is more to your taste, the 3-Series cars deliver a sensational package. Just be prepared to spend some good money on upkeep and maintenance, and look for one in which all electrical and wiring problems, common in these aging cars, have been fixed. Models to go for are the pre-1996 325i or the post-1996 328i, although the relatively weak automatic 320i sedans seem to be a popular choice among money-conscious yuppies.
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