3 Series Compact – An Understated BMW Car

3-Series | April 29th, 2015 by 14
BMW 318ti Compact UK spec 1994–2000 4 750x500

The 318ti, at least here in the ‘States, has gained a very large cult following and while it was was a bit of a dog, looks-wise, it had a lot of heart and punch

This being BMWBLOG, naturally we are fans of the famed Bavarian brand. We’re most likely quite loyal, preferring to drive a car with a blue and white roundel on the hood. We are the kind of people who enjoy the odd, quirky cars that most enthusiasts groan about because we understand them more than most people.

BMW has had its fair share of success. The 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series have all defined their segments. Whenever an all-new car debuts from a different automaker, people always compare it to one of BMWs. For instance, when the Cadillac CT6 first showed, people wanted to know whether or not it was competing with the 7 Series or 5 Series. So BMW has most definitely left its mark on the automotive industry and is a large player in the innovation of it. However, the Bavarians haven’t always been perfect, and have made some bumbles along the way.

BMW 3 Series Compact 2003 800x600 wallpaper 01 750x562

A somewhat recent misstep came in the form of a car that I hold quite dear, the E36 3 Series. Not the standard car, which was obviously fantastic (yay, E36s), but the E36 3 Series Compact. The Compact was a three-door hatchback version of the 3 Series, which came in a couple of different flavors. The 318ti was the only one to travel Stateside, but there were the 316i, 323ti and 318tds diesel models as well. The 3 Series Compact was an interesting vehicle, as it was actually not bad at all, but it was quite ugly. Even though some purists may disagree.

BMW 318ti Compact UK spec 1994–2000 4 750x562

From the A Pillar forward, it was standard 3 Series and used the standard 3 Series McPherson front suspension. From the A Pillar rearward, it was a very different car, using the rear semi-trailing arm suspension from the E30, instead of the E36’s multi-link setup. It also only came with three-doors and had a strange looking hatch. The proportions just never looked right, which is a shame, because as a rear-wheel drive BMW hatchback with that short of a wheelbase, the 3 Series Compact is actually very fun to drive. The rear suspension isn’t as good as the standard E36s, so it isn’t as playful or planted, but the short wheelbase allows for nippy turn in and fun handling.


The US version was powered by a 1.8 liter M42, four-cylinder engine, producing 138 hp. In 1996, BMW introduced a 1.9 liter M44 engine, producing a whopping 142 hp. These weren’t powerful engines and the Compact wasn’t very fast. In fact, it was quite slow. But, when paired with a manual, it was quite fun to drive. It goes back to that old mantra of driving a slow car at its limit instead of a fast car nowhere near it. The Compact was a plucky little car that was able to put a smile on your face and a BMW badge on your hood for a decent price. If only it looked better.

The 318ti, at least here in the ‘States, has gained a very large cult following. As a frequent forum browser, I see many threads about Compact 3 Series’, and the various mods people do to them. They are actually great first cars, or weekend toys, because they are dirt cheap to buy and fix, and relatively easy as well. So people love to buy cheap models and modify them until they’re a shell of their former selves. While normally I look down on such modifications, the Compact is ugly enough to where it isn’t offensive to do so.

So, while the 3 Series Compact was a bit of a dog, looks-wise, it had a lot of heart and punched above its weight class in terms of fun. If you ever stumble across an unmolested example for sale, and the price is low, consider it as a project or toy. It’s bound to bring fun and levity to your weekend car ownership.

14 responses to “3 Series Compact – An Understated BMW Car”

  1. bandile says:

    the worst car BMW as ever made, no.1 contender for the worst car ever. both versions, this falls under the same category as the FIAT Multipla.

  2. SF Dede says:

    I disagree. The 318ti with M-Sport was actually pretty nice. I would have bought one but was working as a poor architect just out of college. BMW really blew the introduction of this car in the US. It should have been introduced with the I6 with the I4 as an option. Now BMWNA probably looks to this as a shining example of why Americans “don’t like hatches…” when what they really should be saying “we blew that, let’s learn from it and get it right this time.” Apparently much easier to take a bizarre leap on the 3er, 5er GTs etc. Whatever

  3. Leroy Kelley says:

    I owned a 318ti Club Sport. Of the two 3 series I owned it was by far the most fun and engaging.

  4. jason bourne says:

    BMWNA should’ve brought over the Compact with the six-cylinder engine… That would’ve raised some eyebrows.

  5. Prussian says:

    yeah with an i-6 under the hood the ti is like a less ugly Z3 : )

  6. Daniel says:

    Yesss !!! Definitely one of the most understated BMW. My wife has one. Black 316i with the m43tub19, august 2000 . So one of the very last that has been built.
    Believe or not, the first time i drove it, i was shocked ! The car is sooo fun to drive.
    The 1.9l version with his long stroke has enough torque and power to move the car quickly (the car is light too).
    And the drive is very connected and engaging. As you stated, the short of a wheelbase allows for nippy turns and fun handling.

    A real toy. We love it :-)

    • SF Dede says:

      It makes me so disappointed to know this, and know that BMWNA refuses to bring the 1er hatch, the modern reincarnation, to the US.

  7. mcmuffintop says:

    You sir, are misinformed. This article is crap. 1st, the Ti has the same wheelbase. 2nd, the suspension is MORE PLAYFUL, less planted. 3rd, you should have a picture of a M-sport alongside the base trim, it changes the look of the car.

    The clubsport 318ti was nearly a 30k car in 1995, that’s fucking absurd. You could get a m3 or a supra turbo for less than 10k more. The M42 is a dog, but it’s nearly-honda reliable, none the less it was the wrong engine choice. If the 318ti was a 325ti, we would all have a different opinion. That would be a car that performs better than any non-M 3er of its time, and has better utility, efficiency, parkability and price.

    Why didn’t bmw make that car? they didn’t want to step on it’s more expensive brethren. A sub-2900lb car with 200hp would have been too close to the M3 and they could not have priced it high enough.

    The Sedan/coupe is 350 pounds heavier. So 240hp/220lb over 3250 vs 200hp/190lb over 2900 lbs. The M3 would have only been .5 pounds/lb-ft better, and only 1 pound/hp better.

    What BMW may have found out is they can’t make a hatch that will be both competent and not steal sales from their bread and butter.

  8. […] the ’90s, BMW launched the E36 318ti, a car that was supposed to offer luxury and performance at an affordable price. The 318ti, at […]

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