BMW 318i (1975-1998) buying guide
History and purchase guide
If you want to buy one now the 318i’s are sweet because they remain the most reliable and long-lasting car from any BMW range. I haven’t covered the 318i Sport (318is) here however. I have written a separate review on the E30 and E36 BMW 3-series but I haven’t covered the 318 in any depth. And it would be a shame not to, because the 318i was a major milestone which signalled that BMW was serious about conquering the compact luxury car scene.
In the late 1970s there was demand for a fuel-injected entry into the BMW range that was more affordable than the existing 320. The 318i was launched in Australia in 1980. It was the first real contender for a compact, luxury and sporting car. It was praised for its handling and quality of manufacture but there was not much performance to speak of. The rear was slightly unpredictable when oversteer took hold. The interior was a suave and functional affair that was very minimalist. From the outside the Paul Bracq-designed E21 was a pretty car, setting the scene for future 3-series generations.
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These cars rusted significantly and were very unsuited to the hot and dusty conditions of Australia. They were made for cooler Germanic conditions and had not been adapted properly to meet Australian conditions. Expect the interior plastic and exterior paint to have warped and faded, dashboards will be cracked. Seats will probably need replacing and the engine...well it’s probably better than a 320i or 323i of this era in terms of serviceability. Some dilapidated examples continue to puff and smoke along on Aussie roads today, hanging on for dear life at the hands of a P-plater. If you seriously want one (to admire the handsome, neat Teutonic styling and retro interior) you must purchase a concourse example that has been fully checked by a qualified mechanic – and maybe an E21 specialist also. Otherwise being pennywise will result in financial pain...
This was internationally launched in 1983 and was praised for its handling. Because BMW wanted to compete head-on with the compact they knew Mercedes was developing, the E30 was made to very high build standards. However the 318i lacked go and was only a little less slow than the preceding E21. However the 1.8 litre four was fast paced in light of its capacity. It mainly fell below BMW’s exalted claims at the time of being an “Ultimate Driving Machine”. This description over-inflated people’s expectations of what BMW could produce from a compact sporty engine. Like all 318i’s this one lived to be revved to its extremes but was quite sluggish in the low range. In 1994 a CAR Australia buying guide described this car as having a “lawnmower engine”. The interior was a beautiful affair, offering customers access to levels of aesthetic and functional harmony that had not previously been available in the automotive world. In other words you always were reminded that you were driving a special car. Cloth seats were standard but a whole host of optional extras could be added including sunroof and power windows. No one liked the fact that air-conditioning was an optional extra as well!
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Again rust reared its ugly head commonly on the E30. The E30 was slightly more durable in Australian conditions than the E21 but still expect the interior plastics to be a bit worn, faded and cracked on the dash. The seats did not withstand Aussie conditions well and in most cases will need re-stuffing or replacing, major money wasters. The base cloth upholstery (my favourite) was hard wearing and durable. The main thing with the E30 interior is the dash and electronics – dashes cost around $2,000 to replace and they often will need this. The engine, because of its simplicity, is more dependable and long-lasting than any other E30. However naturally due to age, replacements will be needed and this must be factored into the initial purchase budget. Again paintwork was weather sensitive, so it makes real sense to buy a car that was garaged its whole life. But as with the E21 going for a concourse example is a good idea. Full service history is vital.
The E36 turned heads in 1991 when the cool new aerodynamic design was launched. The 318i was vastly improved over the previous E30 generation inside in terms of space. The handling was also praised enormously, particularly with rear stability and traction. It also and made the E36 a car that Japanese manufacturers literally pulled apart, trying to study how the car could achieve such handling prowess. In many ways it was the last car from BMW that was totally different from the Japanese competition. The ride was more modern than the E30 – smooth, supple and luxurious. It was the first 3-series that showed true potential to be a luxury and sports car with zero compromise. The seats were drastically improved also, particularly over longer distances, thanks to orthopaedic support. The brakes of the new E36 had a firm and responsive feel compared to the E30 brakes, which were often criticised as being “spongy”. Overall the E36 was in another realm of car manufacture and, in many ways, signalled a new era in compact premium cars.
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The E36 318i can either be very sweet or very bitter, depending on which car you choose. E36’s were the first 3-series to ‘benefit’ from Computer Aided Design (CAD); what this means is that computers calculated the distances and gaps between panels, estimated how much load a component needed to bear (e.g. the door panels) and did not involve human thought as much as previous generations. As a lasting legacy, E36 door trims are 99% likely to be sagging and the dashboard gloveboxes squeaky and creaky while driving on the road. For advice on what to do about the glovebox squeak click here to see Earnesthub’s helpful advice to me in the comments section of his informative hub. In a 318i the steering must be razor sharp and responsive. The engine won’t be that responsive now particularly in the lower rev ranges, but expect grunt in the higher rev ranges. The radiator was something that needed to be fixed on mine after I bought it, and we’re talking about a mint example here. The fuel injectors in the engine also needed flushing by the mechanic, which helped fix a nagging lack of torque. Once the car warms up now it loves to be pushed harder. The air-conditioning also needed re-gassing fairly soon after purchase, and from what has been said online and in magazines it does seem like the above issues are all standard replacement items. One important thing about the E36 is the condition of the interior, if things are broken or neglected it’s not worth the hassle of buying replacements due to costs (if they are still even available). For all used BMWs, electronics are highly suspect so check everything. The windows on the E36 are known to be a problem and a general rule of thumb is to buy a car with fewer electric items. As always, the car having full service history and receiving a pre-purchase inspection are both vital. Badly maintained E36s are possibly the bitterest lemons on the used-car market.
Period E36 ad
Many are saying that this series is the E36 continued. This model dabbled further into the realm of BMW electronics and on-board computer assistance. Logic dictates buying fully serviced and looked-after examples, preferably from the first owner, with full service history and a pre-purchase inspection. More on the E46 here.
One big advantage of the 318i over the 320i, 323i, 325i and 328i models is their relative ease of maintenance due to the simplicity of the four cylinder 1.8 litre engine. Repair costs for a 318i will not be as high as similar repairs being done on a six cylinder 3-series. Moreover as the cycle of time progresses and things get older, there is questionable economic benefit in owning a vintage BMW six cylinder engine car. The 318 offers superb fuel economy for a luxury vintage car of the 70s, 80s, 90s or 00s respectively. Owning an E36 318i I have noticed that fuel economy is a huge plus in owning the car.
And thus ends the 318i story, unless you live in the UK. A hardened, safe, compact luxury car that really went the distance!